The swiftest traveler goes afoot (Walden 33)

“I have learned that the swiftest traveller is he that goes afoot.”

In part, Thoreau means this literally. He worked it out in response to someone who suggested that he save up money for train fare to visit Fitchburg. Traveling the thirty miles by train would cost ninety cents, or most of a day’s wages. But Henry, an avid pedestrian, figures he can start walking now and get there before night.

“You will in the meanwhile have earned your fare, and arrive there some time tomorrow, or possibly this evening, if you are lucky enough to get a job in season. Instead of going to Fitchburg, you will be working here the greater part of the day. And so, if the railroad reached round the world, I think that I should keep ahead of you….”

As always with Thoreau, there’s a larger point here, and not just that he thought nothing of a thirty-mile hike. We’ve already seen that he applies the same calculus to livestock, houses, and other investments. Each time he ignores the conventional wisdom, asks what it is that he really wants, and then figures out the least expensive* way of achieving it. (*Expensive in Henry’s currency, which is life itself: each day, each irreplaceable hour of one’s time on earth.)

“This spending of the best part of one’s life earning money in order to enjoy a questionable liberty during the least valuable part of it reminds me of the Englishman who went to India to make a fortune first, in order that he might return to England and live the life of a poet. He should have gone up garret at once.”

Don’t wait to do what you love, Henry advises. Keep things simple and get started now.

(About  “A Year in Walden”)


3 thoughts on “The swiftest traveler goes afoot (Walden 33)

  1. ~ Tim King ~

    Thanks for posting and your thoughts on the subject. An even simpler version of this concept can be found in the children’s book “Henry Hikes to Fitchburg” where Henry walks and his Friend must work in order to buy a ticket and ride the train. His Friend arrives first -bearly – to which Henry responds simply, “I know. I stopped for blackberries.”

    1. thecuriouspeople Post author

      I find it revealing that Thoreau’s idea is so non-obvious to most of us that he had to spell it out in what is now consider one of the Great Books of American literature… and yet the idea is simple enough to work well in a children’s book. I’m guessing that the kids have an easier time getting it than the grownups do!


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