walking the line

aspen bark

Last month, Slate published a four-part series called "America's Pedestrian Problem," detailing the history of walking in the U.S. and lamenting why so few of us now do. I've been mulling this over because though I consider myself a walker and during periods in the past have walked for an hour every day with a partner, I've been walking far less than I'd like to each week ever since getting a job that required driving (or lengthy, convoluted public transportation).

My home address rates a "Walker's Paradise" walk score of 92/100, though I can currently only afford this "close-in" area by living with a roommate, a common situation in U.S. cities these days, even for those well past college age. And I've witnessed and had enough relationships to know it's not the smartest idea to shack up with a lover mainly to save on rent. So because of my roommate, I can walk to the edge of downtown Portland in 30 minutes, along the river past OMSI and across the Hawthorne Bridge, a scenic view of the city. Brooklyn itself offers coffee shops, restaurants, schools, and grocery stores all within walking distance. I'm close to several bus lines (though I hate jerky, noisy buses). And in three years, they'll have installed the new Milwaukie MAX line in the neighborhood (I love quiet, sleek trains).

But because of where I currently work in the southeast suburbs of Clackamas, it's much easier (and cheaper) to pick up groceries at WinCo on 82nd and store them in the trunk on the way home than walk twenty minutes to New Seasons or People's Co-op and lug loaded canvas bags home, straining my arms and shoulders. And though I usually walk downtown to the library once a week, since cutting out even secondhand discretionary spending the last couple of months, I have a hard time just taking off down the street for a half hour for exercise with no ulterior purpose, doodle-ee-doo. Go for a walk? For no reason? Without an errand? Without someone to talk to? And all this is from a self-labeled walker.

hole in the wall

I've also been reflecting on an interview last week in the New York Times called "The Surprising Shortcut to Better Health." NYT health-and-fitness writer, Gretchen Reynolds, says research shows that what's far more important than regular workouts is regular movement, even something as simple as standing up while talking on the phone. And gardening counts. According to Reynolds, "Humans are born to stroll." She wants to redefine exercise as "moving around." She says walking is the easiest thing to do to improve health and prolong life, and if one can't walk, then swim. This makes logical sense when remembering that our ancestors roamed the earth as hunters and gatherers, continually seeking new food sources, browsing, grazing, following herds—moving. They weren't sitting on their rumps all day at a desk and then on the couch at home in front of the TV, munching Cheez-Its.

metal door

Living in Korea, I passed groups of old people doing tai chi mornings in the park, slow and gentle regular movement. In Korea I also had a fit, muscular boyfriend who did a few tae kwon do kicks every morning for exercise, and that was it—no gym-going, no running, no sweating, just a few high kicks every day, plus a lot of walking to and from work and to and from the bus stop or train, and a lot of healthy traditional eating: a little tofu, a ton of vegetables, white rice, some sea food, a little meat, a few eggs, no dairy, no sugar, no junk food. In western and central Europe, too, during the two periods I lived and visited, I witnessed far more daily walking than I see in the U.S.—and not the for-exercise-with-sneakers kind but to get from place to place to shop, for errands, to see friends. New York City's like that because of being so densely populated on that little island. But in the rest of America, we've had room to spread out, and boy have we, including our plump rumps.

monkey puzzle

Without naming names, I know (and like) a fitness aficionado, a regular runner and volleyball player, who lives only six short blocks from her boyfriend but drives over to see him. I've joked with her that she'd rather run than walk, and she agrees—she says walking's too slow. Now I'm all for variety of people and their preferences. But really? Six blocks?

paint splatters

Me, I like the idea of exercise as movement. One thing I enjoy about teaching is that I'm standing and moving around in the classroom and taking the stairs between classes, not sitting in a chair all the time. But if switching to writing or editing full-time, a full-on desk job, what will happen to my ass? The novelist Haruki Murakami solved the stationary-for-hours writer problem by taking up marathon running, a way for him to meditate and exercise at the same time. Too bad I hate running, all that sweating and panting in spandex, almost as embarrassing a display as latex sex in public. But I like walking and moving (and sex, for that matter). When I broke a pinkie toe last fall and hobbled around for weeks till it healed, I realized how much I missed walking fast on my long legs.

There's more to see when living in slow motion, compared to the rushing view of the world from a car window: the textures of buildings and trees, the play of light and shadow on a sidewalk, the rustles of leaves and breezes, scents wafting up from a sewer drain or jasmine bush. Human bodies have evolved to get about on foot, not on four wheels. Every afternoon, an old woman in my neighborhood, probably in her 80's, walks past the house with her cane on the way to the eastbound bus stop on Powell. She returns a couple hours later, carrying a near-empty Safeway bag. She moves slowly, her shoulders bent, pausing to rest with a hand on her hip every few blocks. But she smiles to fellow pedestrians, says hello, and wears makeup and bright colors, her gray hair upswept and marked with a black headband. I want to hear her life story. I want to be mobile on foot when I'm 80. Someday I'll give up the car for good—maybe as soon as I get that desk job.

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