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On World Sauntering Day, Take a Walk

It’s good for you

A family practicing the art of sauntering on a Sunday in 1942 in Greenbelt, Maryland. (Library of Congress; Photo by Marjory Collins)
smithsonian.com

World Sauntering Day has been a holiday since the 1970s.

It was the brainchild of W.T. “Bill” Rabe, a publicist who came up with the idea for the holiday when he was working for the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island, which he branded as “the Miami Beach of the North.” If this last fact isn’t an indicator of Rabe’s genius for obtuseness, perhaps this will do it: He came up with World Sauntering Day as a response to the jogging fad that swept the United States in the 1970s.

Rabe, records Jon Harrison for Michigan State University, had a knack for this kind of branding. At various points in his career, he worked as chief telephone-book critic for Detroit-area newspapers, as CEO of Hush Records, the company that provided the tools for Silent Record Day, and at Lake Superior University, where he came up with the tradition of releasing an annual list of banished words to get the university press coverage. The tradition continues to this day; 2017’s list includes such gems as “Frankenfruit,” “bigly” and “echo chamber.”

“Sauntering, as my father would say, is going from point X to point Z which means you don’t care where you’re going, how you’re going or when you might get there,” Rabe’s son John told NPR in 2002. “The idea, he said, was to smell the roses and to pay attention to the world around you.”

As Rabe explained, though, aimlessness required rules. In Bill Rabe’s eyes, to be a saunterer you have to wear loose clothing. Any dog accompanying you has to be big enough to allow a saunterer to go at a comfortable pace, but small enough that it can be carried by any member of a sauntering party.

“It’s being pointless on purpose,” he said.

Defined by Merriam-Webster, the word ‘saunter’ means “to walk along in a slow and relaxed manner.” It probably derives from the Middle English word santren, which meant “to muse,” the dictionary records.

But Henry David Thoreau, the author of classic wandering texts such as Walden, understood "sauntering" to have a different origin: the word, he wrote in his essay “Walking,” derived from medieval idlers asking for money to fund their pilgrimages “a la Sainte Terre”–that is, to Jerusalem, which was at the time often referred to as the Holy Land.

“They who never go to the Holy Land in their walks, as they pretend, are indeed mere idlers and vagabonds; but they who do go there are saunterers in the good sense, such as I mean,” he wrote.

The first modern use of the word "saunter" was in the 17th century, writes Hannah Osborne for International Business Times, and 19th-century writer Charles Baudelaire was the first to popularize this description of an urban saunterer or flâneur:

The crowd is his element, as the air is that of birds and water of fishes. His passion and his profession are to become one flesh with the crowd. For the perfect flâneur, for the passionate spectator, it is an immense joy to set up house in the heart of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite.

So how to get in on the action this World Sauntering Day? According to the younger Rabe (who seems to have inherited his father’s sense of humor), “it is a gift impossible to teach.”

“Those who are in the know on sauntering would say you’re born with it. There probably is a technique but it would be useless to describe it.”

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