Classics revisited | Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust. A History of Walking, 2001


Jörgen Andersson
Social worker and independant writer


Rebecca Solnit
Wanderlust: A History of Walking
336 pages, paperback
London: Granta Books 2014
ISBN 978-1-78378-039-6

Man has always walked on foot. In the absolute dominant part of human history, wandering has been done out of necessity, because it has been the only means of transportation available. This is still the case for a large part of the world’s population.

But it is not the pure function of getting from point A to point B that occupies Rebecca Solnit in her classic study Wanderlust. A History of Walking (2001). Instead, she is interested in walking for other purposes and takes the reader on an educational journey through the history of ideas from – roughly – the Enlightenment to the present day. The text itself becomes a winding journey of discovery at a leisurely pace, with detours along alluring paths that suddenly appear, and with stops to get an overview of the intellectual landscape. Solnit, of course, also walks physically and we follow her on a pilgrimage to Chimayó in New Mexico, to demonstrate against nuclear weapons-tests in the Nevada desert, along Manhattan avenues and in the footsteps of legendary mountain hiker John Muir in the Sierra Nevada mountains.

A general criticism of Wanderlust is the consistent Anglo-Saxon perspective, which excludes a world of hiking. Having said that, it’s an inspiring pleasure to join Solnit. An obvious starting point is late 18th century England. Here, the parks of the aristocracy spread out to become ingeniously designed landscapes for strolling through, mimicking the wild nature but with a clear border to separate it from the disorderly and uncivilized world outside the walls. That would come to a change. When siblings William and Dorothy Wordsworth embark on a four-day trek in the Pennines and Lake District in the winter of 1799, it is a modest act that would be the start of a revolution in how western men and women view and experience nature.

In the 19th century, an unprecedented passion for walking ensues. William Wordsworth and his epigones turn their treks into poetry, both capturing and shaping a natural romantic zeitgeist. Putting one foot in front of the other in a rhythmic movement along the walkways becomes a popular movement, a part of education and culture. What was previously seen as untamed and potentially dangerous countryside now becomes the utmost spiritual experience of beauty, not only in England but, for instance, in the Alps and other hard-to-reach places. It does not happen without conflict: wandering encroaches on private ownership of the land on which it is carried out. The fine-meshed and well-marked network of hiking trails we can use today in the Lake District and other parts of England is the result of a struggle that lasted well into the 20th century. In this struggle, the contradictions of industrialization and urbanization between city and countryside, between social classes, and between utility and pleasure become sharply visible.

The political mass wandering is at the heart of the Fridays for Future protest movement, where for the first time in history a coordinated action by young people takes to the streets and squares of the big cities to get their message across.

The same applies to the North American continent, where hiking clubs and outdoor activities for pleasure emerge during the 19th century. There are huge, unclaimed mountain and forest areas to explore. But also attractive natural resources to exploit. In this part of Solnit’s story, John Muir is the central figure. His world is the Californian Sierra Nevada, where he arranges strapping and breathtaking tours of the wilderness with the Sierra Club. The hikers also see how the mountain forests are being destroyed. The fact that there are peaceful areas like Yosemite today, we owe to their tireless work to sway the opinion. Hiking in the scenic mountains becomes a way to rise above the toil and tribulations of everyday life in the cave mill of expansive capitalism, but it is also in its practice an overt political act

Rebecca Solnit’s choice of the oppositional perspective of hiking is natural: she is basically an activist writer. A central part of Wanderlust has the city, the urban space, as a stage. Here, of course, we find the custom of going outdoors to walk the city’s main street, corso, where you see and are seen by other city dwellers. But a stroll in the city, as well as wandering in nature, has throughout history largely been executed on the normative terms of heterosexual men. It is the male gaze that has registered, mastered, condemned, and excluded, and that has also shaped the urban space. “The man in the street,” Solnit writes, “is just a populist, but a woman of the street is, like a streetwalker, a seller of her sexuality.” Her great merit is that she highlights the experiences of those who were observed and condemned – the streets become zones where women and underprivileged groups have not had access in their own right, thus having to find room for maneuvers in the margins of the night and the back streets .

