Coronavirus: Walking is our only respite

Erling Kagge: Time slows down and the world changes when we walk. Because the world expects us to be available at all times, grounding yourself in nature can be hard.

Erling Kagge
Walking has become a welcome relief for people feeling cooped up in these days of social distancing. A man walks a dog in Toronto on Mar. 8, 2020. (Graeme Roy/CP)

Walking has become a welcome relief for people feeling cooped up in these days of social distancing. A man walks a dog in Toronto on Mar. 8, 2020. (Graeme Roy/CP)

This is part of a series of essays from authors on the coronavirus and how it affects our lives.

Erling Kagge is the first man to ever walk to the North and South Poles. He is also the author of Walking: One Step At a Time and Silence: In the Age of Noise. He is based in Oslo, Norway.

To be quarantined, as we have been in Norway since the middle of March, reminds me about the silence on my expeditions in the Polar regions, how time slows down and the world changes when we walk. Because the world expects us to be available at all times, grounding yourself in nature can be hard.

 I forget about it sometimes, and when I look around, I get the feeling that many people forget about it all the time, too. Mother Earth is more than four billion years old, so it seems arrogant to me when we don’t listen to her and instead blindly place our trust in human invention. 

The last weeks have been different. In my Oslo suburban neighbourhood I have again started to listen to nature. If you listen closely, you’ll hear that the air, the birds, the earth, the wind, the sun, the trees and the horizon have their own language and consciousness. It tells us where we come from and what may lay on the road ahead. 

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It is a truth universally acknowledged that one can save time travelling only two hours from one point to another using modern technology like trains and planes, instead of spending eight hours walking. While this holds up mathematically, not being allowed to use public transportation reminds me that the opposite is equally true: time passes more slowly when I decrease my speed of travel by walking. Life feels long. 

When you are in a car driving towards a mountain, with small pools, slopes, rocks, moss and trees zooming past on all sides, life is curtailed; it gets shorter. You don’t notice the wind, the scents, the weather, or the shifting light. Your feet don’t get sore. Everything becomes one big blur.

And it isn’t only time that grows smaller as one’s pace increases. Your sense of space does too. Suddenly you find yourself at the foot of the mountain. Even your sense of distance has been stunted. Having travelled far, you may be tempted to feel like you’ve experienced quite a bit. But I doubt that’s true.

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When you have to walk along the same route, howeverspending an entire day instead of a half-hour, breathing more easily, listening, feeling the ground beneath your feet, exerting yourselfthe day becomes something else entirely. Little by little, the mountain looms up before you and your surroundings seem to grow larger. Becoming acquainted with these surroundings takes time. It’s like building a friendship. The mountain up ahead, which slowly changes as you draw closer, feels like an intimate friend by the time you’ve arrived. Your eyes, ears, nose, shoulders, stomach and legs speak to the mountain, and the mountain replies. Time stretches out, independent of minutes and hours. 

And this is precisely the secret held by all those who go by foot: life is prolonged when you walk. Walking expands time rather than collapses it.

During these past weeks I have also revisited nature by reading some of my old expeditions journals: “At home I enjoy large helpings. Down here I’m learning to value small pleasures. The subtle shades of the snow. The light wind. Hot drinks. Cloud formations,” I wrote on day 22 while walking alone to the South Pole.  In the course of three weeks I’d not seen or heard a single sign of lifeno people, no animals, no aircraft.

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I’d put some 500 kilometres behind me and had more than 800 to go. When I began that journey I felt that everything around me was completely white and flat all the way to the horizon, and that above the horizon it was blue. But over time I’d started to see things differently. The snow and ice were no longer just white, but myriad shades of white, and contained glints of yellow, blue and green. I slowly began to see variations in the flatnesssmall formations which on closer inspection were like works of art, and different shades of colour worth focusing on.

“It’s a clear day. The hugeness of the landscape and the colours of the snow make me happy. Flatness can be beautiful too, not just mountains. I used to think that blue is the colour of poetry, white of purity, red of passion, and green of hope. But here such classifications don’t seem natural. Now all of them stand for poetry, purity, love and hope. And tomorrow blue and white might stand for storm and frost.”

While having to spend every day in Oslo and being isolated from my fellow Norwegians I have rediscovered that we can do these inner voyages of discovery everywhere. You are shaped by buildings, faces, signs, asphalt, weather and the atmosphere. Even if I walk on the same pavements and pedestrian zones where I walked the day before at the same hour, everything has changed. Some people I observe across the years and can see how they have aged through the spring in their step. Each new day that I walk, the oak trees have changed slightly, the paintings on the sides of buildings have faded a tiny bit more, and the faces that met me only 24 hours earlier have grown older. The changes are too small to notice on a daily basis. It all takes place much too slowly, but because I walk, I know that it’s happening.

Walking is a combination of movement, humility, balance, curiosity, smell, sound, light, inner silence andif you walk far enoughlonging. A feeling which reaches for something, without finding it. The Portuguese, Cape Verdeans and Brazilians have an untranslatable word for this longing: saudade. It is a word that encompasses love, pain and happiness. It can be the thought of something joyful that disturbs you, or something disturbing that brings you plenitude. 

It is about finding your own South Pole.