For two weeks after moving to New York my feet hurt and my legs were sore. That’s approximately how long it took for me to adjust to a new walking way of life. It was not something I had prepared for – of course, we had sold our cars, what did I expect would take their place?
Walking also became something to do. When I was still looking for a job, we didn’t have a lot of money. Sometimes a Friday night was a walk. At least it could be to the Met (the steps) or Central Park (for more walking). Ironically, 2020’s quarantine further developed my city legs. Every morning, Patrick and I would walk the three blocks plus two to Carl Schurz Park on the East River. Some days we would go left in the park and some days we went right, either walking north or south along the glittering water carrying ferries and tug boats, past the babies in strollers, and from May through October, the sunbathers. Sunny and hot evenings we walked to the park to run around the reservoir and walked home, usually to the cheers of the city for the health care workers. Some days it rained. I can remember one day just needing to get out. It was completely miserable with the added wind, my umbrella turning inside out. At five blocks we turned the corner and went home. Pandemic walking had become habit, and a new necessity.
Last Summer we spent a week with my parents, a welcome escape from the city. Walking had become so ingrained that even at home in Maryland and later, at Patrick’s childhood home in Florida, with cars available to us, we needed to walk. We walked neighborhoods I had only ever driven through, except my own street – I had done a fair amount of childhood walking and running in that one. We noticed no one else. “Why isn’t anyone else walking?” we’d ask each other, remembering that we too, once upon a time, never walked.
There is something romantic about walking here. Walking in New York, where so many have walked, where the buildings rise up to meet the sun, as they have been doing for decades on decades. There is something not so romantic as well. You have to watch where you step, there’s a lot of dogs in the city, and they consider it their backyard. There’s trash to hop over and drippings that come from above. There’s only sun if you’re on the correct side of the street and at the right time. But whatever side of romance you find yourself on, there is so much to see. Just today on my walk home I saw: a couple fighting, someone I recognized (by their walk no less), an architectural beauty, a fluffy white dog, the Hudson River, and flowers in the trash.
There is something historic about walking here, beyond the obvious. My grandparents met here. My grandfather grew up in Brooklyn, and my Grandmother came from North Dakota, the middle of both the country and nowhere. She came here, they met, fell in love, and moved away. Last summer I found some photos in the library at my parents house. It’s really just a room with a lot of books and history that my dad inherited. I like to rummage there sometimes. It’s quiet and everything I touch has been touched by someone before me, someone related to me. During one rummage I found some old photos of my grandparents in New York – on a rooftop, in central park, enjoying the sunshine. There was one of my Grandpa holding a snowball in snowy Central Park with a bridge in the background. There are many bridges in the park, not over water but over paths and curves, each with unique structure and latticing. I made it my mission to find this bridge. Meaning I intended to keep my eyes open every time I walked in the park until I happened upon it. And happened, I did.
I was on a walk last month when I went under a bridge. I continued on my way. About 15 minutes later I thought of that bridge and looked up the photo that my dad had emailed to me. It was the bridge with my Grandpa and the snowball and those specific shaped holes in the brick of the bridge. On my way back, I stopped at the bridge and just looked. There was no snow, and he wasn’t there. Seventy years or so later, I was there with the bridge. And just walking, I had found this piece of history, my history.
There are so many ways to get around this city: bus, car, bike, train, walk. They all provide a different way of seeing the world. Walking brings it up close. There is walking to get somewhere. There is walking fast to get somewhere. I noticed the fast walking had lessened last year. No one was walking fast to get anywhere, everyone seemed to be at a slow, going nowhere, pace. There is walking with a friend. Walking to find food. Walking to find different food because the first food was too long of a wait. Walking down stairs into the underground and walking up stairs into the air. Walking with a suitcase. Walking with coffee. Walking with groceries (a special horror), and walking a dog (seems pleasant). Walking lost and walking confidently oriented. Walking in slush and walking in sun. Walking under scaffolding and walking barefoot on the Great Lawn. Walking to work out an idea or to unplug in solitude as Julia Cameron recommends in her book, The Listening Path.
You discover many things when walking – other than bridges and buildings, or a great coffee table. You notice more around you. But often, the things to notice are inside, and this movement of the legs and arms and the forward motion, draws them out. It’s like morning pages, as practice and meditation, but without having to write anything down, though you could. I have the best conversations with Patrick when we are walking, I have the best talks with God. I find that music is more beautiful as it soundtracks my surroundings.
Last year I heard about a man who died, William Helmreich, who had walked every single street of New York. A total of 6,163 miles. He wrote about it in his book, The New York Nobody Knows. I'm jealous of what he saw, the interesting apartments and tree lined perfection. I wonder how many ideas he got on those walks and how many projects he was inspired to complete. I think he was most interested in the people, and why shouldn’t he have been? There is an endless and incomparably eclectic supply of them.
Charles Dickens is famous for his walking, sometimes 12 miles a day. Luke McKernan says in his piece, Walking with Charles Dickens, “It takes some sort of critical genius to understand Dickens’ walking not to be observant in the conventional sense, but an act of dreaming. He walked not to see things but to get the sense of them.” I’m finding that’s it. Though I don’t fully understand that statement, I think getting a sense of things is what I’m after in a walk. A sense of self and the world around me, and where I fit in it. A sense of the other person as I match their step. A sense of the story I am trying to tell or song I am working on. Much of “needing to get out,” especially in the pandemic, is needing to sense we are part of something beyond our four walls and the couch. The sense that we are not quite as alone as we thought.