I’ve become a regular walker, and I suppose I was always bound to be. My mother is someone who people always see walking around town, our teddy bear dog Reggie accompanying her for the last 9 years. I know people see her because I guess that’s the sort of thing people mention in small talk. My older sister, even since diving into the world of fitness, rarely passes up an opportunity to join my mother and Reggie when she’s home from out east. My father used to make a yearly pilgrimage through every street in the city, praying and meditating in his dérive. My younger brother calls home from college on Sunday afternoons as he walks around one of Minnesota’s 10,000 odd lakes.
Like most teens, the idea of walking anywhere sounded like unnecessary tedium, but I learned. I started going for walks in college, and now that I’m in graduate school without a car ambulating has become part and parcel of my existence, along with eating oats, reading literary theory, and pretending to know what I’m doing. I walk into campus for class and work, I make a weekly trip to the grocery store, I walk to church if I don’t have a ride, I wander to one or two coffee shops on the weekends, and I don’t mind stretching my legs to go downtown for some errands of varying urgency. I didn’t know in 2013 how appropriate getting “Galatians 5:16” (“But I say, walk by the spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.”) tattooed on my leg would be in the literal sense. I also didn’t know that lettering tattoos aren’t as cool as they seem to a first-tattoo-getter, but they are safe, and that matters quite a lot to a first-tattoo-getter.
A byproduct of walking by necessity has been walking for fun. I like to walk. I don’t like it if I go a day without walking. Perhaps that’s why I’ve accidentally lost 10 pounds I didn’t know I had.
I’m spending most of my summer in my hometown with a decent amount of free time, so, while teenage me would have just played more video games, I look for excuses to go for walks which transport me well beyond the streets and paths on which I tread.
I used a French word earlier, dérive, a word I know not because I’m taking French classes (which I am) but because I wanted to sound fancy in this one poem I wrote about a black squirrel jumping into a lilac tree. I take liberties with my use of translation, but to me it is a means of travel which allows for reaction, improvisation, and spontaneity between endpoints in a journey.
I like to practice this when I walk the streets of my hometown, which is just as well because, even if there are main roads in Sturgeon Bay, there is rarely such thing as a direct route from one place in the city to another. As a bonus, some neighborhoods, mine included, have a lot of alleys. So, within a short walk from my house to the public library, there’s ample opportunity to let the streets tell me where to go.
Alleys – the thin roads which run between rows of houses in the middle of a block – take me past the reflective facades of houses into the homes themselves. The backyard is where the character of a home really lives, and alleys are the paths to these secret theaters and gardens. Literal gardens, of course – the projects of green thumbs and the overgrown stalks and leaves and petals. It’s beautiful, the way people manage the plant life which so happily springs forth. I admit I’m usually a little disappointed if the yard is nothing but freshly cut grass, even if that’s a better space for frisbee and touch football. Backyards are also where people put secret meeting places, their patios and chairs, their firepits and tables with umbrellas. I see these and I wonder if they’re well-used; I wonder if the grill gets fired up for a friendly gathering or if the chairs sit vacant every day, posing in lonely hopes. Backyards are a view into garages and sheds, the rundown shelters of odds and ends and the vehicles parked on the grass that may or may not be able to run anyway. Clean, well-lighted garages boasting a new set of wheels might seem a more desirable view from the street, but I’m convinced these cluttered, dingy shacks are the natural way for us to keep what doesn’t fit in the house, even if it’s proper to hide it from view.
People can go to great pains to put forward their best self in the front yard and their porches and approaches, but the secret gardens and theaters in the back are where I think most people really live, and alleys are the paths which take me into these places which may or not be intended for me. I love to find new alleys, and I’m frustrated when I see an interesting yard but can’t get to it without trespassing, as well as when I see what looks like an alley emerging from a hedgerow only to find it’s just a long driveway. There are yards back there that I want to see and know and muse about, and it bothers me that I can only window shop instead of getting to see what the owner keeps in the backroom.
