What It Means to Wander
By Janet FitchJune 5, 2022
Ways of Walking: Essays by Ann de Forest
Ann de Forest’s new anthology, Ways of Walking, takes a different path. It gives the reader a prismatic sense of this basic human activity by tapping into 26 distinct examples of humanity, each with their own concerns, physicality and gender, ties to landscape and sense of history, unique focus and powers of observation, levels of sensual participation, ecological and social perceptions, and level of literary aspiration. This is no soliloquy; it triumphs as a many-sided conversation. And deviating from the flâneur’s Great Cities — New York, Paris — many of these essays center on Philadelphia, that slightly invisible father of American cities, though the voices here also report from the Chilean jungle, the mountains of Appalachia, and the uneven stones of the Appian Way. The successive essays form a palimpsest of landscapes, histories, questions, and bodies, an exploration of the most basic means of human locomotion.
Two early pieces explore the history of that venerable city of Brotherly Love. The first, by activist historian Nathaniel Popkin, centers on the swindle called the “Walking Purchase” of 1737, which dispossessed the Lenape tribe of their lands by means of a notorious two-day walk. The essay subtly informs how we read all the others — reminding us to ask, to keep in mind the history of the land and the violence and deceit behind its pretty covered bridges and the names of its rivers.
Kalela Williams takes us along on her captivating “Three Centuries Tour” of Black Philadelphia, in which she uses every sense to put us literally into the shoes of her subjects. For instance, here are the women who fought to break the color bar on the Philadelphia trolleys so the Black community could contribute to the resupply of the Union Army:
I look down at my cowboy boots and imagine instead brown and tan Victorian boots, with cunning French heels and black buttons marching up the sides, the toes poking beneath the ruffles of a voile gown, sewn with a Singer machine. Such is what these women might have worn when they decided upon the very last day they would walk, and the first day they would act.
She considers the feet of arriving enslaved Africans who later walk from the tobacco-growing areas of the Mid-Atlantic to the Deep South as cotton supplanted tobacco as the national crop. She invites tour guests whose ancestors worked this crop all their lives to touch a boll of cotton for the first time. For every name embedded in the pavement — the white owners of the venerable houses (names which, she reminds us, can only be seen on foot) — she has us imagine the people whose names are not there, the Black workers trundling goods and laundry across the city on foot, the vibrant street life, street food, the robust community and its struggles. Williams brilliantly brings Black Philadelphia, and the city’s involvement in the life of the African diaspora, alive, step by step.
The third historical piece, “100 Miles in Chicagoland,” is a project undertaken by the interdisciplinary artist JeeYeun Lee to uncover Chicago’s indigenous and social history as she walks from the original site of Fort Dearborn, out 20 miles along five different diagonal roads, each originating with native peoples. Through these walks, she reveals the city as a site of violence and appropriation, migration and aspiration, discrimination and community. Questions arise, urging the reader to think more deeply about the land and ourselves, wherever we live. “I wonder, how did we start thinking that ownership of anything was a right? How do we dispossess the American dream, predicated on land as property instead of something we are part of, connected to, related to? How do we unhitch our aspirations from their origins in violence?” Lee’s essay shows that walking slows us down enough for curiosity to well, gives us time to ask necessary questions of who we are and how we got here.
Walking is the most personal, richly human means of moving about, allowing us time to think, to observe, to encounter the world in a less formalized, discontinuous way. One of my favorite essays is by Mark Geanuleas, a traveler dedicated to the itinerant way of life. Is he a professor? A philosopher? He never says. We know he doesn’t sleep in the bushes or live off the land. We first encounter him in a diner, talking to locals about how long it will take him to get to Minneapolis. An hour, a woman tells him. But he doesn’t take conveyances. He will be walking. Astonishingly well read, Geanuleas writes beautifully, and there’s a zen quality that at times reminds me of an American Bashō: “It was October 1 and cold, and as I crested the slope I saw to my right the crescent moon facing down an incipient dawn.” I fell in love with him right there. I liked that Geanuleas has no answers but is willing to think deeply about the questions his way of life raises.
