“I’d like to dissect your brain,” a fellow walker remarked to me unexpectedly when I told her that I had been walking daily for over forty years wherever I found myself. Although unnerving, I understood her sentiment. Like me, she moved outside of the box, which walking prompts people to do.
See those walls? Blocks to creativity? Unhealthy or destructive living situations? Feelings of being trapped? Walk out of the box.
For decades, I have trained myself to make healthy choices in whatever environment in which I find myself, intuiting what is safe, or intriguing, unknown and unexplored, or simply beckoning. My walks began in high school to avoid violent family dysfunction. As a clarinetist, I attended early morning rehearsals, necessitating a pre-dawn walk in cold Michigan weather. While walking, I peered into windows of other houses and imagined happy healthy families, whether they really existed or not. Through walking daily, I not only empowered myself, but discovered the joy of inspiration and inventing stories through walking.
Whether in the heart of Boston, by the Atlantic Ocean or Lake Michigan, in the mountains or on the Omaha bluffs, I’ve selected my own route, rather than following a proscribed path. That opportunity produced a pattern of thinking that encourages freedom to follow multiple interests – writing, landscape architecture, painting and parenting – over my lifetime. In fact, writing resembles walking, as each word depends on what precedes it, what follows it, and the whims and intent of the writer. Regardless of where the walker lives, whether in an urban or rural environment, this flexibility promotes a route to unexpected new choices.
Nothing empowers us more than having choices: what to do, where to go, what career to pursue, whom to marry – the list extends as long as a life span. And no practice leads to healthy choice making more readily than walking. Whereas many forms of exercise follow a path or pattern, such as hiking along a trail, biking in a bike lane or bike path or on stationary bike, swimming laps, or whatever, walking takes us anywhere and everywhere. Our bodies stay healthy, and our brains grow nimble in creative decision-making, leading to other forms of creativity in our lives.
Whether a sunrise walk adjacent to a pond:
Or a snowy night in Omaha:
Or a stroll in Denver:
The walker can always find insight, inspiration, and new ideas.
Much has been written on the benefits for walking for health and for human connection. In September 2015, the Surgeon General initiated Step It Up! The Surgeon General’s Call to Action to Promote Walking and Walkable Communities. Recognizing the connection between exercise and physical health, and citing exercise as the best way to fight chronic disease, the Call to Action names walking as the route for Americans. Not only does walking offer a means of exercise affordable to all income levels, one that requires no special equipment or gym membership or terrain, but it provides a low impact form of exercise less prone to injuries accessible to most Americans.
The Call to Action named Walkable Communities as essential for the path to health — communities where people can walk safely, know each other and their surroundings, and ambulate without impediments. In 2009 and 2018, two Harvard Studies echoed the Surgeon General with a statement that walking provides the most viable route to health. Now, the American Academy of Ophthalmology has joined the chorus, insisting that being outside improves eyesight. Given the prevalence of smartphones and small screens, researchers predict that one third of the world population will suffer from myopia by 2050, due to consistent exposure of artificial light and being indoors.
Walking benefits health through human connection, too. In his Scientific American article, “Why We Are Wired to Connect,” Matthew Lieberman observes that lack of social interaction produces actual physical and emotional pain. On the positive side, walking brings friendship and unexpected more story telling. For four years, I walked around White Rock Lake in Dallas with my friend Connie at 7am every Sunday morning. She always preferred younger men as romantic partners and placed an advertisement in the Dallas Morning News personals that read, “Maude Seeking Harold.” Now over twenty years later, she and “Harold” are still married.
Even so, the pedestrian environments at hand can be dangerous, whether through lack of lighting, uneven surfaces, proximity to traffic, and lack of policing. My weird brain ponders how to promote safe walking – now more than ever. Although compromising situations beset my path in the past, they loom even more pressing with increased awareness of a need for advocacy.
For the past six months, I have suffered from a spinal injury that renders walking painful. The American health care system moves slowly. Now, unfortunately, so do I – but not forever. Still, I walk – otherwise I would give up empowerment altogether and literally go crazy. The landscape torques in strange unforeseen ways. What once appeared to be flat currently sports an incline, simply because it’s harder to navigate, and interrupts in painful curb cuts. Uneven sidewalks abound, whose narrow proportions do not safely allow pedestrians to pass one another next to six lanes of moving traffic.
In order to ensure empowerment for walkers with diminished physical abilities in addition to the rest of us, my new creative challenge lies in planning advocacy through Walk2Connect, a walking co-operative based in Denver where I am a Member-Owner, for safe passage for all walkers. Walk2Connect unites pedestrians with one another, with their community, with their landscape, and invites reflection within oneself. We advocate for safe walking – everywhere, for everyone.
All of our stories need telling. We deserve access to choices and safe walking environments, and nothing activates the left-right brain connection more for creative writing and story telling than walking. We don’t need to dissect our brains; we journey one step after another, whimsically following our paths and our voices.