Paul Andersen: Fair Game

The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO, Colorado

Henry David Thoreau is not known only for solitude and simplicity at Walden Pond. Thoreau was a Luddite of sorts in his defiance of mechanical conveniences, namely the railroad that he could hear occasionally from his rustic, hand-built cabin.

“The whistle of the locomotive penetrates my woods summer and winter,” he wrote. “The iron horse makes the hills echo with his snort like thunder, shaking the earth with his feet, and breathing fire and smoke from his nostrils.”

The railroad bugged Thoreau in the larger sense that mechanical intrusions were ultimately disruptive: “…thus as humans have penetrated all aspects of the world, leaving none of the areas of the world untouched by human hands.”

Thoreau derided the train for its destructive force but also because he preferred walking. Not only was walking therapeutic and enjoyable to him, but Thoreau liked to say that walking was faster than the train.

Thoreau’s made his point like this: If he and another man had a race from Concord, Mass., to Fitchburg, a distance of 30 miles, and Thoreau walked while the other man rode the train, Thoreau would get there first. Though it took him all day to walk the distance, the other man had to work a full day to earn the railroad fare, which would force him to catch the next day’s train. By then, Thoreau would have been in Fitchburg for dinner with a good sleep and breakfast. He also would have enjoyed walking through the beautiful countryside and imbibing in nature’s gifts.

“I have learned that the swiftest traveler is he that goes afoot,” the sage of Concord concluded in a sentiment shared by others.

To the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, walking was essential to his mental health. Burdened by a depressed nature, Kierkegaard discovered therapeutic value in putting one foot in front of the other.

“Above all,” encouraged Kierkegaard, “do not lose your desire to walk. Every day I walk myself into a state of well being, and walk away from every illness. I have walked myself into my best thoughts, and I know of no thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away from it.”

Mechanized travel has long had its critics, some of whom have even derided the bicycle. When a cyclist was observed by a Ute Indian a century ago in Aspen, he was heard to remark, “Lazy white man – even walk sitting down.”

Mechanical advances, while improving quality of life for many, have had strident detractors. The Luddites smashed machines not only for destroying their cottage livelihoods as weavers but because machines diminished the value of human craft and labor.

In their inspiring book, “The Good Life,” Helen and Scott Nearing embarked on a sustainable-farming venture in Vermont during the Great Depression. Like Thoreau, they discovered the simplicity and efficiency of manual means, foremost with a cement mixer they operated by hand.

This hand mixer, they argued, saved time, labor, capital and the cost of gas or electricity. The Nearings wrote that they also avoided anxiety, tension, frustration and loss of work time when the power mixer failed, as all complicated machines must do. They also enjoyed a good workout turning the handle.

“We got invigorating, rejuvenating physical exercise in the fresh air under open sky- an important ingredient for good health. We had the satisfaction of participating directly in the project instead of wet-nursing a machine and inhaling its oil fumes and carbon monoxide.”

Years ago, when I worked on a tree takedown crew in suburban Chicago, the portly man who ran the hydraulic log lifter admonished me against picking up a stray log and throwing it into the truck.

“Let the machine do it!” he urged. “Let the machine do it!”

One look at him told me not to go that route but to trust physical labor whenever reasonable. Today, as I push scoop my driveway clear of snow, I wonder how much faster my technique is than the guy with the mechanical snowblower.

In the time saved with the scoop, I can take a nice long walk to Fitchburg with Thoreau.

Paul Andersen’s column appears Mondays in The Aspen Times. He can be reached by email at