Walking's history, far from pedestrian


"Wanderlust: A History of Walking," by Rebecca Solnit. Penguin Putnam. 336 pages. $24.95.

Walking, what could be more basic? Pick 'em up, put 'em down.

Yet, Rebecca Solnit has seized upon our basic means of locomotion to lead us on complex exploration of history, culture, politics and nature and lots of other stuff. The best part is you never know where you're going until you get there.

Given the diversity of topics, it helps to think of the book as 17 separate essays rather than chapters. But that doesn't mean a disjointed journey.

With panache and surefootedness, Solnit leads us on the trail of those who walked for inspiration (Wordsworth, Thoreau and Kerouac) and those who walked with purpose (Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi) and even those who walked for a living (ladies of the evening). The best part is, she doesn't even work up a sweat and neither do you.

Solnit may be a pedestrian, but her writing, for the most part, is not. She does a splendid job, for example, of describing the difference between English walking and what the rest of the world does: "Everywhere but Britain, organized walking seems to become hiking, then camping, and eventually something as nebulous as, in contemporary terminology, outdoor recreation or wilderness adventure ... Only in Britain has walking remained the focus all along, even if the word rambling is often used to describe it. Walking has a resonance, a cultural weight, there that it does nowhere else."

She entertains as she tells of the 400 years of land wars between the ramblers and those who own the countryside best suited for rambling. In the end, she notes, Britain has managed to retain 140,000 miles of paths, sometimes through the threat of mass trespasses.

Indeed, Solnit, an anti-nuclear activist, has saved some of her most passionate writing for the essays that deal with walking as a form of social expression -- from demonstrations through walkathons, something she calls a "mutant form of pilgrimage."

She also does a terrific job of skewering the gymnasium treadmill as a "Sisyphean contraption" and takes us on a walking tour of Las Vegas, where signs note that sidewalks have been provided "to facilitate pedestrian movement," as if we had forgotten.

The author is less successful in her descriptions of early mountaineers and their heroic efforts to claim new summits. You could grind up her accounts of those feats and use them for sleeping pills. Fortunately, she doesn't veer onto the slopes very often.

The danger in a book such as this is the tendency to over-think the topic, to tell us how the watch was made rather than give us the time. Solnit avoids that pitfall by remembering that walking is an act performed by amateurs.

One quibble: The bottom of each page is adorned with a continuous string of italics "foot quotations." The 75 or so quotes, ranging from Yoko Ono to Voltaire to the Song of Solomon, are reminiscent of the Times Square news "zipper" with the latest headlines. Like picture-in-picture television, they are distracting.

Candus Thomson is an outdoors writer at The Sun who has hiked the Swiss Alps, the Presidential Range in New Hampshire and across the Grand Canyon. She has worked as a features editor, bureau chief and state reporter in her 12 years at The Sun. Prior to this, she was a reporter in Massachusetts and New Hampshire for 16 years where she covered four New Hampshire presidential primaries. She lives in Silver Spring.

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