The human body was designed to walk. In fact, humans walk better than any other species on Earth. And very few things in our lives boost health, instill creativity and relieve stress more than taking a stroll.
We also have an innate human need to communicate with each other by talking. Humans, because of necessity, evolved into social beings. Cooperation and dependence on each other enhanced our ability to survive under harsh environmental circumstances. Although such survival threats have lessened in today’s world, people continue to need affiliation with others. Indeed, the lack of such connections can lead to many problems, including loneliness.
One of the best things about travel is that it naturally creates avenues for walking and talking to each other, satisfying these two, basic human needs. And although the pandemic has presently disrupted many of our travel plans, when we do start to venture out into the world again, I think we will approach travel with more intentionality, thoughtfulness and appreciation for the benefits it brings to our lives.
Walking while wandering
Walking is essential to our nature. In our evolutionary history, walking upright set our hands free, allowing us to carry children, food and tools, and to gesture. Because we could point to predators and prey in the distance, we could look in the same direction and pay shared attention—a capacity that demands an elaborate brain system.
Experiments by the psychologist Marily Opezzo and Daniel L. Schwartz of Stanford University have shown that walking boosts creativity. In their research, they asked people to quickly come up with alternative uses for common objects, such as a pen. They found that the people who took a walk before completing the task improvised almost twice as many novel ideas as those who remained seated.
A walking brain is a more active brain, and more activity in the brain can bring associations and colliding ideas at the edge of consciousness to mind—resulting in an “aha” moment of insight.
Walking is even a two-way street: we become changed by our movement through the world, but that movement also changes the dynamics of the brain itself. Some recent studies have shown that walking increases the strength of the signals in parts of the brain concerned with sight and other senses, such as touch. This is the biological reality of the phrase “on the prowl.” Walking about helps you discover things more quickly compared to merely sitting in one place.
And discovering new things is a major reason for why you travel; so, when on a journey, we are naturally drawn to walking. Hiking in a national park or walking through a city that’s not familiar to you helps you to tune into the fine details of castles, fields, houses, trees and towns, instead of just glancing over a scene that you see every day. Walking, therefore, is a meditative form of travel. Solvitur ambulando is a Latin term that means “it is solved by walking.” Walking provides freethinking time to ponder the beauty of your surroundings, to work out problems and gets you past mere sightseeing into a deeper experience of the place you’re in.
Walking is not only good for travelers but for the places they visit, too. Walking is friendly to the environment—no carbon emissions. And as walking trails are much thinner than highways or roads, walking leaves a much smaller ecological footprint.
For most of our history, food was hard to come by. After a long day of foraging, hunting and walking, our forebears would sit with each other and sing songs or tell stories. Today, walking still provides human interactions. On your travels, you meet farmers, guesthouse owners, shopkeepers, other locals and fellow travelers—fulfilling that other human need: the one for talking.
Talking while traveling
Ever adaptable, Homo sapiens is also the storytelling species: no matter the technology, no matter our happenstances, we want to be told stories. Whether those stories are beautifully or crudely narrated, whether they are uplifting or tragic, whether they are realistic or are entirely fantastic, we need stories.
Traveling makes you a better storyteller in three substantive ways: it teaches you to become more perceptive; it connects you with other ideas and viewpoints through shared conversations; and our modern, popular means of connecting with each other—especially, on social media—cries out for well-crafted stories, honing your travel-writing skills.
When traveling, you leave the boundaries of your comfort zone and venture to places that you make you feel less sure. You thus become more aware of your environment, noticing details, which is translated into the stories you tell.
Group travel, especially, connects you to other people’s ideas and thoughts. At every meal, conversations of the day’s events occur. Each person has his or her own tale to tell of the same events, with unique twists. As conversations continue, connections between people grow deeper—as does your own, later storytelling.
As humans, we have been telling stories for thousands of years. While once we might have shared them around a fire, today we share them through blogging, podcasts and videos. Those media are magnets for travel stories. Each week, more than 1 million travel-related hashtags are searched.
Wondering while waiting
There are certain things in travel that will doubtlessly change in the future. The pandemic has done more than disrupt the logistics of travel; it may have fundamentally altered the meaning of leaving home. People will see flying as a privilege, not a right. Wide-open spaces with room to roam will be desirable. And travelers will probably want to immerse themselves more in the places that they do visit.
Postpandemic, I see more of us feeling a sense of urgency to do the things we’ve always dreamed of doing and seeing. And I believe we’ll return to nature en masse, for its healing qualities. We’ll gravitate toward more walking and talking on our journeys.
There’s a quote that’s attributed to Ibn Battuta, a Moroccan Muslim scholar and explorer who widely traveled the medieval world, that goes: “Traveling—it leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller.”
I can’t wait to hear all of the creative, deeper and more meaningful stories that will emerge from our travels once the coronavirus pandemic abates and leaves us free to walk the world once again.
Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,