‘Waynesboro had a traditional, vaguely pleasant central business district covering five or six square blocks, but, as so often these days, most retail businesses had moved out to shopping centers on the periphery, leaving little but a sprinkling of banks, of shops were dark and bare; nowhere could I find a store at which to get insect repellent.
A man outside the post office suggested I try Kmart. “Where’s your car?” he said, preparatory to giving directions.
“I don’t have a car.”
That stopped him. “Really? It’s over a mile, I’m afraid.”
He gave his head a little dubious shake, as if disowning responsibility for what he was about to tell me. “Well, then what you want to do is go up Broad Street, take a right at the Burger King, and keep on going. But, you know, when I think about it, it’s well over a mile–maybe a mile and a half, mile and three-quarters. You walking back as well?”
“Yeah.” Another shake. “Long way.”
“I’ll take emergency provisions.” If he realized this was a joke he didn’t show it.
“Well, good luck to you,” he said. “Thank you.” “You know, there’s a cab company around the corner,” he offered helpfully as an afterthought.
“I actually prefer to walk,” I explained. He nodded uncertainly. “Well, good luck to you,” he said again.
So I walked. It was a warm afternoon, and it felt wonderful– you can’t believe how wonderful–to be at large without a pack, bouncy and unburdened. With a pack you walk at a tilt, hunched and pressed forward, your eyes on the ground. You trudge; it is all you can do. Without, you are liberated. You walk erect. You look around. You spring. You saunter. You amble.
Or at least you do for four blocks. Then you come to a mad junction at Burger King and discover that the new six-lane road to Kmart is long, straight, very busy, and entirely without facilities for pedestrians–no sidewalks, no pedestrian crossings, no central refuges, no buttons to push for a WALK signal at lively intersections. I walked through gas station and motel forecourts and across restaurant parking lots, clambered over concrete barriers, crossed lawns, and pushed through neglected ranks of privet or honeysuckle at property boundaries. At bridges over creeks and culverts–and goodness me how developers love a culvert–I had no choice but to walk on the road, pressed against the dusty railings and causing less attentive cars to swerve to avoid me. Four times I was honked at for having the temerity to proceed through town without benefit of metal.
One bridge was so patently dangerous that I hesitated at it. The creek it crossed was only a reedy trickle, narrow enough to step across, so I decided to go that way. I slid and scampered down the bank, found myself in a hidden zone of sucking grey mud, pitched over twice, hauled myself up the other side, pitched over again, and emerged at length streaked and speckled with mud and extravagantly decorated with burrs.
When I finally reached the Kmart Plaza I discovered that I was on the wrong side of the road and had to dash through six lanes of hostile traffic. By the time I crossed the parking lot and stepped into the air-conditioned, Muzak-happy world of Kmart I was as grubby as if I had been on the trail, and trembling all over.
The Kmart, it turned out, didn’t stock insect repellent. So I turned around and set off back to town, but this time, in a burst of madness I don’t even want to go into, I headed home cross country, over farm fields and through a zone of light industry. I tore my jeans on barbed wire and got muddier still.
When finally I got back to town, I found Katz sitting in the sun on a metal chair on the motel lawn, freshly showered, dressed in newly laundered attire, and looking intensely happy in a way that only a hiker can look when he is in a town, at ease. Technically, he was waxing his boots, but really he was just sitting watching the world go by and dreamily enjoying the sunshine. He greeted me warmly. Katz was always a new man in town. “Good lord, look at you!” he cried, delighted at my grubbiness. “What have you been doing? You re filthy.” He looked me up and down admiringly, then said in a more solemn tone: “You haven’t been screwing hogs again, have you, Bryson?”‘
– – –
‘Wow here’s a thought to consider. Every twenty minutes on the Appalachian Trail, Katz and I walked farther than the average American walks in a week. For 93 percent of all trips outside the home, for whatever distance or whatever purpose, Americans now get in a car. On average the total walking of an American these days–that’s walking of all types: from car to office, from office to car, around the supermarket and shopping malls–adds up to 1.4 miles a week, barely 350 yards a day. That’s ridiculous.’
Bill Bryson. A walk in the woods: rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail. 1998