On Walking: A Simple Privilege with Powerful Benefits

by Jenny Blair

Family Walk

We live in Austin, Texas, in a neighborhood of elderly people, jog-stroller parents, mockingbirds, clapboard houses, cats, cacti, and shade trees. 

Shortly after we moved here from the Northeast, I began to take morning walks. I wanted to feel a connection to this strange place, to feel that I knew something about it, even if only that lots of the neighbors owned yappy guard dogs or that pecans in fact grow on trees. 

Walking helped me learn to read the language of this foreign landscape.

I am lucky. Not everyone has the ability or time to step outside and walk. But those who can enjoy this privilege – or who can do the equivalent with a mobility device – may find that it becomes a cherished habit.

If you’re not there yet, here are a few suggestions:

1.   Leave the gadgets at home. 

Though walking can be a good time to catch up on podcasts or bliss out to music, leave the iPod at home, at least some of the time. Not convinced? Read Andrew Sullivan’s lament about oblivious pedestrians wired to earbuds—people you might as well not bother greeting, as they don’t hear you and don’t reply. 

Don’t be that person. Let the world in. Let your walk trail a little community behind it, the way a spider trails silk. As for smartphones, unless safety is a factor (read on), consider leaving those at home too. Not being reachable for a time can be a fine thing.

2.   Resist the temptation to load every walk with tasks. 

If I intend a walk to combine exercise, dropping off library books, and identifying trees (fun though it is), the checkboxes can overwhelm the experience, turning it into a chore. Let the point of some walks be simply to walk. Think of your walks as daily breaks. Diana Rosen calls a cup of tea “a metaphor for peace,” and aficionados of afternoon tea know how nice it is to orient one’s day around that ritual. Walks are like that too. Consider enjoying one each day around the same time, if you can.

3.   Don’t buy equipment. 

You don’t need special walking shoes. (You may not even need shoes.) You don’t have to wear a watch, you don’t need spandex, and you probably don’t need a bottle of water.

4.   Stop at times.

You may be pounding out a half-hour of race-walk cardio, but let yourself stop and look at that strange beetle. Pet the waggy dog. Pick up that penny and drop it into a jar when you get home--the pile grows over time, marking your walks.

So, it’s time to close the front door behind us and step out to enjoy this simplest and cheapest of activities. What gifts can walking offer us?

A Sense of Place

I grew up in a renovated Michigan farmhouse on a sidewalk-less country road anchored by a strip club, which meant we children almost never left the yard except in a car. Driving everywhere we went, we grew up largely indifferent to our hometown and the state. 

It wasn’t until adulthood that I came home, took walks, and noticed things, like little trails, or ditches alive with wildflowers. I finally grasped the distance between us and our neighbors, the nearest gas station, even the small university whose library I’d driven to countless times in high school. The place began to feel real in a way it never had, and it was in part due to those walks that I started to care about it fiercely.

This power to make a place real is particularly potent in the countless placeless “nowheres” that infest our cities—places where walking isn’t intended, like railroad rights-of-way or the brushy wastelands behind grocery stores. By walking in them, we in some sense resuscitate them. 

In Outside Lies Magic: Regaining History and Awareness in Everyday Places, John R. Stilgoe teaches the reader to explore the pitted surfaces and ragged edges of cities, drawing our attention to utility poles, cloverleaf motels, and commercial-strip parking lots. Those things are surprisingly interesting, and they’re everywhere. 

Paul Auster, too, is a poet of city walks. In his classic novel City of Glass, one character becomes so intrigued with the sidewalk debris he encounters during his meandering walks that he invents a new language to describe it. Walking reintroduces us to that human scale the commercial age overwrote. 

If you do choose to venture into unfamiliar territory or to poke around places that aren’t built for pedestrians, use caution and common sense. It may be wise, too, to bring along a cell phone and/or some companions on urban adventures.

People Power

Though we seldom elect to do so, people can and do walk long distances--between cities, across state lines, from river to river. Next time you ask Google Maps for directions, click on the pedestrian option and daydream a bit. Page through a DeLorme atlas

Read the first few pages of John Crowley’s 1981 magic-realist novel Little, Big in which the hero sets out to marry his vaguely unearthly bride. Her people instruct him to wear borrowed clothing and make the journey upstate to her from New York City on foot, and Crowley’s lush prose may make you want to try an honest journey like that. 

Native Americans sometimes walked for days to their destinations: Loren R. Graham’s riveting book A Face in the Rock includes an account of a group of men’s epic walk (and paddle) along the southern shores of Lake Superior. In more recent times, when Navajo elder Howard McKinley needed to get to Albuquerque from the reservation, he would simply set out walking the 175 miles. 

Imagine feeling so untrapped. My own daydream is to walk (or cycle) from Saginaw to Alpena in my home state, crossing from the rust belt through farms and the Huron National Forest and over to the northeastern shores.

Community

Much has been written about pedestrians and their ability to build community, the fact that they, not cars, are the energy-rich cells in a city’s bloodstream. 

To read one of the most eloquent and influential thinkers on this topic, check out Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Jacobs defended Greenwich Village against urban planner Robert Moses, who wanted to put a highway there, and she inspired the New Urbanists to plan more walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods.

Feelings

Capitalist culture requires us to undergo some dissociation not only from community but also from our own feelings. But a walk can bring body, thoughts and emotions into alignment the way focus makes cross-eyed images jump into place. As I walk, I sometimes ask myself two questions: What sensations does my body feel? and Can I name the emotion I feel at this moment? 

Accustomed as we are to bearing up, pushing forward, and buckling down, this little exercise can elicit shocking evidence of how numb we are throughout much of our waking lives. I don’t recognize sometimes that I’m anxious until I’m walking and beginning to notice butterflies in my stomach. Normally I might push the inconvenient emotion away, but something about the slowness of a walk frees me to view it as important information. What, exactly, is bothering me? What might I need to do differently?

The best thing about walking, for me, lies in a quality it shares with cycling, secondhand clothes, and refillable mugs: It lifts the burden of doing harm. I’d like to live in a world where traveling, getting dressed, or enjoying a drink doesn’t entail such injury to that world. 

We each have a right not to be forced to create garbage or spew carbon in order to do what we need to do. We have a right to less destructive options. And a simple act like walking inspires me to work toward a future when getting our daily needs met doesn’t despoil our surroundings, but instead heals them—and us.

Jenny Blair is a writer, illustrator, and MD. Read more at her website jennyblair.com.

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