In Vermont, for instance, he becomes involved in a Socratic conversation with a philosophy student while waiting out a storm in the Middlebury College library. The kid asks him the obvious question, “Why do you walk?” “But there is no reason,” he thinks, “reasons are based upon something understood, something settled and firm in the world — and I understand neither walking nor the world.” The philosopher-without-a-system Walter Benjamin hovers over this conversation, especially his thoughts regarding the flâneur. (Of course, the kid is reading Benjamin.) “But this is not Paris, and I am no flâneur, and honesty should not be sacrificed for comprehensibility.” Geanuleas has the boy imagine taking the train to New York:
What does New York mean in that case? What matters […] is the choice you make; and New York — the actual city of New York — is simply something you can choose, and is founded on your desire, your will to choose it. […] Now imagine you walk to New York. […] [Y]ou still must tabulate your finances, count the days, figure out if you have the time and desire to do it. […] But then the choice is only setting out, beginning. After that, everything between Middlebury and the City is what matters: the weather, the towns, the roads, the people; whether you’re tired or hungry, whether you meet with friendliness or distrust. Between here and there everything is more important than you, everything must be faced, no mile, no mosquito, no neighborhood can be avoided. […] It is still New York into which you finally walk; but such a New York is predicated upon the world you have had to pass through to get to it; whereas the other New York, the one you take the train to, is predicated only upon yourself, your desire for it, and the choice you made. […] [I]n the first instance the self is founded upon the world, and in the second the world is founded upon the self.
These insights add a vital layer to the book’s conversation. I certainly kept it in mind as I read Tom Zoellner’s piece about his attempt to leave LAX on foot. The Los Angeles airport, where the urban landscape confounds foot traffic, foils the self that wants to travel unencumbered by the very structure which demands travel only in accepted — and profit-generating — forms. Only the pilots and crew seem to know its secrets. “A few well-placed directional signs might be enough to convince the skeptical that such a foot journey was even possible.” By the fortified nature of these gates to cities, we are introduced to the hardening of urban space against the pedestrian, the everyday human being. A hard first entry to any American city.
I had immediately assumed most of these stories would be stories of solitary treks, but the ones which moved me most deeply were stories of family and community — I think because, when I was a thin-skinned kid with many hurts and much to say about the world, my father and I used to walk together after work. Something about the repetitive movement, the slight distraction of trees and dogs and sky, this walking side by side, opened a space where I could share if I wanted to. I thought of it as “walk-and-talk.” Walking with my father was the time we were closest. Walking, I could tell him what was going on. Walking, I could open my heart.
A number of essays in this anthology explore memories specifically of walking with fathers. I shouldn’t have been surprised — fathers are the ones who classically introduce the child to the world. And what a gentle way of doing so, one especially cherished by daughters, as the father’s presence offers safety and freedom at the same time, as well as that often-rare commodity, his full attention.
David Hallock Sanders remembers the walking games his father used to play — flipping a coin to decide on their route, turning left or right, sometimes walking in a circle. Sometimes he would rotate a compass on a map until the boy said stop, “and wherever the point pointed, that was our walk’s destination.” An indelible memory that cost nobody anything but time.
For novelist Ruth Knafo Setton, the journey wasn’t a going out but a return. Her father, a Sephardic Moroccan immigrant who walked every day of his life, returned with her to Morocco where she was researching a novel. “One unforgettable July day, we walked back through time. I was pregnant with my daughter and I felt as ripe and heavy as the fruits hanging from trees. While Dad recaptured his youth, I followed — absorbing, listening, remembering what I didn’t know I’d forgotten. This town remembers me.” They visited the old Jewish cemetery, and
a small square building. […] Dad spoke in rapid Arabic, gesturing toward me. With a smile, the man rose and led us into a back room. Two men, working at the desks, nodded and stood. The first one brought out a bottle of chilled mineral water and five paper cups. […] Dad and the three men raised their cups to me and drank. Baffled, I looked around the small airy room. […] Glistening sun cast light and shadows on us. […] “Why are they drinking to me?” “You were born in this room,” he said.
Dwight Sterling Dunston, pitching his essay as a letter to his father, describes walking through his Philadelphia neighborhood and seeing his deceased parent everywhere: “Our relationship to the city is intertwined. In West Philly, we were Black boys who became Black teens and grew up to be Black men.” He tells his father what hasn’t changed, and what has. “I still know how to catch every light on Walnut and Chestnut like you taught me.”
Dunston’s piece addresses the vulnerability of the Black walker, as well as the pleasure and freedom. He remembers his father’s story about starting a new job in East Philly, only to be chased down by whites for blocks. He never went back. And yet:
This story has stayed with me for many reasons, but particularly because the final lesson you shared with me […] was this: Your Blackness is a blessing. For as long as I knew you, you were never confused about what it meant to be Black, even as others threw their own confused anger at you. You saw Blackness as a gift, a joy, an honor. […] So when I would go on my own walks and the racial epithets were hurled my way […] though there was a sting, nothing could pierce the lesson you helped etch into my core. So today, as I walk around the city, I am prideful in walking in this Black body. Even in spaces outside the city, like the Lake District in England or the White Mountains of New Hampshire. […] I carry this joy. It radiates from me and supports me not to shrink in the faces that I pass and places that feel foreign.
