One more way to be inactive…

At the front of the check-out line at Modell’s, a large chain of sporting goods stores where I was waiting to pay for my son’s soccer shoes I was surprised to see a stack of ‘Swagway Smart Balance Boards’. While the name could describe some device for improving balance after perhaps a bad ankle sprain, this balance board comes with two wheels, a recharge-able motor and a $400 price tag. And one more thing, it comes with a lot of appeal to teenagers.

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The first time I saw a kid on one of these boards was when a student was coming out of his school where I was parked waiting for my son to walk out of the building. There a teenage boy coasted on the sidewalk, standing on what looked like a horizontal skate board and made his way into the parking lot to continue his near effortless self conveyance to his ride home. He leaned forward to make the board go and leaned back to make it stop. So in all fairness to him he was not entirely inactive.

I understand the gadget appeal of these devices. While not even close to the hover board skateboard popularized by the character Marty McFly in the 1989 movie ‘Back to the Future part 2’ which was set in 2015, these current motorized ‘skate boards’ are still pretty cool and look like fun to zip around on.

But come on. Do our kids need another reason not to exercise-in this case, replacing the gateway exercise of walking? Once kids no longer have a need for the easiest means of transportation, walking, is there any chance they may than decide to take up jogging or riding a bike to school or even self powering themselves on a manual old fashioned skate board?

Indeed, the new boards are becoming so popular that large cities like New York are moving quickly to ban them. If they became pervasive, they would be a public nuisance. Imagine people zipping around the sidewalks zig zagging between the pedestrians. And while these devices are also sold from pop-up kiosks in shopping malls, the malls themselves do not allow the boards to be used inside. But there is no stopping kids from riding them around their neighborhood or even to school if their local town does not have an ordinance forbidding them.

I am not against transportation innovation. A while back while surveying a hiking trail I have maintained for a number of years I was surprised to see two people pass by on unicycles with dirt bike tires! While my trail is expressly for “foot travel” I was pleased to see some innovation even if it was not expressly permitted. But at least the mountain biking unicyclists were embracing the spirit of the trail- enjoying a trip through the woods under human power.

But the new motorized skate boards further erode efforts to get kids active outdoors. I do not fear this newest holiday gadget signals the death knell of pedestrianism as we know it. But it is one more indicator of how we are so allured by technology even when it is not in our best interest. After all, neither kids nor adults today are really in need of another means of mechanized time-saving. What do they need to save time for? The washing machine washes our clothes and the dishwasher our dishes. Planes, trains and automobiles are ubiquitous for ferrying us hither and yon and of course computers have been mega time savers in so many different ways.

You know who could have used these gadgets? The pioneers would have benefitted from a faster way to get around the frontier which would have freed up some more time for fetching water and chopping firewood.

Howard E. Friedman

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Why Walking Helps Us Think – The New Yorker

by Alex Majoli (Magnum), in The New Yorker Sep. 3, 2014

by Alex Majoli (Magnum), in The New Yorker Sep. 3, 2014

As you settle in to the beginning of a new work week, here is something to ponder. The following article by Ferris Jabr which appeared in The New Yorker September 3rd, 2014 looks at the role walking has played in some popular English literature and how walking might just make us more productive thinkers. This, of course, will come as no surprise to walkers. Thanks to my son for the link.

Why Walking Helps Us Think – The New Yorker.

Howard E. Friedman

The Evolution of Walking: From Laetoli to the Exodus to the Appalachian Trail

hiking in Chamonix

Ambulating on two legs dates back  3.6 million years ago according to anthropologists who have studied human like foot prints preserved in the volcanic ash in Laetoli, Tanzania. Those foot prints were discovered by anthropologist Mary Leakey in 1978.

http://www.getty.edu/conservation/publications_resources/newsletters/10_1/laetoli.html

The Laetoli footprints, from http://www.getty.edu, photo-Martha Demas, 1995.

The human like Austrolapithicenes who left those foot prints were quite possibly walking for a utilitarian purpose, like searching for food or shelter, or returning to their shelter. As our human society has evolved, however, walking has evolved right along with it. In fact, one could suggest that as a species, we have evolved to no longer need walking for distance travel.

We walk now to thrive, not survive. Evening strolls, weekend hikes, backpacking trips, laps around the high school track. Humans continue to find new but non-essential ways to exploit the simple, elegant act of placing one foot in front the other. And that act, in fact, is one of the hallmarks of what it means to be human.

Today, walking for long distance travel,  on the other hand, has become rare. And this might explain why last month, when the Tougas family of New Richmond, Canada, announced their plans to walk more than two thousand miles, together, on the Appalachian Trail,  they saw it as a viable marketing opportunity to raise money for their project.

