Of Walking With Some Thoughts About Sitting on Fences

WALKING is fundamentally a matter of boots. Nay, friend, I do not mean top-boots, but boots in the sense of the English, who, being most perfectly enfranchised for walking, have thence the right to name the gear in which they travel. But I do not here discourse of fine details. So the boot fit, the sole be adequate, and the heel not loftily inclined, choose your own wear, and you shall know content. There be that favor rubber heels, and here again each man is his own arbiter; yet this, at least, is not to be forgotten or lightly overpassed: there is a tang in the sharp crunch of a hard heel on fair road-metal that greets not him who goes delicately on rubber. Let temperament decide.

Most men walk merely to arrive. To such the right flavor of walking is not known; though chance may reveal to them the unsuspected good, and so kindle a longing for the proper bliss of the walker. The true pedestrian knows that the means is itself an end. Not for him ‘so many miles and then begins the actual business,’ but ‘so many miles of utterly fulfilled content’; and if at the road’s end he find some pleasant hostelry, with fire and food and all manner of cheer, this is but the fair setting of the stone, not the gem’s perfect self. Not that the walker scorns good entertainment, or fair weather, or congenial fellowship. His feet are on the earth; he is no detached dreamer; and all these things may be accounted part and parcel of his pleasure without disloyalty to the pedestrian creed.

Walking is not merely moving two legs rhythmically over certain intervals of ground. It is the primal and the only way to know the world, the deliberate entering into an inheritance, whose parts are wind and weather, sky and prospect, men and animals, and all vital enjoyment. The bicycle has some advantages in point of speed, but it is a foe to observation. All carriages, whether propelled by horse or motor, destroy all feeling of achievement. The very word ‘mile’ is a walker’s word, — mille passus — a thousand doublepaces. So the Roman legions measured their conquering advances; so the legion of pedestrians estimates its conquests of the day. ‘So many thousand buffets have mine own two feet given the resisting soil ’twixt sun and sun; so many thousand times have the good muscles of calf and thigh lent their elastic force.’ What has the dusty reader of figures on a dial to match with that?

Another element, of grave importance and unquestioned worth, is the privilege, nay, the imperative necessity, of sitting on a fence from time to time. Literature hints at this. Lewis Carroll’s ‘aged, aged man a-sitting on a gate’ had, by the sunset of his days, at least, acquired this wisdom. Poor Keats owned to a hankering to ‘sit upon an Alp as on a throne’ — although the German school of critics, keenly sensing the discomfort which inevitably disqualifies a mountain pinnacle for the scene of prolonged sessile repose, suggests metathesis, and would amend the reading to ‘sit upon an Alp as on a thorn' ; adducing as collateral argument Keats’s well-known admiration for the nightingale, and that bird’s familiar practice of artificially stimulating the centres of voice-production by causing its breast to impinge upon a thorn or similar sharp object. Leaving this delicate problem to the competent consideration of the wise, we may safely conclude that our first thesis is correct, and that to sit on a fence beside a road is of itself a satisfaction and an inspiration. For, be it posited again, the walker walks not to arrive, but to be in the world, to contemplate the same, and to take sufficient leisure for the formation of his judgments. To do this, he must sit. Sitting on a grassy bank is not, indeed, barred, although to the unwary it brings perils of ants, rheumatism, and (in some regions) snakes. It is, indeed, provocative of idleness; it leads one to forget that the interlude is not the song; and he who sprawls may ultimately sleep.

But the fence — and cursed be he who first conceived the hellish scheme of substituting barbed wire for honest rails!—the fence invites no such relaxing pose. The feet on their supporting rail are still in contact with reality, and it needs but a spring to be on the way again; while the seat, none too soft, gives perpetual reminder that the stay must be transitory, and that wits are not to slumber. To rest, and as he rests descry, discern, and fill the mental eye through the gateway of the physical — that is his portion who sits upon the fence. I will not mention the gain that comes from elevation, or even hint at the scenes which to have missed were to have suffered loss, revealed to him who climbs even to this humble post of vantage.

Only to those who will drink is the water good; one does not describe beverages to the thirsty: they would rather taste. So to the uneasy loiterer at home, to him who has found in gasoline only vanity and a striving after wind, to all who hunger for they know not what diversion, I offer no guidebooks of the journey, seek to convey no colors of the walker’s paradise; enough to point the entrance of the way, and give the password: ‘Forward, march!’