In my work as a mental health social worker, we use something called a “Wellness Toolbox” in our groups. A Wellness Toolbox is basically a list of things that keep you well; that help you hold on to balance and calm, and a sense of meaning. Sometimes, your very sanity. My clients often hear voices, have delusions, and are in and out of the hospitals. Although I don’t have these extremes, I, like all of us, am trying to hold on to my sanity too.
Some of the things in my own toolbox would be alone time, friendship, reading, funny shows and movies, being a good and present father and partner. Wine. Weekends. Whining engagingly to my partner and friends. However, the primary tool in this box would be walking.
God, I wish I had been wearing an iPhone the entirety of my life just to tabulate the miles I have accrued. Growing up in the suburban 1970’s, I walked to and from school every day since I was about seven, cutting through neighbor’s lawns and forgetting not to walk through Mrs. Richardson’s pachysandra no matter how many times she politely reminded me. But otherwise, being a kid, it was all about getting around on my BMX bicycle, which I spent about five hours on a day, it would seem.
Once I hit my late teens, I began driving to this local state park to take hikes, alone or with a friend. This is when the addiction hit me. I was a very romantic type of teen, always dreaming of meeting that perfect woman who would understand me the way no one else did, appreciate the melancholic joys of The Smiths, find my skinniness akin to a rock stars as opposed to an aesthetic hindrance, and would run off with me to some idealized life that included a reconverted barn and nightly gin and tonics in our Adirondack chairs in the summertime, by the organic vegetable garden.
Incredulously, this perfect woman never showed up, and especially not on the mostly empty trails in a park tucked in the Pennsylvania suburbs. Having watched a few E.M. Forster adaptations set in the English countryside, I think I believed love always bloomed in forests and on bucolic hills, which led to picnics with wine and old cheese as one talked about literature, the war, and suburban ennui.
But no matter. I fell in love instead with walking, a lover that meets so many of my needs, and never gets upset if I don’t clean a pot super well. I love so many things. The medium-paced rhythm. The way you move slow enough through the world to observe the trees, the flowers, the play of light, the clouds. The way you can hear the birds and the rustling of squirrels on the dead branches and leaves. The sense of constant movement that satisfies one’s need to just go, but without a sense of rush or any real concern at what your heart-rate is at on your Apple Watch.
The way your mind eases into the rhythm of your steps and begins to hum and purr like a beautiful organic motor, powering thoughts and feelings and awareness you wouldn’t normally have. The way your continuous frustrating thoughts and anxiety are still there, but in the background, like mosquitoes outside the netting of a tent, as you move just a little too steadily for them to catch up with you.
Woods walking is my favorite, especially if there are some good hills involved, but I will happily walk anywhere. When still stuck in the suburbs of Philadelphia, living with my mom, I would look for any excuse to take a walk, to set myself a little destination. I would walk miles up busy streets lined with drugstores and Taco Bell’s to go to a convenience store and buy a cinnamon roll. I would walk an hour through suburban neighborhoods full of creepily perfect lawns to get to a small footbridge over a small creek and sit there for ten minutes, feeling poetic, probably dreaming about my latest crush, then head back.
In Portland, Oregon I loved to walk down Hawthorne or Burnside over the bridges, never getting jaded by the wonder of the city right over the river, the miracle of snow-covered Mount Hood in the distance, the highway signs for Seattle, 174 miles. In the streets, I would marvel at all the thrift shops and record shops and breweries and telephone poles completely covered with new and fading concert posters. I would admire the hippies in overalls, and hipsters wearing giant headphones with shags like Keith Richards in 1966; the punk rock kids and their spike-collared dogs begging spare change. The streets seemed almost fake, off the set of Sesame Street, so clean and perfect after the deep grime and patina of Philadelphia.
In New Mexico, I walked the dry, impossibly sunlit streets of Albuquerque, feeling lost in some weird dream, cactuses growing like weeds in back alleys, little adobe homes with turquoise doors, open air markets selling fresh green chiles, old trucks from the 1950’s barely rusted from lack of humidity. I walked the deserts and canyons miles from the city, never having felt more alone, sensing ancient indigenous spirits as I finally arrived at the perfect plateau overlooking a red, alien landscape. I sat and crossed my legs, and watched the vultures circle overhead, wondering if I ever really existed.
