I recently returned from a week-long trip to the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains in North Carolina. Its fresh mountain air, stunning landscape and proximity to hiking trails attracts visitors year-round. Part of the reason for my visit was to do exactly what other people go there for – take some long walks, be soothed by nature, and have a break from Michigan‘s winter. But it occurred to me as I was driving there how absurd it was to spend10 hours in a car so that I could go for a walk.
When did walking become an ‘activity’, something we go out of our way to do? Sometimes we get in a car, drive to a carpark, walk for an hour or two, return to the car and then call it – depending on your country of origin – ‘hiking’ (US), ‘bushwalking’ (Australia), ‘rambling (UK) or ‘tramping’ (New Zealand). It’s something so unlike the activity we do every day that we give it a special name. Writer Bill Bryson, in his entertaining volume about his adventures on the Appalachian Trail, A Walk in the Woods, observes how Americans have come to view the great outdoors. Nature, he writes, is either ruthlessly conquered and destroyed, or treated as something “holy and remote.”
I can personally vouch for this. When I arrived at the ticket counter at the grandly beautiful Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina, I asked whether I could walk from the carpark to the estate so that I could enjoy the grounds. The receptionist, sensing that I had just landed from another planet, said, “Oh it’s too far to walk.” When I inquired how far, she said, “At least two miles.” When I told her I was happy to cover this distance on foot and in fact preferred to do so, she huffed, “We don’t allow anyone to walk.”
With attitudes like this, it’s hardly surprising that people are getting less exercise than they need. The Center for Disease Control‘s recent physical activity statistics showed that fully one-quarter of the American population engages in absolutely no leisure time activity whatsoever. And by this, the CDC means not even a single walk around the block once a week. No wonder the Appalachian Trail is held in such high esteem.