Today, if I don’t come down with the horrible flu that has attacked my wife, I will walk home for the 100th time this academic year. It’s not a very long walk – somewhere between 2.5 and 3 miles depending on my route – but it can feel longer or shorter depending on the weather and my energy levels!
So to celebrate my 100th walk of the year, I thought I might reflect a tiny bit on what I’ve learned walking home.
1. I should not wear headphones while I walk. Sometime last fall – right around the time when I installed Spotify on my phone – I started to listen to music a few days a week on my walks home. I had been working harder than usual at the office and had cut back on music listening during the day; so, I started to pop in my headphones and listen to music on my walk. While this certainly made my walks go faster, I found that I lost a tremendous amount of awareness about my environment. The aural landscape – from the sound of cars passing on the street to the grind of the rail yard, the sound of the wind between houses, or the barking of dogs created a much heightened awareness of space.
2. Neighborhoods. One of the most interesting thing about walking home is that each neighborhood prompted a different (and remarkably consistent) feeling in me as I walk through it. The neighborhood closest to campus invariably made me feel old. College age students were always out and about and younger families too with small kids and smaller dogs. When I reached Washington St., the feeling of my walk changed. Here I became very much aware of the social distinction between a walker and someone whizzing by in a car. Other pedestrians in this area tended to be individuals who appeared to be walking not because they wanted to, but because they had to. I felt conspicuous both among these people and my colleagues as they passed by in their cars (and on their mobile phones!). Finally, when I ducked back down into the neighborhoods closer to my own home in the Near South Side, I encountered children and other walkers who clearly were outside because they wanted to be outside. I felt like I was another suburbanite talking an evening stroll and far less conspicuous than I was walking beside the rushing traffic of Washington Street.
3. The Wind and Weather. The expansive skies of the Red River Valley are truly amazing, but they come at a price. The howling winds that can cut through even the most weather-proofed jackets can make even a my casual strolls exercises in resistance training. Mostly, however, they don’t. I’ve come to love the close packed houses of campus neighborhoods and the Near South Side. Many of my colleagues who rarely walk in inclement weather remained skeptical when I tell them that once my walking route gets me into a neighborhood (rather than campus or sports fields or other open spaces that punctuate my route), I can hear the wind, but I generally don’t feel it.
4. Fatigue. I live a pretty sedentary existence. Generally, I sit at my desk for around 10 hours a day. Walking is tiring. I am consistently surprised by how tired I feel after walking home. As a historian of the pre-industrial world, I have always recognized that walking was the most common way to get around through most of human history (and maybe the case even today). Walking home has made me all the more aware of how much walking can limit the scope and extent of one’s world. Simple detours that I might make in the car – stopping at the grocery store or to grab milk at the Quik-E-Mart – seem to be immense inconveniences on my walk even when the additional distance is less than a mile. So while walking brings me closer to my environment, it also makes everything seem much further away.
5. Paths and Hidden Landscapes. My walks have made me much more aware of the paths inscribed in my local landscape. These range from random staircases that allow a pedestrian to move from a sidewalk to a more elevated, perpendicular side street to the paths through grassy areas between commercial and residential districts. The remains of the streets that were abandoned with the installation of the rail yard and resulting changes in the road network are still clearly visible. Strange little houses converted from garages when such things were still possible under building and zoning codes, abandoned storefronts on now-neglected side streets, and repurposed buildings which clearly straddle the line between commercial and residential. So many of the subtle signs of how communities respond to change remain hidden as I blast around in my little Honda Civic, but become visible when I wander home (without headphones).
Finally, there is one additional benefit to walking. I feel better when I get home (albeit more tired) than I do when I leave my office. Less cranky, more relaxed, and usually just slightly (in a pleasant Sunday afternoon kind of way) bored.
… My feet is my only carriage. So I’ve got to push on through …
UPDATE: This is a total coincidence, but a happy one. Check out Tom Vanderbilts’s “Crisis in American Walking” on Slate a couple weeks ago. (via kottke.com yesterday)