Walking is such a simple thing – hardly worth writing home about. Yet one step for Man was a great evolutionary leap for mankind. The classic progression of ape-like man slowly uncurling to the upright thing we now are indicates a belief that it is this – our ability to move forward, on two feet, hands free to manipulate the world, and head lifted high above the plains – that marks our uniqueness (and our apparent superiority) as a species.
If walking upright sets us above the animals, walking at all puts us on the same plane as the rest of our tribe. It is the most democratic action: it’s simple – anyone (well, almost anyone) can do it. One foot in front of the other. And repeat. Do this long enough and you will get where you’re going. A journey of a thousand miles, as Lao Tzu supposedly said, starts with a single step.
You walk with and alongside those you want to help, blisters and all – as Gandhi knew. It’s the ultimate act of solidarity, going on a march. And it keeps you grounded – in touch with the earth and the water and your surroundings: an animal in an ecosystem, not a separate entity, enclosed in hermetically sealed metal, whooshing through it.
You need no particular skill or stamina to walk. When you need to clear your head, there’s no surer cure. When you’re out of ideas or desperate to escape the monotonous whirl of the ones you can’t shake, then going for a walk helps: it just does.
In his Philosophy of Walking, Fredric Gros suggests that in longer walks your get to “glimpse that freedom of pure renunciation… because whenever you remember the former signs of your commitments in hell – name, age, profession, CV – it all seems absolutely derisory, minuscule, insubstantial.” Rebecca Solnit, on the other hand, likes walking because it is slow: “I suspect that the mind, like the feet, works at about three miles an hour. If this is so, then modern life is moving faster than the speed of thought or thoughtfulness.” You can literally go at your own ‘pace’ – the same word for the distance between your feet as you move forward.
Walkers welcome an ambitious government-funded plan to create a single, continuous public footpath around the entire coast of country. Every inlet, crinkle and bay of it: 2,795 miles long. The final few missing pieces of the jigsaw are being worked on now, and the England Coast Path is due to complete next year.
Britain is a country of walkers, and the runaway publishing success here last year was a book about a walking. In The Salt Path, Raynor Winn tells the story of how she and her husband walked and wild-camped their way along the entire 630-mile length of the southwest coast path, around the ‘toe’ of England.
This was no country ramble: but a matter of survival. The bailiffs had repossessed their house, they had nowhere to live, and no income. And Moth, Raynor’s beloved husband of thirty-two years, had been diagnosed with a rare degenerative brain disease. Out of ideas, money, options and time, and with no plan beyond putting one foot in front of the other, the couple pack their entire worldly possessions on their backs and set out on what would be a life-changing walk.
Raynor, a wryly humorous narrator, describes her book as a classic ‘nature-redemption story.’ At 50 and 53 respectively, she and Moth are known as the “old people with big rucksacks”. Over the course of a year and a half, they encounter tourists and farmers, rough sleepers and touring poets, refugees and landed gentry, dog-walkers and tortoise-walkers. Sometimes they are met with hostility, at others, with generosity and open-heartedness. They learn – the hard way – something of what it means to be homeless in Britain today. They have dark days – wet nights camping out in the raw elements, days when they are overwhelmed by pain, and hopelessness and despair – and yet they walk on. In a life shorn of every luxury, pared back to the bare essentials, they discover that walking, and each other, is all they need.
If they hadn’t done this crazy thing – walking almost continuously for a year and a half – Raynor says, “We’d be bitter, angry and muttering ‘what if’ into our milky tea… Most people go through their whole lives without answering their own questions: What am I? What do I have within me? The big stuff. What a waste.”
As the walk – and the book – draw to a close, the unexpected offer of a place to stay comes as no surprise to the reader (this is, after all, a redemption story, and if ever anyone deserved a break it is Raynor and Moth), but to our two footsore companions, it strikes with the force of divine revelation.
“The shock of something going right is almost as powerful as when it goes wrong,” writes Raynor. “We ran out of the café and leapt and shrieked in the bladderwrack beds. The young Costa Rican café owner came out to join us and we danced in a circle like children.
‘Why are we dancing?’
‘Because we have a roof.’
‘Is this a great thing?’
‘Then we should dance more.’”
And there you have the other great thing about us two-footed, vertical creatures. Walking will only get you so far: sometimes, you have to dance.