Much of our time (even as travelers) is spent hunched over devices or otherwise blunted from the natural world in cars or on trains or in terminals of some kind. But walking shakes you out of all that, especially in unfamiliar destinations. You really have to watch your step as you meander through Rome or Oaxaca or Hong Kong (“Look right! Look right!”), and that forces you to notice the tiny in-between spaces. Salon workers on a snack break in an alleyway. An artist painting water lilies in the park. A balcony cat gazing at you as you make sense of a new place. I’m more present when I walk; I observe more keenly, and that makes my travel memories more indelible.
In 2012, I had the great fortune of going to Antarctica on assignment for this magazine. Crossing the legendary Drake Passage aboard the National Geographic Explorer and sailing along the islands and inlets of the Antarctic Peninsula took a few days. Those sculptural, mint-blue icebergs dotted with Adélie and gentoo penguins were some of the most remarkable sights I’ve ever encountered. But it wasn’t until they let us off the ship to touch foot on terra firma that the magnitude of the adventure set in. Something about the pumping of the heart and the engagement of the muscles (and, OK, the real fear of slipping off into the Southern Ocean) transformed the experience from a mere cruise into an expedition. We were explorers, pushing forward with our own agency and hoofing power. Even in those ridiculous ship-issued moon boots, the movement from heel to toe on continental bedrock felt like an achievement. It felt like freedom.
Henry David Thoreau, the greatest ambler of all, once wrote in his journal, “Methinks that the moment my legs begin to move, my thoughts begin to flow,” and there’s now science to back that. Moving the legs improves memory, clears the mind of the cobwebs of age, builds the bonds between brain cells, and sparks creativity.