The worst piece I read as an undergraduate was “Walking” by Henry David Thoreau. I tried just now to reread it, in the interest of fairness, but I got too annoyed. I did revisit my original notes from reading the essay, which have many highlights, including: “woooOOOOoOOOOooOO I’m Henry David Thoreau and I don’t live near ANYONE because they all hate me probably.”

Given that context, I shall now reflect on walking, my most prominent activity of 2021.

Scotland was in lockdown for the first four months of the year—months of pre-5 p.m. sunsets, biting rain, and a couple soft blankets of snow. I still knew only a handful of people in Aberdeen, meaning I spent weeks in solitude doing little more than working and going for walks.

I had been marking my walks using a felt-tip marker on a paper cycling map of the city, a process I found tedious and unreliable; the map, though practical, could not account for every footpath and tight intersection. At the beginning of 2021, I shifted strategies: I created a detailed map of Aberdeen using Andrei Kashcha’s city mapping tool and my rudimentary GIMP skills. I tracked my walks with the fitness app Strava, then manually retraced my routes on the map in GIMP. I poured hours into this clunky method of recording the 1,692 kilometers I walked within the city limits last year.

These walks at times governed my life. I prepared detailed directions before many long journeys, cross-referencing the incomplete roads on my map with Google Maps’ street names and compiling the rights and lefts and cut-across-to-paths in my phone’s Notes app or on lined notebook paper. Trips to the grocery store turned into several-hour affairs, looping wide to capture new streets and traipse down muddy alleys. 

Sometimes I roped others into my project: the three standalone paths on the western edge are hills and forests I explored with my cousins; the nearly-complete detail in the neighborhood of Cults, to the southwest, I credit to my good-humored friend who lives in that area; the jutting frame of Greyhope Bay in the southeast is the product of a dolphin-spotting adventure.

When I’m not walking with company, I’m invariably listening to an audiobook. The contours of stories fit some curves of the roads: here I watched the moon while listening to Bolu Babalola’s Love in Color, here I slipped on ice to the soundtrack of Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, here I wept in the street along with Akwaeke Emezi’s The Death of Vivek Oji.

I can trace many a foolhardy errand, like taking a bus to the southernmost point of the city and ambling back up along the coastal trail on the hottest day of the summer or walking twenty kilometers through fields and down roads without sidewalks on my way home from receiving my second Moderna shot. (Medical disclaimer: don’t do that.) These lines tell stories.

Midway through the year, as restrictions relaxed, I began to meet more people. My walks became more purposeful, getting me from point A to point B on the most efficient rather than the most creative routes. We were allowed to meet up indoors; my time for frivolous walks waned. I had hoped to connect more parts of the map, to leave no loose roads floating in cartographic nothingness. I wanted to reach the edges of the city, to see as much of it as I could, but those goals became less important as relationships took priority.

Still, I’m confident that I’ve been to parts of Aberdeen that some people who’ve lived here all their lives may never have encountered. I’ve walked its riverbanks and coastal cliffs, toured its playparks and public gardens, strolled among its oldest buildings and newest housing developments. I know (I think) every cemetery and steeple in the city. I’ve seen what makes this place valuable, what compels me to call it home.

Thoreau’s conception of walking places nature and solitude above all else. It’s grating and impractical and confining; nothing like my experiences of ducking down grassy paths between granite walls and stumbling around a new neighborhood with costumed friends on Halloween. My approach to walking has given me joy over the past year, and its potential for the future fills me with excitement. Who needs to “saunter toward the Holy Land” when you’re in the silver city by the golden sands?

2 Comments

  1. Geneva Langeland

    In 2021, I completed my personal goal of visiting all of Ann Arbor’s 160 parks (from tiny pocket parks to sprawling forested acres) on foot. I could drive to the vicinity of a park, but it only counted if I at least walked the last half-mile or so to reach it. This challenge was the perfect way to explore corners of the city I’d never otherwise visit and push myself to cover miles and miles of ground on foot.

    Now I wish I’d also mapped my routes, because I bet there are few neighborhoods and streets I haven’t meandered by now.

    Reply
  2. Debra K Rienstra

    I think it’s my fault that you had to read that Thoreau essay. I’ve learned that students almost universally hate that essay. I would be willing to assign it again, but only if I can use a copy that features your snarky marginal notes.

    Reply

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