(Photo: Getty Images).
(Photo: Getty Images).

BooksApril 11, 2020

Lockdown letters #16, Ashleigh Young: On going for a walk

(Photo: Getty Images).
(Photo: Getty Images).

‘It feels like there is an inner circle of walking that I can no longer break into, some pleasure I have become too stupid to feel. Maybe it’s the internet’s fault.’

Read more from the lockdown letters here.

There is a lot of talk about going out for a walk. If you are a writer, you have to love going out for a walk. It’s to do with the unspooling of ideas. “Methinks that the moment my legs begin to move, my thoughts begin to flow,” said Thoreau. Going for a walk changes your body’s chemistry: blood and oxygen flow more readily to the brain, promoting new connections and prompting new ideas to bubble up. The pace of your thoughts decides the pace of your feet, and vice versa. Your mind spreads out like a big trampoline mat above the streets. A lot has been written on the pleasures of “solitary trampling” (Virginia Woolf) and “long-distance walking as a means of dissolving the mechanised matrix which compresses the space-time continuum, and decouples human from physical geography” (Will Self). “You’re doing nothing when you walk, nothing but walking,” writes Frédéric Gros in his 2009 book A Philosophy of Walking. “But having nothing to do but walk makes it possible to recover the pure sensation of being, to rediscover the simple joy of existing, the joy that permeates the whole of childhood.”

Today I walk to the top of the driveway. Gordon is out there too, striding upwards with his cane. The driveway is steep and by the time I reach the top I am gasping. My body has grown too used to wheels and every time I force it out here on its own two legs, it takes fright. I continue on through a small park and onto the track by Zealandia’s fence line. It’s nice outside – properly autumnal. Some kākā are making gobbling turkey-like noises. I am struggling to breathe. I try to focus on the simple joy of existing. The writer James Brown emailed the other day and said he tried to go for a walk also, but after 100 metres he just turned around and went back to get his bike. Too many people were out there, he said.

I used to love walking, and the idea of walking. My brother JP once walked from Cambridge to Hamilton with friends after a party, sobering up uncomfortably along the way. I marvelled for years at this feat. There was a guy I heard about in our town, a retired rugby player, who walked something like 20 kilometres each morning, trying to fix his bad knees. I don’t know if it worked, and maybe it was urban legend anyway, but I didn’t care, because Old Bad Knees was a walking hero. People and animals covered great distances in many books I loved, like The Incredible Journey and The Silver Sword and The Lake, and, later, The Rings of Saturn and A Walk in the Woods and The Old Ways and The Road. To cover distance on foot was to break away from the places and rhythms that stifle us and to allow yourself to be propelled by the restlessness and trouble and desire in your soul. Walking oriented you to where you were and where you’d come from in a truer way than if you were covering that distance by car, train, bus, even bicycle. Remember when Geoff Chapple walked the entire length of New Zealand? I couldn’t believe it. He was out there for months, sleeping in sheds and cheerfully turning down offers of a ride from guys in vans. It was different from our other sporting achievements, if you could call it one. It was an achievement born of a sinewy frame and bent-over posture. The only thing it really had in common with our other sports was mud.

Chapple walked at night sometimes as well as day, moreporks gliding past his head. As Will Self tells us: “Any serious flaneur walks by night as much as by day; for by day it’s too easy to be drawn into a complacent acceptance of normalcy.” In the next paragraph, he confirms, sagely: “I walk by night.” Well, OK. To try to reinstate my old enthusiasm for walking, yesterday I read one of Self’s accounts of one of his “radial walks”, where he walked out of London and all the way to Fosbury in Wiltshire, accompanied by his 10-year-old son and their jack russell. I couldn’t concentrate on the account because I was worried about the dog, which got only a couple of mentions, and both times it seemed exhausted. I doubt the dog had much interest in dissolving the mechanised matrix that compresses the space-time continuum. What I should really be doing is ignoring all of these serious walking men and rereading Vivian Gornick’s The Odd Woman and the City, and following her as she walks around New York City, taking in all its drama and struggle, and remembering conversations she has had with her old friend Leonard, when she said things like, “I’m tired of apologising for being judgemental. Why shouldn’t I be judgemental? I like being judgemental. Judgemental is reassuring. Absolutes. Certainties. How I have loved them! I want them back again. Can’t I have them back again?”

Out walking, I wait for my mind to shimmy from place to place like a radioactive Mr Burns in the forest, I wait for the centuries-old connection between walking and thinking and writing to make itself known. It feels like there is an inner circle of walking that I can no longer break into, some pleasure I have become too stupid to feel. Maybe it’s the internet’s fault. How will I write another book if I can’t enjoy a walk? My thoughts circle me like sharks, reminding me of all the things I’ve messed up. Darwin put forward the theory that we evolved to walk upright on two legs because it freed up our hands to throw rocks at things; personally, walking upright on two legs just frees up my brain to throw anxieties at me. I grow impatient with how long it takes to get anywhere and how slow I am relative to a bicycle. In the distance, a corner – what’s around it? It could be anything! Bad news – you’ll have to wait a long, long time before you find out, because you have to walk to that corner. Who knows how much the world will have changed by the time you get there.

On a bike, or even running, you move fast enough that your worries, like so many hands outstretched to cyclists on the Tour de France, can’t get a firm purchase. The corners rush towards you and reveal what they’ve got waiting, over and over. Biking is less about the simple joy of existing and more about the simple thrill of avoiding another door swung open into your path. And just as you can speed away from anyone you don’t want to talk to, you can almost, almost, speed away from your own feelings. I am going to go for a ride now.

Keep going!