On the Benefits of Walking

Photo of walker Harold Steppuhn, by Matthew R Anderson

A friend asked if I had any recommendations for books or articles on the benefits of walking. Do I? Of course–too many, as I discovered when trying to make a list! So here, for others who may be interested, is a very partial catalogue (under construction) of books and articles in English or translated to English. Some are about specific paths or trails, some are thematic, some meditative, some memoir, some scientific, and many have more than one of these ingredients. My favourite books in this genre combine memoir, humour, historical reminiscence, and observations about walking. So that’s what I’ve also tried to write.

Solvitur ambulando: it is solved by walking

Some suggestions

Horatio Clare, Something of His Art: Walking to Lübeck with J.S. Bach (Dorset: Little Toller, 2018). Nice BBC-style writing (there are podcasts of this as well) about following Bach’s footsteps through paths.

Linda Cracknell, Doubling Back: Ten Paths Trodden in Memory (Glasgow: Freight Books, 2014). Good memoir of esp Scottish trails, combined with travelogue and literary commentary. Available (through a new publisher) on Amazon.

Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1974). In some ways, this book helped start the “new nature writing” and its emphasis on walking. Or it picked up on Thoreau, since it’s really about walking and observing in a small area. A classic.

Dwayne Donald, “We Need a New Story: Walking and the wâhkôtowin Imagination,” Journal of the Canadian Association for Curriculum Studies (JCACS) La Revue de l’association canadienne pour l’étude du curriculum (RACÉC) Vol. 18, No. 2, (2021): 53-63. Focusses from nêhiyaw (Cree) perspective on the uses of walking as a way of changing things, including attitudes and history of settlement.

Nancy Louise Frey, Pilgrim Stories: On and Off the Road to Santiago (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998). This entertaining, well-written book is specifically about the Camino de Santiago as “therapeutic walking”

Frédéric Gros, A Philosophy of Walking (New York: Verso, 2014). Gros focusses on the history of walking and philosophical thinking.

M. Brennan Harris (2019) “The Physiological Effects of Walking Pilgrimage,” International Journal of Religious Tourism and Pilgrimage: Vol. 7: Iss. 1, Article 9. doi: Available at: Pretty much what it says, and interesting from an exercise scientist’s point of view.

Trevor Herriot, The Road is How: A Prairie Pilgrimage through Nature, Desire, and Soul. HarperCollins, 2014. I know Trevor and have walked with him. He’s a good writer and a keen observer of humanity and nature, and passionate about the environment and justice for Indigenous peoples.

Werner Herzog, Of Walking in Ice. Translated by Martje Herzog and Alan Greenberg (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015). Short and interesting, this account details Herzog’s journey north on foot to visit a supposedly dying friend.

Erling Kagge, Silence in the Age of Noise (New York: Pantheon, 2017). (translated from the Norwegian). Lovely reflection, on the meditative aspects of walking.

Gideon Lewis-Kraus, A Sense of Direction: Pilgrimage for the Restless and the Hopeful (New York: Penguin/Riverhead, 2012). Details three different pilgrimages including Hasidic pilgrimages, in extremely well-written, urban “New Yorker” style. Emphasis on the “restless” part of the title.

Robert Macfarlane, The Old Ways (London: Penguin, 2013). The prototypical English countryside walking book. A classic must-read of the genre, about the English countryside, full of interesting and educational asides.

Lisbeth Mikaelsson, “Pilgrimage as Post-secular Therapy.” Scripta Instituti Donneriani Aboensis 24 (2014): 259–273. Pretty much what it says, as academic treatment.

Robert Moor, On Trails: An Exploration (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2016). An entertaining and well-written general exploration, tending toward the environmental and natural place of walking, rather than the historical.

O’Mara, Shane In Praise of Walking (Bodley Head, 2019). Haven’t read this yet but absolutely will, since it’s by a fellow Dubliner. From a neuroscientist!

