By the thump of my nephew’s steps, I could tell he was just around the corner, catching up to me as we raced around the staircase in the middle of my parent’s house. I picked up my pace to try to get behind him again, where I could stretch out my arms, wiggle my fingers, and exclaim “I’m gonna getchew!” My nephew, Liam, is nearing two years old, and, like a lion cub on the Serengeti, he is learning the art of the chase.
Step 1. Make eye contact with your chaser.
Step 2. Giggle at chaser.
Step 3. Shuffle away from chaser, making sure they get the idea.
Step 4. Run from chaser while retaining eye contact for as long as possible without crashing into nearby objects.
This game used to be easy with Liam. He’d wobble for a bit, and then he’d tire out and sit down, at which point I could proudly perform my uncle duties of hoisting him into the air, thoroughly tickling his belly and armpits, and setting him loose again like a wind-up toy ready for another short burst of our cardio workout. It seemed like only a few days earlier he had just learned to walk, but he was learning fast.
While I was chasing him last weekend, I couldn’t catch him. Every time I peeked around the corner, thinking I’d nearly caught him, he was gone, already hot on my tail. The hunter had become the hunted. He really was fast, and I could barely keep up; the heaping portions of sweet potato casserole I had for lunch didn’t help my speed.
My grandpa turned ninety this October. Growing up as a farmer in Iowa and later serving in the Marine Corps, physical strength played a central role in my grandpa’s life while executing daily tasks. His gusto never seemed to waver—I remember watching him climb to the top of a small flagpole, just for fun, at age seventy. However, things have slowed down for my grandpa recently. His legs have been bothering him, and now he feels best when he sits. For a man who has been mowing his lawn every summer and shoveling his driveway every winter into his mid-eighties, it seems that, at ninety, it’s okay to take a seat.
One of my grandpa’s favorite Saturday afternoon activities was to take my siblings and I on a walk through the neighborhood to a nearby pond. Taking the sidewalk we’d wave to neighbors, tell riddles and stories, and generally ramble our way to the pond slowly. We’d bring a loaf of bread, and when we arrived at the pond we’d tear it into bits and feed the ducks (which, in retrospect, may not have been the most ecologically sound practice). I loved watching the ducks come up from the pond onto the shore, waddle their way through the grass, and accept our glutinous offering.
The Norweigan explorer, writer, and philosopher Erling Kagge is widely known for his love of walking; indeed, it’s the title of his latest book. In it, he describes foot-powered journeys he took in the early 1990s, like walking to both the North and South Pole. For both walks he went without outside support, refusing even radio contact: and, to the South Pole, he walked alone. Kagge is also known for less extreme but equally uncommon trips like tramping for miles through city neighborhoods, climbing bridges, and exploring underground infrastructure through manholes, just to see a city from a new perspective. In his book, Kagge asserts that humans did not invent walking, but rather walking invented homosapiens. Walking, he suggests, is fundamental to who we are.
Typically, I’d rather ride a bike to get somewhere nearby, or take a car or an airplane to cover greater distances. Walking, more often than not, becomes a task I either avoid or rush through. When I take the occasional leisurely stroll I enjoy it; I savor the feeling of steady movement and alertness, and I am grateful for the details I notice at a slow pace that I otherwise would have missed. But when I’m back at school or work, walking up the stairs to the fourth floor becomes a task that I blow past as quickly as I can.
At my age and in the physically healthy condition I’m in, walking is as easy and accessible as it will ever be—and yet I rarely appreciate it. But in Liam, I witness the joys of taking first steps, of running, of chasing and being chased. And through my grandpa, I am reminded to appreciate the physical capacity simply to walk and not feel pain.
I wonder if we could expand on Kagge’s claim about how walking makes us human. What if it’s all of our abilities that make us human? Not just walking, but all the gifts we are capable of expressing—playing ping pong, completing a math problem, showing generosity, or cooking a delicious tuna melt—that make us who we are. The least we can do, it seems, is slow down to appreciate these capabilities once in a while and express them while we can, enjoying the world around us with the youthful glee of a child tossing bread to ducks.