By Greg Clark, April 16, 1938
Who says it takes no courage to go walking in this machine age?
“Let’s,” cried Jimmie Frise, “go for a drive in the country.”
“Let’s,” I corrected, “go for a walk in the country. You can’t see any country driving.”
“And how far,” retorted Jim, “would we have to walk before we reached the country? Don’t be silly. We’ll get in the car and go out the Centre Road and turn off some of the side roads and just dawdle along, stopping the car at the top of every rise, looking at groundhogs and the greening fields and the woods turning a tawny yellow…”
“To enjoy the earth,” I stated, “you have at least to have your feet on the earth. This sitting your way through the country is ridiculous.”
“Walking,” replied Jim. “is a thing of the past.”
“Unfortunately you’re right,” I agreed. “The more’s the pity. Walking is the contemplative recreation. The age of contemplation is dead.”
“Aw, who wants to contemplate?” snorted Jim.
“Walking,” I continued, uninterrupted, “is associated with all the finest activities of the human mind. Since walking gave way to riding, what can you show me of any greatness in the human mind?”
“Now, don’t get going on that again,” warned Jimmie.
“All right, show me,” I reiterated. “Since the human race took to riding everywhere on trains, on street cars and finally in motor cars and aeroplanes, I can show you a steady decline in human ideas. Draw a graph of the increase in riding, and I’ll draw you a graph showing the exact reverse in human brain and power.”
“Heh, heh,” laughed Jim.
“Look,” I said. “The railway came into general and widespread use about 1860, didn’t it? And about 1860 began all the mad and furious human concentration on wealth. With railways to carry its burdens, the human race started to spread out savagely in all directions, populating vast areas that to-day are destroyed by floods and sand storms; erecting giant cities, filled with tall chimney, under which to-day pallid millions lead lives of desperation and fear. From 1860 to 1900 this vast expansion went on, and then the motor car was invented. And the world simply went nuts. In 1914, the aeroplane was just dawning as a still newer and more effective way of moving fast and effortless and in 1914, the great war, the greatest disaster in human history, began.”
“Ah,” said Jim, “so trains, cars and aeroplanes caused the war?”
The Art of Walking
“The less we have walked,” I declared, “the deeper the trouble we have got into. The faster we could go without walking, the crazier the trouble. If men don’t walk, they don’t think.”
“You’re nuts,” agreed Jim.
“If we had had to walk across the continent,” I demanded, “would we have had vast annual floods? No, there wouldn’t have been enough of us in the Great West to denude it and cause floods and sand storms. If we had had to walk to the great war, would there have been a great war? Would there be 58,000 young Canadians dead, if we had had to swim the Atlantic to get to France?”
“Nuts,” decided Jim.
“No, sir,” I said, “walking demands reflection. You can’t walk down street to the corner drug store without your mind engaging in happy thought. But I defy you to think, sitting in your car and driving to the corner drug store.”
“That’s an idea,” grudged Jim.
“Picture all the great thinkers of the past,” I propounded. “Aristotle, Plato, Spinoza, and where do you see them? Walking, deep in thought, in their gardens and along the sea shore. You don’t picture them sitting in an ox-cart, jolting along. Picture the great heroes, Napoleon, Nelson. Napoleon, walking, hands behind his back in the night, planning, scheming. Nelson, pacing his quarter deck, envisioning his great battles. Not sitting in a sea flea, going 40 miles an hour. No, siree. I venture to say all the greatest thoughts that ever came into the human head, came to men as they walked. As they walked along the shores of Galilee, as they paced the ancient streets and courts of London, as they plodded with purpose and courage all the highways, the backroads, the fields and the forests of the world.”
“Still,” said Jim, “it’s a swell day, and I don’t fancy myself going walking. It is a good mile from here to the suburbs. Then we’d have to walk about two more miles through steadily declining suburbs, each more dismal than the one before, the houses getting smaller, and merging into shacks, and then the shacks giving way to the first dowdy run-down farms and market gardens of the city’s edge, and all the roads jammed with cars boiling along nose to tail, honking and snorting in Sunday mood.”
“Yeah,” I cried “Can you imagine anything more absurd than all those thousands of cars, in fury and anger, sputtering and grinding along the Sunday roads. Why do people go driving on Sunday? Don’t they know what it will be like before they start out?”
“Habit,” said Jim.
“Yes, sir,” I agreed. “Habit. The thing that has taken the place of thinking, since men gave up walking.”
