‘In Praise of Paths’ reminds us of the incredible power of the simple outdoor walk

Ilana Masad

THE WASHINGTON POST – When I was 13, during a summer visit to my grandfather’s house in Los Angeles, I fell in love with walking.

How or why is lost to me, but the visceral feeling remains: the sweat prickling my back and chest as my pace increased, the adrenaline flowing through me, Sonata Arctica’s melodic metal blasting in my ears via my brother’s retired CD player.

Now, years later, I still walk, three or four miles every day, and I read as I go (no, I don’t knock into things). Living in a Midwestern city during a pandemic means I’ve been able to keep taking walks, but to maintain safe social distance I’ve had to be more vigilant, looking up from my magazine or book more often to take in my surroundings.

In other words, I’ve had to pay attention, once again, to the familiar landscapes I inhabit and the paths I walk.

Norwegian author Torbjørn Ekelund is also a fan of walks. That much is clear from In Praise of Paths: Walking Through Time and Nature, translated by Becky L Crook.

The book follows Ekelund’s meandering thoughts and footsteps over the course of a year or so after he suffered a seizure that landed him in hospital with an epilepsy diagnosis that rendered his driver’s licence void.

Instead of mourning the loss of his daily commute by car, Ekelund took to his new routine: walking to work, at first, and then everywhere else too. Anyone who is now walking or biking more often – maybe even for the first time – might recognise his early reactions to the change, “Suddenly I could see paths everywhere, thoroughfares I’d never known existed. Narrow paths cutting across green lawns; animal paths through the woods; shortcuts through hedges, in and out of gardens, across fields and parking lots. I even became aware of my own ingrained patterns of movement throughout my house.”

For Ekelund, walking meant slowing down, and slowing down meant noticing things, paying more attention to the landscape in general but especially to its paths, which serve as both a lovely metaphor and a concrete reality. Paths are a communal effort, the result of humans, animals or both treading over the same bit of land over and over again, ensuring that the tracks of those who came before aren’t erased. A path is “organic and biodegradable,” Ekelund wrote, inferring that while it may be created by humans, it’s not intrusive to nature, especially because a path is also “temporary; its use and its existence are interdependent. It is there because someone uses it and it is used because it is there. To maintain a path is to walk it.”

Trails, on the other hand, are deliberate creations, made by humans for humans in a world where so many of us live at a remove from the earth, literally separated from it by asphalt and stairs, concrete and elevators. Ekelund appreciates trails just as much as paths, both because they tend to be maintained by volunteers who invest their time in the work out of love, for the landscape and for the sport of walking, and because of the transformative power they have on the people who walk them. He shares stories of famous hikers and walkers of yore, from Bjørn Amsrud, the first man to journey from one end of Norway to the other on foot, to Emma Gatewood, who traversed the Appalachian Trail three times.

In Praise of Paths is at its best when Ekelund deals in specifics, such as the narratives of Amsrud and Gatewood, or the strange fact that when we’re lost in the wilderness we tend to walk in a circle for various reasons: One leg is generally longer than the other; one eye more dominant; heavy packs tend to throw off our balance. And the book is at its most emotional and poignant when Ekelund describes his own paths: the one he remembers from early childhood, the ones he and a friend take their children hiking on.

Sometimes, however, Ekelund’s prose becomes didactic in urging readers to walk more, and he occasionally makes sweeping generalisations that don’t entirely ring true to fit a conclusion he’s already come to. At one point, he explained that Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Moe – “the Norwegian brothers Grimm” – must have walked slowly when collecting folk tales because “no one trusts busy people who rush around without taking in their surroundings.” Ekelund also fully conflates movement through landscapes with walking, even though much of the pleasure, attention and awareness he discusses would be equally applicable to a wheelchair user.

In Praise of Paths is ultimately, however, a charming read, celebrating the relationship between humans and their bodies, their landscapes, and one another.