For Introverts, a Motto of “Walk, Not Talk”
In the lives of ten famous figures, the connection between walking and introverts is interesting and profound.
Before a neighbor of mine moved away, a woman from somewhere else would meet her twice a week at 6:30 in the morning, and they’d walk together at a fast pace around our lake. Each time I passed them, they’d be chatting away like old friends catching up after a long separation. That’s extroverted walking. For introverts, walking looks and feels quite different.
Introvert Nature Walkers
Henry David Thoreau was a prodigious walker. “I wish to speak a word for Nature, for absolute freedom and wildness,” he began his enchanting essay “Walking.” “We should go forth on the shortest walk, perchance, in the spirit of undying adventure, never to return, — prepared to send back our embalmed hearts only as relics to our desolate kingdoms. If you are ready to leave father and mother, and brother and sister, and wife and child and friends, and never see them again, — if you have paid your debts, and made your will, and settled all your affairs, and are a free man, then you are ready for a walk,” he wrote.
For Thoreau, walking in nature without a set destination helped reclaim one’s self from the accumulated crustiness of civilized life. To preserve his health and spirits, he spent at least four hours every day wandering through woods and fields. If some mundane problem lingered in his consciousness, a long enough walk would flitter it away. And seeing from the top of a hill how little space houses and villages occupied in his world kept human life for him in proper perspective.
Author and philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau also said that walking returned him to his original self. “These hours of solitude and meditation [while walking] are the only ones in the day when I am completely myself and my own master, with nothing to distract or hinder me, the only ones when I can truly say that I am what nature meant me to be.” When Rousseau wrote that, his walking took place in the countryside outside of Paris. “When I stop I cease to think; my mind only works with my legs,” he confessed. He carried playing cards along with him and would halt from time to time to scribble notes on the cards of thoughts that had come to the surface.
Likewise a walker, English philosopher Thomas Hobbes had a special cane crafted for his outdoor rambles, containing a pen and inkwell. With a small notebook in his pocket, he was then all set to record his walk-time inspirations. According to a biographer, he liked to walk “up-hill and downe-hill, till he was in a great sweat, and then give the servant some money to rubbe him.” Famous for having called life in the state of nature “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short,” Hobbes himself lived to the age of 91. Can we credit his walking for that?
According to his fellow author Thomas de Quincey, English poet William Wordsworth walked a startling 180,000 miles during his lifetime, mostly in England’s Lake District. Observations of hills, deer, ruins, clouds and daffodils from those excursions populated his poems, but at times he lost awareness of his surroundings. “He generally composes his verses out of doors,” said his sister Dorothy, “and while he is so engaged he seldom knows how the time slips away, or hardly whether it is rain or fair.” Apparently while walking he would speak the lines he was composing out loud, for in his autobiographical poem “The Prelude” Wordsworth described sending his terrier trotting ahead to warn him of oncoming people. The poet would then hush his voice so as not to appear like some sort of madman.
In his early thirties, philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche walked for an hour every morning and three hours every afternoon, later increasing that to, in his words, “ten hours a day of hermit’s walking.” Much of Nietzsche’s wandering took place high in the Swiss Alps, which fed Nietzsche’s reach for “the great and the impossible.” From there he wrote to his mother, “In this place human beings seem to be like phantoms.” Trekking among those wild, craggy peaks, he experienced relief from migraines and eyestrain as well as lofty inspiration. “It is our habit to think outdoors — walking, leaping, climbing, dancing, preferably on lonely mountains or near the sea where even the trails become thoughtful,” he wrote.
Charles Darwin’s walking was tame in comparison to Nietzsche’s, but it too took place daily outside in all kinds of weather. In the morning and again in the afternoon, Darwin trod a circuit that he called his “thinking path.” When he had a particularly knotty intellectual dilemma to untangle, he’d stack up three or four stones at the entrance and knock one off the pile with his walking stick with each return to the starting point. His granddaughter Gwen Raverat described the route this way: “a path running round a little wood which he had planted himself; and it always seemed to be a very long way from the house. You went right to the furthest end of the kitchen garden, and then through a wooden door in the high hedge, which quite cut you off from human society. Here a fenced path ran along between two great lonely meadows, till you came to the wood. To this day you cannot see a single building anywhere, only woods and valleys.”
Introvert Urban Walkers
The great-granddaddy of city walkers, French poet Charles Baudelaire originated a term still used in English for an urban stroller: flâneur. A flâneur takes in a city’s sights, sounds and smells while walking with no particular destination in mind. Observant yet detached, the flâneur moves at a slow and measured speed. Indeed, around 1840 it was even fashionable to walk through Paris arcades with a turtle on a leash, letting the turtle set the pace. As with the outdoor walkers, Baudelaire considered flâneurie an encounter with imagination and self. “I walk alone, absorbed in my fantastic play, — Fencing with rhymes, which, parrying nimbly, back away; Tripping on words, as on rough paving in the street, Or bumping into verses I long had dreamed to meet,” he wrote in Les Fleurs du Mal.
British novelist Virginia Woolf followed in the flâneur tradition, taking long, meandering walks through London and writing about the city wandering experience. After a long stint of writing, going out for a walk relaxed her, spiritually and psychologically. In the anonymity of city streets, her soul emerged from confinement and her creative faculty floated deliciously free, she wrote. Attention to the scenes she was rambling through became soft and accepting rather than pointed and critical. The whole human spectacle would surround her as she zigzagged around the streets, serenely fogged and receptive.
Unlike Woolf, the legendary screen star Greta Garbo did not leave us a description of what she experienced during her long, brisk walks through New York City, making eye contact with no one while disguised with big sunglasses and a hat or scarves. “Mademoiselle Hamlet,” she was dubbed by Alice B. Toklas, Gertrude Stein’s lover, alluding to a state of existential muddle. Like Woolf, she would dip in and out of shops without any definite want to satisfy. Garbo sightings and stealth photos of her sometimes made it into the media, but undoubtedly there were many other times people realized who she was and respected her privacy.
Last, let’s consider German philosopher Immanuel Kant, whose daily walk happened so precisely at a certain hour in the afternoon that fellow residents of Königsberg, Prussia set their clocks by his appearance. (Sources disagree on which hour that was.) For him, walking belonged to a healthful, disciplined daily regimen. He would walk alone so he could breathe through his nose all the way, instead of opening his mouth to speak. Because he hated to perspire, in summer he would pause in the shade from time to time to cool down before proceeding. When rain threatened, his devoted servant would anxiously follow Kant with an umbrella tucked under his arm. Eight times he’d go back and forth on his route – not a journey of unification with the universe but of physical and mental restoration.
A Final Point
All the above creators were introverts, and all did most of their walking alone.