“It’s funny, now you think of it,” confessed Jim.
“The Englishman,” I informed him, “is the only man left who has maintained the art of walking. Result: more thinking amongst Englishmen to-day than amongst any other race.”
“Their roads,” pointed out Jim, “are too narrow and twisty for driving. Remember all those tiny little windy lanes around Shorncliffe and Seaford?”
“The Englishman, whatever his reason,” I stated, “has kept alive the art of walking. He wears stout brogue shoes, strong, weatherproof tweed clothes. He carries a cane. He smokes a pipe. And he goes walking. And thinking.”
“He’s rather a decent figure, these days,” admitted Jim. “There is something sort of sound and earthy about him.”
“Naturally,” I agreed. “Because he touches the earth. But riding in cars, what do you get? Earthy? No, oily.”
“Cugh,” protested Jim.
Sporty and Outdoorsy
“Maybe the narrow, twisty lanes of England,” I admitted, “are responsible for the character of the Englishman. Maybe it is the earth that makes the man. But even so, I think an Englishman, in stout shoes, in a rough tweed suit, with a pipe in his jaws, a wool muffler tied, Ascot around his neck, and striding across the wold, deep in such thought as the wind and the sky and the earth inspires, is a more noble spectacle than you and me sitting in a wildcat of a car quarrelling our way up and down paved country roads at 50 miles an hour.”
“Ascot style, what’s that?” inquired Jim, standing up to display to better advantage his new tweed suit.
“You take the muffler,” I explained, and turn it once around your neck, see?” I explained. Then you half knot it once, see? And twist the scarf so that the upper or full end is on top Instead of a criss-cross muffler, the way Canadians usually wear it, you have a sort of square, all-set-with-the-world sort of muffler. It fills the neck of your coat as with a cravat.”
“Yeah, I’ve seen Englishmen like that,” admitted Jim. “It looks sporty, outdoorsy.”
“That’s it,” I said. “Now in that suit you’ve got on there, with a Scotch wool scarf, a tweed cap, stout brogue walking shoes, and a walking stick and wash leather gloves…”
“Wash leather?” said Jim
“Wash leathaw,” I said. “It’s English for shammy.”
“Ah,” said Jim elegantly.
“I tell you what we’ll do,” I cried. “I’ve got that red tweed of mine. Let’s dress up and go for a tramp in the country. What do you say, old chap?”
“Right-ho,” said Jim. “Right-ho.”
“We’ll get one of the kids to drive us out a few miles out of town,” I elaborated.
“One of the young ‘uns,” corrected Jim.
“Quaite,” I agreed. “Quaite. One of the youngstahs will run us a few miles out of town and drop us in some jolly little spot.”
“Quaite,” said Jim. “Some jolly little bit of terrain where we can stretch our legs and inhale a little breath of ay-yaw.”
“Aaaaiiiiaw,” I corrected, “Yaw. A breath of yaw.”
“You haven’t got it right,” protested Jim. “Not yaw. A breath of aw. That’s it. Aw.”
“No, no,” I insisted. “I know my English. I’ve got two brothers-in-law and they’re both English. It is yaw. A breath of yaw.”
“You can’t say a breath of fresh yaw,” argued Jim a little heatedly. “I served three years under an English sergeant-major, see? I tell you it’s a breath of fresh eeeaaaaaawwwwww. You sort of open your mouth just a little bit, draw your chin in, and say eeeaaaaawwwwww.”
“Aw, what the heck,” I protested. “You sound like a dying duck. Never mind the English language. Let us stick to English clothes and English habits. Let’s just go for a walk in the country, that’s all we had in mind.”
“Right-ho,” agreed Jim. “Right-HO!”
So Jim went home and put on his heavy shoes and a tweed cap and borrowed one of his small son’s wool mufflers and I got rigged out in my rusty tweed, with plus fours, and a tweed hat, and I loaned Jimmie a cane. One of Jim’s girls was glad to drop us somewhere in the country, and we drove out the Centre Road until we came to the groundhog country, where, on every knoll, a new-waked groundhog sat in stupid joy, sunning himself.
We went down a couple of side roads, twisting and turning until we came to one side road not unlike an English lane, narrow and wooded, and there we were dropped from the car.
“We’ll walk,” I explained to the young lady, “out to the highway and telephone from some wayside inn about six o’clock. You can run out and pick us up, what?”
“Right-ho,” agreed Jimmie and his family.
