The Art of Sauntering

“Brisk” is the recommended sort of walk, heart-healthy and efficient. But on a golden Sunday with air as crisp as an apple and sunshine backlighting red and gold leaves until they glow, all that push vanishes. I saunter. The dog sniffs to his heart’s content, and I let my gaze fall where it may, pause to study the ripples on the lake, breathe deeply. I always come home happy.

This is how John Muir thought we should move through nature. “Hiking—I don’t like either the word or the thing,” he grumbled in Cat Tail Philosophy. Sauntering came about in the Middle Ages, he reminds us, when people took off on foot to make a pilgrimage. As they passed through a village, people would ask where they were going, and they would say, “A la saint terre”—to the Holy Land. “And so they became known as saint-terre-ers or saunterers,” Muir writes. “Now these mountains are our Holy Land, and we ought to saunter through them reverently.”

Flaneurs saunter, too, stopping for a Campari cocktail at l’heure bleu. And I would have dearly loved to walk with David Sedaris when he traipsed through New York in the early quiet of the pandemic. Sauntering is not so easy, though. Thoreau said he had met only a few people in his life “who have understood the art of Walking, that is, of taking walks—who had a genius, so to speak, for sauntering.”

So often we walk at someone else’s pace, keeping up with a companion’s long strides or the pedestrians jostling alongside us. Sauntering requires a deliberate aimlessness, an ease. Merriam-Webster defines it as walking “in an idle or leisurely manner.” And according to the English author Will Self, it may be the best way of all to survive pandemic isolation, shucking off stress and reconnecting us to our surroundings.

Self teaches a course in psychogeography, popularized midcentury by a French intellectual who urged people to get lost in the city, immerse themselves in its soul. This practice (or rather, this lack of a purposeful practice) was called the dérive, or drift.

GPS has made it impossible to drift. Take the next left, it scolds. You are back on course. But what if you prefer not to be? What if you want to know how a place affects your psyche, and the only way to find out is to give yourself over to its cul de sacs and labyrinths?

The deeper reason GPS is antithetical to the dérive, Self says, because it gives you absolute location but no orientation whatsoever. “Only walking gives you life in the round, gives you 360 degrees.” All those people pacing city streets as they stare down at their phones? Or rolling through the suburbs in tin capsules? They are detached from the cold fog, the rough brick, the smell of hot pretzels, the crunch of leaves under a dog’s paws.

Granted, walking through a city is not a pilgrimage. Or is it? In retirement, my parents used to take twelve-mile walks just for the fun of mapping themselves across highways, down side streets. “I saw your folks at the Galleria,” a friend would say, eyes wide. “They said they walked there.” In The Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, an older man cuts free of habit and walks, following his heart for once, ignoring the blisters. He is using his body more fully than he ever has before. We grow so used to wheels.

“Everywhere is walking distance if you have the time,” Steven Wright notes. You are proceeding “under your own steam,” unencumbered by engines, tickets, keys. There is no third rail. Free in each moment, you can follow any whim, stop when you like, explore, rest, look.

It seems such a small, slow activity, a primitive mode we were supposed to move beyond. Yet it makes the world bigger. Or rather, it expands your personal world, lets you feel embedded in a larger territory. “Home is everything you can walk to,” Rebecca Solnit points out. Thus walking is a way of making yourself at home somewhere new. It occurs to me that this is what I love most about traveling: the constant walking, exploring a place on foot, feeling it.

Without dogs, we would hardly walk at all, most of us. When I hunt down an image to accompany these musings, I find tons of backpacked hikers bent on reaching their majestic destination; parents holding tiny hands; lovers on beaches; depressed young people walking on railroad tracks. “Saunter” brings up nothing. The people in the “walking” shots are either charging ahead in fancy sneakers or standing still, posed in studied reflection. We have great words for the act—amble, meander, ramble, tramp. But when was the last time you ambled?

Instead, we let our goals string us along, let our Fitbits count our steps. This is not what Nietzsche had in mind when he said, “All truly great thoughts are conceived by walking.” The way to have ideas and insights is to stop trying to be briskly productive. That is not woowoo or rah-rah; there are solid neurological reasons. Being immersed in your surroundings, caught up in the present moment, frees you from the tyranny of measuring time’s passage, regretting the past or worrying about the future. You are in that famous state of flow first defined by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, your creative mind filled with energy because it is not monitoring time or critiquing your performance. You take in more information and process it faster because you are not trying to. Your brain relaxes, becomes supple.

So there are practical reasons, even in a time-pressed, purposeful society, to saunter. And when you do? “There comes,” says the poet Wendell Berry, “a longing”—this part impractical, theoretical, revelatory—“never to travel again except on foot.”

Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.