We are here on the planet only once, and might as well get a feel for the place.Annie Dillard
Ann Juergens and I serve on the board of the Schubert Club, a classical concert presenting organization in Saint Paul. At our last meeting, before social distancing when it was still safe to share a glass of wine and small talk in close quarters, Ann shared with me how she walks every day and everywhere, too. Ann is a model for how we can all become #blissfulhikers even during a Pandemic.
From my front porch I watch people I’ve never seen before walking past my home. On the last day of March it is 55 degrees, and they walk down the middle of this residential street, on the sidewalks or on the grass, with dogs or with one other person, or, if in a group of 3 or 4, they walk with social distance between them. Dozens and dozens of people, they walk briskly with ear buds and babies and beverages or slowly with limp, walker or cane.
The pandemic and its shelter-at-home mandates are pushing people to walk as never before in memory. When the four walls of our domestic cells become too much, we no longer hop into the car and head to another place. At least we’ve been instructed not to do that unless for an essential errand. So every day after some hours of work or schooling, when my St. Paul neighbors and I need to get out of our homes, we rely on our itchy feet.
And walk we do.
Will our society have a revelation about the spiritual benefits of walking when this ends in weeks or months? How will we avoid it?
For the last almost 21 years, I’ve walked every morning with a neighbor partner or, this last year, two. At dawn. For an hour. Weather does not stop us. This habit began and then spread to my travels, so that since at least 2005, vacations with spouse have involved long hikes about half the time.
In December, we were in Singapore and planned to walk to the harbor and museums and colorful neighborhoods. We had learned that Singaporeans were proud of their civic infrastructure with all wires underground, no noisy scooters, wonderful public transportation, and clean streets. Their public gardens are beautiful and well kept.
Yet when we asked a hotel concierge and also a tourist bureau person for the best way to walk, we were told in nearly identical language, “Oh, you don’t want to walk, the subway goes right by there!” Or, “our taxis are not expensive, that is how everyone goes.”
Walking to a destination was indeed a challenge, as many buildings have been built with the assumption that people will drive or take the bus or subway. Sidewalks are often missing and long swaths of high rises afford no way to pass through to the next street.
Yet walk we did. And when we’d return to our hotel for the great food that Singapore is also known for, the clerks would profess astonishment that we had actually gotten to the Orchid Garden on foot.
Perhaps being older and obviously American fueled that disbelief. But I’ll bet it was fed also by the conviction that modernizing a society requires that it get off its feet and into some kind of vehicle, whether publicly or privately run.
This pandemic is taking us back to the Middle Ages or before, when we go mostly by foot, buy only necessary things, and eat meals that we have cooked at home with our family (if we are one of those with a home and a kitchen).
So we move forward, each of us and the nation, it seems, on foot. With both fear and frolic as companions.