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The Urban Geographer - Walk softly and preferably without talking


Step by step ... slowly I turned

On those days when the outdoors feel like a tropical terrarium at 8 p.m., it’s easy to skip the evening walk. But I take one every day, in the sliver of twilight just before the bats arrive. When the sun is low, and if a cooling breeze kicks up, everything looks and feels more than tolerable. Bathed in a softer light, the world appears much nicer than it did at noon. This is a time to decompress, and my visual field expands to include both nearby trees and distant clouds. Looking up at the drama in the western sky I realize why Bierstadt painted so many sunsets.


There are always other people on the circular walking trail I like to hike, and we seem to share a camaraderie of sorts. We probably see ourselves as sensible and disciplined kin, unlike the indoor slackers watching who-knows-what-and-why on television.

I walk the trail in silence whenever possible. I do this not to shut out the world but to be more connected with it. For a while I walked with a friend whose beauty and brains made her a perfect companion, at least in the beginning. Then she started using our walk as a backdrop to share her warehouse of accumulated trivia. It didn’t matter what wonders lay before us. These nonstop commentaries diminished any hope for meaningful appreciation of the natural world.

It’s amazing how easily we disengage from our physical surroundings. People do it all the time and everywhere. Even in the most inspiring place they slide off into waking dreams. Ten years ago on a hike in Muir Woods, I encountered a troupe of yuppies on the forest-floor trail. Dressed in corporate office attire they easily stood out. As we got closer I realized they were having a business meeting, oblivious to everything else as they walked below the towering redwoods. I suppose the moral of this story is that there is a time and a place for every conversation, but silence is sometimes the best thing, especially when others don’t need to hear what you are saying. Even when they are alone, people use conveniences to keep the present moment at a safe distance. Some walkers talk loudly into a cell phone as they walk, as if they’re stuck in an ugly airport concourse and have to salvage unproductive time.

Ram Dass used to say “Be Here Now,” but with today’s bone-headed manners we might have to be more assertive with an attention-grabbing message like “Please, Just Shut Up.”

My walking is intentional. By that I mean that I am walking with awareness of the actual experience. I try to keep my analytical side from intruding. It’s all too easy to drag a mental net over the events of the day, but I don’t. When I reflect on Beethoven’s after-dinner walks, I wonder: Did he use that time to think rationally about the mechanics of music, or did he escape into nature to tap the intuitive roots of creativity?

In either yogic or meditative mode, I sometimes use the practice of circumambulation to stay aware and present on my daily walk, and I follow the path in a clockwise circle. This is a psychological and spiritual exercise distilled from the writings of many wise teachers, and it is beautifully illustrated in Russell Johnson’s The Sacred Mountain of Tibet. In essence, when Buddhists make a pilgrimage to Mount Kailas in western Tibet, they walk around the holy mountain in a clockwise direction. On this circular path, many pilgrims perform the ritual in full-length prostration for the entire 32 miles. I’m not a Buddhist (although I’m told I’d make a good one), but I find both meaning and inspiration in recognizing the value of a fixed and quiet center. Adapting the ritual of circling Mount Kailas to my own life, I use it as a metaphor for soul-centeredness. This cosmography is not all that strange: Several religions have similar ritual movements. Our Moslem brothers circle the black-draped cube of the Kaaba when they perform the Hadj in Mecca, although their prescribed path turns counterclockwise.

On most evenings here, the walking crowd moves in a counterclockwise direction. I always respect this counterflow. Oddly, some younger faces communicate that this is the only correct way to go. I wonder where they’ve learned this. Are they mindlessly imitating others? Or have they incorporated the directional bias of Nascar races and other circuit competitions? Fast things make only left turns as they race to the prize, right? But we’re not on a racetrack.

Orthodoxy is unconsciousness. George Orwell said that in 1984.