The Zen of Walking

In 1977 and 1978, as a young adult now living on my own in my hometown of Ann Arbor (my mom and dad had remarried each other and she had moved down to Ohio to live with him), I was somehow able to live almost completely in the moment, aided by the transcending joy I found walking from place to place in town. After twenty plus years of navigating these streets on foot, by bicycle or by car, I knew them so well I could head out towards my destination of the moment, let my mind totally drift with any thought so at times I barely knew exactly where I was but still managed to get where I was going, experiencing the joys of all four full seasons and continuing my exploration of the magical side to life.

In the hot humid summer days (and most memorably those hot August nights), I would walk half-naked with shorts but no shirt or shoes, bare chest encased in the heavy summer air and bare feet touching the pavement and occasionally the Earth itself. If I could have gotten away with walking across town completely nude I would have. But most everywhere with the trees lining either side of the street forming a green cathedral-like ceiling above me, I felt cloistered in sacred space, so where I ought to be (at least for the moment).

Then fall would come with its “what are you doing with your life?” cold breezes, the look and smell of the leaves turning, the college students returning to town and the “townee” children and youth journeying back and forth from their schools, a sea of colorful backpacks and jackets, all shuffling through fallen leaves. The weekday routine would be punctuated by football Saturdays with thousands of people converging on the stadium on foot in their maize and blue to see the Wolverines play. The air would be crisp and electric with anticipation and plans.

Winter would arrive in November or December, maybe relenting for a bit in January but often continuing into April. On the coldest days the sky was often clear and blue and I would still walk, encased now in my down jacket, beanie pulled down over my ears and scarf wrapped round the rest of my face and neck so that there was just a slit for my eyes to see. After the early winter storms the town was particularly stunning, with houses, bare trees and everything else in a bright white icing of snow (the dirty slush still waiting to make its appearance soon). And then there would be those magical days when snow would be falling straight down (no wind) and you would experience as quiet a world as you could ever (not) hear.

Winter would seem to hang on forever until one day, usually in late March or April when Mother Nature would flip some sort of circuit breaker and the sun would feel suddenly warm again, the air would be filled with the aroma of plants fornicating (in their own kind of at-a-distance-way) and you could feel your own hormones and other urges start to bubble as well. Mixed in those days where a cold breeze and a crack of thunder in the distance would signal the rain storm that would soon deluge everything. There is nothing quite like walking in the rain, with or without an umbrella.

It seemed easy to learn to be in the moment journeying through those changing seasons because there was so much that seemed moment-us and full of moment-um. To me it also always seemed to help to have a destination and not walking just for exercise perhaps. And best was a destination that was across town and diagonal (as the crow flies) with the mostly square grid of city streets from the start, allowing you at almost every intersection along the way to choose one of two or three paths, without lengthening the trip. Besides the tree-lined sidewalked streets there was the scattering of parks in your path that could be traversed and maybe even the Huron river to be crossed.

Of course when you have so fully inhabited a place for all the years of your childhood and youth, every venue along the way has its ghosts of the past. Walking by my “Feminist Aunt” Mary Jane’s old house on Lincoln where she had the party that Norman Mailer came to. Traversing the churchyard adjacent to Eberwhite Woods where we used to lie on the ground in the middle of the night and stare at the stars. Walking down Prospect where I used to deliver the Ann Arbor news on my paper route. Passing the Washtenaw dairy where my dad used to take my brother and I for ice cream.

It felt easy on those walks to feel that the world was nothing but magic and that Ray Bradbury had nailed it in his book Dandelion Wine. When you are relaxed, happy, and not really worried about anything that isn’t within the range of your five (or six) senses, little things have an extra transcendent metaphorical quality. Squirrels deftly crossing the telephone wires across busy State Street. That ozone smell that tells you that rain is coming. Evergreen branches sagging with heavy wet snow. Kids pouring out of school after that nerve jangling bell sounds. The sound of the University of Michigan Carillon in the distance (usually just bonging out the fifteen minute intervals leading up to the hour) as some music student playing “Eleanor Rigby” on the big bells resounding for miles around. Nothing was a big deal, but it all felt significant in its small way.

Having fallen in love with traversing the pavement in my hometown, I have continued to find the opportunities to walk in Los Angeles as an adult. Oh yes, when I did have the money to do so, one of the first things I did in L.A. (I moved here in 1979) was buy a car, and drove it pretty much everywhere. But as the years passed my love of walking and bicycling re-emerged, and trying to live “green” with a smaller carbon footprint, I made a commitment about eight years ago to not drive a car to work (though I still drive it elsewhere). In general I have looked for every opportunity I can to run errands or get from point A to point B on foot, or by bicycle, bus or train (or sometimes even a combination of two or three on the same trip!)

A big city can be a bit of a challenge to find good walking or safe bicycling routes. But I have such an enhanced sense of the neighborhood I live in from walking and riding my bike that I never had when I was primarily driving around. Because of that, it is interesting that there are essentially three zones surrounding my house. The inner zone, about three miles in every direction is the extent to which I will walk from my house to run some errand or find a nice coffee place to hang out in and write. That three-mile radius really feels like my “neighborhood”, where I know all the quirky little back streets and unusual houses and little parks etc. Then there is a second zone beyond that extending maybe eight or nine miles that include all the places I have bicycled to from home. Those extents and all the real estate in between do not quite feel like “neighborhood” but familiar and “home turf”. Beyond that second zone it’s just “the big city”.

Unfortunately, neither of my kids, now 20 and 23, have (yet) become much of a walker. I guess that is often the reality for kids in a big city. Their lives are full and busy and the car can facilitate you chocking your life full of the absolute most of activities and flexibility. To be a walker, bicyclist and mass-transit rider in this city, I have had to accept that I cannot pack my days so full and need to really enjoy and draw as much as I can from the moments I am en-route, depending on my own legs, and perhaps more fancy free.

2 replies on “The Zen of Walking”

  1. John… been a busy week… just now saw your comment. I am definitely moved to write more on the topic of walking as well as the topic of being an alternative commuter generally.

    To start, you might check out the piece I wrote earlier, I’ve also thought about writing a series of pieces on being an alternative commuter in Los Angeles… I seem to have new adventures and resulting stories all the time.

    Anyway… thanks for your thoughts. I appreciate the feedback always!

    So John… tell me where you live and how you get about your town, to work or wherever your daily life takes you.

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