Walking for pleasure, errands and socialization may be a lost art

Monday, September 17, 2007 | 10:00 a.m. CDT; updated 7:27 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008
Rose M. Nolen

Now that the weather has cooled down, I am once again enjoying my long summer walks. I have always been a walker, long before it became a popular form of exercise. Unlike many people, I’m not an idle walker. I mean I would never get in my car and drive several miles to a hiking trail. I walk to take care of my errands.

In the days before everything moved to the suburbs, I did all my shopping on foot. I had much more fun, visiting with people on the street and in the shops. Walking in those days was a totally satisfying experience.

Unfortunately, now I seldom encounter people on my walks. So I spend the time either daydreaming or studying nature along the way. And, too, I think a lot about the way things used to be.

In earlier times, every season had its own special delights and long walks enhanced the experience . In spring we went out to gather mushrooms, and it was always an adventure. I remember that my mother insisted that I put mine in a special sack. She told me she wanted to prepare mine in a special way. I didn’t know until I was a teenager that the reason mine were kept separate was because I didn’t know the difference between toadstools and mushrooms, and so most of mine had to be thrown away. Still, being able to participate with my older siblings was a joy to me. The walks were also times of discovery. It was in spring that I had my first experience with pollution. One day I walked to our favorite creek to fish and the little fish were all floating down stream on their backs. I learned later that they had been poisoned by toxins released by the shoe factory. Everything about summer was marvelous, especially walking to our special spot to roller skate. Except for meals and bedtime, we were almost never inside the house. Fall was the time for walking through the orchards to gather apples and taking nature walks to scavenger hunt. It seems like we spent all winter preparing for holidays, walking in the snow and sledding to school and church activities.

But through it all I loved to walk. Automobiles changed our entire way of life. My mother never owned a car, and I was an adult before I bought my first automobile. I’m sure for most people in the generation that followed mine, cars have always been a factor in their lives. Some children, for example, have never known the pleasure of walking to school with friends every day. Some have never been on a city bus and rode to the end of the line, just for the joy of taking the trip. They have never shared a train ride with strangers and known the thrill of riding the rails. I think cars on the whole have deprived people of more life-enhancing experiences than they have provided.

Looking back on it, I think that our love affair with the family car was the first step in our journey toward isolating ourselves from each other. Before automobiles, if people needed a cup of sugar, they might borrow from a neighbor instead of jumping in the car to go to the store. Using public transportation to get to work put people in contact with other people who often became friends. For years my sister’s best friends were women she rode to work with on the bus. Getting people to car pool nowadays is almost impossible.

Our lifestyles are so different from the way they were in the last century that I don’t think that even the energy crisis can turn us around. It has become more important, for example, for us to have some place to park our cars than it is for us to be close to goods and services. Walking to the store has become a lost concept; walking to work is out of the question. I suspect, though, if someone could find a profit motive in encouraging people to walk for health reasons and in an effort to preserve energy, managed to air it enough on television, it would catch on — if for no other reason than the fact that it was on television and some celebrities were doing it.

I feel lucky that I’m still within walking distance of some places where I can tend to business and shop. My ideal neighborhood would have pocket parks and tiny specialty shops.

I’ve never learned to appreciate residential areas devoid of people, where houses stand like models on display and there are no porches with swings or children’s tree houses. To me, such neighborhoods seem like the loneliest places in the world, the kind of areas where people go to die.

The one thing I never miss in the big city is being cooped up in a place where it’s not safe to walk the streets. One of the greatest joys to me of living in a small town is being surrounded by safe, secure spaces for walking. Getting where I want to go is worth the extra energy, and it sure as heck costs a lot less.

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