Need to know
In our education, in working at our occupations, a level of compliance with standards is required of us. But total resignation to marching in step is stifling, mind-numbing, soul-killing. Over time it can accrete into a kind of self-regimentation that leaves you treading the well-beaten path even when no one is telling you to.
In most of us there survives an opposing curiosity, a desire to see what’s around the corner. It doesn’t require an epic, round-the-world journey. We merely need go where nobody says we have to go, for no particular reason, where the smells and tastes and the breeze on our faces awaken us from the soporific haze of habit. To practise an enlivening sort of indolence. To drift, to roam, to colour outside the lines a bit. To wander.
Think like a ranger
I know a little about wandering. For 21 years I worked as a park ranger. The word ‘ranger’ means someone who wanders or ranges over a particular area. The job actually requires the kind of drifting that I am advocating in this Guide.
Of course, the best rangers have a strong sense of mission founded in the protection of the places where they work and the people who come to enjoy them. When a life or a natural treasure is at risk, we can hurry with the best. On the other hand, one of the things I most liked about being a ranger was that, on most days, no one told me where to go. Once a ranger has been trained, we are in charge of our own patrol itineraries. There are good reasons why those itineraries ought to wander.
One reason good rangers wander relates to our protective role. To catch a poacher, a timber thief, or someone who breaks into and steals the contents of unoccupied cars at a trailhead, you must roam unpredictably. Go to the same places at the same time every day and they’ll have you figured out.
An even more important reason a ranger must wander is to know their territory. The more you wander, the better you’ll know the potential routes a lost hiker may have followed, or how to get somewhere fast to save a life.
Discover the value of wandering
Nevertheless, in a regimented world, ‘to wander’ has a slightly scurrilous sound, suggesting something unfocused, even dangerous. In my writing life, when an editor says a piece of my work wanders, it’s definitely not a good thing. ‘Please don’t wander off again’ is the example of ‘wander’ as an intransitive verb in my Oxford English Dictionary. A married person is said to wander when they have an affair. In his Inferno, Dante’s tour of Hell begins when he finds himself lost in the forest, having wandered from the right road. A hiker who wandered off the trail is the opening scene of many a wilderness search and rescue narrative that ends badly. However, I’m here to propose that, if done right, wandering can actually make us happier.
In a peer-reviewed study, published in 2020, a team of psychologists and neuroscientists set out to correlate the extent to which individuals wander from their usual haunts with their level of happiness. The researchers secured permission from 132 subjects in New York and Miami to track their movements through GPS for three to four months, then analysed the data on a measure known as ‘roaming entropy’ – how widely they travelled, and how fresh and unexpected their locations were. While being tracked, participants responded through a phone app to regular queries on their mood. The outcome: those who ranged widely and unexpectedly were happier. In other studies, walking itself was shown to help people think and to enhance creativity. Walking doesn’t require much thought, so the mind is free to do other things. Meanwhile physical activity increases heart rate, blood flow, and oxygenation of the brain, pushes back against ageing, and improves memory and attention.
In her book Wanderlust: A History of Walking (2000), Rebecca Solnit traces the long relationship between foot travel and mental musing. Aristotle’s institute in Athens featured a colonnade along which to walk while philosophising, writes Solnit; thus, those who studied there were known as the ‘Peripatetic school’. The poetry of William and Dorothy Wordsworth and the essays of Henry David Thoreau were produced by wearing out shoes on long walks. Solnit quotes Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a devotee of ambulatory thinking: ‘There is something about walking which stimulates and enlivens my thoughts. When I stay in one place I can hardly think at all; my body has to be on the move to set my mind going.’
What to do
Fruitful wandering requires that you slow down
‘[W]e have the tendency to run into the future in order to look for happiness,’ wrote the Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh. ‘Running has become a habit … Many of us have been running all our lives.’
