I have always loved to walk. As a young child I felt as though I could walk forever, fueled by experiencing places up close, not detached from the world inside a car. The ambulant bug never left me and as an adult, I walked and ran for years. My outings became quite addicting, each time lifting my spirits immeasurably, giving me energy and a feeling of centeredness. Every footstep reaffirmed my place on the ground, my place in the here and now.
It was also my playtime, a mid-afternoon reward when most of my work was done. I’d go out several times a week, in all weather, forgoing it only when the temps hit below 17 degrees, for which I felt no shame. But jogging in a light snowfall was my favorite. The air is different when it snows as though the cold moisture has washed it clean. I found an instinctual joy gulping in the chilled freshness while tiny flakes kissed my face and softened the ground. I thought that this must be the rapture of sled dogs, spurring them on for hours through a frozen and unyielding landscape.
Jogging and walking engaged so much more of me than my vision. My senses rambled over and through my surroundings, tingling my curiosity and imagination. Frequently, I would shorten my stride to better inspect a path drifting off into the woods or catch sight of the muskrat I once spotted along a meandering brook.
My usual route began not more than two hundred yards from my door, down a less traveled road than my own. The sidewalk, a serpentine trail wending around mature trees, never failed to beckon me forward. It’s a peaceful suburban neighborhood here, nestled among tall pines and oak giving it a sense of settled comfort.
Less than a mile down this street, I’d turn onto an even smaller road, usually quiet to the point of feeling hushed. It’s a recently transformed neighborhood here, starting out a century ago as a thickly settled lake community. Now, its vacation cottages neatly converted to year round homes, give it an air of small town sociability.
Halfway down this road, just before an ‘S’ curve, the lake can be seen twinkling seductively behind trees and porches. This is where my thoughts could really open up. Tension released, I’d breathe deeply and imagine I was somewhere up country, not smack in the middle of fast-paced suburbia.
After over 10 years of traversing this route, I became visually acquainted with many of its inhabitants. I witnessed avid gardeners and their loyal dogs slowly age, some making fewer and fewer outdoor appearances until neither were seen at all. I learned people’s proclivities, such as an older gentleman’s love for a disturbingly clean driveway that he routinely swept bare. I found myself worrying about him the few times his driveway was scattered with leaves.
Then there was his neighbor, maybe a few years younger than he, who managed his gardens with admirable devotion. Like his clean driveway-loving neighbor, his house and yard were always neat as a pin, testimony to regarding home as sanctuary. I may have known their names only by seeing them on their mailboxes (we are New Englanders after all and not prone to idle chat with strangers), but in time a friendly wave, compliment or warm smile were always forthcoming.
Different times of day revealed routine habits of these quiet communities and the reliable schedule of living. The burning light of late morning declared a day well underway with streets tranquil until three. Under the climbing sun, peaceful vignettes played out in the microcosm of each home. Here and there, toddlers furiously pedaled their plastic trikes up and down their driveway, too young yet for school. Young mothers returned from morning errands while an older woman, on her own schedule in curlers and housecoat, stood patiently in her yard while her schnauzer trotted to his morning spot.
In mid-afternoon, kids of all ages strolled home, backpacks stuffed to bursting and maybe a lacrosse stick carried by a teen or two. Soon, the hollow sound of a basketball bouncing on asphalt would announce that at last, it was time to shoot hoops.
But for me, the best time to be out was towards day’s end. Wisps of garlic on the wind conjured images of a family meal in a kitchen I’d never been in. Sunsets, glorious in their sweeping displays, played peek-a-boo with me through the trees. I soon learned which homes best caught the slanting rays, reflecting copper and rose off west-facing windows. During summer, chills might trickle down my legs at the deep thrumming of bullfrogs at dusk, or the haunting twang of a solitary frog warning me of night.
I grew quite attached to a few homes along the way. There was one I called the Strega Nona cottage, a red-roofed white cottage snuggled deep in the woods. The white pines surrounding it had long since shed their lower branches, providing a clear view and the feeling I had just stepped into a child’s storybook. Trails of smoke invariably floated from its brick chimney when it was cold, and in summer, the aroma of fallen pine needles filled the air. I’d walk slower past this place, wanting to soak it all in. Years later, the bewitching cottage and many of its towering pines disappeared, replaced by a cul-de-sac and three enormous homes.
Then there was the little bungalow sitting on a stone-walled rise, the site of an old chicken farm. Clearly well-cared for, it was a charming relic of the neighborhood’s rural past. I’d try to imagine what it must’ve been like, the color of the chickens, the arrangement of the outbuildings and the expanse of open land. On sultry evenings before dusk I’d hear the television through the screened-in porch reminding me of childhood summer nights and in winter the glow of the kitchen light nudged me faster towards loved ones waiting at home. But eventually, and inevitably, the sign went up, and the farm bungalow came down.
I became a vicarious neighbor of sorts and an incidental observer of what would become part of the neighborhood’s history. Over time I felt myself being pulled in, drawn to its life and rhythms, its changes and charms. Body mechanics keep me from jogging these days, and walks are short if I go at all. I miss the time for my feet and thoughts to wander, but I mostly miss the connection and witnessing the nuances of daily life in this one special place.
My walking adventures enforced the idea that as human animals we need connection. Needing a sense of recognition, acceptance and belonging is hard-wired into us and feels much like belonging to a pack. The lone wolf is the exception. To be a part of the life of a place and part of the lives of its people, even passively, will satisfy. Routinely seeing and being seen creates a familiarity between people, which helps bind us together. So it is with place.
We feel the energy of a place when we choose to stop walking for a bit to spend some time on a park bench or a rock by a lake. Sensing that energy is probably why we have stopped walking at all. We have been invited. We ruminate while place becomes our mental backdrop, easing us into thought. This is one way that the process, the two-way relationship we have with place, can begin, by stopping, thinking and feeling.
And when our thoughts leave us and we are roused back into real time, place is there, a silent companion waiting for us should we ever need to come by again. We know we’ll be back. We’ll be back to our ‘thinking rock’ or our favorite park bench, or our beloved walking route. We’ll return with the knowledge that this special place, as alive as we are, sees us, feels us, and is glad we’ve come along.