Continuing the exploration of thoughts about why people are (often) driven to take long walks I realize I’ve confused something. I have tied the physical act of walking to the walk itself, the journey, the trial. There is a connection but we don’t do a walk to go walking.
The reasons people are drawn to walks are many, often mostly focused on the social aspect – the strangers they meet (that they probably wouldn’t meet in ordinary life) and the friends they make and the shared experiences, especially bonding together to help each other, in its most extreme the famous “trail magic”. Fine, great motivation, but for me I think that’s only a bonus. It might happen and if it does, fine, but I don’t count on it. Most of the walk is going to be lonely hours of repetitive motion.
And it’s that physical aspect I focused on. When I was training for a triathlon swimming was my barrier. As a child I was actually afraid of water, somewhat carried into my adulthood. But also swimming required physical conditioning I’d never done. As I gradually went from one lap (stop), do another, to multiple laps (I still can remember when I finally did 1/2 mile) I also noticed something else. Swimming mostly puts you in a sensory deprived state, little sound but some water noise, no sense of feel (except aching muscles), no taste (quickly pool water becomes neutral for the occasional swallow you get), no smell (even the pool chlorine becomes invisible after a while), and little to see except the black line on the bottom of the pool. But what is required is synchronizing breathing with the strokes themselves. Breathing is natural on land but it takes a while for it to become natural while swimming, since it is such an artificial way to breathe. But breathing is also such a big part of meditation, so eventually I made the connection. Swimming is a great way to achieve the empty mind state where the body is on auto-pilot and most conscious thought disappears. Thus I also found my swim a great stress detox.
And one aspect of walking is that humans are well adapted for it. No, not so much our body shapes, but what it does to our brains. Walking does hurt and so we’ve developed, as part of our evolution as a species, to drug ourselves, with various endorphins. Not only does these overcome the pain, they calm the mind. Any repetitive exercise with controlled breathing and some pain will create this altered state.
And finally there is the boredom, keep on keepin’ on, seemingly endlessly. But, as is the point of this blog, there are different kinds of boredom. Walking down the green tunnel (as much of the AT is described and also a reasonably good description of much of the Wabash Trace) is only stimulating in the micro, an odd stone here, a strange shaped plant there. In hiking in the Sierra, especially the JMT, the grandeur and beauty, visible at almost every step is different – you’re very visually engaged and often in sound and smell as well. But plodding along, hour after hour, is mostly sensory deprivation.
All this occurred to me for a simple reason. I recently broke my exercise bike and haven’t gotten over my reluctance to call in repair, so I’m forced (by my daily need to crank 1000 calories of some exercise) to only use the treadmill (instead of alternating with bike). And that’s hard. A mile on the treadmill may be no more physically demanding than a mile on the trail, but it’s much harder to do. So forced to only use the treadmill, for a while, I decided to, as usual, pick a few numeric goals and so I’m trying to both do more miles in 3 days straight and especially 5 days straight than I’ve ever done before.
But it’s tough. The fatigue, the minor aches and pains, the boredom are far worse on the treadmill than on the trail. And the trail has less distractions. When I rest on the trail I’m still on the trail, maybe seeing and sensing things I didn’t notice while actually walking. Off the treadmill I read or watch TV or futz around the house. IOW, the walking is not a steady break from my normal activities, as a long walk would be, but the walking is just intermittent stretches of plodding along. I spend hours doing it but relatively little of it is the actual walking. So, basically, I don’t get that escape from the mundane and the ordinary that a real walk, day after day, would provide. Sure the multiday trail is repetitive routine too, but it’s not the same routine we normally do.
So my point is that the physical act of walking is just a means to the end, not the end in itself. Walking does have that neurotransmitter effect on the brain, but that only counts when the rest of the environment is thrown in as well.
So I have little choice but to get back to the treadmill now, but unlike a real walk, where I force myself to rest and am eager to get moving again, here in my ordinary environment and activities it’s hard to get back to a treadmill. Too bad training requires it and/or that real trail walking isn’t available every day.