appalachian trail

The Plague-Ground – It is solved by walking

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.

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31 thoughts on “The Plague-Ground – It is solved by walking”

  1. Absolutely spot on. There is much joy in taking in the world at eye level 🙂 And I never made the time to do it – outside my daily early morning
    bursts of activity on the gym treadmill. Glad for the revelation, and the change that comes with it.

  2. jennifer jones

    Couldn’t agree more. I do some of my best thinking when I walk. Love that you extolling its virtues – it’s so apropos for these times

  3. My son and I walk hills. On our way home we came across two sparrows struggling, or so we thought. After some filming, I urged Zac to inspect to see if they were injured. Nope, just having morning delight before they took flight. Never saw they before.

  4. Bob, I enjoy reading your daily posts. This one struck a particular chord. I’m certainly not walking as much as I used to, but I endeavour to get out regularly and the City feels – and will continue to feel – different.

    1. Laura — Good to hear from you! I trust you are safe and sound somewhere in downtown Toronto, and high and dry! (though maybe not this afternoon).
      Thanks for checking in. Bob

  5. Have you read “Born to Walk” by Dan Rubinstein? Irony of ironies, I finished reading it while crossing the Atlantic on the Queen Mary 2 five years ago this week (this after cycling from Amsterdam to Brugge). Needless to say several circuits a couple of times a day on the promenade deck did not quite cut it in as much as the scenery did not change much from lap to lap. However, every time I checked my GPS on the bow after each walk my wife and I sure had managed to cover a considerable number of nautical miles since we started walking!

    1. Gerrit — I haven’t read Born to Walk, but now will….I agree with you, walking on deck just isn’t the same
      as walking on…..well, to pick a place out of the sky….like the Shetlands or the Orkneys!
      Thanks for checking in. Cheers. Bob

  6. Walking an hour (or two) each day with my 8 year old son and pooch has been an unexpected bonus during this pandemic. Lots of complaining before we leave, but once we are on our way, there have been no bad walks. New experiences and conversations each trip! Great way to connect with your kids and teach them there is life and fun to be had off of technology.

  7. Walking a third of the Camino in 2000 (about 330k), I felt the same way as you did Bob. Oh, the first few days! The horror. The horror! My 9kgm pack was not the issue. I don’t speak Spanish, my french is ok in a pinch and back then, rural wifi was not readily available, payphones required some kind of phd to operate and I was adrift in a completely different environment.
    Once I got the hang of it, I loved it. Life was simple. 30 k a day beginning at 5 am was extraordinarily empowering. I came back from this journey, not enlightened, but certainly a little lighter.
    Keeping up the pace over the past 20 years produced mixed results as my hips deteriorated until replacement. Covid-19 has helped me get back on track and walking has replaced cycling and driving in a big way. This is ‘the way’.

    1. Louise — yet another thing to add to our agenda when we do manager to get together again: what it’s like to survive The Horror The Horror!
      Indeed, walking is The Better Way.
      All best,

  8. John Lownsbrough

    We are now in — what? — Week 10 of the pandemic shutdown. I think that for the first few weeks I shuffled about in a kind of fog. Part of the problem was/is that if you don,t have family or job obligations, you can feel not just very alone but quite at sea. Inertia is a cunning thing ever ready to entrap you. But then I realized that, donning my bandana when I could not adequately social distance, I could make a mission out of going to get groceries or booze. The shopping would occur at the end of the walk. The walk soon became more important than the ostensible mission. The walk is invariably around middle of the day and invariably takes an hour and a half. It provides structure and punctuation to my day. I travel pretty much the same route, a route with very few pedestrians fortunately, so that for the most part the social distancing bandana isn’t necessary. The walk demands concentration, though, in the same way driving or swimming does: Pay attention to the lane, watch out for the dullards who don’t understand the protocols. The walk offers exercise and a sense of purpose. Bob, I am so interested to hear of your walking habitually to work. This period in my life may well inspire me to do the same. I think that last comment is what is meant by “accentuate the positive”. But I do like to think that, from this maelstrom of uncertainties, certain positives WILL emerge. Love to you and Jean.

    1. John — How great to hear from you! And thanks so much for checking in in such a substantial way.
      I agree with you; whether it’s a short walk or a long vacation, it’s the journey that matters, not
      the destination. We have a chance for VERY long walks up north. We came back into town for a week now
      and……wow, it’s dangerous out there !
      I trust you are safe and sound, high and dry.
      Bob and Jean

  9. Lovely post Bob.

    A love story build on walking.

    I broke my leg skiing in Feb. I was on crutches for 6 weeks post surgery and eased into no crutches after 8 weeks. I missed walking. I couldn’t wait to put one foot in front of the other, to be out in the fresh air.
    I can now go for long walks and cherish every minute.
    I might even walk the Appalachian trail one day!

  10. Jennifer Laity

    Like you, I am walking, walking, walking. And – best of all – I am seeing so much more than I ever took the time to see before. The birds, the flowers, the sounds, the scents – all so much more present and valuable. May the appreciation of simplicity save us. From our more is more mentality can we shift gears to a whole lot less is more. We have been sensory deprived by over stimulation. Let me focus on the hummingbird.

    1. Lori — Great to hear from you. I agree, walking is just in our bones, whether they’re broken or not!
      I see from your Instagram that you were doing a lot of luscious traveling. Oh well, let’s hope we can
      all do that again someday.

  11. When we go for walks, Deena and I try to catch the eye of everyone we pass, nodding at least, if not saying “hello”. Ironically, despite the distancing and masks, I feel closer to my neighbours now than ever before.

    1. Michael – I do the same up north where I wave to every car and truck that passes. I can’t see anyone inside, but I view it as my contribution
      to the glue of the community!

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