The wealth of sensations experienced during a walk cannot be achieved in any other way


LAZARUS, COME FORTH! (John 11:44) (Walking & Serendipity)


With these words Jesus wasn’t only resuscitating Lazarus, but was also calling for all mankind to come up out of their spiritual graves. Luckily most people do not need to wait for a miracle to leave their desks, couches and beds in order to go out and enjoy the innumerable pleasures and objective benefits resulting from the simple use of their walking ability. It is not an order, but excellent advice; a small dosage of good will supported by a minimum of intelligence is sufficient.
There is no need to quote evolutionists and anthropologists of any era, anyone can see that human beings were born to walk and it is superfluous to list all the countless benefits of a daily stroll, even after dinner as one of the most famous rules of the Regimem Sanitatis Salernitanum (Salernitan Regimen of Health) suggests: “Post prandium aut stabis aut lento pede ambulabis, post coenam ambulabis.”
(after lunch stand or walk around slowly, after supper walk) from which comes the popular saying “After dinner sit awhile, after supper walk a mile”.
From time immemorial man has moved on foot, but nowadays this is happening less and less due to mechanization (elevators, cars, motorcycles, trains etc.) reducing the need
. The consequences are evident to us all, often aggravated by bad nutrition (too much, rather than too little!) and an unhealthy lifestyle.
In the past, people walked great distances traveling or on pilgrimages; at wartime vast armies of thousands of men, almost all on foot, went for hundreds and hundreds of miles; shorter distances were covered to go hunting or take the herds to pasture, for seasonal migration, or to trade goods and merchandise. Now unfortunately (or fortunately?) walking in a natural habitat in full knowledge of the facts is very uncommon in our parts, and people like myself are often considered “odd” simply for walking without having any real need to do so


All regular walkers continually have to face two fundamental, logical and unfortunately opposing postulates:
• walking more quickly or for longer periods you cover greater distances; therefore you are able to reach areas which are further away and less frequented and consequently are often more interesting and rewarding;
• walking more slowly, or even standing in silence, enables you to appreciate a tiny flower, an ant, the flight of a bird of prey (stopping and not walking with your nose in the air) or the quietest sounds of nature, but by doing so the distance covered will obviously be limited.
The dilemma is therefore: to go for depth or for distance? I usually tend to go for distance: a true walker moves in the space surrounding him, wanders, explores, sets off again in search of new territories unknown to him, but does not go for profundity (unless he is a speleologist). By definition he roams over the land, sometimes without a destination, and moving within the various habitats he takes advantage of the infinite opportunities to wander amongst the various areas of knowledge and science: history, archeology, architecture, anthropology, not to mention geology, botany and zoology with all its branches such as herpetology, entomology, ornithology, malacology and so on. In a natural environment it is rewarding to alternate the different senses in order to search (without being invasive) for the animal you heard in the scrub or in its hiding place, to try and locate the bird whose song you heard or the herb whose fragrance you smelt or taste the fruit tempting you with its appearance. According to his interests, experiences and ability and depending on the habitat and terrain being crossed, the wise walker will continually adapt his speed trying to optimize it from one moment to the next, also varying the rhythm. With experience you can achieve the ability to proceed light footedly to perceive the subtlest sounds without disturbing the wildlife, walking surely and steadily in order to conserve your energy, but at the same time briskly reaching farther destinations, panoramic peaks and areas still to be explored; all this always with every sense alerted trying not to miss occasions that will not recur. 
Walking, for man a natural, instinctive and inborn movement, not only allows us to rediscover nature and reach less polluted areas, but also enhances physical and mental harmony, and above all utilizes all five of our senses enabling us to enjoy all round sensorial experiences. In order to enjoy a place to the fullest, you must go there, explore it and experience it in person. This process of knowledge and analysis cannot be delegated to others, nor can it be virtual.


