On the Art of Walking Alone

by Jane Elizabeth Holman

I’m an admittedly picky walker. I don’t like too much cold or heat, I don’t enjoy uphill stretches, and I prefer bucolic surroundings (which are in short supply in my suburban neighborhood). You might find me walking on a warm fall afternoon—if I’ve thoughtfully driven myself somewhere pretty with a mostly flat path. But even when I overcome all these obstacles and get outside on an ordinary day, I much prefer walking with a friend. After all, then I can enjoy the walk and the conversation! However, a recent encounter with a famous British essayist has me rethinking my ideal.

In his 1822 essay “On Going a Journey”, William Hazlitt extols the joys of walking alone. “Give me the clear blue sky over my head, and the green turf beneath my feet, a winding road before me, and a three hours’ march to dinner—and then to thinking!” For Hazlitt, company ruins his ability to contemplate freely. “I cannot see the wit of walking and talking at the same time. When I am in the country, I wish to vegetate like the country.” A long solitary walk allows one “breathing-space to muse on indifferent matters,” to let “long-forgotten things, like ‘sunken wrack and sumless treasuries’ burst upon my eager sight.” This rings true with even my limited experience. When I am on a walk, all sorts of unbidden thoughts and partial memories arise. If I am alone, I have the luxury of turning them over in my mind, of considering their merits and the ways in which they have shaped me. Perhaps I make a discovery or come to a resolution. Perhaps not. But these self-reflections usually don’t make for good conversation. As Hazlitt points out: “To give way to our feelings before company seems extravagance or affectation; and, on the other hand, to have to unravel this mystery of our being at every turn, and to make others take an equal interest in it . . . is a task to which few are competent.” 

Solitary walks have a unique ability to foster contemplation. That is, if I can resist the siren call of my phone or—heaven forbid! — a podcast. While those seem like economical uses of my time, they would interfere with that “undisturbed silence of the heart” which Hazlitt would have me appreciate. Not that listening to a podcast and conversing with a friend don’t have merit, but I lose the good of contemplation — a good that is in short supply in my life. Cal Newport, a computer science professor at Georgetown University, writes on the importance of contemplation from a secular standpoint, noting that “solitude can be banished in even the quietest setting if you allow input from other minds to intrude.” Or, to butcher a line from the Catechism, we need solitary walks as a protest against our servitude to technology and the worship of our phones. Silence, as well as solitude, is a necessary ingredient for contemplation.

Robert Louis Stevenson, whose response to Hazlitt’s essay is titled “Walking Tours”, would agree. “To be properly enjoyed,” wrote Stevenson, “a walking tour should be gone upon alone. If you go in a company, or even in pairs, it is no longer a walking tour … [but] a picnic.” The walker must be free to let his thoughts meander. “There should be no cackle of voices at your elbow, to jar on the meditative silence of the morning.” But Stevenson saves his sharpest criticism for those “overwalkers” who “take twice as much trouble as is needed to obtain happiness, and miss the happiness in the end.” He praises Hazlitt for his vision of temperate walking: “He is none of your athletic man in purple stockings, who walk their fifty miles a day: three hours’ march is his ideal. And then he must have a winding road, the epicure!” So, according to these Brits, I can’t sully my walk by using it for the purpose of exercise either. No, I must walk temperately and only for the “peace and spiritual repletion” that a walk brings!

All of this sounds very un-American. I am required to take long, solitary, contemplative walks without multitasking or overwalking. To be truly in the spirit, I should stop somewhere under the trees “to smoke a pipe in the shade” while “the birds come round to look at you; and your smoke disappears upon the afternoon under the blue dome of heaven.” I should also end my walk by coming to “some old town, walled and turreted” where I enjoy “a rabbit smothered in onions or an excellent veal cutlet” for dinner — prepared, of course, by someone other than myself. If this all sounds too far from my everyday experience, I can at least be grateful to Hazlitt and Stevenson for setting up the Platonic ideal of a walk against which I can measure my 20-minute-long stolen scampers as I listen to podcasts. So enjoy these sunny days of walking amidst the greenery and blue skies of summer. And if, like me, you find it hard to make it outside in the winter for your contemplative walk, you can at least curl up by the fire and read Hazlitt’s delightful essay on walking. It’s so good, says Stevenson, “that there should be a tax levied on all who have not read it.”

Jane Elizabeth Holman is a recovering Notre Dame lawyer and mom to five vivacious children. When not reading with her beloved Well-Read Mom group, she enjoys browsing used bookstores, binge-listening to podcasts, sipping a drink during cocktail hour, torturing her family with her piano playing, hiking the beautiful Colorado trails, and going on dates with her favorite husband, Dave.

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