Sunday, October 25, 2009

Purposeful Walking

"And the walking man walks
Doesn't know nothin' 'bout nothin.'
Any other man stops and talks
But the walking man walks.
Walk on by."
- James Taylor, 1974

Those of you who know me know how passionate I am about walking; in particular, purposeful walking. That expression has been used before by soccer players, prison officials, policemen, and others, but I propose a new more-general definition. Purposeful Walking: the act of integrating walking into one's daily routine whenever possible to accomplish usual and ordinary tasks. Exercise does not count as a 'task.' Visiting the market, the butcher, the dry cleaners (and such) does.

Where Lori and I now live there is very little opportunity to purposefully walk. We can carry the trash to the dumpster or check the mail, but it would be dangerous to walk to the nearest grocery, drug store, or bar (about 2 miles) because the only way is along a very busy street with no sidewalks. We do walk through the Warner Parks several times a week, but that is just exercise. There is no 'goal' at the end of our stroll. Nashville is building a series of greenways that are perfect for casual walking, but they do not lead from residential to commercial centers and, therefore, do not meet my definition of purposeful.

Of course, wandering is nice. Trekking around unknown hillsides, following paths blazed by generations before us (and their goats), and getting a little lost can be very rewarding. It cultivates a special kind of intelligence; the ability to read maps, to determine direction and time from the physical world around you, and it satisfies our curiosity about what lies beyond the next valley. But this blog is not about recreational walking, it is about walking as a way to live day-in and day-out.

Suburban sprawl in the 60s and 70s took many Americans out of their 19th-century cities (designed for walking). Subdivisions sprouted on lands zoned 'residential.' Shopping centers and malls surrounded by acres of asphalt-covered parking lots were build a safe distance away. It was a perfect time to re-invent walkable villages all across the U.S., but instead developers built single-family homes standing on quarter-acre lots where everyone could own their piece of America without having to be part of a community. America stopped walking with purpose.

The more I think about this, the more complicated those economic and social changes seem. When we were kids we walked to the neighborhood store to buy milk. We walked to the one-screen movie theatre downtown. We walked a few blocks to school. By the time I was in high school there were no longer any local stores, only one Kroger several miles away. The multiplex cinema was at the mall, and buses collected students from all over the county and carried them to the new 'consolidated' school. In most of suburban America the time we would spend walking was replaced with hours of stop-and-go driving. Hopping in the car to run a simple errand became not only habitual, but a major cause of impatience and stress.

Walking provides time to think; inwardly pondering big questions that require time to analyze completely. Less critical thinking has weakened our ability to make rational choices, hold complex ideas in our minds, and to be creative. Also, much has been written before about the declining fitness of Americans. Walking is a simple and effective way to incorporate physical activity into your daily routine without the expense of a gym membership. There is, I believe, a relationship between fitness and mental agility; the more fit we are, the more likely we are to think clearly.

In the big picture, America's disinterest in walking may seem petty. The old-world attitudes toward community, economics, time, and self-reflection that I associate closely with walking may be provincial. On the other hand, such a simple observation my be the spark that can improve many lives without undue effort or expense.

Taylor's song "Walking Man" (above) was released in June of 1974 and received lukewarm critical reviews. It was the first of his albums not to reach the Top 5 of the charts. The title song was considered by fans a major disappointment. Maybe this was a prelude to America's own diminishing respect for walking. Personally, I like it.

1 comment:

  1. 100% agreed on all fronts. Don't know the solution in terms of proximity to various stops and businesses...but I've chosen to use a treadmill (gasp) to at least accomplish some of the thinking time you mentioned, and for myself, anyway, I believe there's a very strong physical/mental connection...when I do this simple 40 minutes a day or whatever, my whole mental being improves, and not just while I'm doing the walking.

    And after (once again) getting my fat ass on the treadmill last November, I lost about 30 pounds in 4 months, just simply by waking up and having breakfast, and taking a walk/run. I feel like I got my body and my life back in many ways.

    Great post.