Every Day a Pilgrimage

10501719_900672243280576_7950296448537074541_nA few white patches remain–snowy epaulets on the shoulders of the highest peaks–but here at eight thousand feet summer has arrived. At this time of year, the dog and I strike out every weekday on an hour-long walk; on weekends we go farther. My little four-square-mile town is surrounded by the Inyo National Forest, so our daily walks include plenty of time amid the tall firs and pines.

Walking is surely the most mundane of athletic activities—even running seems, well, more athletic than walking. Yet few activities share the long and sacred history of walking. Henry David Thoreau—a world-class walker, or, as he preferred, saunterer—claimed that he could not preserve his health and spirit unless he spent at least four hours a day “sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields.”

Thoreau attributed the etymology of saunterer to a phrase that supposedly dates from the Middle Ages—Saint-Terrer—and referred to those who were making a pilgrimage on foot to the Holy Land. Modern scholarship calls that connection into question, and the Oxford English Dictionary merely states that the verb saunter probably derives from the Middle English auntre, which means “to adventure.”

Since Harley and I have adventures aplenty in our daily saunters, I’ve come to think of them as pilgrimages. Our pilgrimages, however, are less about arriving at some holy place and more about seeing every place and every thing along our walk as holy. Last week two small does and a young buck crossed the path right in front of us. This morning a falcon rose lazily on a current of air while a pair of squirrels chased one another around and around the trunk of a Jeffrey pine. Wildflowers seem to bloom overnight and disappear almost as quickly. And sadly, each day we spot another tree that has succumbed to California’s prolonged drought.

Over time, I’ve composed a mantra for my walks, a group of words to help me remember the sacred nature of my surroundings:

            Your infinite complexity challenges my mind.

            Your beauty brings peace to my heart.

            In your vast expanses, my soul finds rest.

Somehow, no matter how troubled or frazzled I am when I step out the door, my soul does find rest as I saunter among the trees. Interestingly enough, there is scientific evidence to support my experience. Studies indicate that people who live near trees and parks have lower levels of cortisol in their saliva than do those who live primarily amid concrete. Another group of researchers in Scotland found that visiting a park or a tree-lined plaza, even in an urban setting, reduces stress and improves concentration. And in March, a new study showed that just looking at images of nature provided a cognitive boost. The mechanism of this reaction isn’t fully understood, but scientists believe that exposure to nature activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which controls certain rest functions.

Although the research is compelling, I have a hard time picturing a doctor saying to stressed-out patient, “Just go take a walk outside and you’ll feel better.” I have an even harder time picturing a positive response to such advice on the part of the patient. And yet, what if taking a walk outside among the trees works as well or better than any pill the doctor could prescribe? Maybe the simplest fix for our stressed-out, always-on culture is literally right in front of us.

An e-book of Thoreau’s lovely essay, Walking, is available FREE online here. For a more humorous look at adventures on foot, you can’t go wrong with Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods. And of course, there’s my perennial favorite: John Muir’s My First Summer in the Sierra, which is available as a FREE audiobook here or in a FREE digital version of the original you can read online here. Happy summer sauntering.