When Cheryl Strayed’s Wild hit the theatres a few years ago, it unexpectedly inspired countless numbers of people – experienced or not – to hit the Pacific Coast Trail, the grueling five-month trek from Mexico to Canada via California, Oregon, and Washington. The story followed the main character along this challenging route, as she struggled with her overwhelming grief. Her journey, one that repeatedly left her on the brink of defeat and surrender, positioned the viewers to silently root for her, eagerly following along as she hiked, contended with the elements, and made sense of her sadness. Walking it off, as they say. My friend and I turned to each other in the theatre and whispered, “if we are ever going through a really hard time, we should just go on a very long walk.” Never has this sentiment been more widely shared than this year.
A pilgrimage is defined as a spiritual journey into unknown territories that is often undertaken to discover new meanings of the self and others, as we confidently explore our surroundings in search of values, purpose, and truth. Who are we after this year? What matters to us? Why are we doing what we’re doing? These are the existential musings that we now ponder on a daily basis because we have the time and space to do so. For centuries, people have walked in order to transform into different versions of themselves, shedding layers as they go. In a year that posed many questions, many of us took to the trails to find the answers.
In contrast to the concept of purposeful walking, as tackled by Gandhi during the Salt March to protest British Rule in India or by Hosea Williams and John Lewis in the March from Selma to Montgomery in order to spotlight the desire of African American citizens to exercise their constitutional right to vote, purposeless walking is often an activity turned inward, for good reason. As significant and far-reaching as it is to walk in protest to draw attention to global matters, it is also deeply important to take stock of ourselves so that we can figure out what truly matters before we set out into the world to create these changes. If we don’t know what our values are and what we are willing to put ourselves on the line for, how can we channel that passion to support the community? The old adage of putting on the oxygen mask on yourself first before helping others also applies outside of an aircraft, it seems.
As significant and far-reaching as it is to walk in protest to draw attention to global matters, it is also deeply important to take stock of ourselves so that we can figure out what truly matters before we set out into the world to create these changes.
While many people stuck in lockdown quickly substituted their regular gym and studio routines with outdoor running, a quiet revolution was brewing amongst those who don’t really love to run. Sometimes, running is too (what’s the word?) jostly, and we just need to feel grounded, less shaken up than how we already felt. The timing was perfect – as we neared the end of an uncharacteristically warm winter in Eastern Canada, and the sun began to shine a little longer each day, people started to hit the parks and trails for long walks, either alone or with a friend. It was easy to rack up the step counts, squeeze in some much-needed mental health time, and benefit from a dose of fresh air for the day. Above all, we started to get to the heart of our sadness, our anger, our dissatisfaction with life, and our shock at the state of the world. Nature slowly became our therapist’s office.
Hitting the outdoors costs next-to-nothing, especially in a year where many of us have had to exercise extreme austerity. It stripped away all the excesses we have been coddled with for far too long – the gadgets, the gear, the data mining, the expensive fitness classes. It became clear that you didn’t need any of the fancy accoutrements in order to just move. In the middle of spring, we only had ourselves, our shoes, and the wild outdoors. It was more than enough.
Now, so many months later, not much has changed. We’re still lacing up our shoes and heading outside. In a modern world, we simply forgot how walking is good for the soul. Purposeless walking – walking without the intention of getting from point A to B – became less popular once we became distracted by stuff. Not only stuff, but also the novelty of what technology and modern living offered: Pelotons, Strava, Garmin watches, and Mirror Workouts, to name a few. We confused new with easy, when walking is the simplest thing one can do. The greatest writers and thinkers of our time, everyone from Virginia Woolf to Albert Einstein to Steve Jobs, were huge believers that walking allowed them to be more creative, giving them space to make connections without the distractions of life. Being quiet, handing over time to your thoughts, is ultimately, a very good thing. Nature sharpens our dull senses, allowing us to tap into every sound, sensation, smell, and sight the world in front of us has to offer. We are suddenly able to make sense of all these puzzles in our heads. In a pre-pandemic world where we often declared boredom or burnout, we discovered that there is so much adventure and peace embedded in purposeless walking, hidden in every wrong turn, every unplanned path opening into a grassy field or leading toward the lake. Wandering really is an unplanned exploration, the kind we have cast aside because everything else became too much of a priority. We were always in such a hurry. Now, in a time where we all feel unmoored and uprooted, it feels right to intentionally anchor down and connect with the earth, something we took for granted for far too long.
Once upon a time, I used to walk for hours in foreign countries, a few times a month. Walking in places that I didn’t call home allowed me to really understand a city, each neighbourhood a new discovery. It made me feel like a local, when I was very much a tourist, an intruder. It enabled me to imagine the many lives I could have lived, in all of these magical places. Walking created the backdrop to my imagination, as I considered who I am and who I wanted to be. The present, colliding with the future. Now, with travel a distant memory, my journeys are very much closer to home, but they are no less revealing. I walk the side streets in neighbourhoods where I’ve lived all over this city, and I’m reminded of who I was when I first moved here, so many years ago. Now, it is a different kind of aimless walking, a tour of the many versions of who I have been, the past juxtaposed with the present. 2020 has given us all this gift. Sometimes walking is just walking. But this year, it feels like an activity that has the potential to reconnect yourself with who you essentially are, a pilgrimage of our modern times.
In this year of pause, can we walk our way back to ourselves? Can we use this time to strip away what we don’t need and strengthen the things that hold us up? For years, life was passing us all by at a terrifyingly quick clip. But what happens when we all slow down and not only mourn what we lost, but also lay the groundwork for a better future? In this space, we can really begin to become reacquainted with ourselves, to process the sadness and anger that has engulfed us this year. What else is there to do, but to simply put one foot ahead of the other? The only way out is through. I can’t think of a more hopeful, rewarding thing than to walk out of this darkness and into the light.
Photography by: Pixabay