Against traffic: Thoreau's essay of 1862 inspires a modern man to ditch the car for a week

Published July 31, 2012

The sun beat hot and the humidity hung like plastic wrap. The blisters on my heels and toes had grown so fat it felt like I was stepping on cherries. I'd been on the road, on foot, for 11 hours, walking from Tampa to St. Petersburg and back, to … to what? I had no idea.

The project I had pitched to my editor seemed simple enough: For one week I'd shun my car and walk everywhere — to work, to the grocery store, to the park with the kids. I'd set off on a quest for answers.

Is it possible to live a normal life on foot in a car-centric place where so few walk? Can the walker s urvive — thrive even — in the second most dangerous place for pedestrians in the nation? Are there experiences in the city that can only be had on foot?

Even more elemental: Why don't we walk anymore? And what have we lost?

Here, though, at the crest of the Gandy Bridge on the last day's hike, a ridiculous 45-mile journey to and from a meeting in St. Petersburg, I was struggling to tease a substantive thought from the experience. A dark storm was rolling in, and all I could think about was how I wanted to be home, to be dry, to be off my feet and away from speeding traffic.

That's when I found a sacred wilderness on the shoulder of the highway.

I've been thinking about walking for months. The idea for the experiment came while doing research for a book on an Appalachian Trail pioneer, a woman for whom walking was a way of life. It wasn't out of the ordinary in the 1950s for her to walk 12 or 13 miles to visit a friend.

The research turned up some profound facts. Among them was that we have relied on bipedal locomotion for about 6 million years, and only recently have humans in large numbers chosen to sit and ride rather than walk.

Anthropologists estimate that early man walked 20 miles a day. Mental and physical benefits were attributed to walking as far back as ancient times. A prominent Greek writer named Pliny the Elder (23-79 A.D.) described walking as one of the "Medicines of the Will." Hippocrates, the Greek physician, called walking "man's best medicine" and prescribed walks to treat emotional problems, hallucinations and digestive disorders. Aristotle lectured while strolling.

Through the centuries, the best thinkers, writers and poets extolled the virtues of walking. Leonardo da Vinci designed elevated streets to protect walkers from cart traffic. Johann Sebastian Bach walked 200 miles to hear a master play the organ.

William Wordsworth was said to have walked 180,000 miles in his lifetime. Charles Dickens captured the ecstasy of near-madness and insomnia in Night Walks and once said, "The sum of the whole is this: Walk and be happy; Walk and be healthy." Robert Louis Stevenson wrote of "the great fellowship of the Open Road" and the "brief but priceless meetings which only trampers know." Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche said, "Only those thoughts that come by walking have any value."

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But in the last 150 years, walking has become increasingly limited, especially in America. As soon as we had a choice — first with horse and buggy, then trains and cars and airplanes — we chose not to walk.

Which brings us to Henry David Thoreau.

In June 1862 — 150 years ago last month — Atlantic Monthly published one of Thoreau's most famous essays, "Walking," in which he preached the virtues of communing with Nature on foot. His goal was sauntering, a word derived from the wanderers who roamed in the Middle Ages, living off charity under the pretense of going a la sainte terre, to the Holy Land.

Perhaps sensing the coming shift, a chunk of Thoreau's essay reads like prophecy.

At present, in this vicinity, the best part of the land is not private property; the landscape is not owned, and the walker enjoys comparative freedom. But possibly the day will come when it will be partitioned off into so-called pleasure-grounds, in which a few will take a narrow and exclusive pleasure only, when fences shall be multiplied, and man-traps and other engines invented to confine men to the public road, and walking over the surface of God's earth shall be construed to mean trespassing on some gentleman's grounds. To enjoy a thing exclusively is commonly to exclude yourself from the true enjoyment of it. Let us improve our opportunities, then, before the evil days are upon us.

Thoreau's "evil days" are here, even by the strictest measure.

But are we too far gone? Is it still possible to get around on foot?

Roads are made for horses and men of business. I do not travel in them much, comparatively, because I am not in a hurry to get to any tavern or grocery or livery-stable or depot to which they lead.

From "Walking," Henry David Thoreau

On the first day, I almost died.

I was headed north, crossing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard about 5:30 p.m. in the rain. I was wearing bright clothing and carrying a white umbrella. I had the walk signal and was halfway through the intersection when a woman traveling north in an SUV cut a quick left to beat oncoming traffic. She slammed on her brakes and stopped 2 feet short of my face.

Tampa in 2012 is no Concord, Mass., circa 1862. Here, now: The man-trap is king.

In the beginning of the 20th century, the United States had just 100 miles of paved highway. Starting in the 1950s, the federal government would pave 40,000 additional miles. Cars pushed people off the road.

