Walking is an act that has bound together humanity’s cultural journeys since our ancestors first struggled upright and put one foot in front of the other. Travel author and avid wayfarer Jini Reddy walks us through the impact and significance of walking and reminds us just how empowering, inclusive, and inspiring it can be.

Words Jini Reddy

Illustrations Linda Linko

Is there an able-bodied human on the planet who isn’t walking, about to go for a walk, or contemplating one? If there is a single activity that has kept us sane these past months, this is it. The renewed appetite for journeys on two feet, this travel stripped bare, has been a response to tumultuous events that have colored our horizons, as well as a vehicle through which to make sense of them. Whatever the catalyst, such pleasures have come to the forefront of our consciousness like never before. Walking has offered an escape valve, boosting our mental and physical health, and our creativity. It has been an engine of activism, empowering many, and it is vital to tackling carbon emissions. Glass-half-full types will likely agree that while a saunter or even a brisk hike may not vastly expand one’s geographical horizons in the purely linear sense, in terms of mileage covered relative to say, hopping on a plane, there is a power and luminosity to walking that deepens the self and honors the landscapes being traversed.

The very act and culture of walking extends back to the beginnings of humanity itself, and as Rebecca Solnit writes in her book Wanderlust: “the subject of walking is, in some sense, about how we invest universal acts with particular meanings.

Like eating or breathing, it can be invested with wildly different cultural meanings, from the erotic to the spiritual, from the revolutionary to the artistic.”

Walking, then, is a part of everything and everyone. Scientists tell us that humankind first stood up on two legs seven million years ago. That’s an unfathomably long time—eons of defying gravity and an infinite number of journeys on foot undertaken by cultures around the globe, for a vast array of imperatives.

While astrologers have gazed skyward, consulted the planetary positions, and pronounced that we are entering the Age of Aquarius with its promise of expanded consciousness, could it be said that we are also entering a parallel golden era of walking? It might appear so, for those with eyes currently trained on paths, muddy tracks, fields, and coastlines. But this represents one lens, a single collective gaze through which to view the subject. Is the joy of walking being felt among all of us? Is walking becoming a more inclusive activity? A more democratic one?

Put this to a mother who faces a daily, weary trudge for miles through heat-scorched terrain in order to collect water, or to feed her family, or ask the same question of asylum seekers who’ve been forced to traverse perilous mountain paths in a bid to reach freedom, or of a captive on a march to hell—and the very question smacks of absurdity and privilege. Perspective matters greatly. Here to be clear, we are talking about walking that is not in any way enforced or strictly a necessity for everyday survival.

“The purpose of the walk is to link the cairns and the valleys by foot, but also to begin the story of a walk that will be written more deeply by each person who embarks upon it.”

— Andy Goldsworthy

Whether the driving force be protest, justice, emotional release, exercise, healing, inspiration, curiosity, contemplation, or challenge, for those with mobility, walking across terrain that troubles or delights has been a constant in human history.

It connects us through the ages and is a metaphor—practically a cliché now—for life’s journey. On the micro level, walking is a pillar of our daily lives, and brings us into contact with non-human life, to beauty both natural and manmade, to sensory input and art both in urban and pristine natural settings.

Walking is also tinder for the imagination. It is such a universal activity that arguably any and all realms of human endeavor can be said to be the product of thoughts that arise from walking. But creative thinkers, from writers and philosophers to poets to painters, have crafted entire careers, in which wandering in and appreciating urban and wild landscapes, are at the forefront. Walking is the silent collaborator in many an artistic oeuvre and the fruits of such endeavors make rich pickings.

In ancient Greece, Aristotle founded the Peripatetic school, which linked thinking with walking. Basho, the great 17th-century Japanese poet, wandered on foot through the interior of his homeland, while the final work of philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Reveries of a Solitary Walker, was based on a series of walks that sparked thoughts on life, nature, and society.