Photographs, even those taken by experts with professional cameras and even if they succeed in faithfully reproducing the genuine color tones, are still limited by the fact that they reduce a three-dimensional reality to just two dimensions and above all they are silent and static. Videos, in comparison, have the advantage of reproducing movement and often also sound, but they continue inexorably and inevitably to be incapable of transmitting smells, the most subtle background noises, textures and flavors, or even a general and global perception of the surroundings. The best way to tease and stimulate all your senses is to go by yourself (something not for the timorous and which could objectively entail an element of risk, even though limited) or alternatively with a few self-sufficient and independent friends who share your passions and sensibility, or who at least have similar aims and interests. Exploring in the company of other people with whom you can debate adds interest to the walk and is usually more productive since more eyes can see more things: somebody may point out an unknown plant or a flower out of season, someone else an insect of a particular aspect or color, the trace of a path just waiting to be explored. Best avoided are noisy people (of any age) and children who need looking after and absorb much of our attention which consequently cannot be dedicated to the surroundings. In a nutshell, quality not quantity and on the same wave-length.
Even though I sometimes walk up to 300 miles in a month, I still have a vivid memory of the moment in which, during a downpour, I spotted my one Salamandrina tergiditata or my first Elaphe quatuorlineata comfortably stretched out across the path as if wanting to block my way.
In the first case, my eyes were quickly checking out the stony path invaded by water, when unexpectedly they spotted a thin bright red strip, totally out of place in the middle of the streams of muddy water running between the stones. Sharpening my gaze, I realized that I was looking at the lower part of the tail of this tiny amphibian (a rare endemic salamander that seldom exceeds four inches, tail included)very difficult to come across being uncommon and nocturnal in its habits.
On the other hand, my second encounter was through sound and not sight.
While I was walking up a valley at dawn, along an almost abandoned path, my attention was drawn by a slight noise, a puff rather then a hiss (which is usually associated with snakes), but there was no wind at all and it could not have been a
person since ahead of me were just low, practically impenetrable bushes. Perfectly still and silent I started casting my eyes around searching for other clues: something moving, a trace in the grass, a color out of place. Just a few seconds later I realized that what seemed to be a small branch lying across the path was really the middle of a large Four-lined snake (the longest species in Italy, totally innocuous, that can be over six feet long). Unfortunately the slight noise I made opening my rucksack was sufficient to make it disappear into the undergrowth before I could take its photo.


There is always something new and no walk is equal to the previous one even if the route is identical; just as the water running through a riverbed between two more or less unchanging banks is always different.
And it is for this very reason that hiking is one of the ideal fields for the application of serendipity, a term coined in 1754 by Horace Walpole after reading Cristofaro Armeno’s Persian fable “The Three Princes of Serendip” (the ancient name for Sri Lanka) and widely used since last century.
The story tells of the continual discoveries made by the three princes, discoveries made by chance, but also and above all as a result of their sagacity and powers of observation. In effect, the three princes used abduction, a logical process, which is almost an art enabling one to reach conclusions that are quite feasible but not completely certain.
Over the course of time, the initial meaning shifted from the method to the conclusions drawn. This is why the term "serendipity" can be understood both as the ability to find or create valuable things from a wrong result or unexpected event, and as the process or event leading to this. Nowadays it is commonly used with different but similar meanings, such as: the ability to find or create things of importance by chance, to discover qualities and positive aspects from an unforeseen result or something unexpected whilst looking into something quite different, to correctly interpret a casual event while conducting a scientific investigation into something else, to seize opportunities arising from chance or accident, to look for something interesting and unintentionally find something of excellence. Not long ago, a lecture was held on this theme with the significant title “Serendipity, until you understand it, you think that it’s just luck”. In fact, although many people associate the two terms, they are anything but synonyms, and the majority of discoveries continue to be made by chance, by sagacity and by observation, the three fundamental elements of serendipity that can be considered not only a method of research, but also a lifestyle.
Pasteur said “Chance favours the prepared mind” and proof of this are numerous important scientific, technological and medical discoveries: the law of gravity (thanks to the famous apple falling on Newton’s head), Archimedes’ principle (that made him exclaim: Eureka!), nylon, Teflon, Velcro, post-its, insulin, penicillin, just to mention a few. Only by applying the concept of serendipity will the wise walker always find new cues and new reasons to explore previously unknown territories or to observe the constant changes taking place without interruption even in relatively small areas. Not to know what you are looking for, or the awareness that you are not seeking anything in particular, creates in the hiker a positive tension that rarely remains without gratification and new inspirations. These then lead to new discoveries, only momentarily satisfying, and therefore to even greater expectations that become incentives to continue wandering wherever possible.
Even if it is advisable to start with a plan, a goal or a destination, it is also of primary importance always to be ready to change, adapt and modify ones plans according to circumstances, events, encounters, perceptions and signs. It is important to know how to interpret the faintest clues, even those that most people would consider totally insignificant or of no interest, such as a tiny footprint on the ground, an unusual sound or simply a color out of place in a particular habitat.
Finally, in order to fully enjoy a walk of any length or difficulty, whatever the environment, you must be open-minded and have the right degree of attentiveness, not only to proceed, but also to be aware of all your surroundings. The unusual, the beautiful and the extraordinary are always just around the corner, within sight and hearing, when and where you least expect them. Missing such enjoyable, often unrepeatable occasions would be unforgivable.


© Giovanni Visetti