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Gone Strolling

Unhappy at work and recently injured, writer Dan Rubinstein changes his pace to change his life.

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Gone StrollingIllustration by Katrinn Pelletier

My career had tacked a path from sports writing and newspaper reporting to a decade as a magazine editor, cresting at the top post at a national publication based in Ottawa. My biggest fears-environmental apocalypse, global economic collapse, retirement savings-were abstractions. With solid First World footing, I was confident I could muddle through like everyone else.

Trouble at the office catalyzed my sea change, although the restlessness was already brewing. Financial turmoil threatened to swamp the magazine industry. I felt the dissonance between what I believed in and what I was doing to pay the bills grow deafening. Energy and optimism ebbed. Marooned at my desk, I swivelled round and round, drowning in digital static, a miasma of mediated boredom that, as technology critic Evgeny Morozov writes, “produces a craving for more information in order to suppress it.”

For months, I managed the stress by checking my email every three minutes and by taking long lunch-hour runs. Then I tore the meniscus of my right knee, painfully albeit comically, by sitting down on the ground awkwardly at a folk-music festival. The joint locked at a right angle, and after my wife helped me stand, I passed out and fell flat on the grass. It was noon. I had not been drinking. On the cusp of 40, I saw this as a sign of aging. Clearly, it was time for a different approach.

A month later, trailed by an entourage of cameras, His Royal Highness Haji Al-Muhtadee Billah, the crown prince of Brunei, strode into the Carleton University Sports Medicine Clinic for a photo op as I was receiving physiotherapy. He made a beeline for my bedside and asked how I got hurt. Lying on a mattress with interferential currents zapping my knee, surrounded by flashbulbs and zoom lenses, I did not know how to respond.

“I… I sat down wrong.”

His Royal Highness looked at me quizzically. “In my country,” he beamed, “we play a lot of badminton.”

Unable to recuperate through racquet sports or running, I self-medicated with long walks whenever possible, scouting desire lines-paths resulting from foot traffic-across railroad corridors and reedy streams. I skipped sessions at work conferences to roam around foreign cities and assigned myself travel articles anchored by hikes. In the rolling, frost-covered hills of Quebec’s Charlevoix region, I hiked from hut to hut for four days with a group of retirees, our age and language differences irrelevant from the start. At home in Ottawa, when my daughters were in bed, I grabbed a water bottle and picked random destinations (a bridge, perhaps, or a downtown monument), navigating by topographic feel.

I had long been obsessed with walking, both to get from Point A to Point B and as a way of engaging with the world, but this was different. Instead of ranting about work, I ranted about walking and refused to use our minivan unless absolutely necessary. Infatuated by trips people seldom experience slowly, I walked from my childhood home in Toronto to my parents’ off-the-grid cottage near Algonquin Provincial Park, spending four days on a commute that takes three hours in a car.

Regardless of the destination, at some point during each walk, everything would seem better. A harmonic feeling would descend while I was in motion-“a state in which the mind, the body and the world are aligned,” as Rebecca Solnit writes in her 2000 book Wanderlust: A History of Walking. Whether for transportation or recreation, walking bestows the gift of time. It connects us to the people and places where we are right now. Also to ourselves.

Back at my computer, I began poring over studies exploring the physiological and psychological virtues of walking. I contacted a range of researchers who suspected the humble activity could have a profound impact. Admittedly, I was scratching a mid-life itch. But these men and women were rigorous and esteemed, and they agreed to share their discoveries with me.

“So what would you say,” I asked my wife, Lisa, as we did the dishes one evening, “if I made walking my job? For a while?”

She bit her lip. Looked out the window. Rinsed a wineglass. Lisa had recently traded freelance writing for stable employment, anticipating this precise moment.

“You’d be a warker,” she said. “Or a wolker.”

I took that as a yes. I quit my job. Then I went walking.

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A gunmetal sky spits warm rain onto Eglinton Street. Car engines grumble. Brakes hiss and belch. Lined by dodgy kebab shops, discount auto mechanics and graffiti-covered concrete walls, the exhaust-choked thoroughfare across the river from downtown Glasgow in Scotland is not a pleasant strip to stroll during the afternoon rush. At several intersections, the sidewalk is hemmed in by waist-high metal barriers, forcing me to detour laterally along cross streets before continuing south.

