Years ago I read a book by Rebecca Solnit about walking. There is a lot in that book to delight, inform, and enlighten, but the main take away for me came in the first chapter. According to Solnit, the brain works best at 4 miles an hour, which is the average walking pace. Since I read that book, I often find myself coming back to that thought as I hike and walk and ponder.
For years, my walking was utilitarian: growing up in small town Illinois, I walked to school and to friends' homes, when I didn't bicycle or bring my violin to before-school rehearsal. It wasn't until my brother came home from Reed College in Portland, OR, that I walked for pleasure. He took my sisters and me on a hike through Starved Rock State Park. It was a revelation in more ways than one. I still recall his boiling potatoes in their skins and packing the cooled potatoes for our snack on the trail. I was appalled at the idea of eating a cold potato; potatoes were supposed to be eaten hot with lots of butter and sour cream. He said, "You'll be very glad of these when the time comes," and he was right. It was one of the most delicious snacks I'd ever had. But the real revelation was what it was like, being in the woods and walking the trails. I still remember inching down a dry water-carved stream bed and looking over the edge of an ancient falls site. The rock was smooth and sculpted, and I'd never seen anything like it. Since then I've hiked through splendid mountain scenery in Oregon, through Welsh fields to Offa's Dike, up the waterfalls of the Columbia River Gorge, through the amazing Bryce, Kodachrome, and Zion park canyons in Utah, around Ayers Rock, and on and on, But I still can see that dry fall in tree-dappled sunlight, close by the Mississippi, still taste that firm cool potato liberally sprinkled with salt.
Despite that experience, though, I did not yet become a hiker. During college, my walking was limited to going between campus buildings and to the local bars. On my 19th summer, I was working on Macinnac Island, MI, and I used to walk the 4 miles to the opposite side of the island to watch the sun set. In Portland, I walked to the store and to the bus stop and to work. I didn't have a car for a few years, and even when I did, I preferred to walk and use public transportation. I remember being appalled when I came back to IL and witnessed my sister driving the mere half mile between her house and Mom's and the even shorter distance to the local coffee shop. What had happened to her? Didn't she remember the mile-plus we used to walk to school? In Portland I walked that far just to get from my parking place to my destination! (And, how did she stay so skinny?)
Those were the years when I learned to hike. My first mountain hike, Saddle Mountain, near the coast, was incredibly arduous. I had slippery shoes, with light brown leather uppers and spongy soles, not real walking shoes or hiking boots. There was a washout early on and it took 3 people to get me across: one standing below the skinny slippery trail, one standing on the other side of the washout, and the third standing behind me. They passed me from person to person. Later, as we crossed the saddle, with the sheer drops on either side, I stopped regularly to get my breath and my nerve. The last bit of trail was a switchback up a steep cliff. At each switch an iron rod was hammered into the rock, and chains hung from the rods, showing the path. I pulled myself up by the chains and then I was at the top, a level, loosely rectangular scree-covered space the size of my studio apartment. I was looking west down the Columbia River towards Astoria and east and south towards the Cascades. It was such a clear day I could see all the way to Mt. Jefferson to the southeast, and Mt Rainier to the northeast. The peaks were like stepping stones between those points.
The exhilaration of that moment is what got me back down the mountain. A lung bursting ascent was followed by a toe-bashing descent, blisters, and a pulled groin muscle. But it didn't matter. I was hooked. I never became a backpacker, nor did I climb to the snow-capped peaks, but from that moment on I was a hiker. Even asthma and vertigo didn't keep me away from it. But other life events did. As I write this, I start to wonder if the lack of regular hikes did not lead to my depression in the years since I connected with D. He had bad knees, and he didn't like me to go with other people on my days off: he wanted me to himself. So, although I still did go hiking, it was not nearly as regularly. When I switched jobs to Portland State, I started walking to work in the morning and busing home at night. Eventually Carbon came into my life, and I started walking with her twice a day. Moving to Albuquerque, I discovered the Sandias and the open spaces there and in the Rio Grande. But that wasn't until I left D and acquired G and others as hiking partners.And, I rarely hiked alone.
Before that, D and I walked through the nearby Arroyo del Oso, often fighting. I had learned in counseling sessions that the worst place to fight was at a table: you were faced off against each other, in a confrontational position. Walking, you were moving towards the same goal, together. Well, the theory is good, and it's true that it helped keep me on an even keel to put my energy into moving my feet instead of into the adrenaline rush of rage or the heart-hurting sorrow. But, it didn't solve the problems. Eventually, it was in the course of a walk with a friend that I realized my life with D was in serious trouble. And, it was through a walk that I told D that I was leaving. At that point, we were no longer moving together towards the same goal.
So, through the years I've hiked and walked, and it usually is an excellent way to communicate with another person or travel short distances. It's my default for both activities. However, what walking does for me alone is another matter altogether. Back in Portland, I had begun taking walks on my work breaks. It started out as a practical measure: if I was walking in the neighborhood, no one could interrupt my break with a work issue. But it also had the side benefit of helping me think through barriers and emotions. That's when I remembered Rebecca Solnit and the brain's ability to work better at 4 miles an hour. There is indeed something about walking that helps one think. The scenery changes, but slowly, and while noticing things like the raccoon family walking across the street in the hot summer sun, or the cherry blossoms whirling down in the spring wind, my mind also is working away at the latest issue, without my being aware of it. It's like a waking dream, a walking dream, in fact. I write haiku in my head, I photograph scenes with my eyes, I breathe in the scent of daphne, I listen to the sounds of wind chimes and bird calls. And, while I'm absorbing the world through my senses, my body is stretching and the oxygen is filling my lungs, and that too is benefiting my brain.
It's so obvious that walking nurtures the soul as well as the brain. For years, I used labyrinths for a walking meditation. For years, I would go out for a walk to calm the fidgets out of my muscles. I would think a mantra of numbers (1 and 2 and 3 and 4...), in rhythm with my steps. And then, I would start thinking coherent thoughts: things to write, things to say, things to do. Or I would take pictures of an amazing tree or some fabulous clouds. Walking jump-started most of my creativity, in fact.
But it also was necessary from a physical perspective. While I was taking care of E, I would go out for a half hour walk up the
mountain, never going too far, just getting a break and some exercise.
She and I would go for another walk before dinner, about 10 minutes up
or down Vista del Oro. Later, when I moved to Taos, I would take walks on the trail by campus during my lunch break, or I would walk around the neighborhood and watch the sunset. Then, for no good reason, I stopped walking. I was sick for months on end, I was exhausted, I needed to do school work on my breaks, the Sandias were closed due to fire danger, it was too hot, it was too windy. Those were just of few of the bad reasons I had for not walking. When I saw the psychic in February, one of the things she told me was that I needed to get outside, to walk. It was one of the many things she said that resonated with me and one of the reasons I thought of pet-sitting as a way to spend my time. It would force me to walk every day. I would no longer be able to plead exhaustion or being too busy with other things. Walking would be part of my job.
So, today, as I walked the two dogs that are my current charge, I found myself thinking, yet again, about Solnit's words. I thought, even though she wrote a whole book about walking, in her luminous prose, I'm going to write a blog about it. And maybe I'll find that book and read it again.