The Walker and the Walk


The walker and the walk—there’s the combination. Give a journey to one person and he’ll find nothing but impediments like puddles, dug-up streets, lights that don’t change fast enough—all of them combining to slow him from reaching his destination.

But give another the same route and the journey will be an adventure, with many delightful arrivals along the way. He’ll splash or toss rocks in the puddles marvel at the roots that somehow manage to volcano the asphalt streets and the workmen who know how to fill and sear them smooth, When he waits for a light to send him on, he wonders at the skyline or about the driver that just slid by.

For any walker the panorama is his to switch on and off with his consciousness, and his will alone controls the quality of the reception.

It was a sunny day in a snowy January when Andrew Reynolds and I set out for home without a car. He was almost three that winter and could see only straight ahead because he liked to wear the hood of his astronaut snowsuit up and it was economically so big that it tunneled out beyond his cheeks. But he saw everything. He didn’t know me well enough to offer his hand at first but zigzagged behind and around in eyes-down indifference till we reached the first corner. Then, with learned precaution, he sidled up and took my left hand as he would reach for a tree or wall to test in passing, and we were fused—for two whole blocks. His round-toed saddle shoes never touched the sidewalk again.

Instead, ranging back and forth he drew me without notice over his own trail—the soggier the better. The louder the squish the easier his hand in mine and the more delighted the grin that shot out of his tunnel, and I lost any inclination to alter our damp route.

Andrew was part of everything around. Now and then his toe would kick into the brown grass or barely stamp his mark in the almost-gone snow. In one yard, two dogs were having a boyfight, weaving, dodging, springing, chortling barks and demi-growls. Andy never stopped walking, but moved with their movements, his shoulders up and down, his head angled, his hips shifting, his legs positioning.

Not once did he mention our destination—his home three blocks away. He saw only where we were, and walking was participation in the immediate. Time and distance were measured in what was there along the way. And the walking! As unpaced as bird song, impetus from the being, magnetism in the yet-to-be, every step a natural thrust into surprise.

Today I watched a man walk through the hour from four to quitting time. He must have been a salesman waiting in his piano store for someone to sell to, and in the absence of anyone he became nothing. And walking was his expression of boredom. Six times in fifteen minutes he looked at his watch, then plunged his hands into pockets almost obliterated by a billowy swatch of stomach and whined his trail among the pianos from front door to back, his walk an oblivion of waiting for another time, another place. He had to walk, like tigers walk in the void of cages.

At both ends of the spectrum, walking becomes the natural inclination of a body in anxiety or a soul in search.

Jesus and Aristotle walked while they taught, their listeners relaxed in the “peripatetic” that allowed for a concentration somehow enhanced by movement, perhaps in the same kind of ambulatory ease that mellows a romance, gentles a quarrel, or untangles a problem. Something there is in walking that settles and soothes—as well as exhilarates.

But too often the glory of it is obscured in the concern for the reward of arriving.

Physicians tell us that in a slim-conscious world we can burn up 210 calories in an hour of 2 1/2-mile-per-hour walking. That’s a bacon and egg breakfast for free! Other doctors claim a heart can be given a five-year bonus by an owner willing to walk a half mile a day. Psychologists recommend walking for mental renewal. Sociologists see a walking community as one less susceptible to crime and more concerned with the welfare of neighbors. And the wisest counselor of all promises that adherence to words of wisdom about the care of the only thing any of us can really lay any claim to—ourselves—will allow us to “walk and not faint.” (See D&C 89:20.)

But who ever recognizes the simple privilege of just being able to walk?

Two years ago I went into a hospital on the most reluctant walk of my life. Years before, I had skied off a cliff into a pine tree, and now, twenty-three years, a husband, and five daughters later, I was to get a new back via bone fusion. Out of the car, down the cold pavement to the revolving doors, along the everlasting hall, into the elevator, again down a too-white corridor and into a silent cubicle I walked, exquisitely aware of every step, every articulation of bone on bone, every stretching and flexing of muscle, every foot ahead of foot. I was walking, upright, a person. And this time, as in no other, dread of the destination and its eventualities precluded anything but terrifying joy in the walking despite the aim of the walk.

When the operation was over and I lay shredded with pain and dulled with morphine, past walking came back to haunt me. My prayers were constant, their content simple: “Please. Let me walk again.” In the weeks and months that followed, I was hoisted out of bed like a log and shunted into a walker. I went off to physical therapy to learn how to do it again. I shuffled and stilted on brittle bones with muscles that hung like liver and tried to remember running after children or balls or skiing down a mountain. But all I really wanted was to walk.

The doctors finally let me walk down the hospital hall, and when I went home, every pore urged me to walk beyond the house, up the street, around the blocks. Mere walking, the moving, the stepping, the getting somewhere, were for months the joy in any day.

So now, and probably for the rest of my time, I’ll walk—and know I’m walking. And the journey, alone or watching the Andrews or the salesmen, will be felt—with gratitude for the right to travel in my own now seldom halting fashion, aware and alive to the trip, expectant of its destination, but most of all grateful to my kindest Friend for the right to travel, walking upright, and glad to be—walking.

[photo] Photo by Eldon Linschoten

A writer and teacher, Emma Lou Thayne is the Relief Society social relations instructor in the Monument Park Third Ward, Salt Lake Foothill Stake.