Wednesday, June 29, 2011


When I was a kid, my favorite thing to do was walk. I would walk anywhere my protective parents would allow me to. I loved gardens and parks, places where I was allowed to follow trails and explore. When my family visited the Japanese tea garden in Golden Gate Park, I would make sure to cover every bit of terrain, looping back past the same areas again and again so I could follow every detour and alternate path. I felt certain there was some magic hiding where I hadn’t yet walked, that there was some amazing mystery I couldn’t leave unseen.

In high school, I was finally allowed to ride my bike instead of taking a school bus. I did that for about a month, and then I decided that I would rather walk. My parents thought I was being unreasonable the first day I told them I wouldn’t be taking my bike. It was only a mile to school, but adults in the suburbs didn’t walk distances like that. On my walk to school, I discovered all the things I had missed by driving and biking. Careful gardens of drought-resistant plants. Sculptures in windows and yards. Communes where Palo Alto’s persistent enclaves of hippies and artists preserved the Sixties version of our city. Patches of the yellow flowers whose stems tasted like lemon if you sucked on them. Crazy people walking the streets, cats, butterflies, interesting garbage and free things, lost notes and photographs. My walk to and from school was one of the most interesting parts of my day.

Walking became my major hobby outside of school. My friend Therese and I spent the entire summer after freshman year crossing our town from side to side on foot. Every day, we would choose a unexplored territory to walk to. That pedestrian overpass you only usually saw when driving on the freeway. Shoreline Amphitheater. Downtown Menlo Park. That seeming wasteland between downtown Palo Alto and the Stanford Mall.

People often reminisce about their love of their first car, how driving represented freedom. That’s how I felt about walking. You could walk anyplace. It was hard for me to wrap my brain around that kind of limitlessness. Using no resources except your own body, you could get to almost anywhere. You could get to all kinds of places that a car wouldn’t take you: the woods surrounding the Stanford campus, the deep ravine behind the mall, the hill with the giant rope swing on the way out of town. If you added public transportation, you could go to San Francisco, San Jose, or even, in theory, Richmond, Dublin, Pittsburg (wherever those places were).

I spent my twenties in universities. Every morning, from the age of eighteen to twenty-eight, I walked twenty minutes or so to the school where I took classes or taught classes. Sometimes I walked to a bus and took the bus to school. At night, I would walk to the coffee shop, the bookstore, the bar. Everywhere I needed to be could be reached by foot, like living in an old European city.

I haven’t walked like that for a while, now. I got one of those jobs that you can’t get to by foot, bike, or public transportation. For the first time in my life, my morning starts with me getting into a car. I used to counter my new driving lifestyle by walking everywhere I could. But over the last few years, I’ve lost my patience for walking, preferring biking or driving for their more immediate gratification of getting me somewhere in minutes.

For the last week, though, my car has been broken. I’ve been walking every day, to the store for groceries, to Piedmont Avenue to get tea and write. It takes longer, but I’ve already seen a lot of things I would have missed if I had been speeding past at fifteen or thirty miles an hour. I found a tree full of ripe loquats, one of my favorite foods. I found a free stepstool, something I’ve been meaning to buy for years. I have exchanged commiserating glances with people under umbrellas in the unseasonable June storm. I have passed lots of people that I see every day in the coffee shop and who I didn’t realize were my neighbors. I’ve stood on the overpass that I usually drive or bike over and watched cars speeding below me, and marveled to think that this is happening all day and night, only a few hundred feet from my apartment. I have learned a lot about where I live, my habitat, and the places between my home and my destination.

The illustration is based on a photograph demonstrating healthy walking posture from Esther Gokhale's Eight Steps to a Pain-Free Back.


Bonny said...

I love the drawing! I was thinking, hmm, why does it look familiar, it's from that book! My husband and I usually go on walks on saturdays, we call it "explore." We go to different places and eat and return home late and with sore feet!

Karin Spirn said...

Your comments about your drawing (Never to Be Aligned)reminded me that I have been wanting to buy that book forever (I once had it from the library), so I finally did!

That is so cool that you and your husband still do exploring on foot. I really need to get back to that. It's so good for your brain and body.