Meditations on Walking and Thinking

I like to go for walks. Indeed, I just returned from a nice walk on the canal and into New Jersey. Walking has always had a special place in my life. From as early as I can remember, I’d go for long walks. I’d walk to school every morning, a bit less than a mile from our McLean Gardens apartment to John Eaton Elementary School, instead of taking a bus or having my parents drive me. My friends and I would walk from our homes down to the Volta Park Pool in Georgetown during the summer, 2.3 miles away. We’d often walk back as well even after a long day of playing in the pool. Thus, walking had become a part of my sense of self since I was a school-aged boy.

As a teenager, my family moved to Arlington, VA, living in a modest house on North Cleveland Street. Although now I was a bit further from my favorite DC attractions, this had little impact on my passion for walking. Indeed, in college I walked to school at George Washington University (2.6 miles away). Later, when I stayed with my mom in Rosslyn for a stint whilst back from college in San Diego, working at the Sheraton Carlton Hotel on 16th street, I’d walk to work and back too (3 miles each way). So I walked and walked about, pounding the dirty pavement and ruining good shoes. I even started going for long walks around the city’s tourist attractions on days off, making stops at the Smithsonian museums and shops along the way. After a long stroll through the Mall from the Lincoln Memorial to the Capitol Building, for instance, I’d walk to Georgetown past travel agencies and expensive restaurants, imagining what life would be like if I could eat at the best places in exotic foreign lands. Walking gives one lots of time to think. Indeed, for me, walking and thinking became inseparable; eventually I could not have one without the other.

Walking and thinking reinforced each other. Once I started walking, thinking immediately followed. However, it wasn’t just thinking about the mundane issues in life, like where I’d stop for a coffee. I thought about big issues. I hypothesized and reasoned the conclusions. Like a philosopher of old, eschewing empiricism, I came to marvelous conclusions in my mind. I’d cherish this time to think and even planned out what I’d be thinking during my walks. For instance, before going home from a long shift at Carlton, and passing through Georgetown, I’d already set my mind on the stream of consciousness I sought to pursue that afternoon. I would then enjoy the time to think as I walked down Connecticut Avenue and picked the specific street I’d walk to eventually arrive in Georgetown and the Key Bridge. I solved many of the world’s most pressing problems during those walks. It’s only a shame I couldn’t implement all that I did mentally in the world outside my ears. I was a bit too naïve those days, but those mental pushups really built up my strength for the work I’d eventually do as a researcher.

Today, as I sit here writing, I still walk and think every day. Life unfortunately leads us in various directions, some of which preclude us doing what we used to do with passion. I live far from the city now and spend much time driving. Although I have time to think whilst driving, I seem to indulge in sports talk radio a bit too much whenever I get behind the wheel of my car. I never formed that connection between driving and thinking as I have with walking, although I do enjoy driving for its own sake. Thus, I still go for walks to think, albeit much shorter in duration than in the former times. However, whenever I get away from home, traveling to different cities for a conference, I still go off on long walks before attending to business, just like I did as a young man in D.C. When I do so, I still solve pressing problems, come up with amazing hypotheses, and even plans for my next manuscript. Unlike my younger age however, some of these ideas do come to fruition. I have learned to reduce the scope of my ambitions and have become quite realistic in my mental exercises. Thus, walking still is my place to think, and I now urge my students to do the same too. Any student who has ever had me as a professor knows my favorite saying, “take concepts learned in class out for a walk”. I urge them to challenge theorists and textbook writers by putting ideas learned in class to the test of experience. Don’t just read, I’d profess, read and then think deeply about the ideas. Connect them to your life and personal experiences. Not only will this help you maintain the material in long term memory by forming deep connections with strong memories, but it will also allow you test the concepts for validity. If it doesn’t make sense in the real world, the theory has little value, I’d say. That goes for everything, including what I’m writing here. Take it out for a walk, preferably to a pretty place if possible.