A solo walk through an unfamiliar city will usually invigorate me, no matter how unappealing the envir­ons or weather. I once spent a week in Fort McMurray, Alta., camping on the fringe of the city and walking to downtown appointments along arterial roads with vehicles whizzing past at highway speeds. “Be careful,” the young drywallers living at the next site had warned. “Nobody walks around here.” I surveyed the litter in the ditches (Tim Hortons cups, empty cans of Black Horse beer from Newfoundland, lottery tickets) and counted pickup trucks. It was fascinating.

Today, however, after spending the afternoon on foot in Glasgow, I’m feeling weary and, well, sad. Which is appropriate. Even when compared to similar post-industrial cities in Britain, such as Liverpool and Manchester, Glasgow is hurting. Its inhabitants are 30 per cent more likely to die young. Drugs, alcohol, suicide and crime are behind 60 per cent of these deaths. And all of this pain feeds mental health problems. 

Walk for half an hour, five times a week, says an American educational alliance called Every Body Walk!, and the endorphin boost will ease stress, anger and confusion. We shouldn’t need another article to convince us that walking is good for the brain: academic work in this area, as one scientist told me, could be dismissed as research from the School of the Blindingly Obvious. Still, there are dozens of ongoing investigations that could add precision to our understanding.

This is why, the morning after my walk on Eglinton, I am covered in rain gear and hurrying through a downpour to the University of Glasgow’s main campus to meet Rich Mitchell, an epidemiologist at the university’s Institute for Health and Wellbeing. I contacted Mitchell after reading a paper of his that concluded that regular exercise in a park or forest may cut in half your risk of suffering from poor mental health. People with ailments such as mild depression were better able to cope with what Mitchell calls “struggles in general life.” Working out in a gym or on city streets did not have the same impact. “I wasn’t surprised by the findings,” he said when the study was published, “but I was surprised by just how much better it is for your mental health to exercise in a green place.”

Mitchell wanted to take me for a hike in the windswept heights northwest of Glasgow, which look down upon the Clyde as it widens and flows toward the sea. But today they’re blanketed by thick cloud, and judging from the torrents of rain­water flowing in the gutter beside the road, the trails would be slick with mud. Instead, he opens an oversized green-and-white umbrella and leads me through the gates of the Glasgow Botanic Gardens.

As we splash along the tree-lined walkways, past a 200-year-old weeping ash, thick green hedges and roses from around the world, Mitchell gives me a crash course on environmental psychology, starting with a landmark paper published in Science in 1984. “View Through a Window May Influence Recovery From Surgery,” by American health-care-design researcher Roger S. Ulrich, demonstrated that patients convalescing from the surgical removal of their gallbladders had fewer complications, shorter post-operative hospital stays and took fewer doses of analgesics if their rooms looked out onto a natural view as opposed to a brick wall.

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Five years later, in their book The Experience of Nature: A Psychological Perspective, University of Michigan psychology professors Rachel and Stephen Kaplan outlined their influential attention-restoration theory, which holds that people can concentrate better after spending time in a natural setting or simply looking at images of natural scenes.

Stephen did pioneering research on “soft fascination,” a state in which the natural environment-clouds, rivers, leaves blowing in a breeze-holds your interest in an undramatic fashion. Because you are paying effortless attention, not consciously focusing on something, it’s possible to simultaneously reflect on your surroundings and explore other thoughts. Moreover, the serenity you derive from nature can give you the space to think through any confusing or troubling “cognitive residue” your mind is churning through. This is why going for a walk in the park at lunchtime can help you remedy a conflict back at the office.

Another American psychologist, Terry Hartig, applied this theory dir­ectly to walking. In a paper on the subject, Hartig and his co-authors showed that walking in a wilderness reserve lowered subjects’ blood pressure (i.e., stress) more than it did in the city. “For urban populations in particular, easy pedestrian and visual access to natural settings can produce preventive benefits,” said the authors. “Public health strategies with a natural-environment component may have particular value in this time of growing urban populations, exploding health-care expenditures and deteri­orating environmental quality.”

Mitchell is part of a team of scientists assessing how improvements to urban woodlands made by Woods In and Around Towns (an initiative of Forestry Commission Scotland) impact the stress levels of residents in neighbourhoods in the bottom 30 per cent of the country’s socio-economic rankings. The chosen areas, he tells me, are “scrubby, nasty, hard to get into, threatening, maybe a bit dangerous.” Paths and signage and other landscaping have made the woodlands more welcoming.

