Since getting my Fitbit I’ve seen all kinds of things I wouldn’t normally have come across. Once it was a toffee-colored cow with two feet sticking out of her. I was rambling that afternoon with my friend Maja, and as she ran to inform the farmer, I marched in place, envious of the extra steps she was getting in. Given all the time I’ve spent in the country, you’d think I might have seen a calf being born, but this was a first for me. The biggest surprise was how nonplussed the expectant mother was. For a while she lay flat on the grass, panting. Then she got up and began grazing, still with those feet sticking out.

“Really?” I said to her. “You can’t go five minutes without eating?”

Around her were other cows, all of whom seemed blind to her condition.

“Do you think she knows there’s a baby at the end of this?” I asked Maja after she’d returned. “A woman is told what’s going to happen in the delivery room, but how does an animal interpret this pain?”

I thought of the first time I had a kidney stone. That was in New York, in 1991, back when I had no money or health insurance. All I knew was that I was hurting and couldn’t afford to do anything about it. The night was spent moaning. Then I peed blood, followed by what looked like a piece of gravel from an aquarium. That’s when I put it all together.

What might I have thought if, after seven hours of unrelenting agony, a creature the size of a full-grown cougar emerged inch by inch from the hole at the end of my penis and started hassling me for food? Was that what the cow was going through? Did she think she was dying, or had instinct somehow prepared her for this?

Maja and I watched for an hour. Then the sun started to set and we trekked on, disappointed. I left for London the next day, and when I returned several weeks later and hiked back to the field, I saw mother and child standing side by side, not in the loving way I had imagined but more like strangers waiting for the post office to open.

Other animals I’ve seen on my walks are foxes and rabbits. I’ve stumbled upon deer, stoats, a hedgehog, and more pheasant than I could possibly count. All the badgers I find are dead, run over by cars and eventually feasted upon by carrion-eating slugs, which are themselves eventually flattened and feasted upon by other slugs.

Back when Maja and I saw the cow, I was averaging twenty-five thousand steps, or around ten and a half miles per day. Trousers that had grown too snug were suddenly loose again, and I noticed that my face was looking a lot thinner. Then I upped it to thirty thousand steps and started walking farther afield. “We saw David in Arundel picking up a dead squirrel with his grabbers,” the neighbors told Hugh. “We saw him outside Steyning rolling a tire down the side of the road,” “…in Pulborough dislodging a pair of Y-fronts from a tree branch.” Before the Fitbit, once we’d eaten dinner, I was in for the evening. Now, though, as soon as I’m finished with the dishes, I walk to the pub and back, a distance of 3,895 steps. There are no streetlights where we live, and the houses I pass at eleven p.m. are either dark or very dimly lit. I often hear owls and the flapping of woodcocks disturbed by the beam of my flashlight. One night I heard a creaking sound and noticed that the minivan parked a dozen or so steps ahead of me was rocking back and forth. A lot of people where we live seem to have sex in their cars. I know this because I find their used condoms, sometimes on the road but more often just off it, in little pull-over areas. In addition to spent condoms, in one of the spots that I patrol, I regularly pick up empty KFC containers and a great number of soiled Handi Wipes. Do they eat fried chicken and then have sex, or is it the other way around? I wonder.

I look back on the days I averaged only thirty thousand steps and think, Honestly, how lazy can you get? When I hit thirty-five thousand steps a day, Fitbit sent me an e-badge, and then one for forty thousand, and forty-five thousand. Now I’m up to sixty thousand, which is twenty-five and a half miles. Walking that distance at the age of fifty-seven with completely flat feet while lugging a heavy bag of garbage takes close to nine hours—a big block of time but hardly wasted. I listen to audiobooks and podcasts. I talk to people. I learn things: the fact, for example, that in the days of yore, peppercorns were sold individually, and because they were so valuable, to guard against theft, the people who packed them had to have their pockets sewn shut.

At the end of my first sixty-thousand-step day, I staggered home with my flashlight knowing that now I’d advance to sixty-five thousand and that there’d be no end to it until my feet snapped off at the ankles. Then it’d just be my jagged bones stabbing into the soft ground. Why is it some people can manage a thing like a Fitbit, while others go off the rails and allow it to rule, and perhaps even ruin, their lives? While marching along the roadside, I often think of a TV show that I watched a few years back—Obsessed, it was called. One of the episodes was devoted to a woman who owned two treadmills and walked like a hamster on a wheel from the moment she got up until she went to bed. Her family would eat dinner and she’d observe them from her vantage point beside the table, panting as she asked her children about their day. I knew that I was supposed to scoff at this woman—to be, at the very least, entertainingly disgusted, the way I am with the people on Hoarders—but instead I saw something of myself in her. Of course, she did her walking on a treadmill, where it served no greater purpose. So it’s not like we’re really that much alike. Is it?

David Sedaris's Books