There are countless memoirs born of pilgrimages taken by foot. From Bill Bryson’s tale of walking the Appalachian Trail to Cheryl Strayed’s memoir of her adventure on the Pacific Crest Trail to the lure of El Camino de Santiago, numerous accounts of walking distances long and arduous and perilous have been shared in print and on film.
For quite some time, I found it surprising that so much walking could produce so many stories. How much plot is there to develop through the monotony of miles upon miles of trail? How much story can be weaned from the seemingly infinite number of footfalls that carry our memoirists to their distant end? Surprisingly, and maybe quite obviously to everyone else but me, a whole lot.
But maybe it isn’t so surprising. After all, I was never such a prolific amateur essayist as when I was employed as a dog walker. All those hours of walking for work allowed me the opportunity to think more deeply and with fewer interruptions than any other day to day circumstances did. I have found that walking, whether with animals for pay or through beautiful trail on a months-long pilgrimage, allows for meditation quite unparalleled by any other physical state of being. Sitting is too stationary for me, requiring that my mind wander in countless directions at once to overcompensate for my great physical stillness. Running requires a mental fortitude that leaves little room for higher thinking or insightful analysis to occur. Driving leaves me far too prone to necessary, at times potentially life-saving, distraction and reactions. Even placing myself before a blank computer screen or an empty page cannot inspire the outpouring of insightful and well-composed thoughts and sentences that walking can. A walk requires physical movement toward a destination but it is slow and plodding, largely effortless but constant and rhythmic. It not only parallels the writing process but lends itself to the type of deep and thorough meditation that inspires that process.
And so we walk and we write about it. And we browse bookstores and wonder how Bill Bryson can have so much to say about his months walking along the Appalachian Trail or how Cheryl Strayed could muse on the deserts and mountains of the Pacific Crest Trail for more than 200 pages. And then we find ourselves on sidewalks, hiking trails, paved walking paths, mall aisles and realize just how easily the words come while we walk. Our thoughts aren’t so much on the walking itself, the rise and fall of each foot or the nature of the terrain under our feet. Our thoughts aren’t even necessarily on anything related to ourselves or our immediate surroundings. Our thoughts are slowly stringing themselves in a most beautiful and seemingly autonomous way from point A to point B, like a strand of Christmas lights with periodic flashes of dazzling light along the way.
The only trouble for me is remembering it all. Those perfectly constructed phrases strung together in my mind’s eye on a walk are hard to recall when I make it back home. I’m torn between a desire to prolong my ambulatory state, so ripe for creativity and literary brilliance, and an eagerness to get home and record it all for posterity, to take pen to paper and make those delightfully composed thoughts more permanent and lasting.
That the protagonists of so many months-long pilgrimages are able to remember their detailed reflections and coherent strands of thought is mind-boggling to me. I’m sure there is quite a bit of editing post-pilgrimage, and additions and revisions are bound to be made upon returning home and opening up a computer to transcribe the whole experience. Nonetheless, walking sets in motion quite nicely the best mentality I’ve yet to find for writing, the prime conditions for thinking thoughts that are constructive, eloquently articulated, appropriately framed and meaningful enough to share. Though writer’s block may settle in when forced to write for a specific purpose, I find that my words are never stifled when I open myself up to the compositional possibilities offered by an easy stroll.