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Walking, thinking, discovering

Walking has always been important to me -- a sense of achievement or independence, perhaps. When I hiked my first mountain at the age of six, I cried with indignation when a kindly uncle tossed me to his shoulders to make the final ascent. I had wanted to conquer that mountain myself, and somehow I felt it wouldn't count if I were carried that last few hundred yards.

Aside from the serious business of conquering mountains, I recall walking as a celebration. In high school, when the first warm breath of spring filled the air, my friend and I would exchange the usual bus ride for a leisurely two-mile walk. The gentle breeze and scent of earth were as welcome as the fat bird with the red breast waiting for worms on my front lawn.

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And now I have sold my car and organized my life so I walk to and from work. I love depending on my legs rather than a machine to transport me. And, the serendipity is that this activity is the most relaxing, thoughtful, refreshing, and stimulating forty minutes of my day. I'm getting more out of life because I see more of life.

It would be ideal if my daily walk led from my door to my place of work without passing a house or crossing a road except where the deer and rabbits go, but my walk is through the hilly, suburban neighborhood of a valley in the populated San Francisco Bay area, or to be more precise, the East Bay, across from the famous Golden Gate. But, for all the man-made structures along the way , at certain points I can enjoy a bay view, the distant barren hills, a quiet duck pond, a canyon scene.

John Burrough's statement, "To find new things, take the path you took yesterday," has alerted me to appreciate my daily walk over the same route and challenged me to find something new each time. Of course, the day itself is always new, ranging from a walk into the blinding light of the morning sun to the sweet sound of comforting rain on my umbrella. My favorite day lies somewhere in the middle -- a day when the rolling, swirling fog adds a cool mystery to the entire scene. It even hides the school on the hill where I work, providing me with a fleeting fantasy of not heading for work at all, but a day of dancing through the mist and over the hills.

This slower movement through my world causes me to look beyond the objects and scenes I see and to think about relationships and ideas. The infinite colors, textures, patterns found in the sky alone are a reminder that ideas are infinite too. To me, the sky on a stormy day is much more dramatic and exciting than the flawless blue sky of a clear day -- a sky that any child could duplicate on paper with a blue crayon. And likewise, the challenging, stormy experiences of life seem to round out our characters, add spice, and force us to learn and grow and understand.

My daily walks are alone. Evenings and weekends I like company. But the highlight for me on any walk is to look ahead and see a familiar figure walking toward me. During my girldhood the figure was our family dog. Now the form I enjoy walking toward is my life partner. I feel like Christopher Robin Milne's mother as her son wrote about her in his book, "The Enchanted Places": "She was happiest alone. Once, when she was going for a walk, I asked if I could come with her. "No,' she said, "but come and meet me on the way back. I like best being met.' And so we spent a lot of time meeting her. She would walk to the village and half an hour later my father and I would set off up the hill and hope that somewhere before we reached the top we would see her coming round the corner. . . ."

History points out that the walkers of the world have inherited the earth. While men on horseback have been the conquerors, it's the men on foot who came in and took possession of the land, and it is this group who have been the thinkers, the dreamers, the organizers and founders of civilization.

Aristotle, for example, taught as he strolled with his students and founded the philosophic school called Peripatetic. Henry David Thoreau ranked walkers as a class apart, "a fourth state outside of Church, State, and People." Friends of Wordsworth estimate he must have walked 185,000 miles in the English Lake Country which inspired so much of his poetry. Jane Austen was a walker and made walkers of her favorite heroines in her novels. Rousseau wrote of his walks, "Never have I thought so much, never have I realized my own existence so much, have been so much alive." Adlai Stevenson told of Abraham Lincoln walking on a hilltop outside of Springfield. Lincoln found that thoughts came to him there as they never could when people and problems were crowding in on him and Stevenson, when governor of Illinois, walked to the same hill and stayed there sometimes for the better part of the day, walking and thinking.

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Yes, I'm an incurable peripatetic. I must be on the right path, for Ralph Waldo Emerson observes, "I think 'tis the best of humanity that goes out to walk."


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