“The purpose of the walk is to link the cairns and the valleys by foot, but also to begin the story of a walk that will be written more deeply by each person who embarks upon it.”

— Andy Goldsworthy

Mountains, ancient paths, uncanny landscapes, and sub-terranean spaces are the muse of British author Robert Macfarlane, while the raw ingredients for ephemeral creations of land artist Andy Goldsworthy are gathered from and in nature. One long-running project of his, known as Refuge d’Art, is nestled in Provence and best viewed on a 10-day hike via ridgetop, woods, and meadows. Of it, he has written: “The purpose of the walk is to link the cairns and the valleys by foot, but also to begin the story of a walk that will be written more deeply by each person who embarks upon it.”

Travel writer Robyn Davidson found her muse while crossing the deserts of India and Australia on foot (and with camels), while in Harlem is Nowhere, African American writer Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts walks the neighborhood’s streets to learn more about its past and to get the measure of its present too. For the Romantic poets such as Coleridge and Wordsworth, walking in nature was seen as pure, a source of spiritual renewal and deep feeling.

Some might say we’re experiencing a revival of the spirit of the Romantics—although this time round with the sobering awareness of the fragility of the environments in which we walk.

Until recently the chroniclers of walking, those who’ve fashioned our perceptions of the pursuit, have largely been white and male. This is as true for tales of more arduous, energetic, muscular walking as it is for contemplative, philosophical writing. Many of us are familiar with the tales of explorers from times past. Such figures roamed because they could, thanks to the privilege of race and station and might. Those who sought to acquire scientific and geographical knowledge, to forge new paths, to conquer, to colonize, to convert, did so freely.

Peoples encountered became reduced to Other, the backdrop to tales of derring-do, of trails forged, maps drawn, and miles walked. The dominant narrative has served to suppress voices and stories, infinite in their complexity. So, in writing anything about walking in all of its richness, we must bear in mind what Lauret Savoy, in Trace (her landmark memoir excavating landscape, identity, and memory) calls the “unvoiced presence of the past.”

We know of Shackleton, the patron saint of Antarctic explorers who marched across the mountains and glaciers of that continent, but far less about George Gibb, the first African American to set foot on the continent, or Mathew Henson, part of the first team to reach the North Pole. John Muir, the Scottish American founder of the Sierra Club, is embedded in the minds of outdoor lovers as a heroic figure of environmental activism and an ardent hiker who helped to preserve wilderness areas in America.

But how often do we read about John Francis? The devoted African American walker and environmentalist, who embarked on solo hikes across the US for over 22 years, became known as the “Planetwalker.”

Habitual walker and philosopher Henry David Thoreau, Scottish explorer David Livingston, Wilfred Thesiger (who to his credit embraced the diversity of the earth’s peoples)—the list of those whose legacy is common knowledge fits a single demographic, and this leaves huge gaps in our understanding. Whatever challenges author Bill Bryson encountered on the Appalachian Trail, dealing with the anxiety arising from the sight of Confederate flags in Trump country likely wasn’t one of them, as it was for Eritrean-American Rahawa Haile. Pause for a moment. Does a reading of this make you squirm rather than rejoice? Good. Take this as an opportunity to consider the parameters of your own gaze.

The world’s oldest and greatest walking culture hails from the Land Down Under. Indigenous Australians have walked “in country” for 50,000 years. According to traditional lore, in the era known as Dreamtime, ancestral beings emerged from the earth or sky, journeyed across the barren land and created the features we recognize as mountains, hills, rivers, and streams, for example, as well as all living beings, including humans. Each path forged by an ancestor is known as a “songline.” If you know the songline of your ancestor, if you learned the stories and songs, you’d connect to your ancestral heritage, your “dreaming track.” At least this is how outsiders have interpreted what has been passed to us.