We name our cars. We take photographs of ourselves beside them. We enter contests to try to win them. We make babies in them and sometimes deliver babies in them. We live in them. The car has so firmly implanted itself in American culture that we collectively rescued the industry with a federal bailout, then breathed a national sigh of relief. If the automobile industry fell, it seemed, so did we.

Our affair with cars has dictated the design of our cities as they've grown to include suburbs and exurbs. From vast parking lots to wider streets, timed traffic lights to buildings set back from the curb, modern changes in regulations were meant to increase the speed of automobile travel, pedestrians be damned. And the more dangerous it became to walk, the fewer people set out on foot.

In 1973, Susan Baker of Johns Hopkins University addressed the annual meeting of the American Public Health Association. She led with a question, according to the book America on Foot: Walking and Pedestrianism in the 20th Century:

"How can you kill 10,000 Americans a year without public outrage?" The answer: "Run them down with a hundred million cars."

While Americans in the decade before had been driving more and walking less, the pedestrian death rate had jumped 20 percent.

The numbers of pedestrian deaths remain staggering. From 2000 to 2009, more than 47,700 pedestrians were killed in the United States, according to the group Transportation for America. That's equivalent to a jumbo jet full of passengers crashing roughly once a month. Beyond that, more than 688,000 pedestrians were injured during the same period, which means that somewhere in the United States a person gets hit by a car every seven seconds.

Among major American cities, the Tampa Bay area ranks second (to Orlando) on the pedestrian danger index. In the first decade of the 21st century, drivers killed 905 pedestrians here.

This experiment was suddenly serious. I stared at the woman in the SUV. She pulled the cellphone away from her ear and mouthed an apology and I hustled across the street.

I can easily walk ten, fifteen, twenty, any number of miles …


Two walking stories and an admission:

1.) In the sixth grade, I went fishing with two friends at a catfish pond south of our town in Oklahoma. When we left the pond, we set off in the wrong direction. We walked for hours down a country road. We learned of our mistake just before we got to a neighboring town. We cried and turned around. We reached home — and our frantic parents — well after dark.

2.) After college, some friends joined me for a long hike on the Marufo Vega Trail in the Big Bend National Park in southwest Texas. We missed a switchback and trudged for hours down a wild donkey trail through desert mountains. We ran out of water and had to fill our canteens in the Rio Grande. We eventually found the trail and made it back to our van.

3.) Before this experiment, those were the two longest walks I'd taken, and neither comprised more than 20 miles.

What is it that makes it so hard sometimes to determine whither we will walk?


I grew up on the plains and I've never lived in a "walkable" city, whatever that means. Sesame Street could have been set on another planet. My default is the automobile, even for a quick trip to the neighborhood store a half-mile away. I'm 34. I bike and run, but always for exercise or challenge, always as a choice. Walking as a means of primary locomotion is a foreign concept.

In 2005, my wife and I moved from New York to Old Seminole Heights, about 4 miles north of downtown Tampa, one of the city's earliest suburbs. So I acknowledge we bought into a lifestyle where we'd rely on the car. My office is in St. Petersburg, a commute of 26 miles that usually takes about 35 minutes.

I have the luxury of working in the newspaper's bureau in downtown Tampa occasionally and decided I'd work there for most of the experiment. So I joined a rare march. Locally, according to Census figures, just 1.6 percent of us walk to work anymore. I don't know anyone who does it.

At the outset, pedestrianism felt strange, and that's odd. What could be more simple, more natural, than walking? Yet I felt judged. I could hear the questions as I sweated through my walks because I've asked them myself. Is he homeless? Does he not have a car? Pedestrians, especially in Florida in July, are viewed as eccentric, homeless, jobless or even criminal. I've made those same judgments. No one in his right mind would be walking to work. One motorist stopped on a rainy afternoon to ask if I needed a ride. He seemed shocked that I had made the choice to walk in the rain.

The automobile changed the way pedestrians are perceived. Ray Bradbury, the science fiction writer, foreshadowed this in a 1951 short story, "The Pedestrian." A man is out for a lonely evening stroll when a police cruiser pulls in front of him and hits the man with his beams. The man is asked what he's doing. He responds that he's walking, that he enjoys clearing his mind in the open air. Don't you have air-conditioning? he's asked. Don't you have a television? The man is told to get in the car and when he does he notices there's no driver.

I have met with but one or two persons in the course of my life who understood the art of Walking …


It took just over an hour to get to work and I'd arrived drenched in sweat. My colleagues laughed and called me crazy. But by the end of the first day, when I realized the walk wasn't exhausting, I really began to enjoy myself.

