Every year, my local civic association sponsors a neighborhood walk, coaxing the people who live around me to get out one evening, stroll around together, and see what there is to see.
Mostly, we see each other, often for the first time. A few volunteers open their homes as hospitality stations, offering food and drink to the walkers. We end up consuming more calories than we burn, which makes the night pretty much a wash for our waistlines.
The neighborhood walk has other benefits, though. For a few hours, society isn’t a dim abstraction to be followed on the evening news. It’s the people you share a small part of the world with but seldom notice — a community you’ve longed for that’s been there all along.
Returning home each year after a night padding around familiar streets, I feel the kind of connection the country seems to hunger for these days. Maybe we’d be a little less divided if we walked more, a way of getting around inclined to engagement rather than escape.
I’ve been thinking about this with the deepening of autumn, a prime season for walking now that the weather is cooler. Walking brings companionship, yes, but also the chance to savor solitude.
On early morning walks each fall, I notice neighbors out walking, too — often alone, just as I am. We give each other space at that dawn hour, exchanging nods and smiles but not much else. Yet, there’s fellowship among us, an unspoken sense that we’re sharing the possibilities of a day just emerging from shadows.
Watching the streetlights wink off and the sun peek over the rooftops, I think how strange it is for people to enjoy being alone together, that oddest contradiction of terms.
But walking has always had that paradox, as I’ve been learning all over again in “Beneath My Feet,” a neat new book that collects some of the best writing over the generations about getting around on foot. Roughly half of contributors celebrate the joys of walking alone; the others tout it as a joyful group pastime.
Soren Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher, put himself in the loner camp. But he was quick to point out that when you walk by yourself, you’re not truly alone. Your thoughts are with you, often magically clarified as you move around.
“I have walked myself into some of my best thoughts,” he wrote, “and I know of no thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away from it … Health and salvation can only be found in motion.”
Nicholas Shakespeare, the contemporary English novelist, recalls the pleasure of morning walks on the beach with his sons. “I nurture,” he says, “a ludicrous thought: if more people came out in the early morning, wouldn’t there be less conflict in the world?”
Not such a ludicrous thought, I think. It might, in fact, be worth a try.