I have a very pedestrian passion. I love to walk. With each passing year, I become more committed to going about my life on foot. I don’t do it for the exercise, though I’m glad for that, and I don’t do it to conserve fossil fuels, though conserving them is a good idea. The kind of walking I most enjoy has nothing to do with what people call hiking, and it doesn’t require special shoes. Nor am I looking for solitude. Writers get enough of that staring at all those blank pages. Filling them up is lonely work. No, I simply walk to the local deli for my morning coffee and newspaper, to the post office to drop off the mail, to the bookstore, to the local market, to the movie theater, to in-town bars and restaurants. When I can talk my wife into it, we go for long walks, not along the rocky Maine shoreline, which is beautiful, but rather, along our hilly streets all the way out to the cemetery and (so far, at least) back again. For me, it’s more a question of speed than of destination. “Our senses…were developed to function at foot speed,” Wendell Berry has written. “The faster one goes, the more strain there is on the senses, the more they fail to take in, the more confusion they must tolerate or gloss over.”
He’s right, of course. Children know, then in adolescence forget, that it’s far more rewarding to go slow through the world, not necessarily to smell the roses but to watch worms writhe in puddles. The house I grew up in, in Gloversville, New York, was three blocks from the neighborhood elementary school. This was during the ’50s, and our parents saw no reason why kids shouldn’t walk to and from. Had we gone straight to school as instructed, our journey, door-to-door, would have taken five minutes, ten tops. The more crooked and exciting route was through our neighbors’ backyards, where we climbed their fences, leapt off the roofs of their teetering sheds (the heights of these seemed dizzying at the time), admired their new barbecue grills. During this daily journey, which took about half an hour, we ruined our shoes, tore holes in the knees of brand-new pants, were shouted at by angry middle-aged women in powder blue bathrobes and then chased by dogs with ropes of spit swinging from unhinged jaws. We learned that people behave differently on their back porches than they do on their front ones, and that back-porch behavior is generally more interesting. We saw no reason not to share the bounty of our neighbors’ fruit trees, and we investigated with genuine curiosity what was underneath their garages. We arrived at school full of stories-of who had fallen hard on the ice at Sargent’s Hill, of the cool (and lethal) Viking-sword-shaped piece of fiberglass discovered on the scrap heap out back of the machine shop, of the big bottles of dusty off-brand soda discovered at the very bottom of the cooler out back of Charlie Drake’s corner store, soda he’d sell for the same price (amazing!) as a much smaller Pepsi.
Walking, I’ve come to believe, leads naturally to stories. People encountered randomly on the sidewalk have different things to communicate than do those same people met by design at a bar or coffee shop, where they tell you things they’ve planned to tell you (front-porch stuff, usually). And at foot speed, we notice different things than we do from a car, even one driven at village speed limits. In summer, afoot, you hear late-afternoon laughter from the unseen back deck and imagine the company gathered there (the cars out front all sport out-of-state plates), the bottle of chilled white wine sweating on the picnic table. Between houses you notice a small boy with a baseball mitt on one hand sitting all by himself on a motionless swing. Across the street, somebody is doing a forced march of piano scales by an open window. All the stories wait to be written. To walk is to understand a paradox: Though it takes longer to get places on foot, we’re less likely to feel as if we’ve wasted time than if we drove. It’s the difference between spending time and wasting it.