July 2020 Why Walking Is One of the Best Parts of a Trip

Why Walking Is One of the Best Parts of a Trip

Photo by Getty Images 
Travel is wherever your feet take you.

Eight thousand miles is a long way to go for a stroll in the woods. Some might even call it a deterrent. My trip from Los Angeles to Australia stretched across seven time zones (and two and a half seasons of Friends), but I didn’t officially arrive until my hiking boots started gathering dust in the coastal hills of Tasmania.
 
Walking is more than a way of getting somewhere for me – in that case, from trailhead to tent camp to a gorgeous eco-lodge in a remote cove called Bay of Fires. It’s the shortest route to everything I go great distances to experience: connection, exertion, sensation, stimulation, immersion. On an airplane, you fall for the illusion that the world is a small, navigable place. Leave New York on a snowy December’s eve and you can be in Rio in time for a summer downpour by lunch. But on foot, you see life at its true scale. One inch equals one inch. You feel yourself moving along the curves and crannies of the map.
 
That slow plodding can be humbling. A couple of years ago, I hiked an ancient pilgrimage route from Kyoto to Tokyo. It was springtime and my first visit to Japan, and I falsely assumed the country’s main island would be compact and relatively quick to traverse. But the walk took nearly ten days on paths that shot straight up into the mountains. (We were told that the early emperors believed squiggly switchback trails were for wimps.) Here’s a small fraction of what I saw by not taking the bullet train along that UNESCO World Heritage route: more than 30 varieties of cherry blossoms, an 834-step stairway to one of Japan’s highest waterfalls, a country guesthouse operated by the same family for 400 years, and some of the cutest backyard Shiba Inu watchdogs on earth.

Photo by Getty Images

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.

For the walker, there’s also something akin to a mileage rewards program. After returning to the U.S. from that journey across Japan, I got up the next morning in Los Angeles and headed off into the Santa Monica Mountains. Usually I’ll hike for an hour, but that day I couldn’t stop. Partly it was jet lag, but it also somehow kept the trip itself alive – albeit with eucalyptus trees standing in for bamboo. The scenes from the adventure played back in my mind like a YouTube compilation reel, and other walks started filtering in. Exactly one month after 9/11, my wife and I did a daylong circuit almost all the way around Manhattan, discovering as we went that the city’s spirit was still intact. There was the jubilant beach walk on Martha’s Vineyard a few years later when we let go of our toddler’s tiny hands and watched him take his first solo steps. When he was 10, the three of us walked so long during Sweden’s Midsummer celebration that we saw the midnight sun begin to set at 2 a.m. 
 
I’m still walking now, with my eyes on future travels, even as my feet stay closer to home. My family and I have used our forced grounding during the coronavirus pandemic as a chance to rack up miles on our digital step counters and to brainstorm the big walks we’ll do when we can: Cinque Terre and Tuscany, maybe. Machu Picchu, definitely. A walking safari? Easter Island? Everest Base Camp?
 
As my wife likes to remind me, “One step at a time.” 

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