irginia was eerie. To battle the terror of its suburban silence or maybe because they didn’t know how else to help, my parents got me a bicycle when I was seven. I assume they thought I’d be able to exert my restlessness into the wheels, and become familiar with my environment as opposed to fearing it. Although the pink streamers on the handlebars were hideous, I grew to love that little thing and become an ardent believer in the joy of loitering.
Cul de sacs, alleys, paved gullies, sidewalks, driveways and the Virginian woods became a seven-year-old girl’s chartered territory. The more I pedaled, the more confident I grew. And with this newfound boldness, I felt brave enough to put the bicycle away sometimes, its front wheel whirring in a yard somewhere, to walk around with only one objective: to have no objective at all.
Many years, walks, train rides and bicycles later, my love for perambulating landscapes, on and off foot, without any specific purpose, remains. In Lahore, Pakistan, I would take long walks through the older parts of the city, the sumptuous bazaars, the corn fields behind my college campus and new neighborhoods simply because I wanted to.
When I moved to Brooklyn at 24, the fever to saunter stayed and this time, I had the trains to satiate me. Paying no mind to the letter or color of the line, I would take endless rides to no place in particular. I’d leave my identity somewhere in the crowd and enjoy true hygge, Danish for bliss derived from conviviality, in being anonymous for as long as I wanted. “I wandered lonely as a cloud,” as William Wordsworth once put it. I live in Los Angeles now, where the trains aren’t as widespread as New York’s, but I walk and bike up and down Santa Monica, Melrose, Willoughby, Sunset Boulevard with the same purpose. The city may be new, but this ritual is decades old.
I’m not alone in my love for aimless walks. In The Lost Art of Walking, Geoff Nicholson noted, “Writing is one way of making the world our own, and … walking is another.” Merlin Coverley’s The Art of Wandering also takes the reader on a stroll, if you will, through Rome, Greece, London, France and beyond, detailing the many walks writers and philosophers have taken to make sense of themselves and by extension, the world.
You could argue that writing and walking are similar pursuits; both require exploratory movement of sorts. In Joshua Ferris’ novel, The Unnamed, lead Tim Farnworth does all of his substantial thinking on strolls without goals. Susan Froetschel, behind Fear of Beauty, doesn’t tell as much as she shows how walking informs her writing. French Marxist Guy Debord went as far as calling for “psychogeographical” studies of our public spaces, with the aim to give the public the right to enjoy their surroundings in rapidly commodified cities.
Long before Debord, Kierkegaard advised, “When you go for a walk, let your thoughts wander aimlessly, snooping about, experimenting with first one thing and then another.” And Nietzsche argued that the thoughts he had during walks were the only ones with “any value.” But my favorite musing on walks comes from Werner Herzog: “Tourism is a sin,” Herzog said, “and travel on foot a virtue.”
Around the world, loitering takes on different tenors. In countries like Pakistan and India, loitering is gendered in that men are freer to occupy public space while women are expected to toe the line. Still, younger women have chosen to simply walk and bike in the open, and as contrived as the word “radical” has become, it’s a daring endeavor in such a context.
In the West, too, walking in public as a woman, especially a woman of color, has its political weight. Writers like Taiye Selasi and Aminatta Forna have talked about the friction between being a racial minority and wanting to explore the world outside without being reminded of one’s place. In fictional work, like Loitering With Intent by Muriel Spark, female empowerment is sought through quotidian activities like walking down the street. As any man would.
Sometimes loitering is less about fleeing the confines of your room and more about escaping yourself. Self-discovery often takes place during these simple, unremarkable moments. You may chance upon a new sliver of yourself while walking through a park, dawdling on the sidewalk after fetching the mail, or turning the corner on the street one night.
And while it may not be able to put a permanent end to existential dread, roaming around is said to have a positive impact on one’s mental health. A Stanford study showed that people solved their problems better when they were given a chance to walk. A California State University study similarly noted that people who walked were more likely to express optimism — or at least a sense of resolution — in adverse times. These studies make sense. As most of our interactions become abysmally transactional, an aimless walk is refreshing because it asks nothing of its participant except to get up and get out.
In such a belligerent zeitgeist, which demands us to produce endlessly with receiving little in return, loitering is arguably one of the best ways to stay sane. A lovely refusal to be a cog in the machine. And you don’t need to read Bertrand Russell praise idleness or wear a top hat like a Parisian flâneur (as chic as that’d be) to appreciate loitering. All it requires, I think, is a gentle dose of indifference to life’s tedious demands and a commitment to turning inward for a moment. With every step taken, the pedestrian then becomes the pilgrim, and her journey is hers alone.
Mehreen Kasana is a news writer at Bustle. Previously the front page editor for The Huffington Post and staff writer for The Nation, Pakistan, she is now based in Los Angeles where she writes about politics and culture. You can follow her here.
Photos by Pierre Crosby.