The above photo was taken in 1985 at the summit of Mt. Sinai, in the Sinai Desert, which was in Egyptian hands at that time. I’m the thirty-year-old bearded one in the background. We began the climb at about 2 a.m. that morning and arrived at the top in time to watch the sunrise, take photos and meditate in silence for a while.
I still to this day will not let go of the running shoes that I was wearing that morning. Maybe it says something more that, coming from America, I was wearing running shoes to walk some of the holiest of earthly paths, this one sacred to Islam, Jews and Christians alike. I’ve since purchased “walking” shoes.
I’ve been fortunate to have traveled quite a bit in my life, so I thought I would use this blog to elaborate some, not only on my specific travels, but on the idea of travel itself. There is only one writing, in my mind, that I could possibly begin this path with, and that is the essay, “Walking,” by Henry David Thoreau.
According to the 2007 anthology entitled The American Idea: The Best of The Atlantic Monthly, edited by Robert Vare, “Walking” was “adapted from a favorite lecture that Thoreau had first given at the Lyceum in Concord, Massachusetts, eleven years before” its June 1862 publication in The Atlantic Monthly. Thoreau, sadly, died one month before seeing his essay published. This writing is, “in the opinion of many Thoreau scholars,” according to Vare’s introduction to the essay, “the author’s quintessential essay . . . arguably [his] most fervent declaration of faith in the moral primacy of the natural world.”
According to Phillip Lopate, the editor of the 1995 anthology, The Art of the Personal Essay, Thoreau “fixes on a subject that is close to the very nature of essay writing: walking.” He continues, “An essay is akin to taking a mental stroll. Thoreau loved excursions of all kinds. Here he celebrates the free-flowing, unstructured nature of the walk, a kind of basic research of the mind, which he connects with the virtue of wilderness and keeping some land uncultivated.
My own love of this essay could very well begin and end with its first two paragraphs (which I will share in a moment), except that the whole essay is essential reading. But it’s the meandering sentences of these first two paragraphs that focus so colorfully for me, as light through a prism, the very heart of what it means to take off on foot — whether REALLY on foot, or simply in the mind. He begins with a cosmically simple definition of the word sauntering: –SB
I have met with but one or two persons in the course of my life who understood the art of Walking, that is, of taking walks, — who had a genius, so to speak, for sauntering: which word is beautifully derived “from idle people who roved about the country, in the Middle Ages, and asked charity, under pretence of going a la Sainte Terre,” to the Holy Land, till the children exclaimed, “There goes a Sainte Terre,” a Saunterer,–a Holy-Lander. They who never go to the Holy Land in their walks, as they pretend, are indeed mere idlers and vagabonds; but they who do go there are saunterers in the good sense, such as I mean. Some, however, would derive the word from sans terre, without land or a home, which, therefore, in the good sense, will mean, having no particular home, but equally at home everywhere. For this is the secret of successful sauntering. He who sits still in a house all the time may be the greatest vagrant of all; but the saunterer, in the good sense, is no more vagrant than the meandering river, which is all the while sedulously seeking the shortest course to the sea. But I prefer the first, which, indeed, is the most probable derivation. For every walk is a sort of crusade, preached by some Peter the Hermit in us, to go forth and reconquer this Holy Land from the hands of the Infidels.
It is true, we are but faint-hearted crusaders, even the walkers, nowadays, who undertake no persevering, never-ending enterprises. Our expeditions are but tours, and come round again at evening to the old hearthside from which we set out. Half the walk is but retracing our steps. We should go forth on the shortest walk, perchance, in the spirit of undying adventure, never to return, — prepared to send back our embalmed hearts only as relics to our desolate kingdoms. If you are ready to leave father and mother, and brother and sister, and wife and child and friends, and never see them again, — if you have paid your debts, and made your will, and settled all your affairs, and are a free man, then you are ready for a walk.
Lopate, Phillip, ed. The Art Of The Personal Essay: An Anthology from the Classical Era to the Present. New York: Anchor Books, 1995. pp 479-504.
Vare, Robert, ed. The American Idea: The Best of The Atlantic Monthly: 150 Years of Writers and Thinkers Who Shaped Our History. New York: Doubleday, 2007. pp 431-444.