A culture of headlong rushing emphasises completion of the journey over the journey itself. It assigns greater importance to arrival at some destination than what happens on the way. To wander you need not eliminate purposefulness, only clear a little space – an hour, a day, whatever is possible – to slow down and inhabit where you actually are. Thich Nhat Hanh provides these instructions for walking so as to arrive with every step:
The first thing to do is to lift your foot. Breathe in. Put your foot down in front of you, first your heel and then your toes. Breathe out. Feel your feet solid on the Earth. You have already arrived.
It is not necessary to travel far from home to wander
Wandering can be practised either near your home or when you are travelling, but don’t wait to travel to try it. In the evenings, I sometimes take a walk, and I’ve been noticing I generally go the same way. Last night I went a totally different way and I saw things I have never noticed before in a town in which I have lived for 36 years. In his poem ‘Traveling at Home’ (1988), the agrarian writer Wendell Berry, who lives in the Kentucky countryside he has known since childhood, reminds us that wandering does not require us to go to the other side of the globe:
Even in a country you know by heart
it’s hard to go the same way twice.
The life of the going changes.
The chances change and make it a new way.
Any tree or stone or bird
can be the bud of a new direction …
Remember the study correlating wandering and happiness? It’s worth noticing that the study’s subjects were tracked in their own cities, which is to say they were not weekenders on their first visit. Yet those who kept turning up in new and unexpected places reported feeling happier. What distinguished them was their tendency to fully exploit the possibilities.
Engage your senses
Having slowed down and selected a place to wander, the next thing to do is to activate your senses. Rushing toward some goal in the future is fuelled by the idea of how good you’ll feel when you get there. But anticipated pleasure is just a thought, not a place for your body to feel fully alive. Focus on the physical sensations of where you are right now, which is at once the method and the reward for wandering.
Whether you wander in a city or in nature, engaging your senses is like wine tasting: just as a wine expert distinguishes and articulates flavours, colours, textures and so on, you can sharpen your palette and learn to recognise forms, scents, sounds and sensations, and the names for them in nature and civilisation.
To sharpen your palette for nature, join a wildflower walk led by members of a native plant society, a bird walk, a geology walk or a tide-pool walk. In cities, join a guided architectural or cultural tour to sharpen your palette for civilisation.
Of course, guided walks tend to encourage sight (of the object being discussed) and hearing (the guide’s commentary). Try to use other senses, as well. When roaming brownstone Brooklyn, feel the bumpy cobblestones under your feet and the ground vibrating from the train passing over the bridge to Manhattan. Smell the scent of fresh-baked bread from the bakery; of something hot and spicy from a barbecue at a sidewalk stand. Hear the foghorns down on the bay. The same is true for nature: as you look at wildflowers, also listen for bird calls and feel the damp breeze bringing rain.
Think of something to search for
My favourite celebration of wandering in modern English literature is Virginia Woolf’s essay ‘Street Haunting: A London Adventure’ (1927). Even before I first read it, an experienced traveller told me a way to get to know a strange city: think of something to look for, then pursue the quest to whatever random places and enquiries with locals it takes you.
In ‘Street Haunting’, Woolf walks halfway across London to a stationer’s shop to purchase a single lead pencil. On the way she records the imaginary life stories she makes up for the people she encounters, and snatches of conversation she overhears. To walk in Woolf’s footsteps, think of something you didn’t know you needed, but having thought of it, you really must have it – a legendary sheep’s milk cheese, a silver cigarette case or an out-of-print book – then go in search of it. The object itself is just a poor excuse. Observe and enjoy what happens on the way. The exercise works just as well in nature, where you might go looking for a trillium in bloom or an outcrop of columnar basalt; it’s always the journey that matters, not the destination.
Wander with others
Some wanderers prefer to go alone. It’s a valid choice in the friendlier regions of cities, but in natural areas especially, I strongly recommend you wander together for safety.
