Thursday 17 April 2014

A walk could be the best present you give this year

I know a chap who makes part of his living by guiding walking groups up the side of a live volcano in Guatemala -- a moderately strenuous trek and a kind of pilgrimage to nature in one of its darker guises.

There's something primeval and compelling about flows of lava issuing from fissures in the earth, though as anyone who has been to Lanzarote will confirm, it leaves a sorry, sterile mess behind it -- and not much else.

On the other hand, there's some merit in the comparison between volcanic eruption and springtime, as volcanoes uniquely create new land; great news for property developers everywhere once things have cooled down a little.

Themed walks are everywhere, from literary Dublin to the 'Jack the Ripper' tour of east London. The pace and intimacy of walking allows for discourse, conversation and atmosphere, unlike the whiplash-threatening alternatives.

Because we don't fly, our reactions and senses aren't geared for 60mph scenery change, so without making gratuitous value judgements, it's reasonable to say that walking speed is the best way to experience some things, however stimulating the alternatives.

Human history is an ongoing experiment, a product-development process, and as many a brand-owner has discovered, it doesn't always pay to ignore what the market liked about the Mark One by introducing an all-new Mark Two.

It may well turn out that mechanically assisted movement was the watershed change in human behaviour that enabled millennia of progress. Or it may prove a blind alley with long-unforeseen consequences; it's a little too early to tell.

Of course, progress is the human activity par excellence; don't think I'm getting all misty-eyed about the Rare Auld Times. But as any investment banker (and did you ever meet one you didn't trust?) will tell you, the secret of long-term security and success is the balanced portfolio. Meaning, don't put all your eggs in one carbon-fibre basket. Embrace a balanced core through rubber bands by all means, but try to keep up the walks for the sake of the old certainties.

Encouraged by a mixture of cautious conservatism and evidence-based scientific advice, millions of people are making quiet but dramatic improvements to their lives by re-adopting walking as both a means to a better life and a life-enhancing end in itself. Cultural changes like this have the potential to make modern life not only more sustainable in terms of longevity and impact but -- simply -- a better experience.

The fact that an activity is the result of evolutionary adaptation rather than technological progress or political imperative implies a degree of road-testing that should be reassuring. The old ways aren't always the best, but they work.

Sooner or later, someone will bring to market a wing suit which claims to allow ordinary, averagely fit adults to fly. You believe it if you like; I'll walk, thanks -- at least until the Mark Three goes on sale.

As you gather under the tree this Christmas and savour the comforting old-fashionedness of it all, give a thought to the role of tradition in our lives and the purposes it serves. Give someone you love the gift of a walk -- they may moan at first, but they're unlikely to get anything better. The theme is Back To The Future.

Conor O'Hagan is editor of the bi-monthly Walking World Ireland magazine.

Irish Independent

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