This is what we hope to gather from our fathers. And to continue to walk, despite vulnerability, despite hatred, “walking I could share with you about the summer of uprisings and George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, and share with you how walking formed me is not only inspiring and grounding, but also an act of resistance.”
Lena Popkin, who has walked with her father since childhood, finds that now, as a grown woman there’s a disconnect which comes to a head when he decides they should undertake a night walk in a skeevy area he wants to visit. Her frustration at trying to make this otherwise liberal, feminist-leaning man understand her misgivings will be familiar to many women — the willful blindness of privilege, here on an intimate level. “I find myself trapped in a liminal space: those who loved to walk, often men like my dad, are too immersed in their own experiences to see my apprehension, and those who are too scared by what they might encounter on a walk, unfortunately mostly women, just never do it.”
In the final father piece, Hannah Judd retraces her steps, and her departed father’s, across the Brooklyn Bridge, following the scent of dill pickles — her essay a deep merging of grief, sense, movement, and memory.
Several writers emphasize not so much the where or the who, but the simple fact of the body — the how of walking. Walking only occurs in the body, and not everyone has the same physicality, the same degree of mobility, or attitudes concerning that fact.
When Jay Heinrichs, a tireless and driven walker, loses mobility due to an accident, he attacks his recovery the same way he attacks the miles of a long-distance hike — by monitoring himself, challenging himself, and recognizing in his increasing disability with age and accident that the triumphs will be smaller. Yet he urges us to savor them exactly as we would the grandest ones.
On the other hand, Mickey Herr faces disability with a relatable frustration and impatience as well as triumph, grief, and anger, through her own illnesses and recoveries, as well as those of her elderly mother, most poignantly her mother’s steady withdrawal from movement as she declines. The fights over the introduction of the walker, the use of the cane, the encouragement to try — all these are moving and deservedly part of the conversation.
Researcher Victoria Reynolds Farmer, who lives with cerebral palsy, travels to England to “walk in the footsteps” of writers and thinkers she has admired. She vividly depicts life with disability, the sheer effort involved in everyday locomotion. She contemplates a quote from Virginia Woolf, writing about what it is to walk unaccompanied in London: “A fine spring day. I walked along Oxford Str. The buses are strung on a chain. People fight & struggle. Knocking each other off the pavement. […] To walk alone in London is the greatest rest.”
Says Farmer, “I was used to viewing Woolf as an ally against the oppressive norm. In that moment though, I felt unmoored. The boisterous, noisy norm she described literally didn’t have room for me […] walking alone, but neither walking or alone. Greatest rest didn’t enter into the equation at all.”
The advice of the Renaissance Book of the Courtier to blend in, to do as others do, rankles:
I am not a person who can really hide the effort it takes for me to move around in the world. When I walk down the street, people stare. Children point and whisper. Sometimes they even turn their heads backwards to keep looking at me as I pass. Once, a child doing this lost his balance and fell down, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t relish this poetic justice just a bit. My body doesn’t allow me the luxury of forgetting it exists, and petty though I know it is, I am sometimes jealous of people who did get to experience that. To me, these messy complexities, both of movement and of emotion, are the very things that make us most human.
And I was struck by the remarkable openness of Kabria Rogers as she describes her furious struggle as a woman of size, negotiating with herself and her own body image, the psychic and physical ordeal of trying to do this simple thing — walk.
My body is always in an oversized and uncomfortable state, exhausted by sitting on supersoft couches and looking at screens. On top of that, there’s the perpetual reel inside my head, the list of things I should be doing. Don’t feel too much, don’t think too much. Movement is the only way to stave off the uncertainty, the blues, the humanity. I find myself both yearning for and dreading the walk and its consequences.
The joint pain, the sweating. She has to shower before she walks as well as after, moisturizing to avoid chafing, all accompanied by bitter self-scoldings, “the never-ending demands inside my head.” She finally suits herself up, knocking down all the negative self-talk one hydra head at a time, and moves out into a landscape we recognize from the Walking Purchase essay. Though the street has been closed for COVID to allow walkers space to distance, she cannot yet allow herself to walk in the street. The street is for others — “[y]ou know, the joggers, the rollerbladers, the triathlon runners.” But finally, the inner voice lets up. Walking has done that too.