The Tougas family announced their planned family through-hike of the AT on Kickstarter.com.  They  received pledges of $19,109 (Canadian), surpassing their goal of $16,000. The family spokesperson and father, Damien Tougas, explains on his KickStarter site that the monies raised will go to fund production of a video series that sponsors will receive in installments, once a month. The money raised, he said, will not be used to pay for the hike itself. The family has already put aside funds for their 6 month sojourn, he explains.

Walking has always been a sure mode of human transportation. Early humans of course had no alternative. Hunting and gathering required walking and beasts of burden had presumably not yet become part of daily life.  Even Americans, thousands of years following hunter-gatherers, still walked alongside their covered wagons,  for upwards of six months.  400,000 or so people migrated, on foot, westward to  Oregon, Utah, New Mexico and California, between 1840 to almost 1870. Their wagons were so full of family belongings and food there was precious little room left for riders. But these hearty pioneers were perhaps among the last of the long-distance migratory walkers, at least in North America.

Human beings have slowly, but persistently, sought out alternatives to walking. Even several thousand years ago, Egyptian soldiers used horses to pull their chariots. Some Greek warriors rode into battle on the backs of elephants and trade routes in the Middle East have domesticated the camel.  In more recent times horses have either carried riders or pulled wagons and carriages.  The horseless carriage morphed into the car, and now motorized transportation has become ubiquitous.  Walking as a daily means of transportation has become a rarity, at least in western civilization.

Tougas family (fimby.tougas.net)

Tougas family (fimby.tougas.net)

And while the Tougas’ get great credit for their planned family adventure, we are left with the question, why is watching another family walk intrinsically interesting? Certainly there are challenges and risks with a long distance hike and even more so for the younger Tougas children.  The AT however,  is well marked, well traveled and fairly close to civilization along most of the route. Although  a 2,100 mile trek is big undertaking, and the trail is quite strenuous at times and weather is always a variable.

Nonetheless, I suggest that our societal de-evolution of long distance walking is the key to family Tougas’ ability to raise close to twenty thousand dollars from 267 people who are willing to pay to see that family walk. Almost like paying to watch an IMAX movie about rock climbers, or cliff divers or base jumpers. In 2014, traveling a long distance on foot is a novelty and considered an adventure, only for the intrepid among us. And I suspect that even if family Tougas said they were going to walk strictly along back-country roads from Georgia to Maine and stay in bed and breakfasts along the way, and not pitch their tent in the woods, they still would have been able to raise money for their trip.

From Biblia Das Ist, Martin Luther (1486-1583), a depiction of the Exodus. Courtesy of the Digital Image Archive, Pitts Theology Library, Candler School of Theology, Emory University

From Biblia Das Ist, Martin Luther (1486-1583), a depiction of the Exodus. Courtesy of the Digital Image Archive, Pitts Theology Library, Candler School of Theology, Emory University

In one week the Jewish people mark the exodus of the Children of Israel out of Egypt, when they began their forty year sojourn toward the Promised Land. After hundreds of years of bitter enslavement the Israelites walked out of Egypt, away from their life of servitude, to follow Moses, a leader appointed by God. During four decades the Hebrew tribe walked from encampment to encampment in the Sinai peninsula, until they finally crossed the Jordan River to enter the city of Jericho in the land of Israel.

Next week, when Jewish families gather to commemorate that night about four thousand years ago when the Israelite  begin their long walk toward freedom, let us also remember that one of the most basic human functions, walking, is so simple and elegant. The long walk should not be considered a novelty,  since  the process of walking can transport us, physically and figuratively, toward a new beginning.

Howard E. Friedman

 

 

 

 

To Walk the World…

For walkers, trail runners, travelers and even armchair explorers, read about one man’s slow seven year walk retracing the route of human migration over millennia. Journalist Paul Slopek, partially funded by National Geographic, is making this journey and posting every several hundred miles with text, photos and even a short audio track of the sounds that surround him, wherever he may be, desert, town, market, or no where particular. In this article Slopek writes his first extended length article about this journey he began earlier this year, starting in Ethiopia. Now he has crossed the Red Sea and is walking north along the coast in Saudi Arabia.

Here are some of his opening thoughts in his National Geographic essay. (He can also be followed at outofedenwalk.com ):

“Each step we take is an arrested plunge, a collapse averted, a disaster braked. In this way, to walk becomes an act of faith. We perform it daily: a two-beat miracle—an iambic teetering, a holding on and letting go. For the next seven years I will plummet across the world.

