“To be away from home, yet to feel oneself everywhere at home; to see the world, to be at the centre of the world, yet to remain hidden from the world — such are a few of the slightest pleasures of those independent, passionate, impartial natures which the tongue can but clumsily define.” ~ Charles Baudelaire
Take four bones: a femur, patella, tibia and fibula. Wrap in muscle, bind with tendons. Repeat.
A pair of legs. An ingenious device for human transportation, yet we hardly ever walk these days. Instead, we travel in metal boxes and tubes, disconnected from the environments through which we are passing. Walking, by virtue of its very slowness, has become a radical act; an expression of individual freedom in a system designed for speedy travel, along the pre-determined routes of railways, roads and flight paths.
In fact, walking’s countercultural roots run deep.
In nineteenth century France, Charles Baudelaire became mildly obsessed with the idea of the wanderer, or flâneur (the french verb flâner meaning to wander or stroll). Baudelaire’s flâneur is a particular type of urban (often wealthy) dandy, to be found meandering in the metropolis; observing society, yet somewhat removed from it. An observer, a listener, an aesthete and radical thinker.
Then there was German cultural critic Walter Benjamin, who used the flâneur as a spectator of urban life to discuss the effects of modernity and capitalism on the human psyche. But the radical wanderer need not be city-bound.
In 1934, celebrated poet and novelist Laurie Lee walked out of his Gloucestershire home with the intention of walking to London; he ended up wandering to the southern tip of Spain. He was no wealthy dandy, rather a near-penniless musician who lived day-to-day by playing his violin. In his book, As I Walked out One Midsummer Morning, he beautifully encapsulates the idea that freedom can be exercised by simply choosing to walk out your door. “I walked on as though keeping a vow,” he wrote, “till I was conscious only of the hot red dust grinding like pepper between my toes.”
Walking has long been seen as a gateway to freedom. It’s no coincidence that in On The Road, Jack Kerouac’s alter-ego, Sal Paradise, sets off from New York City at first on foot – loose plans, few belongings, serendipity leading the way – sparking an adventure that’s become an emblem of the 1960s counterculture.
But some pockets of society have grown less fond of the flâneur, associating Baudelaire’s freethinker with idleness instead; a lazy stroller just loafing around. “The idea of flânerie as a desirable lifestyle has fallen out of favour,” writes Bijan Stephen in a 2013 article in Paris Review titled, ‘In Praise of the Flâneur’, “due to some arcane combination of increasing productivity – hello, fruits of the Industrial Revolution! – and the modern horror at the thought of doing absolutely nothing.”
So, what happened to walking’s countercultural roots? Well, in many ways they are still alive and kicking.
All kinds of people – for all kinds of reasons – still view walking as a radical act; as a form of protest, as a tool for ideological change, and even as a way of saving their own lives. They wander way beyond the urban sprawl and keep walking for months, or even years. They don’t return to their own beds at night, rather they sleep in the wild, in abandoned buildings, or in the homes of strangers. But what pushes them to take that first step?
For Canadian Jean Beliveau that moment came on Montreal´s Jacques Cartier Bridge. In 1998 Quebec experienced a massive ice storm that affected millions of people and businesses, including the neon-sign factory that Beliveau ran, which ultimately closed down. He feel into a bleak depression, and “a mid-life, existential crisis”. Beliveau moved to Montreal and would spend his days wandering around the city in despair. Then one day, on the bridge, he started to dream of walking further – to New York, to Mexico – and eventually around the world. Without even taken a step, his spirit started to lift. “I knew my depression was gone, because I had a dream. You don’t have dreams when you have depression.”
In August 2000, at the age of forty-five and with 4,000 Canadian dollars in his pocket, Jean started to walk. He would continue to do so for eleven years, crossing five continents and clocking-up over 75,000 kilometres. To Beliveau, walking across the world was a huge risk and he was sure that people would think he was crazy, but he recalls feeling the he would prefer to be eaten by lions in Africa (something locals in Tanzania would later tell him was a real threat) than by the system. “I was up against the wall,” he says, “and I had to escape.”
Jean dedicated his walk to the United Nations International Decade for a Culture of Peace and Non-Violence for Children (2001-2010). This charismatic character, pulling a trolley of basic possessions across the planet, attracted attention and inspired some of the communities he visited to hold fundraising events for the causes he was promoting. “If you want to go on a journey, dedicate your endeavour to something greater than yourself,” he says.
Jean is a spiritual kind of guy, so the solitude of a long walk gave him time to reflect. “When I was alone, I thought the universe has a vibration,” he says. “I thought – I am walking in harmony with the speed of the universe.” But the walk was also about learning from other people’s values. “In Peru, a guy said to me I will walk with you to the next village. As we walked he said suddenly, ´Jean, I have met people that are so poor [because] the only thing they have is money.´ I thought, yes. Now I have to see the world with different eyes. There are many beautiful values that we cannot touch. I am not against money, but it’s not the only value. We can be rich in many ways.”
Andrew Forsthoefel´s first step was triggered by curiosity. On October 14, 2011, he walked out the door of his home in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania and wandered south, then west across the USA, until he reached the Pacific Coast. A recent college graduate, Andrew was full of unanswered questions and his mission was simple: to hear – and learn from – other people´s stories. He recorded over eighty-fives hours of interviews and shared them on his podcast Walking To Listen. “The walk became a classroom for me, and everyone I met became teachers, instructing me with their own stories and hard-earned life lessons. I wanted to celebrate these people by taking the time to listen to them with genuine curiosity and reverence.”
And the lessons came in many guises. “There was Emma Lou Dailey, an old woman in Alabama who used to be a sharecropper and who told me about the meaning of forgiveness. There was Otho Rogers in New Mexico, an old cowboy preacher who told me what it’s like to get old and face death. There was James Paisano, a Navajo elder who taught me about hózhó, the beauty way, which is the Navajo path toward balance and peace.”
