The ability to walk, to move through the world under our own power, is a gift. It is the foundation beneath essentially every advancement in human history. From the long view of evolution, it has been only the tiniest margin of time that, as a species, we were able to get anywhere at all without walking there first. Walking, our “ability to stride the earth with our strange, falling-forward-yet-never-quite-falling motion,” is an incredibly complex process most of us take completely for granted.
The physical workings are so intricate that engineers have thus far been almost completely incapable of making robots walk on two legs, at least not in any way that resembles what a human is capable of even as a toddler. In her new book, “A Walking Life: Reclaiming Our Health and Freedom One Step at a Time,” author Antonia Malchik takes us by the shoulders to remind us of this gift, and then reveal all the ways we are ceding this physical freedom in ways detrimental not only to our physical and mental health, but to how we relate to each other and the world around us.
“A Walking Life” covers significant territory in eight chapters, each cleverly titled with an adjective that may be applied to walking; “Toddle," for example, discusses the drive to learn to walk by humans from their earliest age. “March” describes the important connection to walking as a critical form of protest, and how governments and capitalist interests work to make such assemblies impossible. “Lurch” talks of our surrender of public walking space to automobile traffic and the racially-motivated decisions over what neighborhoods were destroyed to make way for more, and wider, roadways.
Deep scholarship — Malchik did her homework for this book—is alleviated by anecdotes supplied by people the author interviewed, as well as her own walking excursions, as best exemplified in the chapter “Meander.” For all the information, the reading is never dry. Malchik writes with a wonderful, accessible voice that I found humorous and inspiring. Every time I set the book aside, the first thing I wanted to do was get up and walk somewhere distant, and slowly.
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Which leads me to a deep consideration of my own typical walking paths. I take my walking seriously. It even appears as an occupation on my business card. And yet, to truly enjoy a traverse, I have to drive somewhere first. I live just off a rural frontage road that separates me by at least 10 miles from anywhere remotely urban, yet to walk it is a dangerous risk. It is narrow, there is no shoulder, and traffic speeds by with little awareness that it shares the road with anything other than cars. Gigantic pickups ignoring the speed limit, drivers with eyes turned away and obviously distracted by devices, and other hurtling perils often make me uneasy to drive it, let alone expose myself afoot at its edges. Joggers and bicyclists are common in warmer weather, and I’m certain they all approach their recreation with trepidation.
The same can be said of my ambulations in downtown Missoula. On any afternoon it is a chaotic swirl of traffic, with bikes and pedestrians alike alert to dodge careless drivers. It is a miracle the carnage isn’t greater. I don’t know anyone who spends any real time downtown who doesn’t have a story about nearly being struck by an inattentive, and usually surly, driver. Cars bring out the worst of our behaviors, not the least of which is entitlement. But at least we downtown denizens can walk around. It is essentially impossible to do that anywhere else and still be engaged in any kind of community activity, popping in and out of shops, seeing and striking up conversations with old friends and acquaintances. These are the connections that make a city someplace anyone would want to live, connections that make cities livable.
“A Walking Life” recognizes that some of the territory we’ve given up isn’t coming back to us. But it isn’t too late to reclaim the freedom we can all enjoy if we begin to stand our ground when it comes to the protection of public, walkable places. It isn’t too late to rediscover this miracle we have carried with us for tens of thousands of years. “Through our feet,” Antonia Malchik tells us, “we are reminded that the planet is a whole thing, and that we are animals evolved to traverse it with a sure step and elongated spines.” It isn’t too late to remember.