Walking can seem the simplest thing. While it offers a long list of health benefits, it can feel hardly like exercise at all. Take it to extremes, though, and it becomes a physical, even existential challenge.
For centuries, philosophers, poets and revolutionaries have found value in long walks. Pilgrims through the ages have taken to the road, nourishing their souls while strengthening their bodies.
“To walk out of our houses and beyond our city limits is to shuck off the pretense and assumptions that we otherwise live by,” Michael Harris writes in Solitude: In Pursuit of a Singular Life in a Crowded World.
I set out last month to try this myself – aiming to cover 90 kilometres in a day – inspired also by a Stephen King novel and a brief mid-20th-century craze for very long treks.
The U.S. walking fad started with president John F. Kennedy challenging a military commander by asking if his men could march the equivalent of 80 kilometres. The officer turned the tables by asking if the president’s men could do it. A craze was born when his brother, Bobby Kennedy, covered this distance, without preparation, in a pair of Oxfords.
While few now walk that far in a day, popular trekking routes attract people by the thousands. But you don’t have to fly around the world for an epic walk. Rather than a pilgrimage on Spain’s Camino de Santiago or tackling the GR20 in Corsica, famed as one of the world’s toughest walking routes, I forged a path in my own backyard, trying to follow a long-promised route from Lake Simcoe to Toronto’s waterfront.
A decade after politicians endorsed this walking and cycling route, the “Lake to Lake” trail is now largely a winding patchwork of pre-existing paths, most of which have not been rebranded. But anyone with patience and an online mapping tool can piece it together, figuring out how to bypass or bushwhack the missing bits.
On a long walk, you can be alone with yourself. Or at least as much as modern life allows. True solitude isn’t always easy to find, even very early on a Sunday on the residential streets of Keswick, Ont, a small town about 70 kilometres north of Toronto.
Setting out before 5, under the deepest blue sky of the predawn hours, I soon encounter the odd driver. From several backyards come the confused burblings of the previous night’s survivors. Within a half-hour, I pass a trio of intense-looking young men fishing in an inlet off Lake Simcoe. Moments later, a newspaper-delivery woman.
But my supporting cast is mostly animals. The chorus of birds and frogs. The rabbits that rush away from me. The guard dog that rushes at me. The rooster that rouses himself 90 minutes after I started walking.
Metres from the top end of Yonge Street, I pass a sign warning drivers that pedestrians may be in the area. But I’m well south of that, perhaps a quarter of the way along my route, before I encounter anyone else on foot.
Walking is one of the most accessible forms of exercise, burning a few hundred calories an hour without specialized equipment. While few walkers, even serious ones, cover more than 20 to 40 kilometres a day, there are extreme practitioners who see 100 kilometres as a routine outing.
In Sweden, such enthusiasts have adapted the theme of King’s The Long Walk, which tells the story of a dystopian future in which the most popular entertainment is an endurance test among teenage boys. The competitors are shot if their walking falls too often below a set speed, and the pressure drives some mad, while others turn into automatons.
The Swedes removed the threat of death and dubbed the annual event the Maratonmarschen. Last year’s winner covered more than 400 kilometres.
Such walks are not for everyone. They wear you down by inches, and your mind may react in unexpected ways. Over time you might find yourself in a fugue state, fully aware of the moment – feeling every footfall – while the hours slip by uncounted.
Muscles grow weary, and co-ordination suffers. Your fingers swell with blood. Each individual step is easy, but doing more than 100,000 of them tenderizes your feet.
In Holland Landing, after about four hours of walking, I pick up the well-used Nokiidaa Trail. This forms the backbone of the Lake to Lake trail almost as far as Richmond Hill and is one of the nicest stretches of the route. The path is pleasantly wooded, and enthusiastic children sometimes whoop when a commuter train passes on the nearby tracks.
An hour spent navigating a swamp while going cross-country has left me a little the worse for wear, legs slashed and wet from the waist down. But the day is warming, and my shoes have finally started to dry. Although I take a tumble near Newmarket – unwisely trying to consult a map as I walk – I’m feeling pretty fresh.
The profound value of walking is woven through literature and history.
Odysseus was told by the prophet Tiresias to walk with an oar until he was so far from the sea that someone would not recognize what he was carrying. Only there would his odyssey be over.
The poets Arthur Rimbaud and William Wordsworth were great walkers. Philosophers such as Michel de Montaigne and Friedrich Nietzsche saw it as fundamental to their life. Mohandas Gandhi incorporated walking into his protests, as did U.S. civil-rights activists.
By the time I reach Highway 7 on my own particular journey, I’ve covered a comparatively modest 55 kilometres. Hot spots presage blisters, and a big toenail has completed its transition to stormy grey-black. My muscles are starting to voice their unhappiness.
But at least I’ve knocked off the ugliest part of the route.
Great stretches through Richmond Hill are busy suburban road, heavy with strip malls and industrial units. Sidewalks are few, cars plentiful. A road crew’s flag man doesn’t quite know what to make of someone approaching on foot.
A quick crossing of Markham brings me to Toronto and into the relative home stretch. But not far into the city a leg injury that has nagged for half the day suddenly goes nuclear.
I hobble on, hoping mobility will return. With King’s fictional gun to my head, who knows how much farther I might go?
Instead, I eventually accept that the flesh is weak. I board transit, my journey over. I’ve covered 75 kilometres in almost 12½ hours of walking.
Although it’s less than I’d planned, the difference between a 75-kilometre and a 90-kilometre walk is somewhat arbitrary. And no matter the distance, there’s no tangible prize for the many hours, the fight through the swamp, the pain. The value of a long walk is to lose yourself in a long walk.
“You are nobody to the hills or the thick boughs heavy with greenery,” writes Frédéric Gros in A Philosophy of Walking.
“You are no longer a role, or a status, not even an individual, but a body, a body that feels sharp stones on the paths, the caress of long grass and the freshness of the wind. When you walk, the world has neither present nor future.”
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