Let’s be clear here. In Walking, Mooallem doesn’t describe what he sees on his walk. He doesn’t discuss animal habitats or climate change. He doesn’t get philosophical or make jokes about his week. He barely talks at all. He simply walks.
We hear the crunch of his boots on gravel, twigs, dirt and leaves. We occasionally hear the call of gulls or the whine of a low flying plane or the burbling sound of water. Every now and then he may say hello to a fellow walker. But that’s it. And at the end he says: “Thanks for coming on the walk. That was nice.”
Walking takes slow content to a new level. Like Seinfeld, it’s seemingly a show about nothing. Which begs the question – why on earth are people listening to it?
Mooallem, who is modest to the point of self-deprecation and seems as mystified by the response to Walking as much as anyone else, asks himself that question a lot.
“At first I thought people were treating it as a bit of a joke and they wanted to be in on the joke,” he says. “But I get a lot of really positive, earnest, honest feedback that people are enjoying listening to the show. Some people listen to it in airports or on planes. My editor at the [The New York Times] magazine today told me she’s been listening to it at work to drown out the noise in the office. Some people listen to it while they’re driving. My neighbour told me he plays it to his dog so his dog will dream that he’s being taken for a walk. I found that interesting.”
Mooallem is genuinely curious about why and how people are listening to Walking. He asks me how I first heard about the podcast (a story in New York magazine), when I listen to it (in bed before going to sleep), what I get out of it (I try to visualise what Mooallem is seeing on the walk – it also helps me sleep) and if there should be more talking (maybe a little, but definitely not too much).
As a writer-at-large for The New York Times Magazine, Mooallem has for many years written about nature, animals and the environment, particularly in relation to humanity. He has published stories on turtles, pigeons, bears, ants, a rogue monkey in Florida and the true story of how America at one time considered farming hippopotamuses for meat.
His 2013 book Wild Ones was sub-titled “A sometimes dismaying, weirdly reassuring story about looking at people looking at animals in America”. It contained deep reporting about wildlife conservation, while telling remarkable stories about the lengths people will go to in order to help animals in danger of extinction. His next book, to be published in March, is This Is Chance!, about the biggest earthquake in American history, that shook Anchorage, Alaska in 1964 and the female radio journalist whose voice brought the town through it.
Mooallem has always been a walker. Last year he wrote a gripping memoir piece about a hiking and kayaking trip he took with two friends in Alaska 17 years ago that could have ended in death.
When he’s working at home or travelling on assignment, Mooallem walks whenever he can on breaks or free afternoons. The walks on the podcast all take place on Bainbridge Island, which is criss-crossed with a network of trails.
He records his walks on exactly the same small, inexpensive Olympus digital recorder on which I recorded our interview. It cost me around $80. He wraps it in a wool sock to buffer noise from the wind and his hand. He pays $15 a month for a hosting service. And that’s pretty much it.
“I think it’s no secret that it’s very easy to make a podcast,” he says. “I don’t have an agenda or ego tied up with the thing. It’s not super difficult to make. I don’t want to diminish what people are getting out of it and it’s definitely not meant to be a joke, but I’m a pretty serious person about my work, and for me the podcast is like this little hobby or art project that’s fun to do.”
Mooallem doesn’t always record his walks. He often just goes for a wander without his recorder. But Walking has put an extra spring in his step.
“I’ve spent the last year finishing the new book and I worked on a couple of really dark magazine stories too, so it feels really nice to have this thing that puts me in touch with other people. I’m a self-employed, lonely writer who spends all his time typing. This adds something to my life apart from my writing career. And it really does feel like the one area of my life that I’m not overthinking.”
Writer and author Barry Divola – who specialises in music, popular culture, food and travel – lives in Sydney, but his heart lives in New York.