“The walking of which I speak has nothing in it akin to taking exercise, as it is called, as the sick take medicine at stated hours …but it is itself the enterprise and adventure of the day.”
Henry David Thoreau – Walking
As a senior in college, mid 1990s so pre-cell phones, I had an internship during the summer where I assisted with research comparing the success of pheasant nests and broods along roadsides to more natural areas. Hens were collared with radios and we followed them until they held tight for a few days, the beginning of her nesting. Without her moving around, we knew eggs had been laid and 28 days later they would hatch. We would then catch the chicks and implant trackers on them and then follow them and momma.
The research was being conducted by the state DNR and I lived in the attic of an old farmhouse, about a mile from the nearest town in Iowa whose population was less than 100, and a short drive to Blue Earth, Minnesota (what a name!) There were no stoplights in town, very few stop signs, and one bar. My excitement for the week consisted of driving 10 minutes down the road to buy groceries or mowing designs into the lawn every week when I cut grass.
I did not live alone but with a woman who had a high and tight fade and a handshake that just about broke every bone in my knuckles. She commandeered the place as she had been their longer, was an actual graduate of college and an employee of the DNR. She did not appreciate the fresh lilacs I cut and left on the kitchen table nor the fact that I liked to sit outside and read on nice afternoons/evenings.
I took up walking that summer.
Iowa is laid out in square miles, literally, so one day I just started walking. I knew if I covered one square it would equal four miles. The farmland around me was familiar because some of the pheasants we studied nested within those corn, bean, and abandoned fields. Northwest Iowa is flat, flat, FLAT and you can see for miles so I wasn’t worried about weather sneaking up on me. I told my roommate I was going for a walk and headed out.
I wasn’t sure exactly where I was going, so I headed down the gravel drive and turned left. I knew each field I passed and each farmer who owned it. I came to the first intersection and instead of turning left, I kept going straight. Why not walk all the way to so-and-so’s farm where I knew I would see deer and maybe a pheasant? He had bought into CRP, the Conservation Reserve Program where farmers agreed NOT to farm their land and allow it go wild for 10-15 years in return for payment by the government. The point? To re-establish wild lands as habitat, improve soil quality, and decrease soil erosion. His land had been in the program about 3 years and so there was more wildlife there than anywhere else. I remember watching deer move through his abandoned fields, the tops of their backs peeking just above the un-mowed grasses. I remember listening to the shrieking calls of pheasants and wondering how something so beautiful could sound so awful. I remember deciding it was time I head back and counting the intersections so I would know when to turn left and aim for home.
I had told my roommate I was going for a walk and returned three hours later. She was dumbfounded. Wanted to know where I had been and why. I told her I walked to so-and-so’s farm and she was further dumbfounded. “That’s four miles away!” She looked at me, incredulous. “Why’d you do that?” she asked, with scorn and arched eyebrows.
“I don’t know, just wanted to go for a walk,” I replied.
This is how I began walking and I’ve not really stopped since.
When I lived in California, on weekends I would walk the mile into town, stopping at the local bookstore and perusing the most recent magazines, sometimes purchasing a new book and then head over to the coffee shop to sit and sip while I read. They had outdoor seating and everyday the weather was truly perfect. The breeze would dance through the towering Jefferson pines, picking up their vanilla scent and sweep it up the San Jacinto mountains. After an hour or so I would walk the mile back home.
Once in North Carolina, after receiving an unprecedented 8 inches of snow, my husband and I walked to the nearest McDonald’s, about a mile from our home. We wanted to see how the locals handled the unusually large amount of snow. We watched an older gentleman hose the snow off of his car, and we laughed. Coming from Iowa where snow usually equates to cold temperatures, we wondered if this man knew his locks would freeze overnight. We kept walking until we reached McDonald’s where we found, due to the snow, they were only serving those in the drive-through. There was one car in line so we jumped in behind it and walked through the drive-through, enjoying our coffees and biscuits while we walked back home.
When we moved to Texas and while my husband was studying for school, I would take our new baby girl out for walks in our neighborhood. It certainly wasn’t the farm fields of Iowa or the luscious forests of Southern California, but it provided a soothing lullaby for our baby girl and so we’d walk for hours through neighborhoods, her snoozing while I dreamed of the house we would someday buy and planned our future flower gardens.
