I went for a walk the other day.
Not just any old walk, mind you. I spent a day rambling along the coast with a man who is traveling the length of the Mediterranean Sea on foot.
Juraj Horniak calls his quixotic year-long odyssey the 8 Million Steps. His aim: to explore the tradition of slow living in southern Europe.
And what better way to do so than on foot? After all, walking can be a supreme act of slowness.
Nowadays, though, faster forms of transport, powered by engines, winged and wheeled, hold sway. When we do walk, it’s often with a very modern blend of impatience, distraction and hunger for achievement.
Witness the rise of speed walking and power walking. The boom in gadgets for counting steps. Or the wired hordes scuttling along with eyes glued to their smartphones. No wonder the World Health Organization described walking as a “forgotten art.”
It is an art worth preserving. Walking is the workout that Mother Nature designed for the human body. But it also does wonders for the mind and the soul.
When you walk without purpose or haste, with nothing more to do than put one foot in front of the other, you start to see the world afresh. You notice flowers and trees and birds, the shapes of clouds in the sky, hills on the horizon, architectural quirks and flourishes, the faces of passersby.
You also come to know yourself better, thanks to the internal monologue that is the soundtrack of every good walk.
By relaxing the mind, walking turns on the creative taps, too. Ernest Hemingway went for a stroll whenever he felt deflated by the blank page. “I would walk…when I had finished work or when I was trying to think something out,” he wrote. “It was easier to think if I was walking.”
Nietzsche put it more succinctly: “All truly great thoughts are conceived while walking.”
A recent study by Stanford University showed that even walking on a treadmill gets the creative juices flowing.
Small wonder then that many thinkers have written about the power and the glory of a good stroll: Thomas Jefferson, Virginia Woolf, George Orwell, Vladimir Nabokov, WG Sebald, Henry David Thoreau, Thomas De Quincey, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Bruce Chatwin.
As the speed of everything ramps up in the 21st century, a renaissance in walking could even be the first step to kicking the modern habit of hurry.
After all, everyone has their own natural walking speed, their own tempo giusto. You know when you’re doing it too quickly (or too slowly) because it just feels wrong.
The same goes for life in general. When you’re living too fast, you feel out of sorts. When you slow down to your own tempo, everything feels right.
Done properly, walking can reintroduce us to the idea of living at the tempo giusto. To enjoying what sociologist Franco Cassano described as “the sweet anarchy of inventing your own path, every single moment.”
That was how my walk with Juraj felt. We set off along Spain’s Costa Brava on a morning of blue skies and bright sunshine. Our path meandered up and down hills, through forests and small villages, past ancient stone walls, alongside steep, rocky cliffs rising up from quiet coves and inlets. Parts of the trail had been worn into the ground by shepherds tending their flocks over the centuries.
We paused to marvel at unusual rock formations and a butterfly of such ethereal colouring that it must have floated in from a Gabriel García Márquez novel. We stopped to gaze at boats bobbing on the glistening, rippled surface of the Mediterranean. Or to inhale the sea air and bask in the simple joy of walking in a beautiful place.
Along the way, we chatted about food, travel, family, books, art, history, music and everything else. But there were also interludes of companionable silence, moments for arranging our own thoughts or just letting the mind wander.
At one point we took a wrong turn and got lost. But neither of us minded since hurry was not part of the excursion. Plus the unplanned detour served up a sweeping view of the coastline we would not have seen otherwise. Finding our way back to the path turned into a small adventure that had us giggling like schoolboys.
After the day’s walk, we spent the evening in a restaurant in Begur, drinking cold white wine and chomping through platter after platter of local seafood, including a “sklop,” a rare prehistoric crustacean that looked like an extra from Jurassic Park.
In one of those delicious twists of fate, the fisherman who had landed the ugly creature that morning was sitting at a nearby table. When he saw us tucking into his elusive quarry, he bought a round of drinks.
I went to bed that night feeling full in every sense of the word. Stuffed from the meal, of course. But my mind, my heart and my spirit were also brimming over.
That is what walking can do for you.
It’s also what makes 8 Million Steps a wonderful undertaking, and Juraj a very lucky man….