The 'Rules' of Walking
Ridgeline Transmission 134
Walk-curious walkers of Ridgeline:
I love rules. They’re helpful: Helpful creatively, helpful cognitively (they reduce rote decision making load). Walks can be powerful tools or “platforms.” Well-considered rules applied to walks are like the low level “code” of the walk. They define the functions and features of a walk, the kinds of work that emerge from walks.
Over the years, I’ve built up and torn down, bent and replaced Walk Rules, but in general they look like:
- Walk whenever possible
- Which means: Avoid transportation unless absolutely necessary
- A lot of interesting things happens in the interstitial “boring” areas between “good” and “suboptimal” walking spaces, and these spaces are often “fast-forwarded” via transportation
- No mental “teleporting:”
- No podcasts
- No social media
- No news sites
- Yes to many things:
- Yes to being “present” (you know: there, aware, conversant)
- Yes to entering as many funky looking cafes, diners, barbershops as possible
- Yes to chatting up elderly farmers galore
- With an almost religious fervency, perform the following creative acts every single day:
- Take a portrait of someone before ten a.m.
- Film five minutes of “nothing exciting” happening somewhere along the road
- Record a five minute binaural audio snippet
- Publish a newsletter
- Finally: Rules that vibrate with a quondam urgency may no longer be useful; always be willing to break or bend them
You could distill this to:
Walk, be present, engage with the world around you.
Keep an open mind.
But by taking the rules out of the abstract, into the concrete, the acts become habits, and the habits become foundational for work derived from the walk itself.
I was recently thinking of rules because my last walk, the Tiny Barber Ten City jaunt, was rule-heavy from the outset, but I didn’t end up following them all.
Here they are:
- Visit ten “mid” to “smallish” sized cities (defined below) around Japan
- Touch all the major islands outside Okinawa: Hokkaido, Honshu, Shikoku, and Kyushu
- Spend three nights in each city
- Once in a city, only walking is allowed
- Walk fifty kilometers in each city
- Visit a barbershop, a kissa, a yaoya (greengrocer), a post office (and, uhm, more)
- Travel between cities is by train (or bus) (and biking across the inland sea); no planes
- Write and publish every day to Tiny Barber, Post Office
- Film daily Nothing Exciting videos (w/ binaural audio)
- Photograph the heck out of things
How did I do in the end?
- √ We nailed this one; visited ten great, strange, mid-sized cities, had a blast
- √ We hit up all the islands
- √ Three nights, done and done
- 1/2 We mostly followed this one; there were a couple cities where I did hop on a train or bus or tram because of time constraints, but for the most part, I had a 95% follow-through. The point of this rule was to “force” me to contend with or “touch” parts of the city I may otherwise avoid because of transit.
- This one I did not follow; fifty kilometers / city turns out to be A LOT for cities of these sizes. More on this below.
- I sort of followed this one? We ended up focusing more on kissaten than intended, and specifically on jazz kissa. It’s simply what the universe presented us; and as soon as I started to pull on that thread, amazing connections, moments, and opportunities presented en masse. I probably could have pushed myself to visit more greengrocers and barbers, but, still, I think we did a pretty good job of engaging with local communities / economies (which was the point of the rule).
- √ Nailed this: no planes, just boats, trams, and trains
- √ Mega-nailed this, wrote over 55,000 words to the newsletter. Thank you again for all the kind notes / responses.
- 99% on this one — we missed one day of filming while I was staying at Yoyokaku in Saga. I could have just “farted” something out, but I had been so deep in conversation with Den — the beloved, retired owner — for so long, and was so emotionally empty, I truly couldn’t even point the camera down the hallway and hit record. (I did film a couple times on some days, so felt like I had “earned” a break.)
- √ Thousands of photos taken
Breaking the fifty-kilometer rule was a bit emotionally complicated. I established it to force me to explore, but as soon as I started to engage with the cities themselves, I realized the “value” of the walk was largely in the people I was meeting. Sometimes I felt I “needed” to spend hours in a shop to engender trust or to get someone’s full story. Rather than flit about, trying to get in my fifty klicks” every day, I decided I’d pour that excess mileage energy into forming deeper, more meaningful connections with the humans, and write more rigorously and compassionately each night. I think the end results entirely justified the breaking of this rule. But I’m glad I had it to break — it made me think long and hard about the purpose of the work at hand.
Anyway: In the end I walked about thirty-five kilometers in each city. Some a bit more, some less. That’s pretty darn good.
I went on my first “big” walk — that is, a walk longer than ten days — in 2019. Until then I had had no rules. But for that walk, based on work I had done at writing fellowships and retreats, and recognizing the absolute power of disconnecting from the internet, I began to “play” with various walking rules. That first big, disconnected walk was a revelation. Everything since has built atop that experience. Layers of rules, added and peeled away.
I particularly dig the media creation rules — the forcing of my hand each day to make something, to look more closely and closer still at the sometimes nothingness of it all, record that so-called nothingness, and push it out into the world. A farmer’s face. The silent sea between Hokkaido and Honshu. A drunken fisherman psyched about squid. Like little ablutions.
One rule that kinda freaks folks out: Most of the time I book all my inns before I take my first step. This doesn’t “bind” my hands and keep things rigid, but rather unbinds the mind from the quotidian work of looking for, thinking about, and booking inns, planning meals, figuring out laundry. I’d rather have an extra thirty or sixty minutes at the end of each day to write another five hundred words. And if you need to mix it up — change inns, routes, whatever — you can do that, usually, without much issue.
Anyway, I love these rules and will probably break them all at some point. Will establish new rules and then break those. There are no rules around rule making, only that you treat them with some reverence, some gravity, treat them as loosely canonical, possible to be broken, but only broken with proper justification. It’s when you abide by a rule, feel out its contours and edges, and then consciously break it, that interesting work begins to appear.