“It Is a Great Art to Saunter”

We should go forth on the shortest walk, perchance, in the spirit of undying adventure, never to return — prepared to send back our embalmed hearts only as relics to our desperate kingdoms. If you are ready to leave father and mother, and brother and sister, and wife and child and friends, and never see them again — if you have paid your debts, and made your will, and settled all your affairs, and are a free man — then you are ready for a walk.

Henry David Thoreau, in Walking

In his journal entry for April 26, 1838, Ralph Waldo Emerson describes a pleasant afternoon walk with Thoreau and, later that night, a lesson learned:

Yesterday afternoon I went to the Cliff with Henry Thoreau. Warm, pleasant, misty weather, which the great mountain amphitheatre seemed to drink in with gladness. A crow’s voice filled all the miles of air with sound. A bird’s voice, even a piping frog, enlivens a solitude and makes world enough for us. At night I went out into the dark and saw a glimmering star and heard a frog, and Nature seemed to say, Well do not these suffice? Here is a new scene, a new experience. Ponder it, Emerson, and not like the foolish world, hanker after thunders and multitudes and vast landscapes, the sea or Niagara.

The two men were new friends at this point, and journal entries by both reflect their enthusiasm for shared company — though Emerson may have enjoyed tramping with Thoreau more than Thoreau enjoyed tea with Emerson. In a journal entry for April 26, 1841, occasioned by a visit to Emerson’s Concord home, Thoreau expresses this discomfort with the abodes of “civilized man”:

His house is a prison, in which he finds himself oppressed and confined, not sheltered and protected. He walks as if he sustained the roof; he carries his arms as if the walls would fall in and crush him, and his feet remember the cellar beneath. His muscles are never relaxed. It is rare that he overcomes the house, and learns to sit at home in it, and roof and floor and walls support themselves, as the sky and trees and earth.

It is a great art to saunter.

In his eulogy for Thoreau twenty years later, Emerson recalled how “it was a pleasure and privilege to walk with him,” though he would “as soon think of taking the arm of an elm-tree.” Thoreau would not have objected to the comparison, says Richard Higgins in Thoreau and the Language of Trees:

Human nature appeared slightly bent to Thoreau, but he saw trees as upright and virtuous, the nobility of the vegetable kingdom. Their stance spoke of the “ancient rectitude and vigor of nature.” Nothing, he said, stands up more free from blame in this world than a pine tree.

Although he cites not Thoreau but Walt Whitman as his guide, few have taken the saunter imperative more to heart than Andrew Forsthoefel, whose Walking to Listen describes his eleven-month hike from Pennsylvania to California. With the listening at least as important as the walking, Forsthoefel collected eighty-five hours of taped interviews, as well as detailed notes on his many casual encounters; he also kept himself attuned to the stranger within — “the fact that I was a living mystery, and so were all of the neighbors I’d never met”:

I’d wanted to live this kind of story for as long as I could remember, a story in which a traveler casts off into the big unknown with nothing more than a loaded pack, and meets strangers on the road, and breaks bread with those strangers, learning the unique language of their lives before casting off into the big unknown again. It was an ancient kind of human experience, that of the pilgrim, the wayfarer, but as an American Millennial and a son of suburbia, it felt like a lost inheritance.

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