Thelma Poirier, Rock Creek (Regina SK: Coteau Books). Poetic explorations of land and history from Poirier’s three day walk to the source of the creek in Wood Mountain. In the tradition of Nan Shepherd and Annie Dillard.

Nan Shepherd, The Living Mountain (Aberdeen: University of Aberdeen Press, 1977). A classic meditation on place and our longing for connection to the natural world, set in the Cairngorm Mountains, Scotland. Walking-and noticing-locally.

Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, As We Have Always Done: Indigenous Freedom Through Radical Resistance (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017); See chapter 9 “Land as Pedagogy.” From Anishinaabe perspective, on land as teacher (walking has a place but secondary, in this treatment)

Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust: A History of Walking (New York: Penguin, 2000). I still think this is the greatest book of this genre, by a fantastic, insightful, author concerned not only with walking but also with justice.

Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost (New York: Penguin, 2005). Great, but not as good as Wanderlust (or maybe I just compare everything to that).

Thoreau (need I say more?)

Edmund White, The Flâneur: A Stroll Through the Paradoxes of Paris (New York: Bloomsbury, 2001). Interesting for being a perspective about the history and philosophy of urban walking.

Raynor Winn, The Salt Path. (London: Penguin, 2019). More on a specific set of English historic paths, with general observations about walking.

There are LOTS of popular articles about the benefits of walking. A smattering, in no particular order: (based on the book In Praise of Walking by Shane O’Mara; there is a BBC podcast featuring this writer here: )

And last but not least, Matthew Anderson (that’s me!!) The Good Walk. A memoir of how we launched the long-distance pilgrimages that Canadians and Indigenous folks have been taking almost yearly since on traditional trails across the prairies. I’m looking for a publisher!


Walking to Lübeck

On the recommendation of Ken Wilson, I’m reading Something of his Art, a 100-page book by English-Welsh author and broadcaster Horatio Clare about a walk from Arnstadt to Lübeck, Germany. In October 1705, at the age of 20, a rebellious young Johann Sebastian Bach headed north on foot to pay a surprise visit to the elder organist and Baroque composer Dieterich Buxtehude. Clare and two others from the BBC recreated that walk, also setting out in the fall. The record of their trip – you can listen to a BBC podcast series about it – contains Clare’s reflections on everything from Bach’s temperament (students of the day carried rapiers to defend themselves) to ways that the autumn countryside – and our world – have changed because of climate degradation.

Ken loved the book; he told me I would too. He was right.

Clare walked 230 miles, roughly the distance we’ve covered in our treks on Treaty Four and Treaty Six territories. I’ve had the pleasure of singing works by both Bach and Buxtehude in various choirs over the years. And I’m a Lutheran, affected by years of hearing Bach, and by some of the same theological worldviews that inspired the composer.

But you don’t have to be musical or a Lutheran (or even a walker) to love this book: Horatio Clare is a rare treasure of an author. His rich descriptions will have you hearing the sound of their feet “through thick cushions of beech leaves, gold and bronze and red,” and seeing Lower Saxony “intricate and melancholy in the rain.” You’ll learn about Bach. More than that, you’ll find yourself walking along Thuringian trails greeting local farmers, or entering old-town Erfurt in the golden twilight. Anyone who has ventured on long treks will feel a thrill of recognition in Clare’s words: “Coming into town as night falls is a wonderful feeling after a day’s walk. You move through the streets, your eyes sharpened by the length of the day’s views, your feet tired and your muscles worked, alert and fatigued at once.”


How the Meaning of a Pilgrimage Never Stops Changing (even when the walk is over)

Have you ever had nagging doubts about whether you behaved properly at some event? Or thought back on an experience, only to realize you now think about it in an entirely different way than you once did? It can happen in pilgrimages too. It was enlightening to check back with Ásta Camilla Gylfadóttir about our 2016 trek with her and a group of other Icelanders from Bær to Skálholt. I’ve been worried that with our English-language needs and our massive tourist luggage we eight Canadians “spoiled it” for the Icelanders that year. But for Milla, our walk is only a bright memory. For her, the fact that there were Canadians along on the Pílagrimar only made it better. I can’t tell you how liberating our recent Zoom chat turned out to be.

