I grew up hiking and walking in the National Forest lands around Montana’s Gallatin Valley, and camping and fishing in Yellowstone National Park. Roaming up mountains, along creeks, and through the woods didn’t prepare me for an adult life of living in cities, but it did prepare me for a life on foot.
It also taught me to think in complex ways about the importance of connected, walkable communities to our well-being, and what happens to our psyches when we’re subjected to isolation and loneliness. When I first started writing about walking, it was while living in an exurban area of upstate New York where nothing was accessible except by car. No matter where I wanted to go, I had to drive, and this fact eroded my health, made every errand an arduous chore — especially once I had children — and led me to question what kind of freedom we have when every aspect of our lives is dependent on the road and highway networks and the automobiles that are required to traverse them.
And more importantly, how can we get it back?
Those two questions carried me throughout researching and writing A Walking Life: Reclaiming Our Health and Our Freedom One Step at a Time. I delved into evolutionary biology and paleoanthropology to find out what it is about bipedalism that makes our species unique, and what that reality means when we’re talking about disability, or children’s brain development, or the designs of our towns and cities.
Through it all I remembered the freedom and limitations that I knew growing up in small-town Montana with easy access to wilderness. And how it contrasted with the very different kind of freedom I’d had wandering through the cities I’d lived in, like Moscow, Russia, and Vienna, Austria. As one person I interviewed told me, walking is like a nautilus shell, a core trait of humanity out of which spins our built environment, our creativity, our communities, and even our spiritual relations (there is a reason that pilgrimages take place on foot, and why walking a labyrinth can be so powerful).
My scrubby, outdoors-saturated Montana childhood gave me a connection to this planet that I only became aware of decades later, and it’s one that we all have somewhere in our DNA. We evolved on…