As the days get shorter and the nights longer, it can sometimes feel challenging to get enough walking in for those of us who love to walk. Why not walk at night?
Walking after the sun goes down can give you a whole new appreciation of our world — and help you see your surroundings from a completely new perspective.
First off, as with all endeavors, safety comes first. If you live someplace where you feel unsafe walking at night or if you have poor night vision, this might not be the activity for you. But if your hesitancy is an old-fashioned fear of the dark or the misconception that it’s just more interesting to walk around during the daytime, you might just come to appreciate your own neighborhood far more by exploring it after dark.
As anyone who has read the novels of Charles Dickens can attest, this nineteenth-century novelist was a master of atmosphere and description. London comes alive through Dickens’ eyes — and much of what we read, the author saw on his nighttime walks. As a chronic insomniac, Dickens often walked twenty miles at night, which took him all over the great city, allowing him to see deeply into not only the nooks and crannies of the place but also of many of its more hidden and compelling inhabitants.
Interestingly, big cities such as New York, London, or Paris are often the safest places to walk at night — because so many people stay up late. But it is in these cities where women often find it the most challenging to walk.
Author Rebecca Solnit explores the double standard that applies to men and women when it comes to walking — particularly walking at night. There are three prerequisites for taking a walk, Solnit writes: You must have free time, you need a place to walk, and you need a body unhindered by illness or social restraint. For women, one social restraint has been the sexualizing of women who walk at night. Put simply, had Dickens been a woman, he would not have walked in the nineteenth century.
In more parts of our world than we would like to admit, women still can’t walk at night. But for those of us who can — or who have one or more people with whom to walk, it is after most of the world has gone to bed that we really begin to experience a whole different world.
Some of us have had the good fortune to take nighttime nature walks, where we can experience things that cannot be seen — or heard — in the daytime. Fireflies or bats or owls or jungle animals. Walking at night forces us to rely on other senses besides sight — particularly hearing and touch. We feel our feet on the ground, we listen instead of look. Even when our eyes begin to adjust to the darkness, we see differently. We realize that we are not the only creatures on this planet — even though we sometimes act as though that were true!
Native Americans have long valued night walks as essential parts of the vision quests that were rites of passage for young men. So, too, nighttime dances and processions remain an essential part of the spiritual tribal traditions to this day.
When we were little, we loved to look up at the stars. How often now do we go out and see the Big Dipper or the Milky Way? For those who live in big cities, light pollution often makes it impossible to see those natural wonders. But is there anything more humbling yet hopeful that remembering we tiny specks in a vast and glorious Universe?
By not embracing the darkness, we have cut off essential parts of ourselves. As Rebecca Solnit writes, “Leave the door open for the unknown, the door into the dark. That’s where the most important things come from, where you yourself came from, and where you will go”
In his wonderful book, Waking Up in the Dark: Ancient Wisdom for a Sleepless Age, Clark Strand — an insomniac and lifelong nighttime walker — describes some of what he has learned about humanity and nature through his nighttime walks. Perhaps the most startling is Strand’s belief that by coming to rely so much on electricity, we have rewired human consciousness in ways that are profoundly deleterious for both us and our planet. First of all, our reliance on electricity has allowed us to believe that we can control and dominate our environment instead of living in cooperation with it. Secondly, by finding our sense of safety in the light, we have cut off a connection to parts of ourselves that come alive in the darkness. Our uncivilized selves who understand our interrelationship with the cosmos.
During this pandemic, when so many of us are struggling to sleep, Strand advises embracing instead of fearing sleeplessness. Taking a nighttime walk instead of scrolling our feeds and rubbernecking the news. We have thought that eradicating the dark would make us feel safer. Instead, it has made us more afraid.
Strand’s book, written in 2015, is an essential read for anyone interested in reconnecting with the darkness, but it is this piece of advice that is perhaps most prescient for this precise moment in time. It is something we can all take to heart — on our nighttime walks and anytime: “Turn off the news, forget Facebook and Twitter. Don’t read the paper. Let the world turn, and the seasons pass on their own. Then wake up in the middle of the night a year later and ask yourself if anything is amiss. If so, let go of more media. Let go of more light. Wake again and ask if anything is lacking. Repeat as necessary until you have remembered what it means to be a person, because this is the one thing everyone forgets.”
Let us walk — in the darkness and the light — and in doing so, remember what it is to be a person.