walking — the great american shame

In a recently published article in Slate, Americans’ general lack of walking is matter-of-factly declared a crisis. Adults and children alike in this vast country walk far less than in its industrialized counterparts, i.e., Britain, Switzerland, Japan, and others. Part of the problem, the article’s author, Tom Vanderbilt, claims, is “our uncommon commitment to the car” — not only as a primary means of transportation but also, I’d venture, as central to our economic, cultural, and social identities. This allegiance to the car has rendered walking as “an act dwelling in the margins, an almost hidden narrative running beneath the main vehicular text.”

And even as we can say with certainty that hardly anyone walks in the States, the converse is also true — whether, as the author notes, as an “adjunct” the car-related activities or as a sometimes necessary evil, everyone walks. Vanderbilt writes

“In this ubiquity, paradoxically, lies a weakness: The very act is so common that we tend to forget about it, to remember that it is something that needs to be nurtured, protected, encouraged. Save for charity drives and recreational enthusiasts, there are few organized groups of self-identified walkers.”

That which becomes commonplace, like basic ambulatory function, requires attention — perhaps we might not all achieve the degree of attentiveness and zeal that many of our European counterparts bring to their walking practice, but it doesn’t seem egregious to suggest a greater commitment to the practice than we currently have. To walk, not necessarily to somewhere, but for the sake of walking: is this anathema to the American way of being?*

One might wonder what the point of walking is. That precisely is the point — that is, far from being point-less, walking is point-free. Walking presents the walker with time, distance, space to ponder — these benefits, if we must cast them in that light, are those we are either happy to pay exorbitant costs to obtain or are easily dismissed as the purview of  naturalists, dilettantes, and the hapless car-less. But leave the benefits — philosophical and physiological — aside and consider the humility, the profoundly human quality of walking. That’s all, just chew on that a minute. Then, whether alone or along a line, with boots made for the occasion or with new shoes on, go for a walk.

A caveat: point-free walking is not always easily achieved. Recently, upon returning to Philly, I have found it difficult to take a new route; this is the problem with thinking you know a place. As if in response, my usual walk home from one of my usual cafes revealed yet another new housing structure that has sprung up in the few months I was gone. (I’ll spare the reader commentary about this city’s inexplicable voraciousness for new housing, complete with tax breaks and all the rest, at the expense of the city’s real needs…). Peeking out from an adjoining wall is a quarter of the pixelated mural of autumnal trees –  a wistful reminder of the passing of time, the cycles of bureacracy, the obscuring of landscapes as domiciles become big business, a hearkening back to the moment when an emtpy wall called out for a new face and that face was tenderly applied with brushstrokes,  paint, and laughter — I imagine laughter accompanied the making of most murals, even the sad ones…don’t know why.

So let’s walk, see what we see that we might have seen otherwise or at an other time, and check back into the Slate series for additional inspiration, wittiness, and socio-historical contextualization of this utterly essential characteristic of the human condition that we Americans seem all too happy to do away with (dangling preposition notwithstanding).

* My Pandora radio station is having its fun with me — as I am getting ready to publish this post, Mary Chapin Carpenter’s song “Why walk when you can fly” has started playing. Why, indeed.

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2 Responses to walking — the great american shame

  1. Subhalakshmi says:

    I wish I lived in london or India, where I could walk to the market and back, not only exercise, but like you said you can take in so much observing the people and every changing landscape.. 🙂

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