As the neighbourhood floods with brilliant sunshine this morning, I pack up the kids to walk them to their Thursday morning sitter’s house. Usually we drive because she lives across town and we’re in a mad rush to get there by 8:30, but today I can’t resist the call of the outdoors. It’s one of those really fresh, cold, early winter days, with the temperature hovering around freezing.
Winter coats, hats and mitts on, the baby wrapped in the stroller in a flannel blanket, we make our way through the residential streets, sleepily quiet in the early morning. We’re even ahead of the school buses. Smells are intensified in the early morning, as if the air has been cleaned overnight, or allowed a respite from the day’s commotion, and has not yet been contaminated by the next day. I catch a whiff of tobacco leaking out of a sealed up white cottage; wow, it must be strong inside. The exhaust from a passing backhoe nearly knocks me over with its intensity. I detect the cool earthiness of a pile of dirt beside the sidewalk, a flattened hill of partially decayed leaves someone forgot to clean up, the sweetish-smelling pine needles that soften the landscape’s edges in the off-season.
Walking truly is therapeutic. Just last night, I read that “the repetitive activity of walking triggers the body’s relaxation response and so helps reduce stress; at the same time, even a quick ten-minute walk provides an immediate energy boost and improves mood.” My favourite is Nietzsche’s assessment: “All truly great thoughts are conceived while walking.” I may not be coming up with truly great thoughts, but walking does allow time and space for conscious, deliberate thought that is often much deeper and effective than when I’m poking around the house. I often conceive of writing topics while walking and, once those are established, writing is the easy part.
When I was in grade twelve, I had to walk 1.5 kilometres from my house to the main highway to catch the bus each morning. This was a pain in the butt for a moody seventeen-year-old whose hairdo was more important than putting on a hat when it was -20 Celsius outside, but worst of all was having to be at the bus stop by 7:20 a.m. That meant leaving the house when it was still dark in wintertime, the twisty dirt road often unplowed and deep with snow. Yet, as I trudged that route, day after day, with my backpack on and wet hair freezing before it dried (I seriously can’t believe I did that), I grew to love the route. It was my only time to be alone with my thoughts and also connected me with nature. Once, I met a mother moose and baby. The baby was between us and the mother began to get very agitated so I hightailed it out of there; I’ve never run up a hill so quickly. Another time, a black bear went crashing away down the side of a hill as I approached.
My uncle Harold is really into long-distance walking. Some mornings he wakes up and decides to walk across the Niagara peninsula, about 40 km. He’s walked all over France, following the centuries-old walking paths that once were the lifeblood of the continent, prior to highways. He believes that people need to change their perceptions of distance. Humans are built to walk long distances; apparently, we can out-walk a cheetah. Walking is a healthy, green way to transport oneself, but it requires time, which is at a premium nowadays. By making the time to walk, though, we create a healthier world filled with healthier, happier individuals.
My kids won’t see moose and bears running around when we go for walks, but I want to teach them how therapeutic walking can be. I hope they will turn to walking as a default mode of transportation and learn to crave the peace that comes with propelling oneself, rather than hopping into a fuel-burning car. In the meantime, I’ll enjoy the lingering tingle of exercise and cold air mixed on my skin. It exhilarates and inspires me, and what more could I wish for?