“It will be interesting to see what the results are,” Mitchell says, “because, on the one hand, you have evidence from non-real-world studies about what sorts of changes will occur, but these are communities that are facing a lot of difficulties.

“We need to be careful not to overestimate what nature can achieve,” he adds. “It is not a magic bullet. But, for some people, it can be quite transformative.”

Promotional programs are being launched in the neighbourhoods around the intervention sites. Guided walks for families and children will be organized, and leaflets and other materials will be distributed, encouraging people to venture onto the trails.

Back in Ottawa, I venture out with my eight-year-old twins, Maggie and Daisy, on a springtime “Jane’s Walk,” one of a thousand-plus free public walks offered around the world every year in honour of writer and urban-planning activist Jane Jacobs. It’s a food-foraging excursion in a ravine a short bike ride from our house. We munch on winter cress and day lilies, prebiotic burdock root (good to kick-start the eliminative organs after a winter of potatoes and carrots) and goutweed (good for gout).

Herbalist Amber Westfall, our guide for the afternoon, points out hawthorn berries that can be used to make a tea that helps with grief. “Plants connect you to your bioregion,” she tells the group. “To the world you inhabit. If people get a sense of this connection, then they start to feel stewardship and responsibility.”

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Daisy gives me an enthusiastic  thumbs-up as she chews on a garlic- mustard leaf. “It was more interesting than I thought it would be,” she says about the walk when it finishes. 

“Within the space of a few dec­ades, the way children understand and experience nature has changed radically,” Richard Louv writes in Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder. “Today, kids are aware of the global threats to the environment-but their physical contact, their intimacy with nature, is fading.”

Two months or so later, at rush hour on a Monday morning, I am on Highway 401, driving west against the current, away from Toronto. Maggie and Daisy are again with me. The school year is over, and we’re going on a hike.

Our destination is the Bruce Trail, the longest and oldest marked footpath in Canada. The route, more than 885 kilometres long, officially opened in 1967, the country’s centennial year. Founder Ray Lowes envisioned a strip of land that would be left alone, not manicured or developed. “It’s not much to ask,” he said. The trail follows the Niagara Escarpment away from the American border, bisecting Hamilton and skirting the fringe of the Greater Toronto Area on the way to its northern terminus, a cairn at the tip of the Bruce Peninsula.

It takes less than an hour to drive from Toronto to the Bruce Trail. We park on a side road. Our backpacks are stuffed with Nutella sandwiches, water bottles and bathing suits; we have a reservation at a B & B a dozen kilometres away. A wooden staircase leads into the lush forest. The girls race up the steps like squirrels. This will be their longest hike yet.

Maggie and Daisy gorge on raspberries and hold out their palms to create landing pads for tiny black-and-white butterflies. Daisy shimmies along a fallen tree that juts out over the edge of the escarpment. I warn her to stay back from the cliff. Maggie corrects me: “It’s more of a ledge than a cliff, Dad.”

We cross a road and descend into a valley. The girls scoot ahead in their running shoes; my heavy leather hiking boots slip on the muddy slope. Youth trumps experience, although Daisy has another theory: “Maybe it’s because you’re clumsy, Dad.”

We rest on a wooden bridge at the bottom, listening to a burbling stream, and take advantage of this rare unhurried day together to talk. Daisy informs me that she doesn’t believe in reincarnation. When you die, your spirit goes to heaven, she says. It’s a place in the clouds.

“This place is pretty right here,” Maggie interjects, stepping from the bridge to the shore.

Daisy spots a daddy-long-legs on my hat, which captures her attention. Then she scampers to join her sister at the water’s edge.

Next we begin a long, steep climb out of the rav­ine. The afternoon is hot and humid.

The complaints begin. Not just from the girls. My shirt is soaked with sweat. There’s no breeze. The mosquitoes find us. I bribe my daughters onward with lollipops.

The sugar kicks in on an evergreen-lined trail along the rim of the escarpment. The girls sing camp songs, cartwheel, balance on logs. They dig potato bugs and ants out of rotting trees with sticks, and wash their dirt-streaked hands and faces in the cascade above a waterfall.

The sun slants. Moments linger.

When our legs are heavy from six hours of walking, I point through the trees to the streets of a small town down below. Soon we are running around a splash pad in a shaded park-laughing, leaping. Ready for anything.

Excerpted from Born to Walk: The Transformative Power of a Pedestrian Act © Dan Rubinstein, 2015. Published by ECW Press, ecwpress.com