The best wandering companions I ever had were native to the places I visited. They helped me understand their cultures and led me to experiences I would otherwise not have had. At a café overlooking a harbour full of oil-rig tenders and fishing boats in Arctic Norway, my Norwegian friend suggested I order the whale steak. I am no fan of whaling, but wandering requires one to step off one’s well-beaten path, and the whale was already dead. It was served with a rich brown gravy and boiled new potatoes. I ate it. It was good.
In Cambodia, I hired a driver, a friend of a friend. He told me about his boyhood, the artillery shells whistling over the roof, and his schoolteacher father leaving the house with a rifle to skirmish with the Khmer Rouge. I went to a restaurant where they had a live crocodile in a pen. Someone suggested I order the crocodile steak. Yes, I know travellers are supposed to limit their ecological footprint by refusing to purchase parts of animals in questionable conservation status, but I suspended my disdain and ate some crocodile, washing it down with cold beer. It too was good, but I won’t do it again.
Consider what to pack for short and long wanders
It’s nice to have a day pack that stuffs easily into your luggage when you travel, and it’s good for wandering at home too. For day wanders in cities and towns, load it with a backup battery for your phone and a bottle of water. In summer months, you’ll need a sunhat and sunscreen along with a jacket or sweater for when it cools down in the evening. Look for local resources that serve the wanderer well. For instance, in New York City you can find a list of every public toilet in the five boroughs. You may want a schedule of the ferries, and a sturdy pocket map (so much better than peering at a small screen in bright sunlight while holding your phone out on a busy street).
In natural areas, load your day pack with additional items, including high-calorie snacks, a compact LED flashlight and extra batteries. Also consider a very loud whistle for attracting help, carried by many outdoor equipment stores.
To wander on multiday trips, I recommend a travel backpack, which is a specialised version of the nature hiker’s backpack. Travel packs come with wheels or without. Wheels are fine on clean airport floors, but in the streets the bottom of your wheeled bag will get dragged through puddles and things you would rather not think about. The frame and retractable handle make wheeled bags sufficiently stiff and bulky that those of them small enough to go in an overhead compartment won’t have much internal space.
For a trip to Southeast Asia, I purchased a well-designed soft pack without wheels (the Osprey Porter Travel Pack 46, with 46 litres of internal space). I’ve been using it ever since. Osprey makes an especially fine ultralight rain cover to fit. Even with the rain cover, for monsoonal conditions, put your tablet or laptop in an ultralight dry bag, even when stored in the padded compartment provided in the pack.
For doing laundry in your lodgings, bring a few feet of parachute cord for a clothesline and some clothespins to hang things to dry.
Allow for wandering in your planned travel
Some people really like planning their travel, poring over travel guides and blogs for months beforehand. If you want to try wandering as an alternative, you should still reserve your flight or other transportation to and from your destination so as not to pay extra or endure inconvenient arrangements. Also reserve comfortable lodgings for a few days after arrival while you’re getting your bearings. Jet-lagged, you are in no condition to hear that every bed in town other than the presidential suite has been sold. But I don’t draw up an exact itinerary. Yes, I read in advance and have an idea of what I’d like to do, but I generally have no schedule for doing it. At times I have used a local travel agent at my destination with better contacts and information than I have at home.
Know what to do if you get lost
With GPS it will soon be debatable – or already is – whether you can get lost in the wilderness. However, it is quite possible to be stuck, unable to go forward or back the way you came. Geolocation map data can be coarse enough to hide a 15-foot cliff. Using GPS takes skill. The unit can be damaged or the batteries can run out. If you cannot proceed or go back the way you came, just stop. Remain on the trail where you can be found. Make yourself comfortable with the extra clothing, snacks and water in your day pack. From time to time blow your extra-loud whistle.
In 2007, the company Spot released a small, light and affordable emergency satellite locator beacon. The personal locator beacon (PLB) is essentially a panic button that sends your geographic coordinates through a satellite to a dispatch centre. At the time, I was doing quite a bit of solo wilderness travel for research on my book Engineering Eden (2016). I carried a Spot device on a backpacking trip in the Arctic and other journeys. More recently, the emergency signalling function has been combined with a GPS screen for navigation and text-messaging capability in a single device, such as in the Garmin 66i.
