A Philosophy of Walking by Frédéric Gros
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I was almost born on the autobahn. Had it not been for my dad being pulled over by the Polizei, and the officer seeing my mother in labor, Dad would have been stuck in traffic about the time I came on the scene. The officer, on assessing the situation, thought it better to give my dad an escort to Wiesbaden, rather than helping deliver me on the road.
Since then, I've wandered. I was born to wander. My father's job with the US Air Force facilitated, nay, forced this. We moved from Germany to Texas to The Philippines, back to Texas, to Italy, Minnesota, Nebraska, England. Then I moved to Wyoming, Pennsylvania, California (where I met my wife), Utah, and, finally, here to Wisconsin. Each of these stays was at least a year - I wasn't a mere tourist in these places, I lived there. Of course, getting from point A to point B and living abroad gave plenty of opportunity to see other places, as well. My feet have also fallen on Austria, Switzerland, Greece, the Netherlands, San Marino, Mexico, Canada, and most of the contiguous 50 states, as well as Hawaii. I've gotten around. And as convenient as modern transportation is, my preferred way of getting around was always walking.
Before the internet, before cable television, even, before VCRs, I walked. My feet have taken me places vehicles can't get to. Walking, for me, has been a spiritually awakening experience, a vital part of my life. For a time, a little over a year ago, I wondered if I'd ever be able to walk again as I used to.
Ironically, running led to an injury that set up my hips and back for a catastrophic failure in November, 2013. After tearing the fascia in my right calf and re-injuring it several times (running after I thought I had healed and walking some long distances on my bad leg), the damage finally manifested in a herniated disk, L5-S1 (at the top of the tailbone). I had never felt so much agony in my life. When the emergency room nurses asked me to rate my pain 1-10, I told them "11". I've had some pretty painful things happen to me (broken a rib from coughing while fighting pneumonia, dry-socket in two pulled tooth cavities, as a couple of examples), but this was a whole new level of pain. I was given a dose of hydromorphone at the ER, and it did absolutely nothing for the pain. Nothing. They gave me two more doses on top of that, and that seemed to do the trick nicely. When the nurse came in to check on me after that, she asked how I was doing. "Can you put on some Pink Floyd?" I asked. "So, it's working," she said with a smile. "Yeah, it's working." My son and I later figured out that this was about the equivalent of 1.5 hits of heroin, and this in a guy who hasn't touched drugs or alcohol since high school. That, my friends, is a LOT of pain!
I walked, haltingly and in extreme pain, with a cane for the next four months. I seriously doubted I would ever walk normally again. I took enough ibuprofin on a daily basis that both my doctor and I were concerned about the possibility of stomach ulcers.
Then, in February 2014, I was given a microdiscectomy. There were complications. I spent 24 hours in the hospital on 2 mils of morphine every 2 hours for pain. 48 mils of morphine in 24 hours after surgery. When I got home the next day, I started shaking and wanting to vomit so violently that I thought I had contracted an infection, but knew that was next to impossible, given the amount of antibiotics I had been on before and during surgery.
It was withdrawals.
Now I know why junkies keep going. It's not because they feel good when they've dosed, it's because they feel like they might just die when they don't.
Fast forward through several months of recovery and great physical therapy, and I am walking fine now. In fact, I'm running, usually a couple of times a week. Now, honestly, I hate running. I really do. But I do it to keep my weight and blood pressure down. It works. I hate it, but it works.
Walking, on the other hand, never felt sweeter. Having faced the prospect of never walking normally again, I feel blessed with the miracle of having one of the best back surgeons in the nation work on my back and having a fantastic physical therapist who taught me how to walk and run again.
I come to this book with some history . . .
But when I am walking, I am not "me". That is to say, I am not focused on myself. On a truly "good" walk, I lose myself entirely. Gros understands this:
What I mean is that by walking you are not going to meet yourself. By walking, you escape from the very idea of identity, the temptation to be someone, to have a name and a history. Being someone is all very well for smart parties where everyone is telling their story, it's all very well for psychologists' consulting rooms. But isn't being someone also a social obligation which trails in its wake - for one has to be faithful to the self-portrait - a stupid and burdensome fiction? The freedom in walking lies in not being anyone; for the walking body has no history, it is just an eddy in the stream of immemorial life.
True, I lose myself when walking. But it is also true that I measure the world as I do so, I feel its weight, gravity, vastness. I am grounded in my explorations:
. . . the feet as such are small pieces of space, but their vocation ("walking") is to articulate the world's space. the size of the foot, the gap between the legs, have no role, are never lined up anywhere. But they measure all the rest. Our feet form a compass that has no useful function, apart from evaluating distance. The legs survey. Their stride constitutes a serviceable measurement.
In the end, to say that it's through what remains to me of the journey that I can walk makes obvious reference to the Taoist void: that void that isn't empty nothingness but pure virtuality, a void creating inspiration and play, like the play of letters and sounds that makes the life of words. Walking in that way articulates the depths of the space and brings the landscape to life.
It is that same void that was unfilled, unexplored, when the poet Rimbaud lost his ability to walk due to amputation. Rimbaud not only loved to walk, walking was a part of his identity from a very young age, when he ran (i.e., walked) away from home not once, but several times. In time, however, the walking, along with his rambunctious lifestyle, caught up with him (I use the term purposefully).
He was confined to bed, his upper body increasingly paralyzed. Soon the heart would be affected. he was hallucinating: he saw himself walking, departing once again. He was in Harar, and had to leave for Aden.
"Let's go!" How many times had he said that? The caravan had to be organized, camels found and hired. He dreamed that his prosthetic leg was a success, that he "walked very easily". He was running, desperate to be on his way. "Quick, quick, fasten the valises and let's leave." His last words: "Quick, they're expecting us." He complained that he shouldn't be allowed to sleep so much, for it was late. It was too late.
The inability to walk drove the poet mad.
I can't think about what would have happened had my surgery not been successful. It would be difficult, to say the least, to maintain hope. It might well have pushed me over the edge, as it did Rimbaud.
For now, though, I walk on. And I will keep walking on until I cannot. Though I feel the "need for speed" once in a while, like any person, I don't dwell there. Let the speed demons have their fast cars and autobahns - I already made my escape from the autobahn years ago. Rather, give me the slow ambulations, the mental space for creativity and appreciation that I inhabit while I walk. Let me own everything I see, own it in my heart. Because when I am walking, the world is mine.
They tell this story about a wise pilgrim: he was following a long road, under a dark stormy sky, down a valley in whose dip was a small field of ripe wheat. The well-defined field, among rough scrub and under that black sky, was a perfect square of brightness rippling gently in the wind. The pilgrim enjoyed the beautiful sight as he walked slowly along. Soon he met a peasant returning home with downcast eyes after a hard day's work, accosted him and pressed his arm, murmuring in a heartfelt tone: "Thank you." The peasant recoiled slightly: "I have nothing to give you, poor man." The pilgrim replied in a gentle voice: "I'm not thanking you to make you give me something, but because you have already given me everything. You have cared for that square of wheat, and through your labour it has acquired the beauty it has today. Now you are only interested in the price of each grain. I've been walking, and all the way I have been nourished by its goldenness," the old pilgrim ended with a kindly smile. The peasant turned away and walked off, shaking his head and muttering about mad people.
Perhaps I am already mad . . .
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