Growing up in the suburbs I used to think walking tedious – it used to take ages to just get to the shops and all the streets looked the same, with long spaces between houses filled by boring fences. I don’t think I really appreciated walking until I was working in another country. It was then that walking became my way of processing my thoughts.
After the initial excitement of living in a new place, it’s inevitable that you hit a rut. This is the point when you start to notice the things that annoy you and the things that are difficult. Your inability to make yourself understood to buy a simple noodle soup becomes less of a charming game and more of a chore. Frustration can start to take over the enchantment as you struggle through days.
When I started to struggle while living in a small town in Thailand I realised I had fallen into a rut of moving through the same routine every day. I’d lost the ability to appreciate what was around me. So I bought a camera and walked.
Walking is a way of letting the mind wander, giving it space to breathe and get out of the circles it runs itself into. Walking can be used as a meditation, slowly putting one foot in front of another while you work on emptying your mind – I find that there is something about the slow pace of walking, the way we just roll along as we were designed to do, that helps to ease the jangle in body and mind.
Writers have also used walking to inform their creative process. Charles Dickens was well known for walking London, and his resulting knowledge of the city is reflected in his writing. As we read his work, we feel like we are walking the streets with him and experiencing the myriad of stories found in each street.
As transport becomes faster and more affordable we are perhaps lured into moving quickly between places, not wanting to waste time walking when we could take the train or drive. As Rebecca Solnit writes in her book on walking, ‘I suspect that the mind, like the feet, works at about three miles an hour. If this is so, then modern life is moving faster than the speed of thought, or thoughtfulness.’ But some cities are not well designed to walk everywhere. For example, a quick google search finds that it would take a bit over 17 hours (and 80 kilometres) to walk from Frankston to Sunbury, two ends of Melbourne. Blogger Nick Gadd has got around this by breaking up his loop around 30 to 40 suburbs in Melbourne into comfortable segments, which he documented on his blog, Melbourne Circle: Stories from the Suburbs. The route took him over two years of weekend walks.
For me the camera was an excuse. It gave me a reason to be aimlessly walking the streets, looking for paths I hadn’t yet been down just to find out what things looked like from this ever so slightly different perspective. I used the camera to slow down my steps, to stop and focus on the details of the streets. As I walked I found myself noticing small things that I had ignored. I spoke to strangers, sometimes just exchanging a friendly smile because I was bothering to look rather than hurrying past to get somewhere. I also discovered new areas and charming architecture, and I had a renewed appreciation of how big the town I was living in was. It had felt small as I stuck to the streets that I knew, but as I got lost, taking detours down intriguing streets, I started to enjoy the town again. I was curious again.
However, walking does not automatically lead to creative output. As writer Sophie Cunningham says, ‘It would be nice to make some theoretical claim here (many have) that meandering walks represent the creative process. But you could walk forever and not end up with words on a page.’ Walking can be a way to shake yourself out of a rut or to see things from a different perspective, but you also need time to sit down and create.
As many places ease restrictions after lockdown, now could be a good time to wander and rediscover the details of the streets and paths around us.
What details have captured your eye on your streets and paths recently?