When Virginia Woolf in her essay Street haunting goes out one London evening to buy a pen, it is a walk in which the wanderer becomes part of the “vast Republican army of anonymous trampers” that populates the streets. Being anonymous and part of a flow, being in one’s own room but not alone, is the opportunity of major cities – at least in the late 1920s and for a slightly older woman. But for Solnit, the streets and squares also become an opportunity for democratic participation, for citizens to jointly manifest both joy – carnival – and rebellion: revolutions usually begin in cities. She sees, somewhat romanticizing, the street as the main arena of democracy, “the place where ordinary people can speak, unsegregated by walls, unmediatied by those with more power.”

Rebecca Solnit looks with longing back upon what she describes as the golden age of walking, from the hiking craze that arose in the 18th century to the late 20th century when her own hikes have taken place. In a brilliant passage, she sees how, above all, the American suburbs have rationalized away both nature and the city, got rid of all destinations, and have become landscapes adapted only to and for the car. Instead, Solnit writes, we go indoors to stay fit, on treadmills or in stair machines – the treadmill, originally a tool to punish and discipline prisoners, having to walk indefinitely and getting nowhere. The resulting physical exhaustion was part of the elaborate torment but treading in one place was also a mental torture. Now it is a training method.

Rebecca Solnit walking around the Panhandle, San Francisco, where she lives. (Photo Liz Hafalia / The Chronicle)

It’s a striking picture, and it’s quite correct, but Solnit’s prognosis is too gloomy. Since Wanderlust was published twenty years ago, people have continued to manifest different purposes by using their feet and their bodies, on all the fronts that Solnit writes about. The political mass wandering is at the heart of the Fridays for Future protest movement, where for the first time in history a coordinated action by young people takes to the streets and squares of the big cities to get their message across. Taking the protest to the streets was also the driving force of the Arab Spring and during the so-called color revolutions in Ukraine, Belarus and Kyrgyzstan. In 2021, we have seen street protests against the military’s takeover in Myanmar and the mob’s march through Washington and into that stronghold of democracy, the Capitol – the latter an example of how citizens’ democratic right to take possession of the streets simultaneously threatens the foundations of democracy.

The more low-key extreme of the story, wandering in nature, has seen a big boost. Here, too, young people are on the move in a way that would have been difficult to predict. It’s an emerging field of research, but it is not a wild speculation that the search for nature also contains the same counter-movement and criticism of civilization as in the late 19th century. On top of this, the current pandemic has caused us to go out into the nearest forest area in a way that should make Wordsworth and Muir rejoice in their wandering sky.

John Muir’s ideals – both in the struggle to protect forests and mountains from deforestation, and in wandering as an act of purity and simplicity in a world of overconsumption – seem more alive than ever, not least in popular culture. A verse from Greg Brown’s Two Little Feet:

John Muir walked away into the mountains
In his old overcoat a crust of bread in his pocket
We have no knowledge and so we have stuff and
Stuff with no knowledge is never enough to get you there
It just won’t get you there

Apparently, walking as an end in itself and a means of achieving transcendence and clarity also has a future. The combination of bodily movement, contemplation and fresh air remains the epitome of salubrity for urbanized people in the postmodern era.

What future will bring to wandering city streets, if city centers are continuously impoverished in favor of external shopping malls and e-commerce, remains to be seen. However, Rebecca Solnit, in Las Vegas of all places, finds a little ironic glimmer of light in her melancholy ending. Along the Strip, she walks with scores of people who make their way on foot between the casinos and are offered spectacular sceneries on their journey: a kind of greatest hits of iconic city views from the world’s famous cities now and in the past, a concentrate of city walking through history stuck in the present and with consumerism as the highest goal and meaning. Whether this should instill us with hope or despair is an open question. But we keep on walking.

Copyright © Jörgen Andersson 2022

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