I miss walking.
Not the kind of walking the requires athletic shoes and an old t-shirt and hitting the hike-and-bike trail for the express purpose of pounding the pavement and pumping the heart. I do that kind of walking often enough, and frankly, I resent every step. (I've never been a fan of exercise.) I'm talking about the kind of walking that's a form of transportation. A way to get to a particular destination. A way to sightsee, even.
We do not walk here in Houston. Our city isn't designed for walking. We have very few sidewalks, and the ones we do have often end abruptly, for no obvious reason. Our public bus routes are circuitous and confusing, to say the least, and we have no rapid transit, save for one train line that leads generally from nowhere convenient to nowhere convenient. And so, we stay in our cars. In fact, we stay in our cars so much, that people worry when we're out of our cars. I remember one beautiful day about 13 years ago, when I made plans to meet a friend at a Mexican restaurant about 7 blocks from my house: I had decided to walk, and had no fewer than 3 cars pull up alongside me asking me if I needed help, and offering to call a tow truck for my car that must have obviously broken down somewhere -- the only possible explanation for me to be on foot. When I assured them that I was just enjoying the lovely weather, they smiled at me with the wary, quizzical look you reserve for someone who has just inexplicably fallen out of a tree, and then they drove off ... a little too rapidly, in my opinion.
I have only lived in two pedestrian-friendly places my entire life. The first was at Texas A&M University, a gigantic institution of over 40,000 kids (nowadays, over 50,000), with a campus that could accommodate that many students 10 times over. (When the "A" in a university's official name stands for "agriculture," the school tends to own a lot of land.) I lived in a dorm my first two years, and since on-campus parking was at a premium anyway, the best way to get between classes was to walk. I loved it, this new sensation of walking-with-a-purpose. It made me feel grown up. Independent.
The second walking place I lived was London. When my employer transferred me to England, my expat package entitled me to housing, and at first, they invited me to look for a place in the small village where our offices were located, about a 40-minute train ride out of the city. I politely declined, saying I was too young and single to live in the suburbs, opting instead to live in the Fulham neighbourhood of west London. Every morning I walked 15 minutes to a Tube station, took the Tube to a train station, and then the train to work -- and in the evening, I made the same journey in reverse. I loved the novelty of the public transportation, and was amazed that as a result, I was now a 3-books-per-week reader. But the best times were the weekends, when I would wake up, get dressed, and simply go outside with no plans, ready to walk into whatever adventure awaited. My memories of London are full of walks: of stepping out of the Tube station at Camden Market on a winter's day, grabbing a cup of mulled wine to warm my hands and body as I walked through market stalls; strolling through Covent Garden; walking to the very top of the Tate Modern for lunch, and then leisurely winding my way down each floor looking at the art. I even remember every inch of King's Road, especially the smell of the LUSH store as I passed by, on my way to a little Italian restaurant for a decent cappuccino.
I think that it's telling that the most vivid memories of my life involve walks, whether it was on Manzanilla beach in Trinidad near my childhood home, or through Montmartre in Paris, or even strolling through La Recoleta in Buenos Aires on a business trip. Walking without worrying about heart rate or burning calories is one of my favourite ways to experience life. I'm more open when I walk. I take in more of what's around me when I stroll, or when I'm commuting. I see more. I remember more.
Speaking of which, I just thought of my most favourite walking memory of all time. And it happened when I was back at Texas A&M.
It was winter, and finals week. The weather was cold and foggy and drizzly, and I had just walked out of my second-to-last final of the semester, making my way back to my dorm room. Everything was silent (noise dampened by the fog, I expect) and the sidewalks were deserted: everyone else was still in their exams, but I had finished my test early. I remember being relieved that it went well, and I began to focus on how I was going to study for my last subject, before heading home to my family for the winter break. I was preoccupied, and somewhat stressed: my last exam wasn't going to be an easy one.
Suddenly I was shaken from my thoughts by the sound of someone whistling a song. It was a good whistle: not weak and breathy the way I whistle, but clear and strong. I peered through the foggy campus streets trying to make out where the noise was coming from; despite the general stillness, I couldn't see anyone. The whistling got louder. Then finally, I saw him: he was on the other side of the street, walking in the opposite direction, wrapped up in a scarf and a winter coat, his backpack on his back and his hands shoved firmly into the pockets of his jeans. Another student, on his way to the library, perhaps. He didn't pay attention to me, but simply kept his eyes on the sidewalk in front of him, striding purposefully toward his destination.
I slowed my pace, and suddenly I recognized what he was whistling. It was "Joy To The World." And I remembered with a happy start that Christmas was only a week away, and finals would be over, and I'd be home soon. I remember feeling a wave of relief, suddenly aware of the fog and the silence and his whistling, and feeling grateful I was there to witness it all.
I continued to watch him as he walked past me, still whistling, still not paying any attention to me. The sound gradually became fainter. Finally he disappeared into the fog, and all was silent again.
I turned and continued on my way to my dorm room.
Man, I miss walking.