In Maryland, we do more hiking than walking. There is so much to see here, that getting out and on a trail is way more interesting than my neighborhood.
Although I do love a good walk through my neighborhood from time to time. I love to see what flowers they plant and how they grow and change throughout spring, summer, and fall. I love to see how the evergreens here hang onto the snow and paint the world picture perfect in winter. I love to see the coats of deer change with the seasons. And I love to meet my neighbors and explore this world with them.
Last week, my husband and I began the arduous task of trimming the 21, 40-plus foot pine trees we have lining our property. As we drug the downed limbs to our trailer parked in our cul-de-sac, our neighbor’s dog came running to meet us. He and his daughter were standing near the end of his driveway, admiring his flowers. “Come here,” he said, motioning us to follow him. He pointed and there we noticed not one but many Monarch butterfly caterpillars munching on his flowers. “I planted tropical milkweed and Mexican coneflower for them,” he told us. I then continued to ask him a million questions – did they find his plants naturally or had he ordered some caterpillars and placed them there? How long before they would begin making a cocoon? Why tropical varities of flowers, why not local? How does he water them so far away from his house (we are all on well water) – I needed to learn what he knew, in case someday I needed this information for our yard.
I originally met this neighbor while I was heading out for a walk. He had been walking up and down his long and rolling driveway, back and forth, for exercise. We, my kids and I, had been watching him do this daily from our front window for weeks. One day I timed my walk at the same time I knew he would be walking, so I could meet him. I stopped and began talking and eventually introduced myself. He is an older gentleman and was quiet, probably skeptical of me at first, but I’ve won him over. We now wave and smile in passing and when he is out walking and I am out walking and we meet at the ends of our driveways, he teaches me all about wells and ponds and water and tropical flowers and caterpillars and I pepper him with questions about all kinds of things plant related. All because I take walks.
A few weeks ago I got up about 4:30 am and left our house around 5 so I could make it to some sunflower fields before the sun rose. I spent the morning walking among the flowers and bumblebees, whispering with my fellow photographers as the clicks of our camera lenses were louder than our voices. Birds were feeding on the seeds of the flowers and the unspoken rule was not to speak too loudly; you might scare the birds or butterflies away. They will come back, we all knew, but you just didn’t make too much noise.
I recently read that walking is probably the best exercise you can do for your body and your soul. I initially began walking out of boredom but quickly realized how much more you see when compared to driving a car or running for exercise. When running, or rather jogging if we’re honest, I focus on a spot about five feet ahead of me. I rarely look elsewhere. I’m in my head and listening to my breathing and my body. When walking, I’m out of my head, which is exactly what I need. I’m breathing deeper. I’m observing the world around me. I’m stopping when I see something interesting. I carry my phone with me and stop to identify various species of plants and bugs. I pay attention to changes in seasons. I listen for birds and watch for wildlife. I wave at people and stop to chat on occasion. Sometimes I take my dog and sometimes she stays behind. On days when it’s too hot or raining or too cold, I often sit in a comfy chair in front of a window and wonder what small things I’m missing. Are Jack’s caterpillars still there after the storm last night? Did Marty’s tree branch finally fall? Have her peonies bloomed yet? How is Riley, the white fluffy dog doing? What did they plant in their swale and how can I do that with ours?
As I type this, the rain falls intermittently, sometimes a mist, sometimes pouring. We are under a Tornado watch and so walking will wait. As I sit here though, a hummingbird flits among my hasta flowers and I pause to watch.
I wish I could walk everyday, for hours, like Thoreau. My job, my husband, our children, all need and deserve attention and so, walking everyday for hours isn’t possible. But…walking some days for 20 minutes is possible. And then, other days an hour is possible. And once a month, there might be time for a longer hike, somewhere here in Maryland, followed up with some local ice cream, or farm crafted beer, or local wine.
The rest of this week doesn’t look too promising – either rain or hot and humid days are coming. That means walks early in the morning or not at all. We’ll see.
If I could give you one thing this week, it would be 30 minutes of perfect 65 degree temps with a slight breeze, either a setting or rising sun, and a beautiful view as you walk.
Take the time.
You won’t regret it.