Sneak Peek: The Transformative Power of a Pedestrian Act

The wind whipped across the frozen lake. Wet snow stung my face. It had been falling steadily since dawn, weighing down the scraggly branches of the black spruce and balsam fir that crowded the blurry shoreline. Now mid-afternoon, the flat February light was fading.

Chin tucked into jacket collar, wool toque pulled low over forehead, I shielded my eyes by studying my borrowed snowshoes, glancing up every few strides to gauge my bearings. It was a tedious way to move forward, more shackled than Shackleton. But it gave me plenty of time to think.

Lurching around the park down the street from my semisuburban bungalow for an hour, I realized, might not have been sufficient preparation. My back ached from pulling a cheap plastic sled laden with 50 pounds of warm clothing and camping gear. I was sweaty, which can beget trouble on a winter expedition. I was thirsty: more trouble. There was chafing. And it was only the first day of a two-and-a-half-week trek. We had another 220 miles to cover.

The distance was daunting, but more so the prospect of travelling through the forest and sleeping in the snow with 60 strangers, all of whom were either Aboriginal or francophone, or both. As a unilingual Anglo urbanite accustomed to solo summer hikes and car camping, I was apprehensive about such close quarters. In fact, this whole trip charted unfamiliar turf. I knew where I was (roughly) and where we were going (vaguely), but I wasn’t convinced I could get there. And, perhaps most worrisome, I had lost track of why I was trying.

There was only one certainty: it was too late to go back.

A search for direction sent me on that winter journey. The world was spinning too quickly. I needed to recalibrate. To slow down.

So I turned to an old habit.


Until the previous year, I had followed a conventional trajectory: a happy childhood; a loving marriage; two beautiful daughters; a comfortable house; holidays on the beach; a small cushion in the bank. My career also tacked a standard path, from sports writing and newspaper reporting to a decade as a magazine editor, cresting at the top post at a respected publication. My biggest fears — environmental apocalypse, global economic collapse, runaway technology, retirement savings — were abstractions. With solid First World footing, I was confident I could muddle through, just like everyone else.

Trouble at the office catalyzed my sea change, although the restlessness was already brewing. Financial turmoil threatened to swamp the magazine industry. The non-profit where I worked responded by creating “independent and objective” content in partnership with corporate and government backers. In a business with countless shades of grey, I saw black and white. A watchdog opening the gate for wolves.

My dream job, which I had moved across the country to take, became a nightmare. Our sponsors were determined to ramp up either public support or profits, and I was aiding and abetting their newspeak. Unhinged from a sense of purpose, I felt the dissonance between what I believed in and what I was doing to pay the bills grow deafening. Energy and optimism ebbed. Simple pleasures (a homemade meal, sunset at the park) lost significance. My family soon tired of my quixotic complaints. I was trumped, rightly so, by more pressing concerns: the leaky toilet, grocery shopping, flu season.

Marooned at my desk, I swivelled round and round, drowning in digital static, a miasma of mediated boredom that, as technology critic Evgeny Morozov writes, “produces a craving for more information in order to suppress it.” For months, I managed the stress by checking my email every three minutes and by taking long lunchhour runs. Then I tore the meniscus of my right knee, painfully albeit comically, by sitting down on the ground awkwardly at a folkmusic festival. The joint locked at a right angle, and after my wife helped me stand, I passed out and fell flat on the grass. It was noon. I had not been drinking (yet). On the cusp of 40, I saw this as a sign of aging. Clearly, it was time for a different approach.

A month later, trailed by an entourage of cameras, His Royal Highness Haji Al-Muhtadee Billah, the handsome crown prince of Brunei, one of the world’s richest men, strode into the Carleton University Sports Medicine Clinic for a photo op as I was receiving physiotherapy. He made a beeline for my bedside and asked how I got hurt. Lying back on a mattress with interferential currents zapping my knee, surrounded by flash bulbs and zoom lenses, I did not know how to respond.

“I . . . I sat down wrong.”

His Royal Highness looked at me quizzically. “In my country,” he beamed, “we play a lot of badminton.”

Unable to recuperate through racquet sports or running, I self-medicated with long walks whenever possible, following desire lines — paths formed by foot traffic — across railroad corridors and reedy streams. To dampen my causticity, I skipped sessions at conferences to roam around foreign cities, and assigned myself travel articles anchored by hikes. In Reno, Nevada, sweating at the spectre of another panel discussion on the ascendancy of tourism apps, I took a taxi to the trail I could see from my hotel-room window and snaked along Hunter Creek from the high desert scrublands that flank the Truckee valley to the cool Ponderosa pine meadows of Sunflower Mountain. In the rolling, frost-covered hills of Quebec’s Charlevoix region, I hiked from hut to hut for four days with a group of retirees, our age and language differences irrelevant from the start. At home in Ottawa, when my daughters were in bed, I grabbed a water bottle and picked random destinations (a bridge, say, or a downtown monument), navigating by topographic feel and relishing the freedom of going with the flow. I had long been obsessed with walking, both to get from point A to point B and as a way of engaging with the world, but this was different. My habit was metastasizing. Instead of ranting about work, I ranted about walking and refused to use our beige minivan unless absolutely necessary.

Infatuated by transects people seldom experience slowly, I walked from my childhood bedroom in Toronto to my parents’ off-the-grid cottage, spending four days on a commute that takes three hours in a car. It was an attempt to honour the cabin’s ragged spirit, to better understand the well-worn yet never static relationship between city and countryside, between my family and me. On night two, blistered and hobbling, I was saved by the proprietor of a B&B in a reborn brick church. She drew a hot bath and handed me a cold beer. “The world is a book,” she had written in jaunty white letters on a chalkboard in the kitchen, quoting St. Augustine, “and those who do not travel read only a page.”