In a city, it is possible to know where you are on your phone’s map and to still be, in the deepest way possible, lost because you do not know the city, and even though you can read the map, you do not know the granular detail of the streets. Following a phone’s direct route from where you are to where you’re going can lead you from a bustling tourist district with bookstores, museums and charming cafés into deserted streets with a more threatening feel as day turns to night. Here, engagement of your senses pays off. Pay attention to what’s going on around you, not just the screen of your phone. Before you set out, absorb a general knowledge of the town and its geography, its rhythms and culture. When asking a stranger for directions, keep in mind that in some places it’s considered impolite not to hazard a wild guess even when they have no idea what you’re talking about; in New York City, this happens routinely. On the plus side, Google Translate has become a wonderful aid in these conversations. Try showing your informant the words on the screen instead of proudly butchering their spoken language. Double-check what you’ve been told with another passerby and your phone to make sure.
Turn wandering into an art form
As you get the hang of it, wandering can become a medium of personal expression. Following a century-and-a-half-long tradition of wandering as an art practice, try playing the flâneur, an idler roaming the streets as a detached observer who was the literary brainchild of the 19th-century author Charles Baudelaire and the 20th-century philosopher and critic Walter Benjamin. In the 1920s, in a tart critique of fine arts as luxury goods for rich industrialists who profited from the slaughter of the First World War, antiwar Surrealist and Dada artists organised group walks as an art form that could not be subverted to decorate the walls of mansions. Later, an international artists’ collaborative refined this practice as the dérive (literally, ‘drifting’) focusing on a ‘psychogeography’, or how they experienced the places they encountered. Ellen Mueller, a Minnesota-based artist and educator, teaches this tradition in her course Walking as Artistic Practice. To try one of her dérive exercises, go for a walk and record where you are drawn, and where you are repelled, in a notebook or in photos taken with your phone. Why might you be experiencing those emotions and behaviours? How did the architecture, topography and space affect your experience? How does that relate to class, gender, race, ability and other markers of identity?
In the final analysis, wandering sounds less important than making a living or other forms of pragmatism. But what is really at stake is your life – at least what you remember of it. Have you ever noticed that you can account for minutes and hours on certain days when something novel was happening, but have forgotten whole months, or series of months, during which you toed the line and did what was expected of you? So awaken, sleeper!
Key points – How to wander
- Think like a ranger. Focusing on your life’s purpose helps you prioritise the steps needed to reach your goals, but too much purposefulness can take all the joy and spontaneity out of life. Strike a balance between purpose and the kind of beneficial idling known as wandering.
- Discover the value of wandering. Wandering sounds unproductive, yet research suggests that people who do it are happier. Aside from generating fresh experiences, just walking – putting one foot in front of the other – raises your heart rate, increases blood flow to the brain, pushes back against ageing, and builds new neurological connections that help you think better and be more creative.
- Fruitful wandering requires that you slow down. Shift your focus from arriving at some future accomplishment to immersing yourself in where you are now.
- It is not necessary to travel far from home to wander. Wandering is more a state of mind than an airline ticket.
- Engage your senses. Guided natural history, cultural history and architecture walks build your capacity to appreciate what is around you.
- Think of something to search for. The object is just an excuse to set out on your quest and see where, and to whom, the search leads you.
- Wander with others. Wandering can be practised alone, but in the outdoors it’s better to go with others.
- Consider what to pack. A few well-chosen items in your pack can make your wandering safer and more comfortable. In wild areas, a personal locator beacon is an option.
- Allow for wandering in your planned travel. Many people like to plan out the details of a trip in advance, but there are benefits to allowing for some flexibility on the ground. Book the big items, but devise your itinerary as you go.
