The Sorta Kinda Life Changing Bliss of Walking Solo
I get a lot of inbound requests: Can I walk with you? Can I join you on an upcoming walk?
Oh, man, I wish I could say Yes! Come! Walk! Join the walk! I wish I could throw a net out and haul in all the folks who happen to be nearby. But, sadly, that’s impossible. My default answer is a reluctant no. Let me explain why.
First, it’s mainly because I’m, you know, working. This is wild to type but: I have come to accept and recognize that this — *waves hands around* — is my “work.” That is, SPECIAL PROJECTS membership fees and book and print sales combine to cover all living expenses, allow me to reinvest additional profits into future projects, pay for the education of important children in my life, and even save a little. Members are becoming members because they want to support my work. And my work, as I’ve explained in yearly-reviews, is centered on producing books (newsletters are a grist for these books; all roads point to books!).
It turns out that walking is a good “platform” upon which to do this work. I don’t have any special veneration for walking. I don’t see it as some holy or spiritual act. A walk is just a walk is just a walk. But it’s also a pretty good hack (psychologically and physiologically) to engage with the world in what I find to be a deeply rigorous and meaningful way.
Because I’m working, each day is packed to the gills with busyness. I think folks underestimate the amount of work I’m doing during a day of walking. Depending on the day, I’ll walk anywhere from twelve to forty-five kilometers, carrying twelve kilos of photography and video equipment. I’ll interview several people each day, take portraits, photograph what “asks” to be photographed, sometimes record binaural audio, sometimes record video. I then arrive at the inn or hotel and settle in for some four to six hours of work / synthesis. Importing all generated media — photos, videos, audio — and editing, slicing, exporting, uploading. I’ll then write between 1,000 and 4,000 words about the day. Edit those words, knock them into shape for a pop-up newsletter, combine with photos, and publish to thousands of readers.
I do that day after day for sometimes upwards of thirty or forty days. It’s extreme. I feel a need to protect this space. It becomes a space of great creative asceticism. Everything is planned in advance in order to further emphasize the ascetic focus on the creative work (as opposed to the rote and time consuming work of logistics). The walk, in this way, becomes a blunt tool in service to honing attention and looking closely.
Second, I’m fundamentally an introvert. Meeting new people is the quickest way to get me to curl up in a ball. It takes everything out of me. Paradoxically, like a lot of other introverts out there, I also recognize how much I get from the right interactions, the right meetings, the right retreats. And how everything can fall apart without that pulse of humanity nearby. But I have to be strategic and cautious. Recovery time is sometimes non-trivial. So the idea of adding an unknown variable in the form of a human being to a walk with all attendant other work at stake is … terrifying!
I sometimes do walk with folks, though. But usually it’s one-on-one and not an extended endeavor. Just a day here or day there. Self-contained and, most importantly, I’m not “working.” I can’t work and walk with people. I can’t even really photograph and walk with people. Something turns off. The mechanisms for me to do my work don’t jibe with having others around. The quality of silence and “in the headness” of walking alone is, I find, absolutely fundamental to being able to “see” the world, work through ideas, photograph, and engage. Walking becomes a proxy for writing, and that writing happens for me only when walking alone. A strange quirk but one I’ve learned to work with.
That said: Sometimes (yearly?), I do co-host “walk-n-talks” with friend Kevin Kelly. These are different affairs: No “working” while walking. The setup is one such that I know the amount of social energy required going into the equation (tons and tons of social energy; recovery time for me for a week-long walk-n-talk is about ten days). The participants are hand-selected by Kevin and me; sometimes people we know, sometimes people we know are good people by dint of mutual friends. The group is kept relatively small (max of ten). Everyone is “bringing” something valuable (expertise, experience, compassion, etc) to the table. We charge no money. This isn’t a “tour.” Everyone pays for their part of the accommodations and drinks and meals and is expected to participate during the dinner discussion each night. Those dinner chats are the “work” and the structure of the walk is set to enable them to happen at the highest levels. It works well!
If you’re interested in being considered for a walk-n-talk, email me with a short bio, link to a few things you’ve made, and I’ll add you to the growing “potential walkers” list.
But the majority of my walks are very much alone. I love the solitude. Folks seem scared of solitude but solitude is a superpower when used well. Alone, in your basement, it breeds anomie, but out in the world, moving through the world, step after step, clear goal in mind, I’d argue that a solo walk during which you are engaged — paying attention, with your phone turned off, no headphones, no podcasts, no escape routes — is the quickest way to elevate a human. Basement solitude — isolated without serendipity, static, stagnant, stuck with your face in a screen, manipulated by the algorithms — is the death of the soul. The solo walk outdoors, in the air, beneath the sun, the rain, the snow, bumping into drunken horse betters, kind gardeners, farmers covered in blood, women beating mattresses at dusk, tractor trailer drivers leaning against their cabs for a smoke, is the opposite, the antipode, the physical palinode to basement solitude and the death of the mind and body.
So that’s why I mainly say no to folks who ask to join up with me — I selfishly want to be fully present, completely ensorcelled, engaged to the max in the “magic” of the solo walk. I believe in this magic, have felt it for hundreds of days now. Know what’s to be had and how to wrest it from the world around me. The solo walk is not a lonely walk. It’s the core of all this other work. A solo walk is a great walk, a rich walk, the richest walk, perhaps.
Save a few dear old friends of decades who sometimes join for a day here or there, I walk alone. Consider a solo walk yourself. Go big. A few days, a week, two weeks. Cut the cord. Go offline. Ditch the phone. Look closely and closer still. Layers and layers of remarkable details and lives present themselves when walking without anyone by your side.