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Wanted: a British-style revolution in walking

On a warm September morning in southeastern Scotland, 30 enthusiastic walkers are threading their way along a dramatic coastal path. Far below, sunlight bounces off the North Sea, its water blue under the clear skies. The air is fresh, the ground is dry, and the scenery, ranging from craggy cliffs to undulating hills, is spectacular.

For serious walkers, it doesn't get much better than this.

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What brings this group here is the Scottish Borders Festival of Walking, a weeklong event in its 10th year. Most of the 200-plus participants come from Scotland and England, with a few from the Netherlands and Denmark.

Some have been lifelong walkers. Others began in midlife, when the nest emptied out. Still others took up long-distance walking only after they retired. Whatever their timetable, one thing is clear: For most, this annual festival counts as only part of their walking routine. Again and again during the week, festival participants talk about their local walking clubs back home.

They speak proudly of the Pentland Ramblers, the Zed Club, the Over-50 Club, and the Hymooth Hikers. Some groups hike eight or nine miles on weekends. Others meet on weekdays for two- or three-mile walks, ending with tea or a pub lunch. In the Scottish Highlands, a church-based club, the High Kirk of Dunoon, goes for short walks after Sunday services.

"Do you belong to a walking club at home?" festivalgoers often ask the only American attending the event. "No," is her standard reply. "We don't have many of those in the States."

As if to underscore the difference between the two countries, an Englishwoman attending the festival tells a funny story about a friend who visited the US, eager to explore on foot. After much searching, she heard about an organized walk. On the appointed morning, she eagerly pulled on her hiking boots and showed up, only to discover that it was simply a mall walk - indoors, around stores and the food court. No hiking boots needed. Talk about disappointment.

Mall walking, that uniquely American sport, has its place. It's safe, warm, and dry. But it's unlikely to catch on in Britain anytime soon. Walkers there enjoy advantages we don't, such as centuries-old public footpaths that allow them to tramp through pastures. Americans often find signs reading No Trespassing.

Most American walkers have few group options beyond charity walks organized to raise money for causes: hunger, education, medical research. To compound the challenge, many suburban neighborhoods don't have sidewalks.

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To be sure, Americans are funny in their attitudes toward exercise. They'll drive around the mall looking for a parking place close to the door, and then go to the gym and log miles on the treadmill. Or they'll ride elevators and escalators, and then hop on the Stairmaster.

What would it take to begin creating a walking culture in the US? A Madison Avenue public-service campaign might help. Some cities could also hold walking festivals, modeled after those in Britain.

Now that book groups are a firmly established American social institution, perhaps the next craze could be walking clubs. The two could even combine, following the lead of a group I know in England's Lake District: After discussing their book, members grab a bag lunch and head outdoors for a walk, eager to savor the beauty of nature and the pleasure of their collective company.


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