In Boston, I walked down Newbury Street past the restaurants I couldn’t afford to eat at on my bellhop’s salary, into the Public Gardens, and watched, feeling smugly local, the tourists on the swan boats smiling and taking pre-cell phone pictures on actual cameras. I walked from my little apartment in Winter Hill down through all the neighborhoods to Harvard Square, and stopped at Au Bon Pain for an almond croissant, enjoying the European accents from the others seated at the outdoor tables, wondering who taught at Harvard. I walked over to Central Square, where the accents were less posh and I could get a coffee at a cafe where the patrons looked like they were artists and not academics.
Especially in Boston, where the squares are so disconnected by long avenues, I often walked ten miles a day, to get to the co-op and carry home tofu and quinoa and rice vinegar in my messenger bag. We had sold our Honda to save money, the winter days often didn’t get above 25 degrees, I was in an unhappy relationship, the sidewalks were icy and the curbs coated with gray slush, and, walking in my battered Doc Martens, I was free and happy and able to manage my vast and troubling emotions.
Walking ofen feels like escaping a sort of prison: the prison of one’s self, of one’s sense of stuckness, of the limitations of being human, in a body slated for decay and death, in a life full of compromise, in a world full of tragedy. Walking, nothing can stop you. You leave the building you are in, and the world is yours. All you need is a good pair of shoes. You can cross the street where you want, you don’t have to stop for traffic lights, you have nothing to park or lock up, you have nothing mechanical that can go wrong as long as your legs are working, you can go up steps, cross logs over rivers and traverse boulders, you can hop over low walls, check your phone with no repercussions, munch on a pastry, think about nothing or everything. You will never be more free.
I wonder sometimes, if in another life, I was in prison, or buried alive. The ability to move as far as I choose, and breathe fresh air, feels like a type of heaven.
Sometimes, our inner visions boards actually produce concrete and almost perfect results. For years I have had a dream of retiring somewhere – probably Colorado – where I could walk out my door and be on a good long hiking trail within minutes. I eventually met the right woman who lived in the right neighborhood of Philadelphia, and we bought a house a block from the fifteen miles of trails along the Wissahickon Creek. I am in the city limits of Philadelphia, and I can hike for several hours without repeating my steps. There are steep hills, giant moss-covered rocks, ferns galore, rushing rapids, trotting horses, old stone walls from the 1800’s, and even a mysterious cave. If I choose I could finish my hike and be in an urbane coffeehouse or brew pub with just another five minutes walk, or plop down in my favorite chair with a cold beer I think I have deserved, feeling the good ache in my legs. Nothing in life is perfect, but this is close.
Except for the mountain bikers. I have an internal joke with myself that there is a hikers versus mountain bikers feud going on – the Jets versus the Sharks. Really, I don’t care, mountain biking is amazing, but in my middle age I much prefer hiking. I pretend to be annoyed by the bikers whizzing by me down the hairpin turns, with their $2000 bikes and fancypants corporate logo multi-hued lycra shirts/shorts combo, as if they think they are in some professional race, as I’m forced to sometimes jump out of their way in my humble t-shirt and cargo pants.
I am like some bearded dude from the 1970’s ambling through the pine groves eating GORP and musing about the meaning of life and the way the ferns glow in the October sunlight, while they are flying by in mindless mechanical squads, full of testosterone and gearhead Big Tire Energy.
You see, walking and hiking are perfect for those of us who want to keep active but aren’t joiners, don’t love structure, and aren’t always trying to climb the ladder of life. Walking is a metaphor for life: you move along, but there’s nowhere you have to be, nothing you have to achieve. Each step is perfect, each scene you pass, each breath. Roots are there to trip us, steep hills await, dogs may or may not attack, fast food restaurants beckon to us with unhealthy temptations, yet we just continue moving, for that is the meaning in itself. Moving and observing and experiencing.
As a proud SNAG (Sensitive New Age Guy) I really want to do yoga and Tai Chi and meditate – I mean, all my friends are doing it. Yet I hate any sort of class, or organized group of humans trying to do the same thing the same way. I took one advanced yoga class when I had never done yoga before and was utterly miserable. I felt trapped and bored and angry at all the people around me doing it so well and congruously. I am too much of a lazy anarchist for such things. After the class, Whitman-esque, I walked out into the night amongst the cold December air and stared at the moon – that was all the yoga I needed.
Instead, I walk. I put one foot in front of the other, I repeat, and it’s glorious. Instead of looking at someone in spandex contorted in front of me – however attractive that can be at times – I have buildings and hipsters and trees and rocks and mushrooms and sky and Burger Kings to look at. I have fresh air and different smells. I don’t have someone in the front of a hot room that’s beginning to smell like sweat telling me how to move my body – I move my body any damn way I please.
