In Thoreau's essay on walking, he refers to a walk as "a sort of crusade." He asserts (in a charming and hyperbolic way) that the brave leave on a walk and never return. He observes that most of us lead boring lives, full of boring thoughts. We stay safe. We stay low to the ground. We live in the past. But a long walk can change all of that: We can know "self-respect and heroism” once again.
My earliest memory is of being taken for a walk in a stroller. It's a vague snippet of memory, but I recall the view from the stroller as we turned a corner. How exciting to be out in front, to be the first to see around a hedge or a cinder-block fence!
When I was five, we lived in east Long Beach, and my six-year-old sister and I took frequent but short walks, just the two of us. We walked several blocks to school. We walked to a nearby market (accessed through an alley behind our duplex) to pick up forgotten grocery items that my mom needed for dinner. Once, we walked to a brand-new McDonalds to get milkshakes to carry home, but I tripped in the parking lot, skinning my knees and spilling the milkshakes. I cried for both reasons, but mostly I cried in anticipation of my mom's disappointment.
I remember another oh-so-traumatic incident from that year, and it was also associated with a walk. My mom saved S&H Green Stamps, and there was a display case in the grocery store with empty coupon books and a glossy catalog of "prizes." I was aware that the catalog was free, because I'd seen my mom pick one up after paying for groceries. So, imitating her behavior, I picked up a TV Guide from a similar display case, after paying for the grocery item she'd requested. Upon arriving home, I proudly presented her with the TV Guide, expecting appreciation for my thoughtfulness. But she was horrified, and not particularly sensitive to my feelings or my logic ("I thought it was free, like the Green Stamps catalog!"). She actually made me walk back to the store and admit to "stealing" the TV Guide. Jesus Christ...I'd made an understandable mistake; I was hardly naughty. I cried all the way back to the store, and cried as I pleaded guilty to the store manager, who seemed confused and irritated.
When I was six, we moved to a rented house in another part of Long Beach, and during my elementary school years, I walked often. I was chubby, and I sensed I needed more exercise. I also enjoyed solitude, and there wasn't much to be found at home (with two siblings and another on the way). I walked around the block over and over again, aiming for eight times. (I'd read that eight city blocks equals a mile, and I thought it meant "around the block" eight times.) It was a safe neighborhood, and I knew who lived behind most doors. There were cute boys, of course, but there were also school friends and church friends and babysitters and some of my mom's PTA buddies. I was a cheerful little knock-kneed girl with a Dutch-boy haircut and a rather significant underbite, smiling and waving and walking.
A Speedy Mart opened up about six blocks from our house, and my sister and brother and I walked there almost daily, sometimes more than once a day. There was a large selection of penny candy, and full-size candy bars were only five cents (I preferred Big Hunks, because they took so long to eat) (that's what she said). Sometimes, we bought Slurpees or Popsicles. Our parents were generous with money; my mom probably figured 15 cents was a small price to pay for 45 minutes of blissful solitude. (I wonder how many times my parents had sex while the three of us kids walked to Speedy Mart. Gross.)
At about eight and nine, my sister and I sometimes wandered through the neighborhood with no destination in mind, just a desire to keep moving and keep talking. We were fascinated by pioneers, whom we studied in school and church (I had an abiding crush on both Marcus and Narcissa Whitman). For hours--for days!--we amused ourselves by making detailed plans for our own imaginary westward-ho trek. We made mental lists of the food we'd take, the much-loved books and knick-knacks, but mostly the dresses: the brightly colored gingham and calico, the unbleached muslin...the full skirts, the puffed sleeves, the pinafores, the oversized bows tied at the small of my back, emphasizing my slender waist. I was going to be such a cute pioneer. I'm fairly sure Thoreau would have approved.
What I remember most clearly about those years is the sweet freedom. The two of us (or the three of us) could go almost anywhere as long as we went together. We walked single file along a freeway overpass to get to the public library. We walked seven or eight blocks to the park, which was across the street from Helms Bakery, where we could get a half dozen (very stale) glazed donuts for a dime. It was illegal to enter the Flood Control, but my parents were pretty open-minded about such things, so we trudged through fields of ice plant, climbed up the steeply inclined side to the rim, and slid down into the bowels. My heart raced: We might face cops, bullies, or a sudden rush of water on its way to the ocean. It was risky, and very exciting. I miss that more-courageous version of me.
As we went crashing through puberty, my sister and I began babysitting for neighbors; we worked as a team, earning a combined fifty cents an hour. We were always flush. We took our money and hit the pavement, shopping in downtown Long Beach, eating lunch at Woolworths, sitting through "Krakatoa, East of Java" twice at a movie theater that catered to sailors. Sometimes, we walked home from junior high together, supplementing our babysitting money with our unused bus fare, and stopping for pizza or tacos. I remember going to a track meet one Saturday afternoon (she competed, I did not) and ending up in an unfamiliar neighborhood, where we were hassled by some older boys. We hid in a gas station restroom behind a door that we couldn't lock or even latch, and we pressed our bodies against the door to keep it closed, while the boys pressed from the other side, eventually losing interest. Perhaps like all children, we frequently discussed what we should share with our parents, and what we should keep to ourselves.
It occurs to me now that my dad (who survived an unsupervised childhood) must have convinced my more-traditional mom that freedom was good for kids. Exhibit A: One Easter week, at ages ten and twelve, my sister and I found ourselves in a diner in Victorville, buying candy at midnight, while our Utah-bound Greyhound bus idled outside. Granted, we looked older because we were taller than average. Also, she was tomboyish, and I was pudgy, so perhaps one or both of those things served to keep the pervs at bay. Maybe some vigilant bus-riding mom was keeping an eye on us, but I wasn't aware of that.
