"Why," asked the second-century philosopher and physician Galen, "was man not given four legs and hands . . . like the centaur?" The reasons may be found in the doctor's treatise "On the Usefulness of the Parts of the Body." Leaving the insurmountable philosophical problems for another day, we'll turn to the practical ones: "I should like to see a centaur build a house or ship or scramble up the mast or the yardarm, or perform any of a sailor's tasks. . . . Would he be able to row when he could not possibly sit down properly?" He would not. And "imagine him . . . weaving, mending, or writing books. How would he seat himself? What sort of lap would he have on which to rest his book?" It doesn't bear thinking about. Galen also notes that two legs are preferable to four for leaping over obstacles, climbing rocks, and traversing difficult country.
I like my two legs for all that, for assembling a lap and for bounding and scrambling, but also for walking. Most mornings when it's light enough for skunks and rats to have returned to their little homes, I set off on a brisk perambulation through Cambridge, Boston, or Somerville. This sort of walk is a fine way to start the day, though not everyone thinks so. One such is Henry David Thoreau. In his essay "Walking," he explains that walking must be an idle saunter, must take place in nature, not on roads, not in cities, and not for exercise . . . For a guy who held that "all good things are wild and free," the Poet Naturalist was a terrible fusspot and giver of laws. Here's another one: True walking means setting out as if never to return: "If you are ready to leave father and mother, and brother and sister, and wife and child and friends, and never see them again - if you have paid your debts, and made your will, and settled all your affairs, and are a free man - then you are ready for a walk."
Geoff Nicholson's "The Lost Art of Walking: The History, Science, Philosophy, and Literature of Pedestrianism" (Riverhead, $24.95) touches only briefly on Thoreau, blaming him for a lot of New Age twaddle and for the idea that "American nature is the very best nature." But first, among other things, the author gives an account of falling down on a walk and breaking his arm in three places. It's a good start and excellently funny as accidents go. It also allows Nicholson to experience the degree to which his good spirits, draining away after the mishap, had depended on regular walking. We walkers know this; even Thoreau admits it, and science, too, agrees, at least for the moment.
But what to make of people who turn walking into a species of hell? There are a good few in these pages, among them Captain Robert Barclay Allardice (1779-1854), a Scotsman (what else?) known as Captain Barclay. He performed any number of walking feats, covering big distances in little time; but the best - or worst, depending on your point of view - was walking 1,000 miles in 1,000 hours. This doesn't sound really difficult - it's only about 24 miles a day - until you turn to the rules, so beloved of walking bores. They state that the walker must travel 1 mile per hour every hour. Now you see that the real challenge is sleep deprivation. As Nicholson correctly observes, "Notions of walking pleasure really didn't mean much to Captain Barclay." This feat of tedium led to further ones, by other walkers: 2,700 quarter miles in 2,700 quarter hours, then 3,000 in 3,000.
Such stunts have, to me, all the attraction and excitement of cleaning the oven; still, Nicholson decides to sample the drudgery by walking 15 miles in 15 hours and does so twice, once in the rain. "There's nothing like bleak, adverse conditions for raising a walker's self-esteem," he writes. True enough, but really, if walkers need anything it's not self-esteem but, rather, a way to make the activity of walking an interesting subject to talk or write about. Nicholson does his best, rambling through literature and history, and keeping company with some earnest walk fetishists.
Rory Stewart (another Scot, unsurprisingly) arrived in Herat, Afghanistan, in early 2002, six weeks after the Taliban had been defeated - for the nonce, at any rate. Stewart had already walked across Iran, Pakistan, India, and Nepal, and, winter notwithstanding, was set to cross Afghanistan. "The Places in Between" (Harcourt, paperback, $14) is his account of a trek that, except for its not taking place in America, fulfills Thoreau's requirements for a walk: Nature and all her little ways are abundant, and it's goodbye to the world of family, friends, and home comforts. Hunger, dysentery, land mines, attack dogs, militia, and bandits are bonus attractions.
Stewart's 500-mile walk to Kabul follows a portion of the Silk Road, a route also taken by Babur, the first emperor of Mogul India, in 1506. After a few days with a couple of unwanted, armed Afghan security escorts, Stewart continues without them, adopting a huge war dog as a companion, a dignified, long-suffering beast on whom he chooses to confer the name Babur. Throughout his journey he witnesses, and describes in austere, unsentimental prose, the impoverishing, barbarizing effects of a quarter century of war and the shifting tangle of internecine hostilities that it has aggravated. In places, scenes of recent destruction greet him; elsewhere he comes across evidence of ancient tragedy, most notably, the lost city of Turquoise Mountain, in Ghor Province. Destroyed by Genghis Khan's son in the 13th century, it was being looted at the time of Stewart's visit, its priceless artifacts sold by poor Afghans for a pittance to international art smugglers. (Stewart has made a cause of the preservation of this site and the essential, concomitant improvement of the economy and living conditions of the local people [www.turquoisemountain.org].) This is a wonderful and strange book that, for all its exoticism and hardship, conveys the exhilaration and liberation of just plain walking: "My pack was still heavy, the hills tall, and Babur reluctant, but I felt my confidence and ease returning with the familiar motion of my muscles."
Katherine A. Powers lives in Cambridge. She can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.