Sometimes [Leonard Mead] would walk for hours and miles and return only at midnight to his house. And on his way he would see the cottages and homes with their dark windows, and it was not unequal to walking through a graveyard where only the faintest glimmers of firefly light appeared in flickers behind the windows. Sudden gray phantoms seemed to manifest upon inner room walls where a curtain was still undrawn against the night, or there were whisperings and murmurs where a window in a tomblike building was still open…. In ten years of walking by night or day, for thousands of miles, he had never met another person walking, not once in all that time. --Ray Bradbury, “The Pedestrian”
A few weeks ago, I was walking—it’s my mode of transportation, my method of getting from one place to another—past Loyola High School, where a friend of mine teaches students to drive. As I walked by, he and a couple of students happened to be in the Driver’s Ed car, getting ready to pull out of the parking lot; seeing me walk by, my friend asked the student driver to honk the horn to get my attention. The student complied, and then turned to my friend and asked, “Why is he walking?” My friend was momentarily nonplussed by the question: why, indeed, would anyone be out walking?
Antonia Malchik lives in, and grew up in, Montana, but that is the least of many reasons to recommend her wonderful article “The End of Walking”. To begin with, she reminds us of our bipedal nature and ancestry:
There is nothing more human, more natural, more fundamental to our freedom, than transporting ourselves by foot…Human beings evolved to move at a pace of three miles an hour, breathing easily, hands free, seeking food and shade. We tread without thinking, toes pushing off from the soil, cheeks lifted to catch the air, dirt caking in our nostrils. Walking is the first legacy of our post-ape genes, the trait that makes us most human: H. sapiens came only afterH. erectus. We walked, and began our intellectual toddle toward the Anthropocene.
Ms. Malchik also emphasizes that the simple act of walking is good for our health:
Our most basic access to health comes from walking. Walking for just 30 minutes five days a week has been shown to have a significant impact on everything from obesity to depression and colon cancer. A normal day’s errands would easily take more than 30 minutes on foot. When we get around by driving instead we’re liable to become overweight, insular, edgy. In his book The Story of the Human Body, the evolutionary biologist Daniel E Lieberman dissects the widespread chronic health problems that he thinks are linked to sitting for long periods, including in cars: muscle atrophy, lower-back pain, cardiovascular disease, diabetes. ‘We are inadequately adapted to being too physically idle, too well fed, too comfortable,’ he says.
Moreover, walking allows us to experience the world (and to process its potentially overwhelming deluge of sensory data) at human speed and human scale:
Walking is a complex interconnection of cognitive processes and sensory inputs. The transfer of information from foot to brain, between the inner ear and visual reception, is mind-bogglingly difficult to calculate. Only the most recent neuroscience research is beginning to grasp the bidirectional link between cognitive and motor functions, and the role cardiovascular health plays in our mental wellbeing.
Whatever else modernity hath wrought, its wholesale abandonment of walking in favor of fossil-fueled combustion engine-powered automotive transport has been nothing short of tragic:
Walking as a way of life is more out of reach than ever...Walking is an impediment to the car culture we revere, an experience we’ve intentionally designed out of our lives…We [have come] to scorn walking, to fear it. Real Americans fold themselves into cars, where they feel safe and in control. For exercise, the better-off mimic walkers, bicyclists, hikers, and farmers on stationary machines in health clubs. They and the middle class drive to parks and wilderness preserves for the privilege of walking outside among trees and birds and clean air, and the poor are left with vast wastelands of road and concrete; the advice to ‘walk three times a week for your health’ easier given than followed when there’s nowhere safe to place your foot.
Ms. Malchik further notes “the lack of public transport and sidewalks, the assumption that destinations even half a mile away – a 10-minute walk – required a motor vehicle and a seat belt. The car, the distrust of walkers, they’ve become the hallmarks of an everybody-for-herself, bootstrap-pulling, falsely self-sufficient American culture. Freedom to drive when and how we please is as American as apple pie and a gun holster; freedom to walk is not.”
As an example of how “freedom to walk” has been forced to give way to the tyranny of four-wheeled machines, Malchik cites “the invention of jaywalking”:
Jaywalking was once a semi-derogatory term referring to country bumpkins, or ‘jays’, who inefficiently meandered around American cities; by the 1920s, the term was being used to transfer blame for accidents from motorists to pedestrians. Making jaywalking illegal gave the supremacy of mobility to those sitting behind combustion engines. Once upon a time, the public roads belonged to everyone. But since the ingenious invention of jaywalking we’ve battered pedestrianism in one of those silent culture wars where the only losers are ourselves.
The world of Ray Bradbury’s “The Pedestrian”—in which the innocently perambulating Leonard Mead was hauled off to the Psychiatric Center for Research on Regressive Tendencies—may already be here:
In many parts of the US, pedestrianism is seen as a dubiously counter-culture activity. Gated communities are only the most recent incarnation of the narrow-eyed suspicion with which we view unleashed strangers venturing outside on foot, much less anywhere near our homes. A friend of mine told me recently that a few years ago, when she lived in Mississippi, she was stopped by police constantly simply because she preferred to walk to work. Twice they insisted on driving her home, ‘so I could prove I wasn’t homeless or a prostitute. Because who else would be out walking?’ She finally got tired of the hassle and bought a used bike to commute.
Worrying that “Those of us who walk are finding the paths slipping out from under our feet,” Ms. Malchik wonders “What will we become without the means to walk, the desire, the space, the capability?” She concludes with the simplest advice: “Open your door; go for a walk. Feel the spring in your step, the buoyancy in your spine, the loose-limbed gait, as more than clichés. Take one last, lingering moment to appreciate this miraculous thing before we lose it forever."
It’s eminently possible—and, from an evolutionary standpoint, eminently obvious—that human beings can best make sense of ourselves and of the world we inhabit when we walk through it at three miles an hour: the faster we go, the less human we become and the less at home in the world we are.