Travelling on Foot

Cover of Herzog on Herzog, showing tight head shot of the director

In my teenage years, desperate to bridge the gap between hope and fear, I would walk long distances. When I “should have been studying”, I would walk for hours. Perhaps, if I had been more willing to participate in team sports, I might have been too sore and weary to be so deeply troubled by hopes and fears. Yet I didn’t walk to become sore and weary so much as to escape from home, from school, from the Catholic Church. I had discovered the pleasure of solitude.

When I was a photographer, many of my self-assigned projects required walking. Sometimes I would travel light, with a Leica and two or three lenses. At other times, I would do it hard, lugging a 4×5 view camera, tripod, light meter, and film holders. I got the best results with a Hasselblad, 60mm and 100mm lenses, and a portable flash.

One successful project, inspired by a few Walker Evans pictures I’d seen, involved taking close-up pictures of the ground. I chose three outer Sydney suburbs — Campbelltown, Penrith, and Windsor — drawing circles 1.4km, 1.0km, and 0.7km in diameter respectively around the geographic center of each suburb on Army survey maps. I then plotted equidistant points around each circle: 7 for Windsor, 10 for Penrith, 14 for Campbelltown. Each weekend for months I would take the train to one of those suburbs, walk systematically around the perimeter I had established, and take photographs at the various plotted points. I lit the debris on the ground with a ringflash which, together with the 100mm Planar lens, produced a shadowless, flat picture plane in which every twig, pebble, cigarette butt, and blade of grass had equal weight.

In my heart I always knew that the pictures turned out well not because of my technical expertise but because of the distances I’d walked.

There’s no substitute, I had read somewhere (and discovered for myself), for being in and moving through the landscape.

After a long sojourn, I’ve recently come back to walking. Needing a new pair of trainers, I bought a pair of Garmont hiking shoes instead. And I started reading Herzog on Herzog, which had arrived in a recent Amazon order.

A couple of days ago I read Dave Rogers’ post (in which he wrote: I’ll walk Bodhi the usual amount today, something approaching ten miles or so), followed his pointer to Ethan Johnson’s weblog entry, A Man Who Walks, and thence to an earlier post about walking as a strategy for losing weight:

Here’s the news, for anyone who wishes to hear it: I don’t believe that weight loss solely through dieting is the answer. If you don’t make any other change to your lifestyle, you will see benefits (by and large) by walking 30 minutes a day, every day. As improvements are made, your brain and body will conspire to build momentum (and burn Omentum) and devise other ways to increase your activity and fitness level. I’m finding it harder to sit around idly, and prefer to be active. I walk outdoors at least once a day, but usually twice. I’m finding that walking allows me to think more clearly (and deeply) versus vegging out in front of the TV or reacting to the various stimuli available online.

That my (imagined) motivation for walking differs from Dave’s or Ethan’s matters little. Walking the dog, walking to lose weight, walking to make pictures… ultimately, our walking is a means of — as Herzog puts it — moving through [our] own inner landscapes.

Herzog on Herzog comprises a series of interviews, conducted by Paul Cronin, in which the legendary German filmmaker offers innumerable insights into the making of his extraordinary films and attempts to dispel the quite astonishing number of myths, rumors, and downright lies that have accumulated around Herzog over the course of his career.

I have seen many of Werner Herzog’s films at the cinema, starting with Signs of Life in 1971. A little over half of the 54 films he has made are available on DVD (I currently have 24 so I guess you could call me a fan). Reading Herzog on Herzog has then been an unalloyed pleasure. I vaguely knew that, on hearing of Lotte Eisner’s illness, he walked from Germany to her home in Paris but I didn’t realize that walking is fundamental to Herzog’s way of being in the world. Here are some excerpts…

The Importance of Travelling on Foot (p280)

Has travelling on foot always been very important to you?

Humans are not made to sit at computer terminals or travel by aeroplane; destiny intended something different for us. For too long now we have been estranged from the essential, which is the nomadic life: travelling on foot. A distinction must be made between hiking and travelling on foot. In today’s society — though it would be ridiculous to advocate travelling on foot for everyone to every possible destination — I personally would rather do the existentially essential things in my life on foot. If you live in England and your girlfriend is in Sicily, and it is clear that you want to marry her, then you should walk to Sicily to propose. For these things travel by car or aeroplane is not the right thing. The volume and depth and intensity of the world is something that only those on foot will ever experience.

Walking to Lotte Eisner (p281)

Your friendship with Lotte Eisner was so strong that when she fell ill you refused to let her die. You said German film just wasn’t ready for her death, that it still needed her. Was this the reason why you walked to Paris to see her, a voyage you wrote about in your book Of Walking on Ice?

In 1974 we German filmmakers were still fragile, and when a friend told me Lotte had suffered a massive stroke and I should get on the next plane to Paris, I made the decision not to fly. It was not the right thing to do, and because I just could not accept that she might die, I walked from Munich to her apartment in Paris. I put on a shirt, grabbed a bundle of clothes, a map and a compass, and set off in a straight line, sleeping under bridges, in farms and abandoned houses. I made only one detour to the town of Troyes because I wanted to walk into the cathedral there. I walked against her death, knowing that if I walked on foot she would be alive when I got there. And that is just what happened. Lotte lived until the age of ninety or thereabouts, and years after the walk, when she was nearly blind, could not walk or read or go out to see films, she said to me, ‘Werner, there is still this spell cast over me that I am not allowed to die. I am tired of life. It would be a good time for me now.’ Jokingly I said, ‘OK, Lotte, I hereby take the spell away.’ Three weeks later she died.

