Walking has always had its detractors.
"It stops the brain," satirist Max Beerbohm claimed. "If God had meant us to walk, he would have kept us down on all fours," said naturalist Edward Abbey.
Too slow for the health-conscious, too leisurely for the hurried, too purposeless for the purposeful, the casual walker now seems more out of step than ever. Venture out on the C&O Canal Towpath or the trails of Rock Creek Park and you run the risk of being rammed from behind by joggers or bicyclists. You end up spending more time looking over your shoulder than you do admiring the scenery.
Maybe signs would help. Warning: The Stroller General has determined that walking can be hazardous to your health.
The problem, according to Ralph Waldo Emerson, was that few had the proper qualifications. His requirements: "Endurance, plain clothes, old shoes, an eye for Nature, good humor, vast curiosity, good speech, good silence and nothing too much."
Thus equipped, it is possible to set forth. But Nature -- or even nature -- must also be accessible.
There are two approaches: walk in such a way as to not care where you're going, or find those unspoiled, undiscovered patches that exist, even in the heart of the city.
The first method involves sauntering. The word "saunter," Thoreau explains in his essay "Walking," comes to us from the idle people who roved around Europe in the Middle Ages asking for charity under the pretense of going to the Holy Land -- a la Sainte Terre. Eventually, people wised up and observed, "There goes a Sainte-Terrer" -- a Saunterer.
Sauntering -- which those in the know insist is different from meandering, lollygagging and moseying -- has never really been in vogue, owing to its disreputable beginnings. Interest, however, has picked up enough in recent years to permit the establishing of World Sauntering Day, held the third Friday in June.
For those wishing to learn how to saunter, it is sufficient never to move in a straight line from Point A to Point B, but instead dally by way of Point X. Ideally, more than a lunch hour is needed; Thoreau required a minimum of four hours a day to preserve his health and spirits.
Finding the right place is slightly more difficult, requiring a little more time and initiative. Dupont Circle, the Mall, Rock Creek Park, Farragut Square: These are known commodities. But the city is also sprinkled with public parks that are just as accessible and pleasant -- and considerably less crowded.
It helps if you set off in the morning or early afternoon. Parks, like the Metro, some movie theaters and the Eastern Shuttle, have their off-peak hours. It is possible, even on a warm Saturday morning, to walk the length of the Melvin C. Hazen Park, sticking like a finger out of the west side of Rock Creek Park, and not encounter a single soul in the process.
It is likewise possible to walk through Fort Davis Park in Southeast on a weekday morning before work -- a little mud on the shoes, a stray leaf in your pocket -- and have it entirely to yourself.
There are numerous guides to natural Washington that will help find underappreciated parkland, but the best method is simply to get a map and look for the green. Here's a starter's sampling:
* Dumbarton Oaks Garden is justly famed as one of the wonders of Washington, but its limited hours and restrictions -- no eating or walking on the lawns -- can make strollers appreciate the more rugged beauty of the adjoining Dumbarton Oaks and Montrose parks. The two are separated by the tree-lined Lovers' Lane, the 18th-century carriage and stage route to Baltimore, which is a pleasant jaunt in itself.
* Theodore Roosevelt Island has 2 1/2 miles of trails spread over 88 acres and is easily accessible only by cars coming from the District -- two reasons it's never crowded. Composed of swamp, marsh and upland wood, the island packs a lot of ecosystem into a small area. Except for the Memorial itself -- an exhortatory TR backed by granite -- the island gives the appearance of never having been developed by man. Not true: In the early 19th century, the island was the heavily cultivated estate of merchant John Mason, with orchards, fields and gardens.
* For those who take their nature in controlled doses, two formal gardens are worth a visit: Washington Cathedral, with its walled medieval garden, herb garden and greenhouse; and the lesser-known Franciscan Monastery in Brookland, with its imitations of Holy Land shrines in a peaceful valley setting.
* Among the city's least publicized parks are those in Anacostia. It is possible to walk your way across a significant portion of Southeast Washington -- from Kenilworth to Saint Elizabeths Hospital -- and only occasionally touch pavement. The route -- which, it should be noted, touches on a number of relatively high-crime neighborhoods -- encompasses forts Stanton, Davis, Dupont, Chaplin and Mahan, part of the ring of Civil War forts that made Washington the most heavily fortified city in the world. Most agreeable stretch: through Fort Dupont Park.
* There are two routes for the 2 1/2-mile walk from Key Bridge to Fletcher's Boat House. The first is, of course, along the C&O Canal Towpath. But intermittent paths down to and along the river are more shaded, and also provide a much smaller likelihood of being slammed into by joggers. (Walking along the B&O railroad tracks is not particularly encouraged by park rangers, as at least one train a day still comes through.)
Other favorites: The tiny annex of Rock Creek Park at the corner of 23rd and Q streets; the lawn near Pierce Mill in Rock Creek Park; Soapstone Valley in upper Northwest and Normanstone near the Cathedral; the Arboretum; Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens in the morning and Hains Point at dawn.
Whether you saunter or have a fixed destination, the best rewards are the unexpected ones: an unsought, hazy view of the Capitol from Fort Stanton Park; the picnic table planted in the middle of the stream in Hazen Park; the gracefulness of the airport-bound jets from East Potomac Park; Rock Creek at sunset from Taft Bridge. These and many other pleasures are there for the walking.