Over the last few years, I’ve let a bad habit become a full-blown hobby.
I used to readwalk only in short bursts over familiar territory, from one seat to another. My brother likes to remind me of my “nerdiest” teenager moment, when he saw me simultaneously walk down the stairs, puff on my inhaler, push my glasses up my nose, and never once lift my gaze from the page.
Now, especially with the advent of the backlit e-reader, I can read and walk for miles, day and night, treading a tightrope between worlds real and imaginary.
When I’m balanced on said metaphorical tightrope, I feel like I have superpowers. Mind and body engage, legs pumping at just the right pace, hand angling the book just so. My senses scan for obstacles and correct course while my brain lights up with imaginary scenes and new knowledge.
But sometimes I teeter. My peripheral vision evaporates, the rectangle in my hand more interesting than anything around it. I exclaim aloud in reaction to the story – a wild laugh, an angry mutter – then jump sheepishly as a jogger comes around the bend.
In my worst moments, usually at night, I walk like a drunkard, weaving back and forth across the trail until I stumble over its edge into the weeds. (I must note in a defensive tone that I haven’t actually fallen down or run into anything while reading… yet.)
Or I’ll be so wonderstruck by an excerpt of reality that my book dangles forgotten from my fingertips. The trigger can be anything. A heron’s wings thumping the air overhead. A creeping fog-bank that wraps me in an ethereal blanket. A cyclist singing at the top of his lungs to his boombox.
It’s a reminder that, as with any act of multi-tasking, reading while walking is a compromise. I’m making a conscious decision to sacrifice immersion for this neither-here-nor-there state. To make matters worse, there’s no way to do it without looking like a total dweeb and a menace to public safety.
Still, I’m addicted to bringing these two forms of exploration together. Despite their ostensible passivity, both reading and walking can be journeys full of surprises. My mind gets a kick out connecting the two. As a result, memories of story and place often fuse into a new experience. I’ve walked among a grove of redwoods while a fantasy planet was deforested, strolled in my orderly suburb while wrapped in the hubbub of a slum, climbed tame hills alongside more fierce alpinists.
I also find that readwalking is more sustainable for me than either activity alone – if I sit still to read, I’m likely to fall asleep, while if I walk without my book I turn back sooner.
And lest you think me irresponsible, I do have a couple ground rules:
1. Always look up before crossing the street.
It turns out one of the first rules you learn in childhood still applies! Ideally, I should keep the heightened awareness all the way through the crosswalk, but sometimes it’s hard to break from the story for even those few seconds to step off the curb.
2. Stay on straight, smooth, uncrowded trails only.
After a few attempts to read on gnarled hiking trails, all I ended up with were bruised toes. Instead, I read on the flat bike trail that runs alongside the river a couple blocks from my apartment. As a bonus, it connects to the freeway trail that takes me to work and passes right by the library so I can restock on reading material. And the scenery’s not bad.
3. Acknowledge the existence of other people.
Clearly, I am prone to using books to avoid interacting with the real world. However, a simple nod, smile, and brush of eye contact can be the best way to drop an anchor back in reality and assure pedestrians that I’m not going to walk headfirst into them. Plus, since I’ve already established myself as an eccentric, it’s easier to go even further out on an awkward limb and ask if I can pretty-please pet the passerby’s dog or horse.
If there’s one lesson to learn from this, it’s that I should really get better at listening to audiobooks.