Finally, Rahul Mehta’s piece “Tunnels” is similarly burdened by how he sees himself and perceives being seen — as a man of color. The essay centers upon his irritation at the inconsequential conversation of privileged white women in a tunnel and his perception of their fear when he has to back out of a gate after his bag gets stuck. He then returns to his childhood fear of those underground pedestrian spaces. In this piece, hell is other people — and not only them.
Many of these essays were written during the COVID shelter-in-place lockdown, and express this now familiar isolation — you can walk, but there’s nowhere to go. My favorite of these is a beautiful, sensitive piece by Kathryn Hellerstein called “Walking on Shabbes.” Observant Jews don’t take conveyances or do any work on the Sabbath, even turning on a light. But walking isn’t considered work — it’s community, so what she and her husband do is walk. Stopping to talk to neighbors, to visit with friends, enjoy their community. We feel the layering of their lives, paths changing as their children grow up. Bending the rules, they visit the shops of non-Jews, relationships built over the years. Then comes the lockdown.
In the normal times, we pushed the limits of the Sabbath laws by stopping in at local shops to talk and look, and these non-sabbesdik connections made our Sabbaths a time to connect with people in our neighborhood beyond our Jewish customs. What have we all lost during this time of closure, when there are few destinations beyond our homes? What do our Shabbes walks mean, now that we cannot walk to synagogue and cannot make our own rituals for the Day of Rest by almost transgressing? Are our walks now just a time to exercise our legs, to pace down the hours of daylight?
Where to some, that exercise and the challenge of the body is foremost, to Hellerstein and her husband, it’s hardly worth putting on shoes for.
Then we come across Sharon White’s glorious prose poem “Walking (Variations on Thoreau),” which leaps back and forth across time, blending in her reminiscences with excerpts from Thoreau’s 1862 essay “Walking.” The sheer lyric firepower of this writing escapes a linear timeline, a single argument, which then is itself a meditation on time.
Once I woke at first light. A young man was washing his face in snowmelt. In the cabin were the children I was leading on a bike trip. I was almost a child myself. At night I opened the tiny bottles of brandy my mother had packed for the trip. I’m bending now over the stream close to his face. He has long dark hair and blue eyes. He tells me he lives in the forest on Haida Gwaii. The trees are thousands of years old. Do I want to follow him into the forest? he asks, and I do.
She’s nine. She’s 19. She’s a widow. She’s a woman with children. A young lover. She’s stung by stinging nettles. She gets lost in Snowdonia:
I first saw the wild goats when we were lost in Rhinogs. It was my fault. I thought we should follow them from the stone wall leading up to the peak. It’s the most difficult place in Snowdonia to hike, a friend told us later. Terrible footing, tussocks and rocks. The goats were huge and jaunty as if they all wore red bandannas, heading off in a line south. “Aye, it’s the wild goats, don’t follow them. They’ll lead you astray,” a man said when we stopped for cold juice at a store. But isn’t that the point, to be led astray, off a cliff through the fog to a lake, your hands covered with brambles? Astray, a kind of adventure. Just like in love.
The Thoreau passages offer a beautiful support for this language.
Thoreau haunts this collection, and his life’s work, his journals, are the subject of “Five Thousand Walks Towards Thoreau’s Journal” by Christine Nelson, a librarian at the Morgan Library in New York (where — in layers of irony — the works of the great advocate of simple living are preserved in the collection of the great money-man J. Pierpont Morgan). I was inspired by Nelson’s contemplation of the relationship of writing and walking as
complementary ways of moving through life with openness and deliberateness. They were more than acts or duties; they were parallel practices. Each fed the other and was incomplete without its counterpart. […] The handwritten marks on the page would be like footprints in the earth — tangible records of a walk that could otherwise never be revisited.
In walking back through time, in pilgrimages and retracings, even the direction is important. Archaeologist Liana Brent chose to trace the Appian Way, not from Rome to Italy’s bootheel (the way the road had been constructed, both a trace of conquest and its means), but from the heel to Rome, as one would come from the hinterlands to the center of civilization, an experience very much in accord with Geanuleas’s feelings about walking to New York. Brent’s very slowness enables her not only to travel but to absorb the full impact of the country on her experience of Rome itself.
