When we haphazardly encounter people we know, we realize that we are part of a communal fabric that is large, complex, and fluid: it helps us to connect specific streets, parks, and buildings with ideas of commitment, accountability, and care. The street grid and the relational networks we depend on become layered, part of each other in an inextricable fashion. And this is the sort of process, I would argue, that builds our deeper love for a place. As long as our networks of community and built environment remain separate, we grow a more detached admiration. We will likely appreciate the place where we live, but we may not feel part of it in the same way we do when we realize, “Around that corner, or the next, I meet see someone I know.” For me, at least, the process of serendipitous encounter shapes a strikingly different experience of the city. It changes the way I perceive a place, as well as the way I explore it.
For our children, walking has been both their favorite thing, and the most annoying chore we asked of them. They love walking to the nearby woods and exploring, strolling along the Thames, or venturing up to the Ashmolean museum or the Natural Science museum. On these trips, we’ve always had either a stroller or a baby carrier, and have given our 4-year-old shoulder rides as needed. Our 6-year-old has had to finish these walks, since she’s too big to carry, and has thus learned to think about how far she wants to go with this knowledge in mind. She’s grown stronger and more resilient, both mentally and physically, as a result. The mental endurance is important to emphasize here, I think, because (as long as you aren’t asking them to go too far) walking is not difficult for a child. It’s the mental hurdle of embracing the tedium of walking, the slow process of getting from point A to point B, that is often harder. Walking teaches a child patience. Let’s be honest—it teaches adults patience! We’ve all grown accustomed to instant gratification when it comes to transportation.Gracy Olmstead, “Our Year Without a Car (With Kids)“
Olmstead’s essay is worth reading in full, and her newsletter is quite good.
My community was not built with walkers in mind. We’re dependent on cars. My work is a twenty minute commute. Only a handful of our regular commitments are within a ten minute radius. My shortest drives are to the elementary school, the grocery store, and my weekly pick-up basketball game, which takes place at a nearby church gym.
But I do walk my neighborhood, early in the morning, or in the evenings. When I go without earbuds, I can hear the birds, reminding me of my creatureliness, or the distant traffic, which reminds me of my smallness. I see others, walking dogs, or strolling with children, or a group of older men, who routinely walk and talk together. There are vistas. Our neighborhood is located on a hillside, and over the edges of a few lots on the highest hillsides you can see the lower basin that holds Lake Waco, surrounded by a large expanse of Central Texas farmland, scrub, and plains. The sunsets to the west can be glorious, and people pay for those views.
My favorite thing about walking isn’t the serendipity, but the slowing. The pace feels much more human, more well-suited to our nature, and physically reminiscent of the fact that while we are capable of running at great speed or soaring to great heights, we are made to walk with God.