But to be in relationship to “country” in this way, as the first Australians have done traditionally, is to also wholly embody a different reality to that of Western culture. Today, as (non-indigenous) Australian anthropologist Peter Yates writes in the Northern Australia Environmental Resources Hub, “The journeys indigenous peoples have made on foot, go lamentably unheard, are hard to find, and not part of communal lore. The keepers of oral traditions are dying out, and are not around to pass their sacred stories, their ways on. But there is hope too,” he adds, in the shape of contemplative, joyful, quiet walking movements that are linking the cultural riches of the past to a challenging present.

Walking is becoming a form of political resistance beyond the ages-old tradition of the march. These acts of walking increase visibility in outdoor spaces, assert land ownership and the right to roam, revive, and protect cultural heritage and teach traditional ways to the next generation so that they do not die out. Culturally speaking, they are exciting developments which enrich all of us. In 2017, for example, Colorado-based Navajo Jaylyn Gough founded Native Womens Wilderness, an organization that aims to amplify the voices of Native women in the outdoor realm. She launched a campaign which involved hiking to national parks, canyons, and rivers named after colonizers as a way of reclaiming ancestral heritage and of effecting healing.

Similarly, Jolie Varela, founder of Indigenous Women Hike, campaigned for the history of her people, the Paiute, to be acknowledged on a trail along the backbone of the High Sierras, in eastern California. Known as the John Muir Trail, it is one of the most popular long-distance hikes in the United States.

Few are aware that it was originally an ancestral trade route built and maintained by the Paiute and other tribes. Its original name, Nüüm Poyo, translates as “The People’s Trail.”

Varela and a group of Native women hiked it to raise awareness of the histories and identities erased from the trail, and to regenerate their own relationship with their ancestral land.

For entirely different reasons, as a young man Satish Kumar, an ex-Jain monk from India, set off on an epic pilgrimage on foot to the four nuclear capitals of the world. Starting in Delhi in 1962, his walk was a peace pilgrimage. He and the friend he walked with decided to travel cash-free, relying on the goodwill of perfect strangers for sustenance along the way. From India he crossed into Pakistan and over the Khyber Pass into Afghanistan, and then onward to central Asia, through the freezing Russian winter, to Europe. From there he crossed the Atlantic to the US on the Queen Mary, the passage made possible thanks to the generosity of philosopher Bertrand Russell. His observations, recorded in a memoir called No Destination, are evocative and although his journey did not cause world peace to break out, he did observe that “walking as we were, going from country to country, to different cultures and religions... in jungles, forests, and mountains, we were perhaps able to communicate a sense of the inner power of the individual and the loss of fear of the ‘other’.”

Today, divergent voices are revolutionizing walking culture with fresh stories and are beginning to alter mainstream Western perceptions of who walks. But what of the very places where we choose to amble, hike, and reflect? What of the landscapes we choose to walk through?

In lockdown, the texture of a day’s walking became a lottery dependent on the terrain at one’s doorstep: pavement or park, trailhead or coast. Yet fantasies of taking flight and walking the great trails of the world have persisted: often trekked routes in the Nepalese and Indian Himalayas, the glorious Swiss Alps, Britain’s South West Coast path, Namibia’s Fish River Canyon, or Japan’s Kumano Kodo, a UNESCO-recognized network of pilgrimage routes southwest of Kyoto, spring to mind.

It’s hard not to be gripped by wanderlust when one considers the extraordinary hike in Meghalaya, northeast India, down hidden valleys leading to surreal, Hobbitlike living root bridges, or when one contemplates the glaciers, turquoise lagoons, powdered snows, and sublime peaks of Torres del Paine National Park in Chile. What about Canada’s glorious Great Trail, the longest recreational trail in the world across ten provinces and three territories, or the mammoth Pacific Crest Trail, which threads from Mexico to Canada through 57 mountain passes, 19 canyons, and alongside more than 1,000 lakes (and immortalized in Cheryl Strayed’s epic roaming memoir, Strayed)? And the aforementioned Appalachian Trail—soon to feature in Eritrean American writer Rahawa Haile’s autobiographical book Open Country—is on many a wish list.