When you travel on foot with this intensity, it is not a matter of covering actual ground, rather it is a question of moving through your own inner landscapes. I wrote a diary of the walk which I pulled out during the shooting of Nosferatu and decided to publish as Of Walking in Ice. I actually like the book more than my films; it is closer to my heart than all my films together, I think, because of the many compromises that filmmaking always entails.

Travelling to Film School, Alone, on Foot (p15)

Tell me about your ideal film school.

…vitally, aspiring filmmakers have to be taught that sometimes the only way of overcoming problems involves real physicality. Many great filmmakers have been astonishingly physical, athletic people. A much higher percentage than writers or musicians. Actually, for some time now I have given some thought to opening a film school. But if I did start one up you would only be allowed to fill out an application form after you had travelled alone on foot, let’s say from Madrid to Kiev, a distance of about 5,000 kilometers. While walking, write. Write about your experiences and give me your notebooks. I would be able to tell who had really walked the distance and who had not. While you are walking you would learn much more about filmmaking than if you were in a classroom. During your voyage you will learn more about filmmaking than if you were in a classroom. During your voyage you will learn more about what your future holds than in five years at film school. Your experiences would be the very opposite of academic knowledge, for academia is the death of cinema. It is the very opposite of passion.

I’ve written previously about the physicality of taking pictures (requiring a kind of athletic grace more akin to sports than making art) so Herzog’s words came as an affirmation. I sit in front of a computer too much. I’m better off walking — where I can think, feel, be in the world, make pictures, write essays in my mind…

Next on my reading list, after Herzog on Herzog: Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust: A History of Walking.

10 Responses to “Travelling on Foot”

  • On May 10th, 2007 at 1:44 am, Ethan wrote:

    This is going to sound silly, but I’m amazed at the scope and depth of the sounds of nature that I hear when walking around my subdivision. Suburbia is meant to appear neat and orderly, yet “nature” persists. Much nicer than listening to mp3s while walking.

    Thanks for the link/mention.

  • On May 10th, 2007 at 4:35 am, loren wrote:

    There seems to be something truly postmodern about reading books about walking, Jonathon.

    Which isn’t to say that I’ve always walked. In high school a friend and I would walk 5 miles downtown and 5 miles back to save the 25 cent bus fair, but really so we could spend the day walking and talking.

    The best time in my life was right after I retired and walked up to twenty-five miles per day in the Columbia Gorge and on Mt. Hood.

    I’ve even discovered that the only time I can write poetry is when I’m walking.

  • On May 10th, 2007 at 10:45 am, Camilo wrote:

    Walking allows time to clear the mind, dispel angers and allow the rational mind to catch up with the emotional. That we all achieve wholeness through our physicality should be no surprise.

  • On May 10th, 2007 at 12:04 pm, dave rogers wrote:

    That we all achieve wholeness through our physicality should be no surprise.

    I would say that without exploring or exploiting our physicality we are unlikely to achieve wholeness, but I don’t think it’s by any means exclusively through it. It’s all of a piece, yet our modern sedentary existence has deprecated the utility of physicality in favor of the immediate, if ultimately superficial, advantages seemingly offered by technology.

    A wonderful post, Jonathon.

  • On May 10th, 2007 at 12:13 pm, Doug’s Dynamic Drivel » Falling out of habit wrote:

    [...] Delacour has a wonderful piece today on walking. If you are or have been at some time in your life a long distance walker [...]

  • On May 10th, 2007 at 10:01 pm, Yotro wrote:

    An interesting post. Three favourite walkers of mine: the painter R.B. Kitaj who took up brisk London walks after a heart attack and sang the joy of them; Kitaj led me by down the path to Rousseau’s (rather deranged) Reveries of the Solitary Walker; and Thoreau’s aptly titled Walking.

  • On May 11th, 2007 at 10:27 am, Shelley wrote:

    “I sit in front of a computer too much. I’m better off walking — where I can think, feel, be in the world, make pictures, write essays in my mind…”

    Amen, Jonathon. Amen.

  • On May 20th, 2007 at 4:07 pm, Mike Golby wrote:

    Jonathon, I find this a wonderfully “affirming” piece.

    I do not pretend to take photographs but, since acquiring a Canon A520, I’ve been passionate — perhaps obssessive — about getting outdoors. I either walk mountains or, to Wendy’s disgust, sit on a rock for nine hours making pictures of surfers. The camera — now a Canon S3 IS, is my excuse for seeking inner and outer space and, more importantly, melding or balancing the two.

    (A friend who writes for the local Sunday Independent recently won a national journalism award for fiction. She’s presently compiling a book on walking.)

    Frankly, I’m not one for exercise — I did karate on and off for decades, lured by the promise of ‘minimal effort, maximal effect’ — but I do love the stimulating solitude I find travelling the vast and wondrous spaces immediately about (and, by extension, within) us.

    And, I guess, in my case, what might be a bad picture to some is life lived fully to another.

    Today’s the second day of our first bad winter storm — what better excuse to be out there — walking? I’m off…

  • On May 31st, 2007 at 6:59 pm, William Thirteen wrote:

    you might enjoy reading Patrick Leigh Fermor’s ‘A Time of Gifts’ detailing the first third of his walk from Holland to Constantinople’ through a Europe not yet destroyed by the second world war. The most destructive aspects of modern urban planning have been the redesign of cities for the convenience of automobiles rather than pedestrians…

  • On October 17th, 2008 at 8:16 am, Tom wrote:

    I know the feeling I work a job that requires me to sit in front of a computer all day, every day. Looking outside, wondering how the breeze feels, longing to be out there, enjoying life rather than rotting away in a cube.

    Every weekend for the past few months I’ve been driving somewhere I’ve never been and I just walk and wander until I discover something I’ve never seen before. It’s amazing what the world has to offer and what I never would have seen if I didnt get up away from the computer and explore.