Walking – whether through alleys or on streets and sidewalks – gives me an extended look at homes that I would only ever catch a glimpse of from a car window, if at all. I love taking in the character of a home in the few seconds I get with each one. I love how the kitschy yards with faux marble Mother Mary and sassy Packer signs and generic symbols of patriotism somehow balance their gaudiness with the dignity that comes from sincerity. I roll my eyes even as I take mental photos of the expensive houses with their bright white paint and clean-swept porches, brand new SUV in the driveway with stickers for Ivy League schools. I sigh with bliss at the front yards which have been cultivated with great care to explode with flowers like a Kehinde Wiley painting from their professionally landscaped terrain. But my favorites are always the quirky off-beat homes that walk a fine line between artistry and negligence. The front yard is decorated with little rhyme or reason, overgrown with plants and mismatched furniture, and a cobblestone or dirt path leads through a rickety fence into a backyard of chicken coops and mystery. The front porch looks like someplace people might actually use, sitting and smoking pipes surrounded by stone Buddhas and metal birds. I love these houses, and I want to know who lives there and what they’re doing.
But walking helps me to know neighborhoods and the city at large as much as it gives me a view into individual dwellings. A drive along the main roads in Sturgeon Bay will take you past what you’re supposed to see, like the beautiful houses with a view of the bay or the cutesy shops in the downtown area by the bridges. But just a block back from these places the story changes, and for every nice-ass house in this town there are five tiny, tiny homes, and not in the trendy eco-friendly sense. Some of them are spruced up with pride and others look like they’re falling apart. A house that belongs in a magazine is across the street from one that was literally purchased from a Sears catalog. I don’t walk past homeless people in Sturgeon Bay like I do in Corvallis, but some of the homes I see remind me that, despite what comes to mind at the mention of Door County, the fact remains that Sturgeon Bay is a lower-class community, with many citizens living below the poverty line. Those facts can get lost along the waterfront, the site of most of the city’s political tensions about bridges and hotels and historical markers.
E.B. White said that “Everything in life is somewhere else, and you get there in a car,” which is a true fact that limits the ability to know the places we go, even the places we live. Walking – getting on the ground and being present in a space – and looking provide a path to knowing, a path which hides in plain sight.
I’m prompted to wonder how many people get to know the place they live in this way. I see so few people walking when I’m out, and not once have I met another pedestrian in an alley. I imagine I am the only person to walk down certain streets on a given day. Driving is one of the more self-absorbed things we do. Driving is a way to quickly get where we need to go, transported from our home to that place in our quiet bubble of personal space, a soundproof studio which engenders its own type of rage because how dare anyone fuck with that serenity which comes from hurtling through space in a two ton exploding battering ram. Cars let us stay safe from the homeless people panhandling and the sun-baked or puddle-pocked sidewalks covered in stains from who-knows-what. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with driving, and while I don’t own a car I drive all the time (so to speak) and sometimes rather enjoy it, especially if I’m on rural and forested Door County highways. The self-absorption I’m referring to can’t be helped, let alone condemned. It just comes with the territory, and I think the “selfish” act of driving blinds us to things we can only see, experience, know, and feel if we walk.
Walking through my hometown blurs temporal schemes and linear chronology, which serves both to alienate me and ground me here as if I never left. Door County doesn’t really change, which is the way the locals (and especially the natives) like it. Not like Boston, where I walked with my sister and her husband through a harborside area which had sprung up faster than a new line of iPhone. Progress, expansion, and renovation drive buildings skyward as that city, like many others, undergoes rapid change. But if one storefront changes in downtown Sturgeon Bay, I’m going to notice. It doesn’t seem to matter what year it is, so home has remained the same over the years of my returns, even though in the same amount of time entire business districts have sprung up in places like Boston and I have had the most transformative years of my life. Coming back to my childhood home as a young adult makes me feel just a little out of place, like anyone can tell I’m an expatriate, like I can only ever be a visitor. But, at the same time, seeing people I know wherever I go and falling into the same year in, year out rhythm makes me feel as if I never left. I wonder if this is what Gandalf feels like whenever he visits the Shire (I know he’s not from there but you know what I mean (you do know what I mean, right?)).
