On hot summer days in Coeur d’Alene during my childhood, I walked to the beach barefoot. It was about six blocks from my grandparents’ house. First I had to get across the packed dirt and gravel driveway where grandpa parked his excavating equipment. Then there was a short section of unpaved road on Lost Avenue, with more sharp rocks and sticky oil spots, then it was just smooth, hot pavement all the way to Sanders Beach. Sometimes it was so hot that I had to scurry from shady patch to shady patch. The coarse, rocky, glacial sand that makes up the beach was the final obstacle. I had to run to the water to avoid burning my soles, all the while looking for broken glass. The relief of standing in that chilly, clear water is not something I can compare to any other sensation.
I didn’t much care for wearing shoes as a kid, much to the chagrin of my grandma, who was worried (rightfully) about splinters and broken glass and germs. She made a little tsk noise whenever she spotted the black soles of my feet. I used a pumice stone to rub off the layers of dirt when I took a bath.
My feet have always been my primary and favorite mode of transportation. There have certainly been times when walking was the only option and I would have preferred a ride, but for the most part I love to walk. Some of my favorite childhood walks were parts of annual rituals. On May Day, my aunt would take me and my cousin for a walk in the woods across from my grandparents’ house to pick wildflowers for May baskets. When the leaves changed in the fall, grandma and I would go out collecting pretty leaves to press between sheets of waxed paper and flatten in books. Grandma also liked to walk through alleys to see what people were throwing out, on the off chance she might find something good. And of course the most fruitful walk came on Halloween, when I would return with a pillowcase full of candy.
Neither my mother nor her mother ever learned to drive. My mom tried, a couple of times, but she gets panicky even as a passenger in a car. She ended her pursuit of a driver’s license after she ran her friend’s car into a telephone pole and totaled it while having a panic attack. Grandma seemed satisfied using grandpa as her chauffeur, and occasionally she would walk to the drug store, or even call a cab to go run an errand. She was a borderline hermit, so not being able to get around easily didn’t bother her. Ironically, grandpa Frank both ran an excavating business and collected vintage cars, so there were always about a dozen vehicles around that only he could drive.
The morning after my grandma died, in the pre-dawn sub-zero hours, my mom and I went for a walk. It was my mom who showed me that walking could be a form of therapy… and it was also a form of independence. In my teen years, walking downtown to buy a new novel at the Bookseller or a record at Total eclipse became my favorite pastime. I would sometimes buy a $4.99 paperback and take it to the little café where they sold French pastries and sit there on my own, reading and eating a Napoleon. I already had a pretty good idea of who I was at fourteen.
I did learn to drive. I made it through driver’s ed (barely), but since I lived in a car-free household I didn’t get to practice, and after I moved to Seattle I let my license lapse. I learned again in my late 20s, after depending on public transport and my ex-husband for many years. In retrospect, it feels like the driving lessons were part of my escape plan from the marriage. Things fell apart shortly after I got my license, and I left with my very first car: an old Toyota Camry. I’m a decent driver, but both traffic and freeways stress me out… so I prefer to walk.
The idea that every adult is entitled to — and in fact needs — to own a car is a new thing, and largely an American thing. If you think about it, it’s really pretty ludicrous. The resource usage is huge, health and safety risks are high, and it’s a financial burden for most people. And yet we convince ourselves it’s a “need” and not a ridiculous luxury. Of course, American cities were largely designed to accommodate cars (and not so much humans). If you can’t afford to live near your work, or if you have kids, it does become something close to a necessity.
My liberal education started early. I was in the gifted children’s program, and in our tiny weekly meeting we would do fun thought experiments like, “what would happen if every adult in China owned a car?” Bad things, it turns out. Like polar ice caps melting and cities so polluted it’s dangerous to go outside. But of course that’s just extremist… oh, wait. That’s happening now. The American way of life is spreading, and that is fucking terrifying.
We can’t afford for the rest of the world to treat car ownership like we have since the 1950s. In fact we can’t afford to keep doing it ourselves. And we’ve known that for years! But infrastructure hasn’t changed to support car-free living. There’s not a rail system like they have in Europe, and most cities struggle with public transportation. Car sharing is available in some areas, but if you’re stuck in the suburbs you’re pretty much living in the land of parking lots too big to walk across to go to the store across the street.
I don’t own a car anymore. My Toyota was totaled about 3 years after my divorce. My neighborhood is about as walkable as you can get, and if I want to go on a road trip there’s a rental car place within walking distance. There’s also Zipcar and Car2go and Uber for everything else. And Postmates. And Amazon Fresh. The idea of paying for parking, insurance, car payments, gas, and maintenance sounds… not worth it. But I seem to be relatively alone in that point of view. Maybe because I never got used to depending on cars to get around? Even when I owned a car, I only actually drove it once every week or two.
I walk a fair amount in my daily life, but when I travel, I spend hours walking, sometimes randomly exploring, other times with a destination in mind. In Barcelona I sprained my ankle walking down the stairs to breakfast. I was in so much pain I wasn’t sure I’d be able to walk at all, but I pulled myself up and gingerly limped down to the dining room. The plan for that morning was to go to Sagrada Familia. After taking my time over breakfast, I decided to carry on with my plan. It was just one change on the subway.
It was a pretty bad sprain. Every time I put weight on that leg the pain was intense. I hopped down to the subway on one foot. Of course the connection to the second train required a quarter-mile underground walk that isn’t visible on the subway map. By the time I emerged in the shadow of that melting spire, my ankle was blue and swollen to twice its size. I would have given anything for a cane. But I hobbled through the breathtaking cathedral-in-progress… each step a religious experience in itself. I found a pharmacy, learned the word “aspirina,” and made it back to my hotel without crying. I spent the rest of the day wrapping cold cans of Estrella in a towel on my ankle, then drinking them when they got warm.
This was just a reminder of how much things change when you can’t walk (as much as usual). It was a painful inconvenience, but ultimately I healed and walked on. My biggest fear (well, top 5 anyway) is that I’ll lose mobility when I get older. Walking has always been my independence.
Tonight, I will walk to see a concert. Tomorrow morning I will walk to work. If I’m not too exhausted by Monday, I will walk home from work, too. Wherever I go, I’ll walk.