Gabriel from back making wings day twoWhich makes me realize once again that there are many parts to a walking pilgrimage: the journey is only one of them. A big part of any pilgrimage is narrative: the stories that gave rise to the pilgrimage (at Lourdes, for instance, the Marian appearance to Bernadette), but also the stories that come out of the experience of the pilgrims. Like the dozens of crutches left in Brother André’s chapel at St Joseph’s Oratory, Montreal, or the hundreds of pilgrim blogs, videos, books, and poems arising from the Camino de Santiago in Spain, these later stories “layer on” to the original narratives, making the original journeys richer, more complex, and more about the present. A pilgrimage stays ever-present – and ever meaningful – in its re-telling and sharing. For that I’m thankful.

My pilgrimage podcast is now available on Spotify and on TuneIn, as well as Apple Podcasts (some episodes missing) and it’s hosted on Podbean!

Iceland from inside church day one


Meeting Saint Clare on the way to Holy Island

I just posted the second episode in my podcast series “Pilgrimage Stories from Up and Down the Staircase”! In these 20 minutes you come along for the first part of the walk along the St. Cuthbert Way from Melrose Scotland to Holy Island, England. You’ll meet Chris and Clare, and find out why she’s Saint Clare, to me. I hope you enjoy the show, which you can find on Podbean here, and on Apple podcasts, here!

walking to Holy Island


Pilgrimage Stories From Up and Down the Staircase

How do you walk a pilgrimage during these months of restricted travel? I’ve been walking up and down my staircase in Nottingham England, and dreaming of pilgrimages past! To share those stories I’m releasing my first-ever podcast, “Pilgrimage Stories from Up and Down the Staircase.” Each episode features a different trail, or a different character I’ve met. psuds logo finalI’ll introduce you to enthralling paths in Norway, Scotland, England, Iceland, Canada and Indigenous territories, and provide some of the resources you’ll need to walk them. All the while I’ll be telling the stories of the fascinating individuals I’ve walked with and met along the way, and sharing snatches of our conversations, songs, and experiences.

Alpine shelter

Thursday, July 30, 2020, at 5 pm Montreal time, I’m releasing the first episode: “Walking the St Olav Way.” In the 17-minute episode you’ll hear snatches of our struggle up and down mountains and jumping late-spring run-off streams and boggy marshes. You’ll meet a friendly Norwegian border agent and a marathon German pilgrim struggling to understand his life. You’ll sit with us in rustic Budsjord Gård and hear fellow pilgrim Kathryn singing as we walked. I hope you’ll listen in to this first episode, and to the others as they come out every Thursday! The series “Pilgrimage Stories from Up and Down the Staircase” will be available wherever you find your podcasts.

To find out more about St Olav before listening to the episode, why not check out some of these resources?

  • The official St Olav website, which you can find here, is a wealth of beautiful images and practical info (look for the English-language option)
  • In 2011, Alison Raju wrote The Pilgrim Guide to Trondheim, available at this website.
  • For my article about the history of the Trail and its modern-day recovery as well as some photos of our 2013 trek, see the International Journal of Religious Tourism and Pilgrimage, here.
  • For an article about the health benefits of walking the St Olav Way, written by a Norwegian scholar of pilgrimage in the same journal, see this link.

I’m looking forward to sharing my experiences with you on the “Pilgrimage Stories From Up and Down the Staircase” podcast!


In the footsteps of a missing saint…

Tomorrow, September 16, is the feast day of Saint Ninian. In July, together with Christine Ramsay, Ken Wilson, and Sara Parks, I walked the Whithorn Way in Scotland, the medieval Royal pilgrimage route to St Ninian. To honour Saint Ninian Day here’s a short video of that pilgrimage!


