In defense of meandering

Meandering is getting a bad rap these days. So many people are intent on getting someplace and getting there quickly that there seems to be little patience for anyone who simply strolls. As an avowed wanderer, I feel like an endangered species: Meanderer americanus extinctus.

This perpetual dash to be someplace else might be a product of our times — we live in the Hyper Age where technology moves along at increasing speeds and people leap to the next big thing and the proverbial 15 minutes of fame lasts about a minute and a half and there’s no time to stop or pause and just forget about gathering wool and don’t even think about using commas.  Or it might be a sign of the coming apocalypse. We’ve got to hurry if we’re going to get it all done before the End of Time.

Well, whatever. The crush of rushing humanity has flattened those of us who prefer to take our time.  And I think that’s a bad thing for the species.

I have a friend — which is a fact that, in his case, puzzles me — who clearly functions at a different speed from the one I’m normally operating on.  I was walking through the office one day when I heard him come up from behind. Before five seconds could tick on my analog watch, he cleared his throat and said, “Oh, if only this stun gun were charged ….”  The message was clear: Move faster or get Tased.  He was joking, of course. I think.    

I have another friend who comes over occasionally and talks a lot. I don’t mind this because I generally prefer to listen than to talk, and she is somewhat entertaining. Plus, she has never threatened to Tase me. The other day, though, she launched into a long complaint about the slowpokes and seemingly aimless people who were blocking the aisles in the grocery store.

“What is with these people?” she asked rhetorically. Every question she asks seems to have a rhetorical quality because she rarely waits for answers.  “They just take their time, looking around, totally oblivious to anyone who might actually know where she’s going. It drives me absolutely crazy!”

I was about to say something about this, but I couldn’t find an opening.

“And then,” she barreled forth, “in the parking lot … ” and her rant focused on someone who was pushing a cart too slowly. “I don’t know, I guess I just walk with purpose. Get in. Get out. Done.”

She had distilled her frustration and anger to a single phrase, and it made a lot of sense. It felt good, it sounded right, and she clung to it.

“I walk with purpose,” she repeated with emphasis. And then she stopped.

That’s when I seized the opportunity to speak.

“I think I’m just the opposite,” I said, and I was about to mount a defense for the meanderers of the world when she cut me off. She wasn’t rude, she just wasn’t listening. My friend not only walks with purpose, you see, she talks with purpose too.

The new targets of her wrath were those slow motorists who insist on staying in the left lane on the interstate, and they took a beating for several minutes. When she was finished, I didn’t offer an opinion, partly because I was afraid I would get run over again and partly because I agree with her.  Those idiots should be flogged.

But while I think some drivers deserve to be paddled in public, I do appreciate long, slow drives on open winding roads.

When my wife and I had just started dating, we took a road trip through the Great Smoky Mountains, and one day I had charted a circuitous course that would take us here and there, in and out of the national park, and lead us to a certain spot around dinner time. It was kind of a plan. Anyway, somewhere along the road I got lost. 

“I think I took the wrong turn,” I confessed.

Her response made me want to marry her.

“There are no wrong turns,” she said. “There are only adventures.”

She was offering an endorsement of serendipity, embracing the slow road, and that was 18 years ago. We’re still married. She’s the best traveling companion I’ve ever had.

There is a danger with “walking with purpose,” as my friend puts it. When people stride, they raise a lot of dust and leave heavy footprints, and they rarely look back to assess the damage. There’s also a risk that they’ll miss something really important, like an approaching bus. Or a flower bed. I still think there’s value in old clichés, in stopping to smell the roses.

What I’m suggesting is that every now and then we engage in a little intentional meandering. There are other words to describe this: strolling, sauntering, moseying. Call it what you will. I like meander, although saunter has a certain charm.

Thoreau writes about sauntering in his essay “Walking.” He tracks the origin of the word to the French sainte-terrer, literally “holy-lander,” which was a term applied to pilgrims on the way to the Christian Mecca. The quest of the sainte-terrer was to discover, to immerse oneself in the righteous path of discovery.

Over time, though, the term “saunter,” like “meander,” has become an almost derogatory term, as if it implies a sort of aimless wandering. I prefer Thoreau’s take on this, that sauntering and meandering can be acts of spiritual intent. The wanderer, the walker, the sainte-terrer, is no less directionless than a river that meanders toward the sea, relentless and purposeful.

And when we set out on the slow road, open to discovery — yes, even in the aisles of the grocery store — our rewards can come at almost any step, not just at the end of our dash toward the checkout lane.   

— 30 —

Collected written works  |  Gary Marx


Looking for a Chicago

    Dog in Cow Town

In Death’s Waiting


Living in Interesting


Remembering 9/11

O Little Town of


A Minor Distraction

Giving the Computer

    the Boot

The Depth of These


Musings on the Plaza,

    and a World at War

The Tale of the

    All-Seeing Bob

Morning Drive

    on the First Day

Fruit Stands in October

Moving Day,

    Oscar Night