“To walk the city and its environs is, in a very powerful sense, to use it,” Self says. “The contemporary [walker] is by nature and inclination a democratizing force who seeks quality of access, freedom of movement and the dissolution of corporate and state control.”
Self makes the point that there are two types of walking. The first, such as walking to work, has an obvious objective, and the second, walking simply for the sake of it, serves “as a resource that can refresh us physically, aesthetically and even spiritually.”
Self writes about the surrealist poet Louis Aragon, who, drawing on foot-bound ventures around Paris, described how the walker could, if sufficiently alive to nuances of place and atmosphere, experience the “moment.” This, Self says, is the “ambulatory equivalent of the sort of insights the surrealists believed they received from dreams, séances, automatic writing and other methods they used to short circuit the deadening influence of rationality.”
But increasingly we are boxing ourselves in with rationality, data, and sheer laziness. Self notes that with each passing year, the number of journeys taken on foot declines. At the current rate, walking may die out as a means of transport by the middle of this century.
I ask, as I have so many times before, what is it about the utterly ordinary act of walking that turns people into such insufferable wankers?
We spent last weekend walking around the university and its surrounding streets and footpaths. It’s one of our favorite things to do. Whenever our business travels take us to a university town, we like to spend a couple hours in the early morning strolling around campus and downtown with only the birds, squirrels and chipmunks for company. That’s in addition to the mountain hikes we also enjoy. I say all this in the hope of establishing my ambulatory bona fides so that you won’t be too dismissive when I tell you that all this romantic rhetoric about the mystical salvation to be found on foot is no different from any other marketing manure. Walking is an enjoyable activity in and of itself, but it’s not a cure for the tragedy of the human condition. Before the first step, or after a thousand miles, it makes no difference. You’re still going to be largely the same person with the same weaknesses and problems.
When luxuries and comforts become too widespread and easily obtained, the only way for snobs to distinguish themselves is to pretend that they’re privy to a secret truth hidden in plain sight, unavailable to the uninitiated. When possessions are too common, you start selling experiences. People, being a social species, naturally feel insecure and uncomfortable when others snub them. Oh, no! Is it because my armpits stink, or because I haven’t appreciated the right art in the right way while partaking of the right travel experience? Either way, there’s someone waiting to sell you the temporary answer. No one is ever content where they are; we’re always easily convinced that lasting satisfaction lies elsewhere, and thus spend our time pursuing carrots dangling from sticks attached to our bridles. An article like this doesn’t exist to share the subtle pleasure that a long walk can bring; it exists to make you feel anxious about the degraded state of the world, afraid that cool artists like J.G. Ballard and Will Self might see you as one of those simple-minded, suntanned wage slaves, and desperate for reassurance that an ecstatic alternative exists to the ordinary chore of getting on with life as best as you can. Walk on, dear reader, walk on.