I am on a journey. I am in pursuit of an idea, a story, a chimera, perhaps a folly. I am chasing ghosts. Starting in humanity’s birthplace in the Great Rift Valley of East Africa, I am retracing, on foot, the pathways of the ancestors who first discovered the Earth at least 60,000 years ago. This remains by far our greatest voyage. Not because it delivered us the planet. No. But because the early Homo sapiens who first roamed beyond the mother continent—these pioneer nomads numbered, in total, as few as a couple of hundred people—also bequeathed us the subtlest qualities we now associate with being fully human: complex language, abstract thinking, a compulsion to make art, a genius for technological innovation, and the continuum of today’s many races.”

Here is a link to the NG article:

via To Walk the World.

Keep your eyes on the trail…

Hiking trail through an oak forest - "Kno...

Hiking trail through an oak forest – “Knorreichenstieg” in Germany (Photo credit: http://www.martin-liebermann.de (zeitspuren))

I drive to work everyday. I look ahead, see I need to turn right and turn the wheel to the right. A pilot makes small adjustments to the yoke to change direction as does a boat captain to the wheel. And a cyclist, of course requires, well, the bike and its handlebars for steering.

But hikers, walkers, runners – we look ahead, see the trail we want to take, and will ourselves toward our chosen direction. We look and our feet respond. A slight bend to the right, a hop across a creek, an off-trail trip up a hill through tall grass or over downed branches, roots and rocks.

No wheel or yoke or handlebars required.

Our eyes do the steering on the trail.  Eyes see. The brain generates the course corrections. The feet loyally follow directions.

Planning and navigating a route is indeed an intellectual endeavor. Following the path that lies ahead, however, is primal. It involves our core senses- the visual of course, our steering mechanism; the tactile-sensing the ground; the auditory-hearing our footfalls over leaves and twigs or the sound of splashing or crunching, say, hard-packed snow; and the aroma and taste of the outdoors. Now in the Fall the smell is of the denoument of fallen leaves, their final act before dissolving into forest floor.

Pay close attention on your next trail. Choose a route, begin the journey and your body appears to simply follow the path. But the walk ahead is never simple: It may begin with just a vision, a vision though that evolves to engage all of your senses.

It’s Crunch Time, Walkers…

Maple leaves fallen on a lawn.

Maple leaves fallen on a lawn. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Walking and running are solitary by design.

Walk out the door. Keep walking, alone with your thoughts. Continue running to the sound of breathing and footfalls on grass or dirt trails.

Rhythmic.

Quiet.

But last evening I experienced ‘crunch time’. I heard every step even as I looked ahead in the beam of my headlamp to see the leaf covered ground and occasional twigs. My path lead me through patches of oaks and maples, 40, 50, maybe 60 years old. Serrated leaves dried, curled, fragile, carpeted the ground beneath my feet. And while I did not always see them I heard them. This short trail run was a feast for the senses:

visual (shadowy outlines on the ground in the light beam tunneling though the dark);

tactile (sensing the change in the feel of the ground, now covered with leaves);

auditory (hearing crunches, crackles, snaps, as the soles of my shoes pulverized these leaves once green than brightly colored and now shades of brown).

For the hill walker, trail walker and hiker, ‘hearing’ the trail is a rite of Autumn no less than observing the leaves’ quietly change from monochrome to their festive polychrome array.

See it. Feel it on the ground.

And hear it as you walk and run.

Walking in a fog…

Fog obscures.

The “fog of war” explains how otherwise  civil men can be driven to act so uncivil. Fog is the rationale. Not only soldiers but poets too have turned their eyes toward the “fog”. For them it is a comfortable literary trope. “Fear death – to feel the fog in my throat and the mist in my face” wrote Sir Robert Browning (1812-1889). And when people look out their window and see the fog, they sigh as if only sunlight can bring happiness.

Last Sunday I hiked a route with which I am quite familiar, a 4 mile trail through boulder fields, along and over brooks, past a cascading waterfall and around fallen trees in an east coast maple-beech-birch forest in northern New Jersey. The trail includes over 1000 feet in elevation change and half of that is a 500 foot ascent up a section with several vistas along the way. From each viewpoint the panorama gets better and better until at the top one can see 30 miles and easily make out the skyline of New York City.

On a clear day.

Fog on Carris Hill Oct. 2013

Fog on Carris Hill Oct. 2013

On a clear day people make their way up the strenuous section which is almost two miles from the trail head. On a clear day a hiker will see others along the way and at the top,  in small groups or large or alone with their dog.

On a foggy, damp day you see no one at the top and just one or two souls  who have turned around complaining about the absent views.