We moved to Utah as I was turning thirteen, and I began looking for the perfect three-mile walk (I sought to avoid busy streets or pitiful chained-up dogs). Right away, I found a 3.2-mile square (east of my house) that I walked in fifty minutes. It was delightfully rural, and I passed horses, cows, dogs, farmers, tractors, irrigation ditches, fruit trees, wildflowers, and many three-bedroom brick ramblers built in the fifties or sixties. There were no sidewalks, and I walked on the dirt shoulder, often wearing suede moccasins. Everyone was friendly. Those in cars waved, and those in front yards chatted me up, inviting me to come see a newborn calf, or handing me a paper bag of zucchini or tomatoes from the garden. Sometimes I thought about boys and clothes, and sometimes I rehearsed a talk for church, or lines for a school play. But mostly, I just walked, feeling my muscles work, feeling welcome in this new place.
After high school, I spent four months living in BYU housing with a passel of obnoxious roommates, and I never found a good place to walk. I don't remember being alone, ever. That was probably the point: Given a modicum of privacy, I might have risked damnation by touching myself or enjoying a cup of herbal tea.
In my early twenties, I lived alone in an apartment in Provo, across the street from the hospital on US-89. My three-mile walk took me south a couple of blocks and then directly west. After 1.5 miles, I did a sudden about-face and retraced my steps home. It was all houses and driveways, and even though I walked the same route hundreds of times, I never made any friends. (The only human contact I recall was with a group of teenage girls in a convertible. They shouted something disparaging about my bright yellow tube top, which I was wearing in an attempt to even out my tan.) I don't recall finding this Provo walk relaxing or rejuvenating; it was simply a way to burn calories.
Three years later, I moved out of my apartment and spent one summer in a charmless apartment in Draper with the man who is now my husband. I was in love (still am), but I was surprised (still am) to learn that cohabiting is hard. Long and solitary walks helped me stay sane. I loved walking along Fort Street, which--in 1980--was mostly fields, with an occasional Victorian mansion. The last time I took that Fort Street walk, I wore brand-new Chuck Taylor high tops. About two miles from home, the pain of quickly forming blisters was too much to bear, and I carried the offending shoes, wearing only socks while walking on surprisingly sharp gravel. I would have accepted a ride from a stranger, but no one offered. By the time I got home, I was rabid with pain and regret. Clearly, it was a sign: I belonged in Provo, alone. I listened to an Eagles album, and wept bitter tears.
My man and I spent the next nine months in downtown Salt Lake City, in a lovely (if cockroach infested) third-story apartment with a view of the mountains to the east and the State Capitol to the north. Living together was easier now, and we took a lot of walks together: to double features at the old Trolley Theater on Main (for a dollar!), to picnics at Liberty Park, to night classes at the U of U. I seldom walked alone, since I'd been given considerable grief by transients near the City-County building.
We bought our first house in a crappy little town at the west end of the valley, and stayed for almost two decades. The location was convenient, the big yard was full of trees, and we became a family there. Sometimes I walked alone, and sometimes my husband joined me; I came to enjoy the company, and no longer resented the intrusion. We walked east, making a huge figure eight. It wasn't exactly scenic, and no one waved affectionately, but we maintained a good aerobic pace. Later, we found a slightly more scenic walk that included a mile of tree-lined dirt path alongside a canal. Halfway into the three-mile walk, we stepped off the path and into the trees, to neck briefly before continuing.
Surprisingly, we found a somewhat bucolic walk when we moved to a Dallas suburb in the late nineties. A planning committee wisely chose to leave some trees standing, and a paved path curled between fenced backyards, creating a quiet and private place to walk. On the rare occasion when it wasn't unbearably hot and humid, it was dangerously slick with ice, but we soldiered on. Toward the end of our time in Dallas, we adopted two big dogs, and they joined us on our walks. Adjacent to our subdivision was an empty field (temporary, I'm sure), and at the far end of the field was a stream in which the dogs happily splashed.
We moved back to Utah a few years ago, to a suburb south of Salt Lake City. Once again, there are friendly neighbors who wave eagerly from cars and front yards; there are adorable children who call us by name, and politely ask to pet the dogs (no, but thanks for asking). We have our basic dog walk through the neighborhood, and an additional Equestrian Loop that we take in good weather. For early-morning exercise without the dogs, there are options in all directions, including a paved walking path in nearby Draper. It's safe, scenic, and seems to go on forever. I should be walking there now, instead of sitting on my butt writing about it.
“So we saunter toward the Holy Land…” says Thoreau, and I'm reminded of walks taken at the Nestucca Sanctuary on the Oregon Coast. The sanctuary is two unpaved miles from Highway 101, and while I'm there I walk that four-mile roundtrip every day. Close to the sanctuary, the forest is lush and damp. Closer to 101, it opens up, and wide meadows fall away on each side of the winding dirt road. There's a point where I can't resist spreading my arms, turning my face to the sun, and bursting into private song, usually my favorite line from one of Leonard's best: "...and even though it all went wrong, I'll stand before the Lord of Song, with nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah!" My voice is less than melodic, and less than strong, but I stand and celebrate spiritual strength in the face of inevitable loss. One can become giddy, on a good walk.