Paula Read takes a different pilgrimage, walking between France and Switzerland on a section of the Via Jacobi near where she lives on the French side, and her essay contemplates border crossings — on being the Other, comfortable living among Others, and then being suddenly cut off by COVID. She begins her trek just after the border reopens, and she finds herself “unexpectedly crying. I hadn’t realized just how much of my life is lived […] moving between places of being.”
Walking — and border-crossing — takes a most urgent turn in Yasser Allaham’s “Crossing to Jordan.” No matter how existentially fraught or physically demanding the walks in this book, except for the forced exoduses and desperate migrations of the historical essays all the walks are to some extent walks of choice. They are in fact proof of choice. But in Allaham’s piece we experience the frightening and determined walk of the refugee. A student, he flees Syria, desperate to reach his family already in Jordan. He has succeeded in getting them in, but he himself lacks the proper papers. Shuttled around, sent to a refugee camp, he walks 45 days to finally slip into Jordan. At a time when millions of people on this earth have or will become refugees — victims of war, of economic necessity, of climate disaster — this terrifying walk is the ultimate wager, the stringing of chance meeting and chance event, a stroke of luck, a sudden setback, and the necessity to arrive at all costs.
Other essays trace wanderings, circular motions, the child’s elemental fear of being lost. Justin Coffin’s poignant piece, “The Way Home,” brings back such a moment, when, as a child, he loses his way to his parents’ new summer cabin in Appalachia, just a short walk from the neighbor’s place, where he’s been staying during construction. He keeps walking toward what he thought was home, only to arrive back at their cabin. Three times he tries. “That worry turned to panic after I […] again found myself approaching the now inescapable cabin from the back. The world had grown terrifying in its tininess and inevitability — like the Little Prince’s little globe, where walking away was only an early start on walking toward.” He finally is rescued by the neighbor, who tells him to listen. Stopping and listening, through the layers of insects and birdsong and wind, he finally hears the buzz of a saw. The essay reminds us how easy it is to panic and believe oneself lost, and we forget to really listen, forget that, in listening to the world, we find our way.
A single walk fueled three of the book’s essays: those by editor Ann de Forest, by artist and community organizer JJ Tiziou, and by performance artist Adrienne Mackey. They decide to circumnavigate the perimeter of Philadelphia, to see what would happen. Mackey, celebrating the in-the-momentness/for-its-own-sake-ness, enjoys walking’s inexploitability in a capitalist world. Nevertheless, she wonders, “Is it art?” Tiziou contemplates the possibilities of walking as a way to connect people, developing an “organize-your-own-group,” “choose-your-own-adventure” version of their walk as a pandemic-safe activity for Philadelphians, while de Forest recalls her own childhood and girlhood relationship with wandering — and especially dawdling — experiences that embraced both wildness and the birth of the young flâneur.
Both these elements are given cultural context by writer-critic Nancy Brokaw in “The Hiker and the Flâneur.” Layering pandemic hikes, the essay wanders with a wide variety of cultural references including — from the hiking side — the English Romantics, Thoreau, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Benton MacKaye and the establishment of the Appalachian Trail. The essential point of these writers can be summarized by Thoreau’s remark that “[i]n wilderness is the preservation of the world.” On the side of the urban explorer, she gives us Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, Balzac, Poe, Baudelaire, and the inevitable Walter Benjamin, adding for currency Guy Debord, whose psychogeography called for the dérive: “In a dérive, one or more persons during a certain period drop their usual motives for movement and action, their relations, their work and leisure activities, and let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there.” Sounds like a plan.
Philosophy or personal revelation, pilgrimage or reminiscence, each essay raises its own questions, shines its own light on the human dilemma. How to get home, how to be a singular body in this world. What to do with memory? With loss? Where are we from, where are we going? Is civilization to be cured by the wild? Or is civilization of rich human interest for its own sake?
The provocative element of the volume is that it seeks not to provide an answer, or even 26 of them, but rather transfers the questions from its authors to us, to do with what we will.
Janet Fitch is the author of White Oleander, Paint It Black, and The Revolution of Marina M., an epic journey through the Russian Revolution, which concludes with Chimes of a Lost Cathedral. She lives with her husband in Los Angeles.
Janet Fitch is a Los Angeles native and the author of White Oleander and Paint It Black. Her latest novel is a two-part epic, The Revolution of Marina M. and Chimes of a Lost Cathedral.
LARB Staff Recommendations
Michele Willens speaks with Neil King about his new book “American Ramble: A Walk of Memory and Renewal.”
Janet Sternburg’s latest collection of photos finds beauty in the quotidian.
Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?
LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!