That’s the genius of walking. The freedom. The simplicity. The ability to merge with your environment without any construct or machine between you and the streets, the trails, the bridges over magical rivers. It is you, and nature, and the city, and God. Nothing else. All you need are good shoes. One feels as close to being pure spirit as one can feel while confined in the heavy matter of flesh. Only dancing as if no one is watching, perhaps, is closer.
We need these freedoms more than ever, in the Age of Covid. We need as much fresh air as we can get. We need space, and time to remember the beauty and wisdom of the earth, of nature, who – like The Dude – calmly abides as we lose our minds over invisible murderous germs. We need to connect with our deeper selves as we walk meditatively, and realize again how indisputably awesome we are. We need to connect with our Higher Selves, our souls, to walk with ourselves and be alone with ourselves beyond four walls, beyond Netflix and TikTok and Zoom calls that grow stale after twenty minutes.
One last walking experience: November 7th, 2020, I parked in a free parking lot along the Schuylkill River, near Boathouse Row. I wanted to walk into the city, and observe the crowds of Trump and Biden supporters gathering at the Convention Center, where the votes were being tabulated, and where the election could be determined. I was wondering if I would see Proud Boys and Antifa squaring off with each other, and hoped there would be no violence.
As I came down the Ben Franklin Parkway, past the Art Museum and the Rocky Statue with tourists waiting to take their selfies, I went North and saw dozens of police cars lining the way up to Love Park. Entering into the perimeter of gray and giant City Hall, military police were huddled together with their giant rifles slung insouciantly across their flak vests, and giant camouflage vehicles made for war sat nearby like omens of doom. The vibe was heavy, man. An aura of potential riots and and broken windows and cop cars set on fire was percolating in the air molecules.
I took some videos on my phone of all this military-industrial imagery, and saw some of the soldiers tense up and stare at me threateningly. I put a metaphorical flower in the muzzles of their AK-47’s, and moved on, The Convention Center seemed less tense after City Hall. Some liberals with RBG t-shirts and faded Bernie hats, some MAGA Team citizens tiredly waving giant American flags and holding signs such as “Trump 2020: No More Bullsh–!” But things were calm – awkward but calm. I would avoid a scuffle with a Proud Boy today.
I ambled happily up towards Rittenhouse Square, to get a vegan cheesesteak (that’s new-era Philly for you). I took a pause at Urban Outfitters, trying to find a deal on corduroys, and got the text from a friend: Biden had won Philadelphia. Biden had won the election. I read it twice, responded to a second friend’s text telling me the same thing, and called my fiance. I had to get out on the streets. Walnut Street was slowly exploding with joy.
Cars honked madly, people shouted out the windows, groups of people erupted in cheers, people were crying, including myself. Washes of celebration would occur every minute or so, like the wave at a baseball game, and more car honks and yells. We all smiled at each other beneath our masks, smiled with our eyes, we laughed with strangers without speaking. People blasted Reggaeton and hip hop and of course Bruce Springsteen from their windows. Bike couriers sat in Rittenhouse Park laughing and didn’t get any work done. My cheesesteak tasted like freedom.
I walked eleven miles that day. I walked down to Independence Hall, the birthplace of the Declaration of Independence and the Liberty Bell, all cracked and the better for it, like any human being. A jazz band was playing, the sun was shining, strangers wished they could hug each other or witness all the smiles beneath the masks. Rainbow flags waved and people who looked like they really enjoyed the last Waxahatchee album pumped their fists. I got all into some mindfulness, and enjoyed every sight, every smell, every cheer, every note of the bass guitar. I knew I was witnessing history, in the city where it was happening, reverberating all over the world. I was in the epicenter of a new epoch just beginning.
Walking back home by way of City Hall, the military were already dispersing; the ones left behind seemed relaxed and off-duty, like people tailgating at an Eagles game before they begin really drinking. The number of cop cars on The Ben Franklin parkway was reduced by 80%, and those remaining were telling jokes instead of side-eyeing the people walking by, as they had been three hours before.
I had woven in and out of the neighborhoods of Center City, watching it all, hearing it all, a roving cinematographer of the mind, snatching every frame of experience. I left the tall glass buildings behind and walked back along the river, where people picnicked on the banks, and dogs chased balls, clueless to the sea change around them. I got home and turned on the news and cracked a beer as I sank on the couch, feet sore and satisfied. I had just taken the most memorable walk of my life.