For the last six and a half years, I haven’t owned a car. I’ve borrowed them, certainly, but my primary form of locomotion was my functional legs. It made no sense to own a car when I lived in Montreal’s centre ville, and in the suburbs of Philadelphia it was simply too expensive for my grad student budget- even when it meant I had to walk three miles each way to get to my classes. For the most part, I could get where I wanted on foot, and failing that, there were buses and trains to carry me the extra distance. I have walked miles and miles in sub-zero temperatures and in the scorching, 100-plus degree sun. The lifestyle choice may have been convenience-inspired initially, but to be honest, the love of walking began much earlier.
Our first summer after high school, Beth and I, along with our friend Victoria, participated in the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer 3-Day for the first time. It’s a three-day, sixty mile walk that raises money and awareness for breast cancer, and it requires several weeks of preparation to complete without lasting injury. Over the course of June and July, the three of us took short walks on our own- mine was a three-mile stroll in the mornings before work- and met up a few times to try walking longer distances. Those morning sessions, and occasional afternoon sessions with my mom, became a special sort of therapy. Terrible at running- I wasn’t able to jog more than a mile until graduate school!- I found walking to be a great balance of exercise, social time, and mental health relief. While on the 3-Day itself, every footstep required effort- but also came with conversation, inspiration, and the knowledge that we were mobile for a good cause. By the end of that walk, though I never wanted to use my feet again, I’d fallen in love with the art of walking. So when I moved to Montreal a few weeks later, and got around entirely by foot, I wasn’t disappointed or annoyed.
Working full-time for the first time in my life has given me an appreciation for the way walking- one of the most basic movements for able-bodied adults- has been neglected in our culture. Sidewalks
are often poorly maintained or crowded with merchandise and cafe tables, if they exist at all, and motorists seem to view pedestrians as obnoxious roadblocks. I walk to the grocery store, which is fifteen minutes up the hill by foot, and people slow down asking if I need a ride somewhere. I tell them no thank you, I’m walking, and by the looks on their faces I sometimes wonder if I’m speaking an incomprehensible language. The fact that I work 15 miles away from where I live, and thus am obligated to commute by car, means that the only time I get to spend outside is the time I take on my lunch hour.
The most amazing thing to me about all this is that walking’s most prominent loss is in tourism. We drive, train, bus, fly, or sail to our destinations, and then choose to spend the rest of our time there on a different bus, train, boat, or car. Garden of the Gods, for example, has a road that runs around the main attractions of the park- convenient if you’re unused to the altitude, but too convenient if your lazy streak speaks up. London’s tour companies are famous for their open-top, double-decker bus options. San Francisco’s big tourist attraction is the trolleys, with lines so long you can spend all day waiting for a short ride. Websites for famous museums offer directions for public transit and cars, but almost never for those traveling on foot. On top of this, of course, are the dire security warnings that are issued for tourists, complete with stories of travelers who failed to travel with a group and wound up robbed, assaulted, missing, or worse. It’s no wonder so many of us stick to motorized transportation- between convenience, advertising, and safety, it can seem sometimes like any other option isn’t worth the effort.
Walking certainly can’t get you to all of the biggest attractions in London in one day, nor can it guarantee that you’ll always be with a group. On the other hand, walking can get you to some of the things that are better- like the hole-in-the-wall restaurant in Montreal that makes the best vegetarian food in the world, or the ancient forest trails in Bantry that are too difficult to find by car. Walking is an opportunity to slow down and really get the feel for the place you’re in, both literally and figuratively. It gives you an excuse to stop at a tiny cafe when you get tired or hungry, so you can people-watch and take in the local city. It offers you opportunities to see attractions that are off the beaten path, so to speak, and are less crowded- but just as exciting- as the Louvre or Hermitage or Pier 39. It makes it easier for you to escape the tourism industry for a while and find your own way. It gets you outside, where you get to feel the sun, wind, humidity, chill, snow, or rain- just because you can, or because you have jet lag to overcome. It’s easier to see the stores and restaurants you’re passing, and there’s never a problem with parking.
So please, give walking a try on your next trip out- whether it’s to the grocery store or to a city on another continent. See if you notice the difference that being “on foot” can lend to even the most routine of your trips. And please, use that trip to appreciate the world around you, from the air you’re breathing to the buildings you see. It’s too good to miss.