Walking began to feel a little deviant, like a countercultural protest. Somehow it felt like a privilege to be among such a small class, like a member of a secret society. An hour commute on foot wasn't impractical; it's not rare for my car commute to St. Pete to stretch that long.

I remembered Peter Steinhart's story in Audubon in 1987: "We are not innocent and simple-minded enough to enjoy a walk. It is too slow, too cheap. We crave the astonishing, the exciting, the faraway." Yet here I was finding enjoyment in the streets.

While Thoreau wrote of losing himself in Nature, of walking hours without seeing a single cabin, I felt rewarded by being immersed in the city. Each day I chose new routes for the trip to and from work, about 9 miles — down Florida and Ola and Branch, up Highland and Tampa and North Boulevard. I walked to Publix for groceries, to the Hillsborough River, to parts of my neighborhood I had not explored before.

I found Indian blankets covering a vacant field in the shadow of downtown and a New Testament under a bridge, in which someone had written "New Begginngs/Last Chance." I discovered ornate cemeteries I hadn't noticed from the car. Upon this piling under Interstate 275 I found a handwritten note:






One morning I bumped into a walking class from the YMCA on Palm Avenue. One woman was a cancer survivor walking to keep the disease in remission. Another had Type 2 diabetes. Walking was their therapy, an antidote to disease in a country where two-thirds of the population is overweight, where even our dogs are fat. Steinhart, writing in Audubon at a time when Americans spent four hours a day in front of the television, said, "We experience life not through the soles of our feet but through the seats of our pants." These ladies knew better.

I stopped to pet a stray dog, watched the men toss dough at Mauricio Faedo's Bakery and visited friends. I watched about eight ducklings follow their mother across an abandoned part of N Ola. Quacktastic. Air-conditioning felt cooler, almost offensive. Outside of the near-collision on the first day, I found drivers to be careful and passive.

Because I was sharing thoughts about the experiment and photographs from the journeys through social media, others joined in. In Atlanta, Dallas, Boston, New York, Indianapolis, Washington, D.C., and Hong Kong, people were walking and making new discoveries.

Friends and colleagues who heard about the experiment asked if I was doing okay and I felt like I was sitting on a secret. If you haven't seen your city on foot, you haven't seen your city.

By the last days of the experiment, I was looking forward to the journeys, and I wanted to go farther.

I had read about a short-lived trend of long hikes nearly 50 years ago, in 1963, probably the last of its kind. President John F. Kennedy had wondered aloud whether Marines of the day could carry out Theodore Roosevelt's order of 1908 to march 50 miles in three days.

"The big surprise was the reaction of the American people," reported Newsweek. "With one idle remark, Mr. Kennedy put more vigor into Americans than his Council on Physical Fitness had done in six and a half years of preachment. Citizens of all ages and conditions, mostly flabby, went after the 50-mile mark in one of the woolliest pursuits since men first chased wild geese."

Boy Scouts hiked in Illinois. Secretaries sauntered in Washington. Politicians chased headlines and reporters tailed along. The president's brother, Robert, finished a 50-mile walk.

I realized that walking to work in St. Pete and back was completely impractical, probably dangerous, maybe even illegal. And it sounded like a fine challenge.

I wish to speak a word for Nature, for absolute freedom and wildness, as contrasted with a freedom and culture merely civil, — to regard man as an inhabitant of a part and parcel of Nature, rather than a member of society.


We left my house at 3 a.m. on a Tuesday for the final hike. Seven hours later, three good-hearted colleagues and I arrived at the Tampa Bay Times headquarters downtown, weary and sore and inspired. We read some Thoreau aloud as we walked, but something was missing.

I rested awhile and changed socks and had a bite to eat, then headed for home, alone this time. Halfway across the Gandy Bridge it hit me.

This may sound certifiably crazy, but if you want to feel at ease with your own insignificance, comfortable with your place in the race, rub some blisters on your heels and head east along the shoulder, mere feet from polished hunks of speeding metal, until you crest the Gandy hump and stand still, suspended between blues.

If you're lucky, you'll be blessed by a powerful thunderstorm that glides across Old Tampa Bay and settles upon the skyscrapers downtown, cloaking them in a gray veil occasionally fractured by lightning. You'll see the rain line that dissects two worlds, light and dark, a thing of beauty. You'll feel defiant and free, and you may find a Holy Land.

Something changed on that concrete mountain. I need my car — I recognize that. But I need my feet, too. I need to connect again with that freedom. It is a dangerous and scary environment out there, perhaps not all that different from the wild Thoreau was writing about. It's certainly not civilized. But it is an appealing environment, and the walker has a rewarding and stimulating place in it, if he decides to stake it out.

Ben Montgomery can be reached at or (727) 893-8650. Follow him on Twitter: @gangrey.