Like Being There

Matthew hiding out

Matthew seeking guidance
Matthew Seeking Guidance

See this stuffed prairie dog? Apparently, it has a name: “Matthew”. I just received photos of this mascot all along the route of the Humboldt-Fort Carleton Trail Walk in 2019. Each of them with cute little captions. In 2015,  Hugh Henry and I began this tradition by trekking the 350-km Traders’ Road, or North-West Mounted Police Patrol Trail (NWMPT) in Treaty 4 Territory, SW Sask. It was likely the first time the trail had been walked in over a century.

Matthew in the bull's eye
“Matthew in the Bull’s Eye”

In 2017 we walked the Swift Current to Battleford Trail, another 350 km; near Battleford there were lots of issues with access and trespassing (see above). In 2018 we walked the Frenchman’s Trail, from Mortlach to Gravelbourg. I was surprised that there was a Welsh couple serving Fish’n’Chips in Mortlach (see photo below).

Matthew passed out
Matthew Passed Out

This year, Hugh and the Saskatchewan History and Folklore Society (SHFS) planned a journey from Humboldt to Fort Carleton. I’m still in England; this was the first year I just couldn’t make it. No country bars and pool-tables for me this August. But apparently I was there in spirit.

Matthew rack-em
Rack-em Up Matthew

If you’d like to read more about the walk they took – without me – you can read a great day-by-day description (I did) on Ken Wilson’s blog at

Matthew medical distress
Matthew: medical distress

The photo I found the funniest is just above. I had quite a bit of foot trouble on the way to Battleford in 2017, culminating in a full-on leg infection. I was using duct-tape for my blisters, in the vain hope it can fix EVERY problem! Live and learn! Mostly, I’m thankful for good friends and for being remembered on a pilgrimage I couldn’t walk. They knew I was thinking about them. And how wonderful, to be thought of in return.


Anticipating Walking

Matt and Rick by NWMP trail post Pinto Butte July 23
Richard Kotowich and I walking near Pinto Horse Butte, 2015 (photo by Marshall Drummond)

For years I dreamt of walking Treaty Four territories, what is now south-west Saskatchewan. Only in 2013-2014 did I find a trail (the Traders’ Road, or North-West Mounted Police Patrol Trail), a guide and fellow walker (Hugh Henry, of the SK History and Folklore Society), and feel in my bones a reason (un-settling Settler narratives) to make it finally happen. Ken Wilson is also interested in Settler preparation for reconciliation; he and I walked together from Swift Current to Battleford in 2017 and from Mortlach to Gravelbourg in 2018. Ken recently set his scholarly lens on an article I wrote for a volume in pilgrimage back in 2013, just before that first 350-km journey across the prairies. A serious academic, Ken has highlighted the article’s best parts. In case you’re interested, I’m posting his post, here:


The St. Olaf Way Norway

Allen pondering
photo by Matthew R. Anderson of Allen Jorgenson, 2013

I’m SO happy to see this article finally in print! In May 2013 we began walking this incredible trail only weeks after I had had surgery for prostate cancer in Montreal, and so soon after Norwegian spring thaw that the train to take us to the trail head was washed out, and we had to ford more than a few run-off streams on our way! Find out more here about the extraordinarily beautiful St. Olaf Way, as told from the perspective of a group of Scandinavian-background Canadians who walked a long portion of it in 2013. Pilgrimage, diaspora, national memory, political sainthood, therapy walking, history, church-state relations, and stunning views of mountain-top Norway….they’re all here!


Luther and Pilgrimage

doodle by Matthew R. Anderson during a meeting

I just published an article! If you’re interested in a/pilgrimage b/Luther c/European early modern history d/romanticism e/the Grand Tour e/tourism …. or just about any combination of the above, or just in some interesting academic reading, have a gander! Here’s the URL – free for reading or download!