But I for one saw value that day in not seeing. I took comfort in my obstructed view of that which I knew was there yet could not see. And for the first time in my life I made no effort to look past the slate gray cloud which enveloped the summit, which colored the nearby lime green leaves into a drab olive hue and totally hid the canopy only a few dozen feet beyond. No skyline was to be seen no how.

I surrendered any attempt to see beyond my veiled misty curtain for I began to understand that the nature of nature is that it is always beautiful if not always comfortable. We are guests in a vast abode about which we have no say. Yes, I could have waited for a sunny day. But Sunday last the fog at my fingertips was my panorama, and it was good.

Why We Watch Walkers

June is a month of gathering to watch people walk, in graduations, weddings and parades.    parade march

This coming Sunday is the Puerto Rican Day Parade, one of the largest in New York City. Last week was the Israel Day Parade, also traveling up Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue. On Memorial Day small towns across America had parades and this will be repeated on the Fourth of July.

Why we do we gather in large numbers to watch other people walk with flags and banners? Would we gather in the same numbers to watch people stand with flags and banners? People do not gather in large numbers to watch other people standing in protest. Yet we gather to watch a parade.

Arguably, a parade has music and festive ‘floats’ which is enjoyable to see. But we also gather to watch our children march down the graduation aisle. And no doubt we would go to their graduation even if they did not march in to Pomp and Circumstance. And the same for weddings. We would definitely attend even if there was no ‘marching’, really walking, down the aisle. Yet intrinsic to the graduation and weddings is the walk down the aisle.

graduationWe gather to watch people walk, to move, to transition from one stage of life to another. We gather to watch people walk en masse, in an organized manner that is a culmination, that required dedication and planning, that marks an accomplishment or a declaration of allegiance to a cause or an identity. We stand and observe  while the people we care about move forward. Walking is after all the choreographed  movement of temporarily losing than regaining one’s balance. We the observers stand and bear witness that people we care about or identify with  have imposed balance and order in their lives in what at times is a world fast paced and often off-kilter.

Walking Home – a short review

walking-homeWalking Home by British poet and writer Simon Armitage is gaining popularity with current reviews in the New York Times (positive) and the Wall Street Journal (trending negative). And now here too.

The author, a well known writer in England, walks the Pennine Way, a 270 mile north-south hike across the spine of England, following the valleys and (small) peaks of the land as it travels across moorlands and cuts in and out and around small towns. Mr. Armitage, married and 47 years old, sets out to walk alone after having arranged  nightly lodging from well wishers and a series of poetry readings along the way as well. He made these arrangements while publicizing his trip via the internet. And at each poetry reading he passed the hat, or in his case a sock to collect funds to help supplement his expenses.

Mr. Armitage writes directly about his experiences, injects some humor, describes his surroundings and the people he meets, stays with and walks together with as well. I found his writing style pleasant if not always engaging and some of his observations thought-provoking. In one paragraph he reflects on the experience of staying each night in someone else’s house, usually in a spare bedroom of a child long since grown yet still decorated with awards and books and other memorabilia from years ago. These rooms are memory chambers he writes, just not his.

For hikers and backpackers the thought of a thru-hike of the Pennine’s is enticing. Not too long. Food and lodging are nearby. Not too steep, with the tallest peaks less than the 3,000 foot high peaks of the Catskills. Yet with the fog and rain, one can get lost in the Pennines, making this walk not a ‘walk in the park’. Whether you are enamored with Armitage’s writing style or not, give him credit for introducing us to this 2-3 week walk, over hills and dales, across boggy moorland yet passing touchstones of Wordsworth and the Bronte sisters along the way.

That’s using your feet!

Walking around the world I would say is the ultimate way to use one’s feet. Walk through desert. Walk over mountain ranges. Walk through war zones. Walk through history, geography, geopolitics, anthropology, sociology. Walk through humankind.

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Paul Salopek, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist has begun his trek Out of Eden, the name of his project by walking from his starting part along the great rift valley in Ethiopa. He is headed across Africa, the Middle East, Asia, across the Bearing Strait into Alaska and down the west coast of the United States to his ultimate destination, the southern tip of Chile. But Mr. Salopek’s destination is not ultimately one of mileage. Rather it is one of understanding human history, as it was and as it is today.

Salopek is posting a ‘milestone’ on-line every 100 miles which consists of photos of the ground, sky and people and an audio recording of where he stands along with a blog post. His seven year journey will cover about 21,000 miles on this journey sponsored in part by National Geographic as well as news organizations including The Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting and the Nieman Foundation at Harvard.

The journalist adventurer can be followed by reading blog and twitter posts, receiving emails or visiting the Outofedenwalk.com web site. On a recent twitter post Mr. Salopek wrote: “On walking and concentration: We were not meant to sit still.”

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