We were in search of a good place to saunter. Saunter is about as fast as Reese and Miles move these days, but it is an ideal pace for a hike.
After a decade-plus of being dragged through nature, I’m happy to dial back the throttle to a nice amble. Though I always envied the dogs’ ability to absorb and process so many smells and sights and sounds so quickly. Only Wyatt is able to maintain breakneck speeds, and on this particular day he tweaked a muscle launching himself out of the car and so was also constrained to a saunter.
“It is a great art to saunter,” observed Henry David Thoreau in an April 1841 journal entry. Thoreau was nearly as fascinated with the word “saunter” as he was with the act itself. He explored the term and its etymology, as well as the word in action, in a prescient 1851 lecture that would eventually be published in The Atlantic in 1862 as “Walking.”
Sauntering, Thoreau testifies, is a word “beautifully derived” from those “‘who roved about the country, in the Middle Ages, and asked charity, under the pretense of going a la Sainte Terre,’ to the Holy Land, till the children exclaimed, ‘There goes a Sainte-Terrer,’ a Saunterer, a Holy-Lander.”
John Muir, a Thoreau devotee, repeated a similar tale to the Rev. Albert Wentworth Palmer, an account of which appears in Palmer’s 1911 book The Mountain Trail and Its Message and was later excerpted as the standalone essay “A Parable of Sauntering.” Palmer, who would go on to become a theology professor at and president of the Chicago Theological Seminary, spent time with Muir in the Sierra Nevada in the early 1900s and recounts Muir saying: “Now these mountains are our Holy Land, and we ought to saunter through them reverently, not ‘hike’ through them.”
Neither Muir nor Palmer were big fans of hiking or those who engaged in the activity. “There are always some people in the mountains who are known as ‘hikers,’” laments Palmer in “A Parable of Sauntering.” “They rush over the trail at high speed and take great delight in being the first to reach camp and in covering the greatest number of miles in the least possible time. They measure the trail in terms of speed and distance.”
He and Muir bonded over their mutual hatred for hiking. Palmer:
“One day as I was resting in the shade Mr. Muir overtook me on the trail and began to chat in that friendly way in which he delights to talk with everyone he meets. I said to him: ‘Mr. Muir, someone told me you did not approve of the word “hike.” Is that so?’ His blue eyes flashed, and with his Scotch accent he replied: ‘I don’t like either the word or the thing. People ought to saunter in the mountains — not hike!’”
The meaning of a hike has evolved slightly, and would likely no longer stoke Muir’s ire. The use of “hike” dates to the dawn of the 19th century and emerged in part from the Middle English “hyke,” but the word “vigorous” frequently appears in early definitions (as in “to walk vigorously”). Muir and Palmer were perturbed by those who raced through nature; today, a hike means a long walk, typically in the country or wilderness and without regard for speed.
Although Thoreau’s serendipitous story of “saunter”’s genesis is a fine and conceivable tale, most dictionaries indicate that the word is of uncertain origin. One that doesn’t is Samuel Johnson’s 1755 A Dictionary of the English Language, editions of which remained popular in Thoreau’s time (1817-1862), a fact noted by University of Richmond philosophy professor Gary Shapiro in his fascinating paper “Speaking a Word for Nature: Thoreau’s Philosophical Saunter,” which includes a discussion of the disputed etymology of “sauntering.”
Disputed because Thoreau himself, as Shapiro points out, also linked “saunter” to the phrase sans terre, meaning without land or home. There is also speculation that Thoreau’s history of “saunter” may have been lifted from British naturalist John Ray’s Country Words collections written in the late 1600s.
Such subjects are good sustenance for contemplation during a saunter. Or while searching for a place to saunter, which we finally found amid the rock formations of Mushroom Gulch, Castle Rock Gulch and Columbine Gulch; a sort-of Garden of the Demigods within a glut of gulches.
Gulch. Now there’s an interesting word….