After reading Henry David Thoreau’s eassay Walking, I sought to recreate the kind of walk in which Thoreau partakes throughout Walden and advocates for in this particular essay in hopes of better understanding why walking is so important to me. If I have the option, I will choose to walk somewhere over driving. When I need time to myself I will go on a walk, to clear my head, or to fill it. I absolutely enjoy hiking, especially through the southern Utah desert where the, “pure air and solitude compensate for want of moisture and fertility,” but being at school at Emory University at the time I had to settle for walking around the area near my neighborhood in Atlanta. On my walk I brought only a notebook, camera, and my cellphone (a burden which I would regret bringing). I would stop occasionally to make a photograph or write down some of my thoughts, otherwise I was continuously walking until I ended up back at my doorstep. In my experiment I would find that what is so effective in my experiences of walking in national parks is the ability for me to forget about the outside world, to completely immerse myself in the environment, to abandon my worries of my normal lifestyle and be completely focused on the present moment.
The first challenge in my walk was going to be where to find some kind of wilderness in the midst of Atlanta. Civilization pulls us away from Nature and monopolizes our interactions with humans and human constructions. Thoreau calls this, “a sort of breeding in and in, which produces at most… a civilization destined to have a speedy limit” (Thoreau 281). Without interactions with Nature, we are limiting ourselves to the small cohort of genius already known to humans, creating inbreeding that is not sustainable. There is a wild side to humans, that part and parcel of Nature, that needs to be tapped into and can be accomplished through walking away from civilization and towards nature. My neighborhood did not resemble Nature, either, as everything within sight was domesticated: mowed lawns, non-native trees, and trimmed bushes. What I saw here was the quintessential picture of the American Dream -- pictures far different that what I’ve witnessed from Nature.
My neighborhood street placed me on North Decatur Road, a bustling street during the 5:00 pm rush hour. Further down the road, I found a path leading off of the sidewalk with a sign demarking the entrance. I turned down the path and found myself walking alongside train tracks.
North Decatur Road could be seen to the left, and to the right, the sun was setting and the tracks, wedged between two walls of trees, receded into the horizon. I chose to walk away from the road, West, and towards the setting sun. For Thoreau, West is synonymous with wilderness and the unknown. Thoreau, when he would walk, would tend towards the West for he said, “I believe that the forest which I see in the western horizon stretches uninterruptedly towards the setting sun, and that there are no towns nor cities in it of enough consequence to disturb me.” And so I hoped that walking along the tracks west I would find no towns but instead some kind wilderness within the sprawling city landscape of Atlanta. The train tracks resemble a kind of liminal space within the city, for the roads are inhabited by people, but the train tracks only by the transportation machine. No humans seek out the train tracks and the only life I would encounter along my walk would be that of Nature, plants, and animals. I wouldn’t see a train pass on my walk, and the wall of trees on either side of the tracks served as a curtain from the village. And so I walked West.
By walking into the wild, and embodying the wild, there must be a leaving behind of the civilized. To be wild is to be free, and one cannot be free during a walk if they are tied down by societal obligations. This is where I failed to replicate Thoreau’s walking. The phone in my pocket was heavy and I found myself tempted to take it out and engage with the village I was trying to leave behind. I tried to, at least temporarily, suppress my outside affairs, and instead focus on the present moment, the present movement, watching as my feet glazed over crinkled leaves and moist dirt. Thoreau suggests “you must walk like a camel, which is said to be the only beast which ruminates when walking.” As I walked I needed to be immersed in my thoughts, ruminating over what was important. However, I still found my mind wandering. As I walked West, I concentrated on my surroundings, photographing the tracks, the changing leaves. I had difficulty walking, the wooden slabs of the tracks ran counter to my stride, I would have to step either too far or short to place my foot squarely on a slab. I was thinking about my societal obligations and wondered where I would end up at the end of the tracks. According to Thoreau, “every walk is a sort of crusade,” and I was concerned with what I was to conquer, what conclusion I would find at the end of my walk.
As I was walking my phone rang. I answered it. A friend was distressed; they didn’t get to the second round of their job interview. I wanted to console them, but I couldn’t. My mind wasn’t prepared to give advice having been absorbed in my walk, and I was disappointed in myself at the conclusion of my walk at the bridge. I hung up and started the walk back.
The sun had completely set by this point, and the tracks were difficult to see. My eyes were still adjusting to the darkness so that I had to strain to see the wooden slabs of the tracks and avoid tripping on them. My eyes focused on my footing, and my mind focused inward. I found myself thinking about the journey I was creating. Before I had concentrated on the horizon, anticipating what was around the corner, and found myself disappointed when I arrived. Having to focus on the tracks to keep from tripping, I was focused on the immediate. “We cannot afford not to live in the present,” and so I did as I began focusing on each step that I took. The train tracks represented two eternities in each direction, and each wooden slab the line between the two eternities. It took the darkness and the isolation of myself from the outside world for me to realize this. At this point in the evening it had become too dark to photograph and I began to realize that my camera was just another machine of distraction from my experience. Just like my phone, my camera hanging around my neck was a way for me to distance myself from the present as I was often to concerned with documenting my experience than actually participating in it.
It is when I was taken out of the context of my environment that I was able to be lost in Nature. For it is “not till we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves, and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations.” While walking West, I was ruminating on my relations, but not finding my place within them. Walking East, in the darkness, I was able to find myself in my thoughts and come to conclusions about my place in Nature. The stars had come out at this point, but when I looked up at them I tripped on a wooden slab. In the village I was concerned with the future: what all I needed to accomplish, what I would do after I graduated. During my walk, reconnecting with my part and parcel of Nature, I focused on the present so that I did not trip and fall.
When I stepped back into the lights of Atlanta traffic, I called my friend back and told them that it’s okay that they didn’t get the job; there will be more opportunities further down the tracks, in the meantime focus on being the best in the present moment.