One day, my grandmother was no longer able to walk.
That was the day she died. Physically, she continued to live a little longer, but her new knees, which had surgically replaced the old ones, were worn out and no longer able to carry her body. The remaining strength in her muscles wasted away from the days spent lying in bed. Her digestive system began to fail. Her heartbeat slowed down and her pulse became uneven. Her lungs took in less and less oxygen. Towards the end, she was left gasping for air.
In those days I had two daughters at home. The youngest, Solveig, was thirteen months old. As her great-grandmother slowly shrank into a fetal position, Solveig felt it was high time she learned how to walk. Arms raised above her head and hands clasped around my fingers, she managed to totter across the living-room floor. Each time she let go and attempted a few steps on her own, she would discover the difference between what’s up and what’s down, what’s high and what’s low. When she stumbled and smacked her forehead on the edge of the living-room table, she learned that some things are hard and others soft.
Learning to walk may be the most perilous undertaking of our lives.
Arms outstretched to keep her balance, Solveig soon mastered the feat of walking across the living-room floor. Spurred by her fear of falling, she took short, staccato-like steps. Observing her first attempts, I was surprised at the way she spread her toes, as though trying to grab on to the floor. “A child’s foot doesn’t know it’s a foot yet,” it wants to be a butterfly or an apple, writes the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda at the start of his poem “To the Foot from Its Child.”
All of a sudden, Solveig was moving with more confident steps. Through the open terrace door and out into the garden. Her naked feet now came into contact with something more than flooring: the Earth’s surface—grass, stone and, soon, tarmac.
It was as though a small part of her personality—her temperament, curiosity and will—became more apparent when she walked. When I observe a child learning to walk, it feels as if the joy of exploration and mastery is the most powerful thing in the world.
Placing one foot in front of the other, investigating and overcoming are intrinsic to our nature. Journeys of discovery are not something you start doing, but something you gradually stop doing.
When my grandmother—I called her my mormor
—was born in Lillehammer, ninety-three years before Solveig, her family still relied on their feet as the primary mode of transport from one location to another. Mormor could take the train if she wanted to travel very long distances, but she didn’t have many reasons to leave Lillehammer. Instead, the world came to her. Throughout her youth she bore witness to the arrival of mass-produced cars, bicycles and aeroplanes in her region of Oppland. Mormor told me that my great-grandfather asked her to accompany him down to Mjøsa, the biggest lake in Norway, to watch an aeroplane together. She told the story with such rapture that it felt as if it had taken place the day before. The skies were—suddenly—no longer solely the realm of birds and angels.
I have no idea how many walks I’ve been on.
I’ve been on short walks; I’ve been on long walks. I’ve walked from
villages and to
cities. I’ve walked through the day and through the night, from lovers and to friends. I have walked in deep forests and over big mountains, across snow-covered plains and through urban jungles. I have walked bored and euphoric and I have tried to walk away from problems. I have walked in pain and in happiness. But no matter where and why, I have walked and walked. I have walked to the ends of the world—literally.
All my walks have been different, but looking back I see one common denominator: inner silence. Walking and silence belong together. Silence is as abstract as walking is concrete.
Before I got a family, I never wondered why walking was important. But the kids wanted answers: Why do we have to walk, when it’s faster to drive? Even adults had questions: What is the point of moving slowly
from one place to another?
Until now, I have tried the obvious explanation, the one you turn to because it’s quick and easy and the opposite of the essence of walking, which is slowness: I explain that he who walks lives longer. The memory sharpens. The blood pressure falls. Your immune system gets stronger. But each time I said it, I knew it was only half the truth. To walk is something much larger than a list of advantages you can read in an ad for vitamins. So what is the other half of this truth?
Why do we walk? Where do we walk from and what is our destination? We all have our own answers. Even if you and I walk next to each other, we can experience the walk differently. After having put my shoes on and let my thoughts wander, I am sure of one thing—to put one foot in front of the other is one of the most important things we do.
Let us walk.
Copyright © 2019 by Erling Kagge. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.