The secret of successful sauntering

Earlier this week I was reading Dickens’ Bleak House on my phone while I was waiting in the doctor’s office, and it was leaving me more and more lost. So on a whim I switched over to Thoreau’s essay, which I must have first heard about in Rebecca Solnit’s wonderful book Wanderlust: A History of Walking and immediately felt more and more found. Insurance companies should recommend this stuff. Just now, though, I’ve been struck less by the lovely prose and surprising etymologies than by when in American History his essay was published—that is, in the middle of the Civil War, a few months after Shiloh and a few months before Antietam, each battle having topped the sum of all previous American war deaths in a single day. An odd time for an essay on the wonders of getting away from people and out into the landscape? Or perhaps the perfect time.

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 à la Sainte Terre,” to the Holy Land, till the children exclaimed, “There goes a Sainte-Terrer,” 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 hearth-side 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.

from “Walking,” by Henry David Thoreau, The Atlantic Monthly, June 1862

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