How to Walk
It is frightening to see how many adults no longer know how to walk.
In the span of a single generation we've gone from a nation that used to enjoy a walk down Main Street to a nation that drives to the gym to walk on a moving carpet.
I notice it especially in certain visitors to Maine. Even on vacation they walk as if the whole point of what they are doing is to get somewhere. As if what happens in between doesn't matter. Or worse, that it's some kind of chore, a burdensome expenditure of their time. [For the rest of this story, see the April 2008 issue of Down East.]I see perfectly intelligent people hurrying to post a letter. I see prosperous looking men with cell phones pacing impatiently in front of the local art co-op while their wives browse anxiously inside on a time leash. I see the parents of young children plodding to the beach, lugging armfuls of folding chairs, umbrellas, coolers, and bags brimming with beach survival kits, every doleful step seeming to proclaim: "Can we just get this over with."
They are not entirely to blame, of course. They've been brainwashed into living their lives as a series of moments, moments formularized by the most sophisticated consumer culture in the world into a montage of catalog covers: the clambake, the homecoming, the pumpkin hunt, the boat ride, the day at the beach with the kids. And because everybody wants their share of these idealized moments to be sure they are getting the most out of life, anything that puts too much distance between them is an imposition. If people lose too much time getting from one moment to the next, they feel they've been cheated.
Or they just drive everywhere. The nation's love affair with the automobile and the lure of the open road - "gee, I could be in Florida in twenty-four hours" - may have connected us to the rest of the country but it has separated us from each other.
Nor should we miss an opportunity to beat up the planners who accelerated our evolution toward this permanent state of dislocation. Aided by municipal officials who were either too crooked, too shortsighted, or just too plain dumb to see the damage they were doing, planners have been allowed to rip the heart out of our towns and cities, to erase once-vibrant town centers and replace them with sterile malls, cookie-cutter stores, and prairie-sized car parks you could die trying to walk across without water on a hot day.
Here, in Maine, the real thing never went away. Until recently our small towns never attracted the attention of the developers because the folks who lived here were too few and too poor to make it profitable. So, we probably have more towns in Maine that remain unscarred by "progress" than any other state in the union.
Just another example of Maine getting ahead of the new wave by lagging so far behind the last one.
That's why we keep drawing so many refugees from ravaged America. They don't come to enjoy "Life The Way It's Supposed To Be," they come to enjoy "Life The Way It Was."
The only thing is when they get here they bring their bad habits with them. It takes at least a couple of weeks for them to even start to shake off all that conditioning, and by then it's time to go back to the urban wasteland from whence they came.
I grew up in a small town, spent thirty years working in big cities before coming back to a small town, and it took me a while to re-learn the pleasures of small town life. Like walking everywhere possible and nowhere in particular.
In York, and dozens of other small Maine towns, people still walk as a natural part of their lives. They walk because it's easy, because it's healthy, because it's enjoyable and, not least, because it's sociable. Because it exposes them to all the little moments of small-town life that give them pleasure, that give them the comfort of knowing they belong.
They walk along the beach, around the harbor, and around the woods. They walk all over the place thanks to the town's many sidewalks. And when they get honked at by a passing car it's usually because the person driving is a friend or neighbor.
People here walk to the post office because it is one of the most enjoyable things they will do all day. They appreciate the feel of warm spring sunshine on winter white skin, they watch the birds rustling through the undergrowth, turning over last fall's leaves in search of bugs, they check on their neighbors' gardens to see what they're planting this year, and maybe they'll stop awhile and swap a few morsels of gardening lore.
When they get to the post office they will peruse the thicket of town notices on the bulletin board, inquire about the health of an acquaintance, or catch up on the latest town scandal. Then they will pick up their mail.
On the way back they might pause to enjoy the spectacle of a lobster boat venturing out into the bright blue maw of the sea and the sky. And they will sit on a park bench dedicated to somebody they knew, to somebody who touched their life.
What they are really doing is fulfilling a primal need, the need to belong to a place that's worth belonging to. A place where the circadian rhythm of their lives blends comfortably with the greater rhythm of the town.
I'm catching on.
When I go to the town hall to pick up some vital document or another I will take my time. I will enjoy the architectural splendor of well kept houses that pre-date the Revolutionary War. I will smile at the miniaturized antebellum glory of the old stone library. I will ponder the old gaol that is the oldest intact British building in the United States. And while I may not be the churchy type, I have yet to pass the First Parish Church without admiring the perfect elegance of its steeple.
If I run into the harbormaster I might inquire about the mooring situation down at the harbor, and if I encounter the shellfish warden I might ask what kind of a season it was that just ended.
I do not own a boat and have no intention of buying a clam digger's license, but I ask anyway, and they tell me in all necessary detail.
And, like them, I take none of it for granted.
I am fortunate to live in a place where the notion of driving to a gym to walk on a treadmill while watching CNN is laughable. I can choose to walk through living history or along any number of spectacular ocean vistas or quiet woodland trails and know whichever route I take I will find a sense of place, a connectedness I value.
Not far from my house there is a remnant of the old Maine woods that few but the locals know about. At 1,700 acres it's a pretty sizable remnant, so when you're in its midst you are so removed from the surrounding coastal bustle you could be in a remote nook of Baxter State Park.
It has a big, clean pond, grazing white-tail deer, and miles of walking trails through the most pristine woodlands you will find anywhere in the northeastern states. It has to be, it is water district land and the pond is the water supply for the town of York. Because it is identified on most maps as water district land most visitors assume it to be fenced off behind no trespass notices, but it is open all year-round to anybody who knows it is there.
(The only reason I share it with you now is because you are a reader of Down East and therefore a person of good judgment who can be trusted not to impart this secret to anyone undeserving.)
It is true there are many prohibitions imposed upon this land: all forms of motorized activity are banned and there is no fishing the pond - and certainly no skinny-dipping - so that about the only activity that is allowed is walking. But that only enforces a kind of Zen-like simplicity all too rare in a world grown raucous with competing freedoms.
The water district lands can generally be relied upon to provide the peace and quiet I need when I have some thinking to do.
I have walked a great many problems through those peaceful woodland trails and even managed to enjoy it in the process. Career problems, financial worries, family woes, all the things that threaten to engulf us when we don't have enough time to think them through properly in our everyday lives. Especially when those lives are already subsumed by an increasing sense of urgency - however bogus that sense of urgency may be.
There is something about walking through a friendly, familiar landscape that helps put any problem into perspective. The seasons change, winter's cold and dark always passes, the spring always comes. Amid all the change there is constancy and we are part of it.