- Know what to do if you get lost. Pay attention to what’s going on around you, not just the screen of your phone. Before you set out, absorb a general knowledge of the town and its geography, its rhythms and culture.
- Turn wandering into an art form. Follow in the footsteps of writers and artists who saw walking as a means of personal expression and rebellion.
Wandering your way to inspiration
Many people put wandering into the bucket with other leisure activities, but it can actually fuel productivity in life and work. In 2008, with climate change and mass extinction challenging the idea that any part of nature could still be ‘natural’, I proposed a book about how managers of national parks were struggling to balance respect for nature’s remaining wildness with unnatural interventions to save species and landscapes. A major publisher thought this was a good idea and gave me a substantial advance. The problem was, I didn’t know what exactly to write about. Where in the 109 million acres of designated wilderness in the United States was the story? Who among the rangers and scientists in more than 400 national parks would be its central characters?
So I came up with what might have looked like a disorganised and wasteful method of research. I spent my advance drifting around the most gorgeous wildlands in the US with the conviction that I would find a central narrative worth telling. A friend asked me, rather pointedly, whether there even would be a book, or if I was just blowing my advance for pleasure.
Alone with crampons and an ice axe, I climbed a melting glacier where the bodies of two Second World War soldiers had thawed from the ice still wearing their uniforms from 1942. I accompanied rangers and biologists on night patrols seeking rogue bears in the Sierra Nevada mountains in California and exotic reptiles in the Everglades – giant Burmese pythons and African lizards introduced to South Florida from the pet trade. I went hiking in two former artillery ranges repurposed as nature refuges, where I was advised to remain on the trail to avoid stepping on unexploded shells. I rowed a white-water raft down the Colorado River. I paddled the lakes of northern Minnesota and the Okefenokee Swamp in Georgia, where I collided with a couple of alligators dozing just beneath the surface of the black water, who, rudely awakened, thrashed about, nearly upending our canoe. I made two trips to the Arctic and, on one of them, spent nine days following caribou around the tundra. I travelled by yacht to wild offshore islands and walked a wilderness trail frequented by drug smugglers on the US-Mexico border.
More than a year into this drifting, I was in a library in Montana researching something else when I stumbled on a box of court transcripts from a lawsuit over the death of Harry Walker, a hitchhiker killed by a grizzly bear in the midst of festivities celebrating the centennial of Yellowstone National Park. Harry became the book’s central character, and the trial over his death the armature around which its story is told. In the end, most of my research trips didn’t make it into the book, but without all this wandering I never would have found Harry. All those trips in search of the story are among the best things I’ve ever done, a bucket list in a book.
Links & books
The feminist, environmentalist, urbanist and public intellectual Rebecca Solnit can be said to have picked up the mantle of Susan Sontag. In Solnit’s books Wanderlust: A History of Walking (2000) and A Field Guide to Getting Lost (2006), she wanders through bipedalism as personal exploration, protest, pilgrimage, history and metaphor; and lostness in her childhood, the colours in Renaissance paintings, the desert, and mixtapes. These are books to be savoured, compact enough to fit in a travel pack.
In her essay ‘Street Haunting: A London Adventure’ (1927), Virginia Woolf walks through a richly depicted London between the world wars as her wandering point of view flies from character to character in the manner that made me love her novel Mrs Dalloway (1925).
My uncle, an aerospace engineer, paced when he was thinking. I do it when I’m talking on the phone. But why? Like the best of The New Yorker’s ‘Annals of Technology’ dispatches, Ferris Jabr’s article ‘Why Walking Helps Us Think’ (2014) is crisp, engaging science journalism about this commonplace mystery.
The artist and educator Ellen Mueller’s web syllabus for her class about wandering on foot as an artistic medium will be followed by the publication of her book Walking as Artistic Practice (forthcoming in October 2023).
In this short clip ‘Slow Down, Enjoy the Trip’, the travel writer and TV host Rick Steves pretty much says what the title suggests.