What do we lose by walking less, and breaking up our walks into Halloween-candy sized missions? We lose that opportunity to tightly stitch together our world. A long walk — it takes about three hours to walk 10 miles, and without breaking a sweat — gives us time with our thoughts, and establishes the right speed to appreciate the complexity of the world around us. It gives us time to plait the warp of random observations and the woof of random thought. We create a narrative and a place. Americans drive an average of 13,400 miles each year, or about 36 miles a day. The one time people spend long periods alone with their thoughts tends to be in a car — on long drives or stuck in traffic. But it’s not the same. In a car, we’re cocooned, isolated from a complex environment that can engage us.
And as traffic historian Tom Vanderbilt has noted, our highway system today essentially mimics “a toddler’s view of the world, a landscape of outsized, brightly colored objects and flashing lights” as we speed along “smooth, wide roads marked by enormous signs.” Heading down an on-ramp to merge onto a highway, it’s as if we’re entering a day care center for adults. We push on pedals and turn a big wheel. We communicate with others by blaring a horn that plays a single note, or by employing a hand signal that involves a single finger.
“‘The pedestrian mind doesn’t get very far in a day, but it has the opportunity to see where it is going,” noted a writer in the Saturday Review of Books. That was written in 1928, and even then — when the gulf between walking and driving was scarcely a gully — he could see the outlines of two differing ways of thinking: The walking mind and the driving mind. (“Vehicular minds move under some other power than themselves and hence grow flabby and become crowd minds, standardized and imitative.”)
Like Robert Shaw’s death scene in Jaws, I felt myself helpless with horror as the entire point of this essay tumbled, slipped and slid down the logical incline, dragging the reader toward the mindlessly gnashing teeth of the inevitable Nicholas Carr reference. And sure enough, crunch crunch munch gulp, the modern world is makin’ us stoopid.
You see this a lot. I suppose “Hey, I enjoy casually strolling around and thinking ’bout stuff” doesn’t have enough of a hook to hang an essay upon. Too straightforward. Gotta have some kind of peripheral angle, something topical, something to
flatter engage the reader. Sighing about how shallow and frivolous most people are (not the author, and certainly not the discerning readers); now, that’s a perennial theme. Wistful reflections on a lost age when things were otherwise, ditto. “Strolling around thinking about stuff makes you a better, deeper, more authentic person than all the stupid schlubs in their stupid cars,” ah, that’s the stuff we’re looking for.
There’s a receptive, contemplative state of mind that I feel is most conducive to genuine intelligence. Perhaps some people are more congenitally inclined to it, but you know what another necessary ingredient is? Time. Leisure. A principled refusal to Taylorize one’s entire life for the sake of accomplishment and efficiency. You don’t have to live in a walkable community. You don’t have to handwrite all your letters with a quill on a scroll. You don’t have to spend an hour every evening cooking your food with ingredients from the farmer’s market, or make your own soap from scratch, or sit on an official meditation cushion. None of those affectations will make a profound difference in your life if you don’t have that.