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Rebecca Solnit 

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Happy Trails

'Wanderlust' takes a fascinating tour of the history of walking

By Patrick Sullivan

"EXPLORING the world is one of the best ways of exploring the mind, and walking travels both terrains," writes Rebecca Solnit, explaining the impetus behind her new book, Wanderlust: A History of Walking (Viking; $24.95).

To which your uneasy responses might well be, "A whole book?" and "On walking?" But relax, fellow pilgrim, because this is one journey well worth taking.

In postmodern America, we've just about given walking the bum's rush. Travel by car is faster, surfing the Internet is more fun, and, frankly, the whole concept is so 20th century, isn't it? But Solnit finds this trend ominous. Walking, she believes, is an irreplaceable way of engaging with the natural world, the human community, and our own mind. In Wanderlust, she explains why.

In her opening chapter, Solnit argues that the human mind moves best at the speed of human feet. But that belief doesn't keep her book from ranging far and wide across a broad field of human knowledge and experiences, examining two-footed travel from a hundred different perspectives, drawing on an extensive range of sources to give us the history, the literature, the philosophy, the sexual politics, and the anthropology of walking.

Humanity is the only animal species that walks comfortably on two legs. But anthropologists, Solnit explains, can't agree on why we became bipedal. The most entertaining theory is R. D. Guthrei's 1974 proposal that hominids got up on two legs so that males could use their exposed penises as a "threat display organ" to intimidate rivals, a notion that leads Solnit to speculate on the origins of human laughter.

But however we became upright, we've been walking ever since, with dramatic consequences. Walking changes the world, as Solnit explains. Wordsworth wanders around England, writing poetry that changes the way society views nature. John Muir strides across America and helps create the ecological mindset that gave rise to America's park system. Novelist George Sand replaces her dainty petticoats with men's trousers and finds that women can take pleasure in walking the city streets.

Wanderlust strides alongside a host of intriguing walkers of all types, from poets to activists to nature lovers to prostitutes. Along the way, the author uncovers spiritual insights, fascinating personalities, and delicious ironies of history.

Poet Gary Snyder climbs Marin's Mount Tamalpais with Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. An elderly woman calling herself Peace Pilgrim walks across the United States on a quest for world disarmament.

Then there's the pilgrimage of German filmmaker Werner Herzog, who makes an extravagantly passionate gesture worthy of a character from his films. Upon learning that his friend film historian Lotte Eisner was dying, Herzog decided to make the trip to her hospital in Paris on foot, a journey of hundreds of miles. Plagued by bad weather and leg pains, Herzog wrote in his diary, "Why is walking so full of woe?" But when he arrived at his friend's bedside, he experienced the sublime peace of a quest fulfilled.

Solnit quotes from novels, people's diaries, and her own journals at least as often as she references scientific papers. Indeed, Wanderlust has a deeply literary tone--a fact enhanced by the author's formidable way with words. Walking in the Marin Headlands, she sees some wildflowers and describes them as "small magenta cones with their sharp black points that seem aerodynamically shaped for a flight that never comes, as though they had evolved forgetful of the fact that flowers have stems and stems have roots."

In the end, the author returns to her starting point. Walking, she concludes, should be viewed in ecological terms as an indicator species, the decline of which is an early warning sign of systemic trouble. In other words, when our feet leave the ground, we end up just spinning our wheels.

Rebecca Solnit reads from Wanderlust on Thursday, May 11, at 7:30 p.m. at Readers' Books, 130 E. Napa St., Sonoma. For details, call 939-1779.

From the May 4-10, 2000 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

© Metro Publishing Inc.

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