My wife Jean and I once trekked 1,000 miles on the Appalachian Trail. It took us three months with our 45 lb. packs strapped to our backs as we slogged our way up and down the peaks of North America’s oldest mountains from Georgia to West Virginia and beyond. It was the summer of 1992.
We’d started going out the previous year and one night after dinner she announced that the next summer she was taking three months off work and hiking the Appalachian Trail. She was doing it because she was turning 50, “and if you want to join me, great. But I’m doing this for me.”
At least I had the sense not to ask: “What’s the Appalachian Trail?” But I knew at some level that if I didn’t join her, our relationship wouldn’t last. This was not an invitation. It was a gauntlet.
The first week was Utter Hell, but by the twelfth week, we jogged up the mountains in full gear without even breathing hard. We were married the next year.
All to say, we ascribe magical properties to walking.
We’re not the first. Sixteen hundred years ago, St. Augustine said Solvitur ambulando. In other words, “It is solved by walking.” He meant the best way to solve a philosophical problem is via a practical experiment.
But as an avid walker, I’ve learned the enormous power of putting one foot in front of the other. Now that billions of us are being allowed to do that again, let me lobby for giving walking more respect once the rush of walking in a park, let alone down a street, has worn off.
We live at Pape and Danforth, 4.1 km from Jean’s clinic at Bay and Bloor, and 5.8 km from my office at MaRS at College and University. A few years ago, I started walking there and back. The first time, it was a slog. But soon I was doing it three times a week, a little over an hour each way. Meanwhile, the subway takes half an hour, biking 25 minutes, and driving…well, don’t even ask.
On that point, I still find I can walk from my office to meetings in the Bay Street towers in almost as long as it takes a cab to get there. I get to listen to great podcasts and books, and my fitness comes along for a free ride.
All without going to a class or a gym, or changing clothes, or even needing a shower. What could be more efficient?
Besides, by synching your walks with your calendar, it’s pretty easy to do 10,000 steps a day every day. And if you’re obsessive like me, that can become 15,000 a day. (If you have a FitBit addiction like David Sedaris, you can ramp up to 60,000 steps a day, no problem).
But these are all side effects.
The chief virtue of walking is observing – odd people, fat squirrels, wounded birds, whiney kids, storefront windows.
But walking after the pandemic will be different from walking before and during it.
Parts of our cities will be devastated; our hotels, concert halls and transport hubs will be on respirators for some time.
Hopefully, our parks and bike lanes will multiply. Our air will be clearer.
For the next year, it will be us walkers who have a street-level view of how one of the world’s most livable cities can find its way.
But as Jane Jacobs said: “No one can find what will work for our cities by looking at the boulevards of Paris, as the City Beautiful people did; and they can’t find it by looking at suburban garden cities, manipulating scale models, or inventing dream cities. You’ve got to get out and walk.”
Meanwhile, I think we should slap the phrase Solvitur ambulando on every tee-shirt, FitBit, Instagram post and online therapy session just as soon as walking is up and running again.