“Right, quaite,” we all agreed, waving our sticks jauntily, and lifting our tweed hats and gripping our new-lit pipes in our teeth. Rusty, the water spaniel, scrambled out to accompany us.
And the car vanished and the wide and lovely country stood before a couple of country gentlemen, welcoming.
The sky was soft with April. A gentle haze hung over the world. It was soft, damp, luscious. Fields of winter wheat made vivid quilts of green, flung wide. Darkly the woods stood, tinged with a rusty, russet, faded yellow.
“Yellow is the color of spring,” said Jim.
“In England,” I sighed, “there would be daffodils peeping along our path.”
Getting Down to Earth
We strode forth. The roads were muddy and bog holed, but along their sides were firm dry paths for the foot that sought them. Birds sang in the barren woods, visible and flighting with an ecstasy that would be unseen in another three weeks, when the buds break into leaf. On all the moist mounds, sleazy groundhogs, dark from their winter hiding, perched and slunk. From the farms, aloof, came the hankering of geese, the crow of fowls and the call of cows. We strode along.
“Ah,” breathed Jim, deep and slow.
“What peace,” I said, picking my steps with care amidst the bog. Rusty floundered along the fences, sniffing and exploring and full of vigor.
Not talking much, and not thinking much either, on account of the mud and the having to pick out footing, and all the nice soft lovely feeling of the air, we peregrinated up hill and down dale. We pointed out beauties, exclaiming; we halted and looked with earnest delight at things not really very beautiful, after all, because it is May showers that bring June flowers in Ontario. And it is a little early yet.
We halted, our ears tip-toe, to hear the first birds of spring, the meadowlark, that pied piper, calling forth all the singers, the bluebird calling okalee and the broad-winged hawks wheeling their love dance low over the trees, screeching their fierce love whistle, ignoring the tasty vesper sparrows tilted beak up on every post and stub; the robins with contralto voices, nervous so far from houses and juncos with the voice of tiny sleigh bells fluttering from thicket to thicket on their long way north, too gray and parsimonious, even on so long journey, to miss a single bet along the hedges.
We saw a gander, a farmyard gander, uplift his wings enormously and take a short, swift run and launch himself into the air for a wild and ludicrous flight across a little gulley, and the whole farmyard applauded, pigs, geese, horses, hens, and us. We saw young calves, with stiff tails going for sudden careens around their little pastures. Lambs bounced upon boulders. Sheep with nothing on their minds bleated with all the expression of a nervous breakdown from hill to hill. Horses with fiery airs whinnied from resounding bellies across fences. It was spring.
We had a lovely walk, and we could feel our tissues stretching pleasantly, and our lungs filling clean and full and the pipes smelled fragrantly, even though the earth did not; and it grew duller and mistier until, just at the highest hill we had encountered, and when we were thinking of turning our steps towards the highway, three miles distant, the first small drops of rain fell.
“One thing about English clothes,” I pointed out, as I turned my collar up, “is they are made for weather.”
“I guess we had better head for the highway,” agreed Jim.
And we started east. Rusty had ceased his gamboling and exploring some half hour earlier and had been following to heel. Now he got right under our feet.
The rain thickened. It enriched and enlarged and increased. From little Scotch misty drops it grew to large Canadian drops each about the size of a marble.
“Cugh,” said Jim.
“Get out of my way,” I said to Rusty, who was trying to shelter under me as we walked.
And the rain pounded, and the sky darkened to a dead slate gray, and we could not see the farm houses as we passed, so in sheets did the rain fall, and the road became just a series of great yellow puddles. The tweeds soaked it up, the brogues sponged it up, our hats sagged over our ears and eyes and began to steam mildly.
“What-ho,” said Jim, bitterly and suddenly.
“Quaite,” I responded, with equal bitterness.
“When an Englishman goes walking, explained Jim, wetly, “he knows the climate is lousy.”
“Quaite,” I sogged.
“But in this country,” said Jim, “we expect the weather always to be fine.”
“Quaite,” I squelched.
So we thumbed a truck and got a lift into the suburbs, and from a drug store, called home for them to pick us up.
Editor’s Notes: A sea flea is a type of small racing boat, also known as a Muskoka Seaflea.
I’m not entirely sure where “Centre Road” was located, but it might be referring to the current Hurontaio Street in Mississauga/Brampton. They would not have to travel this far for the countryside in 1938, but it is hard to tell.