It’s February in New York, junior year of high school, lunchtime. Outside it’s frigid and grey, and the locker hallway is warm, bustling, cacophonous. Lila looks over at me: “Want to take a lap?”
I say yes, so we put our backpacks down, grab our coats, and head outside. We walk the perimeter of the building: two short blocks and two long avenues, a quarter of a mile in all. And when we get back to the entrance we keep going, or maybe we turn around and walk the other way. As we go, we gossip, we give advice, we ask each other about our days, we talk through ideas for the English paper, giggle, ruminate, seethe.
We’re not there for the scenery. The walls of our high school are stacks of red brick, and we know them like we know our times tables. There’s no real reason to be out there, in the cold, moving briskly when we could be standing still. But we’ve done this a dozen times before and at this point it’s just what we do. It’s what everyone does. For some people the route is different: it’s the loop of third-floor hallways, it’s the path around the North Meadow in Central Park. We don’t think. We just walk.
At least I didn’t think about it until I got to Brown. A few days into orientation, I heard my roommate Lauren talking to her friend back home. “Because my roommate’s from New York”—my ears perked up—“and because all her friends are from New York, they like walking!”
I was struck by her tone of astonishment: I’d never considered walking to be something notable or even negotiable. But Lauren grew up in a city where most people got their licenses early and spent high school driving. If it was a half-mile trip, she once told me, you got in the car. After talking to people from all over the world, it became obvious that the kind of experience I’d had in high school was more of an exception than a norm, the ubiquity of walking being a particular element of certain cities and their cultures.
Walks are to a New York high schooler what cafes are to a Parisian: the very fabric of the social scene, the foundation of the city’s cultural landscape. Maybe when I say I love New York, and miss it, what I really mean is that I love walking, and I miss living in a walking city.
When I talk about walking, I don’t really mean walking to a destination, although the fact that many cities are set up to allow and encourage walking as a means of transport is also a prerequisite to walking-as-leisure. When living in New York you’re forced to walk first, because there’s no parking, the subway’s probably broken, a cab costs a fortune, and the buses crawl up and down the park slower than the pace of your own feet. Maybe one day traffic is light and the bus is right there, but it’s such a nice fall afternoon, so you decide to make the trek anyway. And then before you know it, you’re walking for walking’s sake. In circles, in squares, in meandering there-and-backs.
And why? There is something inarguably irrational about going for a walk with a friend when you could sit on their couch and talk about the same dramas without risking shin splints. But I really hate sitting on people’s couches and I don’t remember the last time anyone texted me: “come over so we can sit in my living room and talk.” There always has to be a pretext: Let’s study together! Let’s see a movie! Let’s get coffee!
Since so many of us have spent roughly 18 years going to schools and living in places dominated and defined by the Great Cult of Productivity, it’s no surprise that most people I know are uncomfortable with the idea of doing nothing. But if we can’t sit still and just focus on each other, then walking is the best alternative, an activity that isn’t really one. In Wanderlust, Rebecca Solnit’s history of walking, she writes: “...doing nothing is hard to do. It’s best done by disguising it as doing something, and the something closest to doing nothing is walking.” Walking isn’t a real distraction from the people around us in the way that movies, or study sessions, or even meals tend to supersede the conversation and the actual act of being with somebody.
The sense of productivity you get through motion and distance isn’t the only reason it’s nice to walk and talk. During the depths of the pandemic, all I was allowed to do was talk to my friends over the phone, and the conversation was formulaic: what’s new from your life? What’s new from yours? It was better than nothing, but this was a static mode of relating to someone, this constant retrospection and rehashing of things that had already been done. I longed to be walking instead, where every street corner would offer something new to talk about.
By June of that first Covid year, I was out and about again, albeit with restrictions. Indoor activities were a no-go, so walking was the default activity. It was a way of safely meeting up with people, or even as a solo walker, a way to be alone while still being out in the world. Walking was a solution to the paradox of social distancing.
There’s an exhilarating anonymity to being a walker. You never have to stay in the same place for long enough to really be perceived. Maybe someone looks at you as you pass them by, but a second later you’re out of sight. A walking city invites you to observe, and it does you the favor of not ogling back.
In New York I would walk to watch and I’d walk to think—something else, like talking, that isn’t generally thought of as “doing” anything. But of course thinking is reasonably important to everything that we “do.” At the very height of college application season I couldn’t be caught dead taking an hour off of schoolwork, or application work, or some work. But I would let myself go for a walk. Between Zoom classes I took to leaving my building and ambling over to Riverside Park, or up and down Broadway. Sometimes I’d bring earbuds and listen to music as I went. Sometimes I just people-watched. As I walked, I could feel my shoulders relaxing, the cogs in my brain loosening.
It was “productive,” it was “helpful,” and it was also just lovely. Walking feels good. Your arms swing, your feet rise and fall.
At Brown, walking isn’t nearly so inescapable; I don’t unintentionally stumble into 15 mile days. But walking doesn’t need to be the norm or the lifeblood of a place: I’m a walker and I’m going to do it anyway.
A week ago I knocked on my friend Sophie’s door, about to suggest that we study? Get coffee? Watch a movie? She suggested we go for a walk. We wandered over to Prospect Terrace, ambled down College Hill. The sky was an impossible kind of blue. Near the Providence River we turned right back around, and our calves burned as we trekked back up towards campus. We gossiped, we gave advice, we asked each other about our days. Our eyes were open (what was that mysterious Music Mansion on Meeting Street?), our minds were untethered, and our conversation progressed with the careless ease of our swinging arms. It was an excellent hour, for one spent doing almost “nothing” at all.