Who hasn’t felt a giddy restlessness when faced with the prospect of treading among the natural icons of the world? Imbibing an abundance of natural beauty and experiencing the planet purely through its walking trails, may be a utopic ideal. Still, even a taste on our travels is a route to inspiration, hopefulness, and joy, alongside the more prosaic aches and pains of miles trudged. Taking one’s soul for a stroll is, above all, an opportunity to find equilibrium in a chaotic world. Anyone who has ever rushed to an appointment might beg to differ, but as Hippocrates once said, “Walking is man’s best medicine.”

Beauty, healing, and epiphany can arise when walking in splendid solitude, with a friend or partner, or in a group. For those who are drawn to community-building, the good news is recreational walking with a focus on togetherness or shared interests is growing. In the UK, for example, Black Girls Hike encourages Black women to reconnect with nature and hosts nationwide hikes. Spa breaks and group retreats featuring Nordic walking (alongside yoga) have sprung up, illicit trails known as “desire paths” have found new fans, as have night walks in Britain’s Dark Sky Reserves. And young people are flocking to the Ramblers, a walking group previously synonymous with outdoors lovers of a more advanced age.

“...walking as we were, going from country to country, to different cultures and religions... in jungles, forests, and mountains, we were perhaps able to communicate a sense of the inner power of the individual and the loss of fear of “the other’.”

— Satish Kumar

The more our addiction to technology grows, the more urgent our need to pause and to allow our thoughts to soar. (Although mobile apps that offer route guides for local walks and more ambitious hikes have harnessed this addiction for good.) Walking is the perfect pace to free our minds. The relatively modern Japanese practice of forest bathing or shinrin-yoku, alias a healing walk in the woods, where time is taken to savor the sounds, scents, scenery, and wildlife in forests, has grown in global popularity since it originated in the 1980s. Studies carried out have shown that the practice has tangible health and mood-boosting effects when compared to walking in an urban area.

Mindful, slow walking is also about creating a ritual of one’s journey, one in which an exploration of the inner landscape is as vital as the outer.

It’s a coming together of breath and air, fortified through intention or the asking of an important question for which one seeks an answer. The route is set by one’s heart and activated by one’s feet and presence. Such a pilgrimage walk, be it secular or faith-based, is a potentially transformative and deepening experience, both rejuvenating and restorative.

Academics and scientists often cite the “creative pause,” state of mind that limits our conscious thinking while allowing unrestricted thoughts to flow. Put another way, a walk allows the subconscious areas of our brain to come up with genius ideas. It allows us to get out of our own way, and to reconnect with the earth and our origins. Interestingly, barefoot walkers talk of feeling an aliveness in the earth, a primal wisdom being transmitted through it, as if they are listening to the landscape through their feet. But this is hardly surprising, given the belief in a sentient earth, rich in intelligence, is an ancient one.

Whatever our reasons for striking out, wondrous things happen when we walk, often when least expected. The riches yielded can be inversely proportional to the scope of journeys permitted—a delight in the macro, in the minute details of our surroundings, the tremor of leaves, a spider’s web glistening in the early light of day, the poetry of a murmuration, orgies of sunrises and sunsets, bright, powerful graffiti, landmarks spotted for the first time, or the joy of simply taking a left instead of a right.

We walk to heal our hearts and minds and to connect to our histories.

We walk to shed pain and fear, to be heard and seen, to test ourselves, and to fuel our wanderlust. We walk to experience our bodies more fully, and to connect to the sacred, a most powerful incentive. Above all, walking is a container for a potent magic. It is a way of taking flight, while planting our feet firmly on the ground. Walking is power, a soft power that the world is embracing anew. It is an unexpected blessing in a time of great change, and it is one we can be grateful for.