Slowing down to walk through the streets of my hometown, and not just the streets I’ve grown accustomed to travelling, like the ones to the school and the Y and my church and Culver’s, floods my meditations with little memories. Big memories tend to come up now and then and stay close to mind, but these little memories require more chance recollections, followed by more careful excavation of the fossil. I’ve walked past a local bed and breakfast, and the beautiful historic house brings to mind how we used to go for family walks when I was little and stop by there just to stay hello to the proprietors. They had the most beautiful and friendly Chow Chow, and they made the best damn giant cookies. Or I walk past one of my oldest friend’s houses and remember going to his birthday party and caring so much about how I played in backyard soccer. And then my mind runs through an entire filing cabinet of memories associated with him and with his family, and, for whatever reason, that makes me ponder what would have had to have been different in life for us to have remained closer friends or for me to study zoology.
Is there an inherent value to any of these recollections and musings? Maybe, maybe not, but I think it’s valuable to force ourselves to think about things we don’t normally think about, or to think about something in a different way.
Walking can also evoke big memories and prompt deep thoughts. Literally moving through a day at a walking pace affords the space to ponder and meditate in a way that can be so profound so as to create a sort of new big memory all its own. I had a moment like this just this Spring when I was walking into the marketplace down the street from my apartment complex to buy overpriced bananas and I espied my adult self in the large glass doors as I reached for the part of the door handle I thought might be touched the least. This turned into a very big moment and memory for me, even though it probably seems trivial in comparison to a memory like getting arrested or sex on the beach or getting arrested for sex on the beach. Seeing the reflection of a young man in a dress shirt and tie as I went to buy something I felt like I could eat a couple days after being sick and dehydrated ushered me into the same great gift which walking gives to the mind: awareness. Realities that I had taken for granted – namely, that I was surprisingly adult and living alone in a far away place – snapped into focus in the same way that walking draws the streets of my idyllic little hometown out of the background of tunnel-visioned assumptions. And in that moment I needed awareness more than anyone has ever needed sex on the beach.
What I have written about walking is true in some way about so much more than gallivanting to a coffee shop to write. I tend to resent overt didacticism, but I feel the need to elaborate on these applications, even at the risk of insulting your intelligence or diminishing the independent value of what I’ve said about walking. I care a lot about walking, but I also care a lot about awareness.
No matter which path you choose, you still have to walk it, and I don’t know that they always tell you that. I think our default setting is to coast through life in cars which allow us to ignore what’s around us and become self-absorbed without actually practicing self-examination and metacognition. We check out of the tedium of daily life and drive for the destination at the expense of the little details that matter. We take the quickest way on the widest path, forgetting to consider the possibilities which exist all around us at any given time, and detaching from ourselves in the hope that things might be otherwise.
Some might hear echoes of David Foster Wallace, and you’re not mistaken. It’s a simple but powerful truth: awareness is a life-giving choice.
I needed awareness this Spring. Side effects from a medication aimed at a chronic health problem piled on top of the other shit that comes with being me, which turned molehills into mountains and made for long days of wild thoughts and crippling fear. I could feel it in my chest and my head the moment I woke up each morning. It was almost impossible just to keep the theater of my mind from exploding like the one in Inglorious Basterds.
In the darkest hours, seeing, remembering, and feeling what we hold dear becomes a battle. Our safe havens of truth; knowledge which lights the lamps unto our feet; the humdrum which gives our life rhythm; the sacred love and spirit which act as our sword and shield; these all grow dim as we isolate ourselves in a prison of ignorance and fear.
In that tough time, I was reminded of the sources of strength which give me life. My friends testified to who I am. My mother reminded me of what I’ve done. My father shined a light on the one to whom I belong. His advice in tough times is always to preach to yourself. He sent me Scriptures and told me to “Mine some jewels,” which I thought sounded dope because of Run the Jewels.
I implore you to walk on day after day. I have to remind myself to do this, especially on mornings like this one as my illness feels like a thorn twisting in my side.
Remember and remain aware. Get out of the car and get out of your head. Stop and smell the roses. Seek the secret gardens. See and know your fellow human. Preach to yourself. Don’t ever think you have to go it alone, and don’t ever be afraid to ask for help.
And go for a walk.
Forth now, and fear no darkness.
Soli Deo Gloria