The shed has been cold these last few days, but the space heater softens the bite. It takes some time to get the place warmed up. Trudge out in the snow, step inside the chill, turn on the heater. I head back to the house, make coffee, and wait.
At the kitchen counter is a stack of holiday catalogs that recently came in the mail. Patagonia’s is a matte-finished beauty, a stunning photo of a winter wonderland is on the cover, someone is snowboarding. Inside, beautiful photos presenting not only outerwear but more importantly, a lifestyle. Many clothing companies are going with this approach, offering a way of life and not just a way to dress. It’s marketing, yes. but there is something deeper behind this that appeals to our need to be bigger than ourselves.
Also inside the catalog are stories, short pieces about people and places—adventurers and climbers, remote mountains and rivers, and life in the outdoors along the world’s most incredible latitudes and longitudes. I read many of the stories and nearly forget about the water boiling on the stove.
I pour coffee from a moka pot into a small cup and head for the shed, thinking about my own micro-Patagonia experiences. I’ve hiked a few forests and mountain trails, none of Patagonia magnitude. but what is most on my mind are all the mini-adventures of walking with my dog, Sam. Certainly the wilds of Patagonia and the suburban streets of Chicago are far from similar, and I don’t mean to connect the two in some absolute. But I do see my walks with Sam, in a small way, as being linked to the spirit of the extreme ways in which some take to the wilderness, including those who walk and hike in the most isolated regions of Argentina and Chile.
The shed is warmer now but far from toasty. I wear a thick sweater and a black tossle cap to ward off what’s left of the cold and sit at the desk before the small window that looks out to a line of evergreen trees covered in icy snow. I open my laptop and the file for Walks With Sam, a memoir manuscript of a season of walking. It is on its third draft. It needs more work. And I think now of the hikers in Patagonia, the stories in the catalog, how inspired, despite the ultimate goal of selling product. How do I make my walking story inspired? How can something so simple as walking or hiking with your pet be elevated to an art form?
There are many books that use walking or hiking as a thread to pull together a bigger and bolder theme. Most recently Cheryl Strayed’s Wild. There are the classics like A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson, or the beautiful book by Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust: A History of Walking. We all know about the writings of Thoreau and the many books and stories told about walking the Camino de Santiago in Spain. In these we see that walking can be the foundation of a good, artistic story. But is what I am writing anywhere close? Are my walks with my dog worthy of a manuscript, a larger story?
I read the first few sentences of the prologue. I scroll to a deeper chapter and read a few others. I stop in the middle pages and read one paragraph and then another. I wonder if the chapters should be titled as they are—Walk #1. Walk #2. Is the ending the right tone? Is the bigger theme—one about aging and reassessing one’s life—evident, relatable? Is it clear that my dog is my guide?
I close the file and breath, lean back in the desk chair, and finish the coffee. It is silent in the shed, the snow outside softening all sounds. The quiet feeds my mind. And in a moment the difficult answer to every question reveals itself—I don’t know. I just don’t know if any of this has what it needs. But, even with uncertainty and some doubt, I will press on. It’s what the writer does. He writes his way into something worthy. It may not be there just yet; maybe it needs a more detailed rewrite; maybe it hasn’t yet found its true theme. But still, my walks, and my dog, and my place in time have come together for more than 50,000 words and in those words, somewhere, is something meaningful.
Walking—in spiritual and physical practices, and in Patagonian adventures—is a link between body and soul. My walks with Sam have been just that and maybe now there is a way, through writing, to show how those walks can be something deeper. Maybe there is art in my walks, prose built from shoes and paws on pavement, trails, and grassy earth.
I pull the space heater a little closer under the desk, light a candle, and lean into my laptop. There is work to be done.
2 thoughts on “Walking and the Art of Writing”
Ah, yes, the gloríes of perambulation.
Many years ago, I caught the running bug while living in Boston (at the time the undisputed mecca of the sport.) What I discovered as I made my daily rounds, especially on the trails along the banks of the Charles — and what I’ve found myself missing most in the years since hanging up my running shoes — is how much I enjoyed the simple pleasure of being in touch with the world around me in a way only traveling by foot can provide. There is a level of intimacy, a keen appreciation for subtle changes in terrain, in the slow wheel of one season into the next that make foot travel uniquely suited to rumination, the father of revelation and inspiration.
And there’s one other thought that flows from the discussion. It’s the great lesson of Zen — acceptance of the world as it is in all its imperfections. In this, the humble weed in the crack of the pavement encountered on a walk, can have all the beauty of a rose in full bloom.
Of such moments are essays made.
Many spiritual practices employ walking as way to become closer to the world, ourselves, and whatever god means to us. It is the movement of the angels.