In this car-dependent community where I live, walking is something I do with intention. I walk my dog Tetley before and after work. More ambitiously I walk with my friend Chris. We walk fast and far and sometimes with weights – for the fresh air and exercise. Where I live, like most American communities, walking is not a viable way to take care of daily business. I miss that.
I did not own a car until I moved to Connecticut in my 30s. I lived in Kyoto, Japan; New York City; Zagreb, Croatia; even Cincinnati, Ohio (I lived in the city) and never owned a car because I didn’t need one. Stores, markets to buy food – were in every neighborhood. And public transportation was accessible and good. Or, I rode a bicycle with a basket big enough to fill with groceries. I knew the fastest, scenic, safest routes to work. I became familiar with the patterns of light, cracks on sidewalks, faces and sometimes the names of shopkeepers, my neighbors. All of my senses were attuned to my place in the world. In Kyoto, the sound of ancient weaving machines heaving away down the narrow streets of my neighborhood, were my cues I was nearing the old wooden house where I lived, as did the splashing of water from the tofu shop on the corner. When I moved farther north in the city, I smelled the fermenting kimchee from the Korean community on the next street, the scent of the pine forests up the hill and felt the wind, the first snow.
In Zagreb, I befriended neighbors and shopkeepers passed daily on my walk to catch the tram to work. After Molly was born, I walked with her pram to the market where I piled fresh produce and maybe something from the butcher in the rack beneath her. In Cincinnati I lived at the edge of a ghetto surrounded by empty buildings, accepted by the few residents in that mostly abandoned neighborhood, as one of the weird artists that lived in the building that used to be a school. I only felt nervous when I had to leave at 4:30 in the morning to pick up a waitress shift at the hotel downtown – I’d throw my ten speed onto my shoulder, dash down the broken church steps and pedal furiously through the empty streets – the dark morning terrifying and thrilling me.
And New York – well, everyone knows New York – half the fun of being there is just walking, walking, walking. Most days I happily joined the river of pedestrians rushing down Broadway, dodging around the slowpokes, when I remembered to have change handy in my pocket, giving to the usual gauntlet of panhandlers. Sometimes I’d choose West End Avenue – a wider, emptier expanse of only apartment buildings with no shops – a short reprieve from the masses before cutting over to join the flow at 96th Street where we descended to the subway.
But here, an hour outside of New York City, I’ve never even boarded the bus. The grocery store is at least a mile away so not practical to walk to unless I’m just buying milk. Work is 5 miles and my job requires a car for visits to schools and companies.
Except for the hurried morning Tetley walks – so short they hardly qualify – me following him at a snails pace as he sniffs and pees, sniffs and pees, barks at long-gone creatures from the night before. I have to get to work so we barely make it down the street before I have to tug him to hurry along and take care of business. Still, I get a glimpse of the day, a sense of the seasons.
Recently, I walked a different route to pick up my car. Not a pretty street, but one I drive down often. And in walking it, I noticed new things. This company’s name intrigued me – its a wholesale distributor of body jewelry – so if you’re in the market for nipple rings, check them out.
American communities do not encourage pedestrian life. In fact, walking can be deadly. Sidewalks are intermittent — even along busy thoroughfares like the Boston Post Road. I’ve seen families pushing baby carriages along a busy stretch between strip malls, hugging the curb while traffic barrels past. Throw in the frozen snow banks of winter and a texting teen…
According to the CDC: “In 2012, 4,743 pedestrians were killed in traffic crashes in the United States, and another 76,000 pedestrians were injured. This averages to one crash-related pedestrian death every 2 hours, and a pedestrian injury every 7 minutes. Pedestrians are 1.5 times more likely than passenger vehicle occupants to be killed in a car crash on each trip.”
This doesn’t exactly make you want to break out your walking shoes, now does it?
I miss the easy exercise of being a functional walker but even more, I miss the intimate connections to the world around me only possible beyond the boundaries of my home, my car. I devour the blogs of madcap adventurers biking around the world, shlogging through all weather, up mountains, through cities, camping by rivers, part of it all – meeting up with hospitable citizens who share their food and drink because who doesn’t love a traveler – someone pedaling, walking, wanting to know about your place in the world? And in doing so, in getting out of a car, slowing down and being in a place, we make it a little bit, our own.
Don’t get me wrong – I love to drive around in the warmth or the cool of my car, my music playing. But so much of life is missed when you travel 30+ miles an hour.
What about where you live?