For Andrew, one of the best things about walking is the constant element of surprise. “When you wander, there is always the possibility of ending up somewhere you never could’ve imagined before, somewhere you didn’t even know you wanted to be until you were already there.”
Where Andrew set out to broaden his horizons, poet and activist Ibby E Okinyi used walking to make a point. From June 2011 to February 2013, when he was in his early thirties, Ibby walked across Europe, from Norway to Spain, without money or a passport, as a way to demonstrate that currency, national identity and borders are artificial constructs. He lived by dumpster diving, foraging and helping total strangers who gave him a meal or bed for the night. Ibby’s walk was a deeply political act.
Thirty-four-year-old Spaniard Ignacio Dean Mouliaá is also an ideological wanderer, one motivated by a love of nature. He has worked in wildlife rescue centres, outdoor adventure camps and walked classic routes, such as the Camino de Santiago. Then one day, like Jean, he had a wild thought: why not walk around the world?
In March 2013, Ignacio left Madrid and started to walk around the planet to raise awareness of environmental issues. He stops to speak at schools as part of what he calls his Earth Wide Walk, and believes that travelling by foot is the best way to respect nature. “I have twenty-eight countries and 27,000 kilometers in my legs,” says Ignacio over the phone from Jalpatagua, Guatemala.
Ignacio wants to lead by example and show that nothing is impossible. “If a person is able to go around the world on foot, we can also walk or bike to work, be less consumerist and make changes in our daily habits in favour of a cleaner world. I think humility and simplicity can bring some light to a confusing world in crisis.”
Out in the wild, Ignacio learnt to read the clouds, the stars and the weather. His intuition has developed and his senses are sharp. “To hear noises you’ve never heard when you sleep in the tent at night, or the singing of thousands of birds is wonderful. A small movement perceived from the corner of your eye immediately captures your attention, perhaps just a lizard scurrying among the rocks.”
And, obviously, it’s not just men who choose to walk. At the time of writing, Carrot Quinn is in the middle of a 2,800 mile walk along the Continental Divide Trail which runs through the USA, from the Mexican border to the Canadian border. She is deep in the wilds and unable to talk. A reminder of how distant society – and pesky writers with deadlines – must seem when your sole focus is physical and mental endurance. For some, it is that element of endurance that is therapeutic, even life-saving.
On September 11th 2001, Hauke Bürger from Germany woke up on the thirteenth floor of a Hamburg hospital with the TV on – just as the second plane hit the Twin Towers. For a moment, he thought the world was ending. Hauke was coming to after an operation, one of many he had to undergo after being bitten by a dog; his tendons were torn and his joints had become infected with an unidentified virus.
Unable to move his hands or arms, Hauke – a carpenter – was out of a job. He spent the next three years in-and-out of hospital and psychiatric centres as depression and suicidal thinking set in. But in the end, like Jean, he decided an adventure may be the way out. There was just one problem; he didn’t want to leave Nemo, his own dog, behind. “In many countries you can’t take your dog in taxis, buses and trains, but I thought fuck that! It´s not going to stop me.”
So, he walked.
In 2004, with the virus still in his system and able only to use his thumbs, Hauke left Hamburg. He had wandered before – on the German island of Sylt where he grew up, and across the Canary Islands, where he slept in caves – and had a gut feeling that walking would help him regain control. “If you get ill, you descend into a spiral. But when you go out to walk you enter another world, another reality. You connect with your intuition. You do not have the weight of society on you.”
Hauke avoided tarmac roads, instead he walked over mountains and through forests, camped wild and lived on five euros a day. Simple things became gifts. “You might be really thirsty and know the next town is not for 20km. But it is then you find an unopened can of juice on a beach that has been chilled by the sea, or you wake up hungry and realise you have set up your tent under an orange tree.”
Hauke and Nemo wandered for eight and a half months, until one day they walked into Tarifa, at Spain´s southernmost tip (as Laurie Lee had done six decades earlier), and finally came to a stop; on his first day in town he met the woman who would become the mother of his child. His arms had healed and the virus had disappeared.
Today, Hauke lives in his carpentry studio in Tarifa surrounded by wood salvaged from skips that he transforms into exquisite furniture and objects. As he talks he sands down a picture frame, his cat slithers and twists around his legs (Nemo has now passed). This wanderer has settled for the time being. But for some, stopping can be harder than starting.
Ignacio Mouliaá recalls an incident in Turkey, when he met a sixty-year-old Canadian cyclist who is circumnavigating the globe. “He told me, ‘The worst part of the trip is when it ends.’” says Ignacio.
After the freedom of a long walk, adjusting back to a sedentary life can be a challenge. Andrew is working on a book of the stories he collected and is looking to settle, but has yet to find the right spot. Jean took to the road again last winter to complete the only section of his walk that was too dangerous at the time – through Colombia and across the Darien Gap into Panama. Days after we talk, he moved into ten acres of Canadian forest to build a tiny house and live off-grid as a hermit. But, “It is time for a new journey,” he says.
So, yes, perhaps walking is still countercultural, because the people who do it wander to their own beat; rejecting speedy, expensive, industrial modes of transport and choosing instead to simply stroll out the door. Once outside, needs seem simpler. Or as Andrew puts it, “Where am I going to sleep tonight? Ah yes, right here under this bridge. But how will I get to the next town? Put one foot in front of the other.”
Contemporary strollers are neither city-bound nor idle, but there is one thing that binds them to Baudelaire’s flâneurs: their “independent, passionate, impartial natures”. A desire to see the world anew. They observe and listen, away from the crowd. And that, in itself, is a radical act.