Regardless of the destination, at some point during each walk, everything would seem better. (Though not when I pulled up lame at a boat launch 20 kilometres shy of the cottage and borrowed a cellphone to call for a ride, giving my father the wrong coordinates, an error he never tires of mentioning.) The harmonic feeling would descend while I was in motion, and sometimes lingered — “a state in which the mind, the body, and the world are aligned,” as Rebecca Solnit writes in Wanderlust, “as though they were three characters finally in conversation together, three notes suddenly making a chord.” A chord that was still ringing in the recesses of my brain when, back at my computer, easily distracted from the tasks on my to-do lists, I began tripping over reams of fresh research into the physiological and psychological virtues of walking. The social, economic and creative possibilities too. Was this a frequency illusion, triggered by my obsession? Or a prescription for change?

Whether for transportation or recreation, walking bestows the gift of time. Done by choice, untethered from the market and wireless contraptions, it can be an act of defiance. At its most pure, walking connects us to the people and places where we are right now. Also, to ourselves. In the early decades of the 21st century, an era of climactic convulsions, rapacious profiteering, crushing debt, deadly “lifestyle” diseases and the attenuation of non-virtual community, these are precious commodities. They might pay tremendous dividends.

The French have a term for those who view the world through the lens of their vocation, at the expense of a broader perspective: déformation professionnelle. After more than 20 years as a journalist, I saw everything, foremost, as a story. Could I apply this condition to walking?

“So, what would you say,” I asked Lisa, my wife, as we did the dishes one evening, “if I made walking my job? For a while?”

She bit her lip. Rinsed a wineglass. Lisa had recently traded freelance writing for stable employment, anticipating my flight of fancy.

“You’d be a warker,” she said. “Or a wolker.”

I took that as a yes.

Seeking specialists who also suspected that something so humble could have a profound impact on our lives, or at least enablers who were willing to listen, I contacted the people whose work I had been reading about. The epidemiologist in Glasgow investigating the links between walking and depression. The criminologist in Philadelphia assessing the impact of police officers on foot patrol. The physiological anthropologist in Japan analyzing how a walk in the woods alters our bodies at a molecular level. The ex–transportation engineer in New York City walking every street of every borough. The scientists in Toronto using a one-of-a-kind laboratory to help people remain mobile. The Brit who walked across the Middle East and Central Asia, then went home and campaigned for a seat in Parliament by tramping around his rural constituency. Admittedly, I was scratching a mid-life itch, escaping as much as approaching. But these women and men, and a couple dozen others, were rigorous and esteemed. And they agreed to share their discoveries.

This book is about the transformative properties of walking. About fissures that anyone can explore. It is the outcome of an experiment both personal and journalistic, an attempt to understand my addiction, to see how much repair might be within range.

I have tried to structure it in a logical way, exploring one main benefit of walking in each chapter. This is a problematic construction: the anecdotes, statistics and conclusions overlap and magnify one another. There are also geographic boundaries to stumble over. While I touch down in Asia, Africa and Latin America, the focus is on the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada. The cultural and economic forces that have shaped the Anglosphere (our cities and habits, our health and happiness) have incubated a distinct set of challenges.

Maturity, we are told, means accepting that the world is broken. Yet, what if some simple patches were possible? All of the people I spoke to or spent time with, outstanding in diverse fields, have demonstrated, in one way or another, that a renewed emphasis on walking, even in communities facing stacked odds, could be a small step toward somewhere better. That my fix just might be a fix.

Generations of writers have gone down this road. Wordsworth, Thoreau, Solnit, Chatwin and scores of others have crafted lyrical poems, essays and books about the power of walking. I bow at their feet. These classics are more relevant now than ever, and they have kindled a resurgence. In 2014 alone, French philosopher Frédéric Gros published a manifesto about the subversive ability of walking to mine the “mystery of presence”; British author Nick Hunt retraced the 80-year-old footsteps of scholar Patrick Leigh Fermor across Europe on a quest to find what remains of the kindness of strangers; historian Matthew Algeo looked back at an era when competitive walking was America’s most popular spectator sport; and naturalist Trevor Herriot embarked on a prairie pilgrimage, wielding “a metaphysics of hope against the dogma that we are aimless wanderers in a world whose chaotic surface is the sum total of reality.” This indispensable paper trail gave my ideas shape and scope.

One of the first guides I talked to was a doctor named Stanley Vollant, the first Aboriginal surgeon from Quebec. A son of the Innu nation, Vollant was striving to inspire hope among Canada’s indigenous peoples by leading group hikes hundreds of miles long, reviving the routes and rhythms of his ancestors. There was a walk coming up. He invited me to tag along.

At the time, I was bogged down by work and domestic responsibilities. But our conversation continued to resonate. “When you begin a journey, you don’t know why,” Vollant had said sagely. “The trail will show you the way.”

My employer held its annual gala a month before Christmas. The country’s corporate and political elite congregated in the grand hall of a museum amid towering totem poles and an arcing wall of floor-toceiling windows that frame a view of the federal government’s Gothic revival fortress on the far side of the river. Making small talk with big people is a smart way to climb ladders. But I missed the party. Earlier that day, an orthopedic surgeon had performed an arthroscopy on my injured knee, trimming a torn flap of cartilaginous tissue from the crescent-shaped pad that gives the joint structural integrity.

After three weeks of rest and rehab, I quit my job and assembled a pulk for hauling gear. Then I went walking.



Excerpt from Born to Walk: The Transformative Power of a Pedestrian Act by Dan Rubinstein, ECW Press, April 2015



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