Over the past few years, I’ve attempted to create space in my life for solitude and reflection by going for walks, often in one of the many nature preserves that surround the area I live in. But what I’ve noticed, especially in the busiest seasons, is that these times set aside for margin can easily become just another thing to check off on my to-do list. Or my body might be walking a forest path, but my mind is far away, still wrapped up in the daily problems of work and life.
Think of how true this is for many of us. Yoga class becomes another thing to get to. Running becomes that accomplishment we need to fulfill in order to compete in that half-marathon. Reading that book you’ve always wanted to becomes a nagging guilty thought in the back of your mind. The very things that are meant to take us out of our daily routine can become utilitarian in and of themselves.
Sometimes it’s necessary to take a purposeless ramble. To not have a plan. To open ourselves up to where whim might lead us. To be open to the world.
I did this just recently. My wife was out of town visiting family, and one Sunday I got up and randomly decided that I should go to Boston for the afternoon after church. I didn’t have any particular reason for going to Boston, nothing I had to accomplish up there. I simply had the time and it was a beautiful spring day and I wanted to experience what the city had to offer.
You step onto the road, and if you don't keep your feet, there's no knowing where you might be swept off to.J.R.R. Tolkien
As if the universe was conspiring against me, right away there was pushback. I found out that the train I wanted to take was an hour later than I thought. This led to a strange bout of ambivalence—should I just call it and head back home to my normal routine? Or should I just go for it? With about fifteen minutes to go, I decided to go for it and jogged into the station. Misreading the fare schedule, I paid about twice as much as I expected for a round trip, which threatened to put a damper on my newly psyched up enthusiasm for this adventure. As the train started to make its way north, I wondered whether this spontaneous adventure was going to be worth it. After all, I’d been to Boston plenty of times.
Turns out, I could not have picked a more perfect day. As I stepped out of South Station into the streets, the air was pleasant and warm, one of the first truly nice days to emerge this spring. As I threaded my way through the financial district up to the Boston Common and Public Gardens, I saw that many Bostonians and visitors like myself were also out to enjoy the sunshine. The trees were in peak bloom, casting sprays of white and pink over the walkways like natural cathedrals in the heart of the city. People lay on blankets soaking up the sun, or sitting on the banks of the Public Garden pond, watching the ducks and new ducklings paddling about.
Making my way down Newbury Street, it felt like the city had finally cast off winter and thrown itself open to the spring. Shops and restaurants spilled out onto the sidewalks with wares and smells and conversation. I stopped at Georgetown Cupcake for a small treat, an apple cinnamon cupcake with cream cheese frosting that melted in my mouth. I wandered through the neighborhoods and out to the Esplanade along the Charles River. The sailboats dotted the water, skimming back and forth across the sun sparkled blue surface. I sat there on a bench, letting the sun warm me as I read a little from the book I’d brought along.
Taking these sights in, it felt like my winter-weary eyes were being renewed, taking in the freshness and color of spring. That afternoon filled me up with something I needed, something that could only be found in a rambling, random adventure. I could not have planned such an afternoon.
Later, as I was sitting on the train headed home, I posted this tweet: “How much would you pay for a shot of wonder in the arm? Today it cost me $21. Worth every penny.”
This would not have been possible if I hadn’t listened to the call of the ramble. To paraphrase a certain adventurous hobbit, sometimes you need to step out onto the road, not knowing where you’ll be swept off to.
Chris is an Associate Professor of English at Bristol Community College in Massachusetts, and is also the author of several books of poetry. In 2018 he helped co-found The Poetry Pub, an online community for poets. He enjoys walking in the woods, visiting coffee shops, and poking through used bookstores with his wife Jen.