No, I don’t do it for the exercise. Yes, I understand that both walking and cycling are terrific forms of exercise, but no, that’s not why I do it. Yes, I’m usually going somewhere when I go for a walk or a ride, but no, that ‘somewhere’ isn’t a destination. I’m not actually going to that place. That place is just a prompt, a nudge, a reminder that it’s time to turn around and go back. Yes, the walk or ride serves a purpose; the walk or the ride is the purpose.
I do this almost every day, regardless of weather. Sometimes I’ll walk or ride for hours, sometimes just for ten or fifteen minutes. I might stroll for a couple of hours along the river; I might ride five minutes to the nearby Stop & Rob and buy a Coke Zero. The purpose isn’t to see the river or fetch a Coke, though those are both fine things. The purpose is movement, the purpose is to move the body and disengage the mind from whatever I was doing and allow it to re-engage in…well, something else.
Here’s a true thing: I don’t really walk or ride. I saunter. I even saunter when I’m on a bicycle. This is how Chambers defines saunter:
to walk, often aimlessly, at a leisurely pace; to wander or stroll idly
That’s me, wandering idly on foot or bicycle, somewhat aimlessly, at a leisurely pace.
There’s some uncertainty about the etymology of saunter. It’s been suggested the term derives from sans terre, ‘being without land or a home,’ which would be a good reason for walking aimlessly. Others believe it comes from s’aventurer, ‘to take risks or leave to chance.’ My favorite explanation of the term, though, comes from the Middle Ages, during the period of the Crusades.
When we think of the Crusades, we generally think of armored knights on destriers, traveling to Jerusalem to ‘rescue’ Christendom. But it wasn’t just knights and noblemen who made their way halfway around the world; poor folks were also seized with the irrational desire to travel to the Holy Land. But they had to walk and beg for food as they made their way à la sainte terre. While of lot of those folks were sincere, the willingness of people to help a common sainte-terrer (it was a sacrifice that would gain them favor with God) created a population of poor folks who wandered through much of Europe claiming to be journeying to the Holy Land, but actually were just medieval hobos.
Obviously, I’m not that sort of saunterer. I’m more in the Ludwig Von School of walking. Beethoven took a long stroll almost every afternoon, with a pencil and some paper stuffed in a pocket so he could write down any musical thoughts he might have. I keep myself open to ideas when I walk or ride, but I don’t take any writing paraphernalia with me. I tell myself that if an idea is good enough, I’ll remember it. If I don’t remember it when I get home, I tell myself the idea couldn’t have been that good.
That’s probably nonsense, but it gives me some comfort when I get home and can’t recall the ‘great’ idea I had when out sauntering.
Or maybe I’m more in the Thoreau School of walking. Thoreau said this:
[T]he walking of which I speak has nothing in it akin to taking exercise, as it is called…but is itself the enterprise and adventure of the day.
Moreover, you must walk like a camel which is said to be the only beast which ruminates when walking.
I’m very much taken with the notion of riding a bicycle like a camel.
I think I could argue that the real reason I take walks or go on rides is to get outside of my mind. Things happen when you’re out and about. Real things, and they happen to real people. The things that happen when you’re at your desk only happen in your mind.
Here’s an example of the way things happen. This thing happened to the composer Benjamin Britten, who was a great walker. It’s my favorite Benjamin Britten story (okay, my only Benjamin Britten story, because c’mon, does anybody have more than one Benjamin Britten story?). He was walking along a railroad track one day and came across a couple of young boys standing by the track, waiting. They had a newt in a jam jar. Britten asked the kids what they were doing. They said, “We’re waiting for the two o’clock train to come out of Aldeburgh, so we can show this newt what a steam train looks like.”
I’m willing to bet you five dollars this will become your favorite Benjamin Britten story too.