Walking to Kmart

‘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.”

“That’s OK.”

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

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  1. Simon Parker says:

    “I have met with but one or two persons in the course of my life who understood the art of Walking, that is, of taking walks, who had a genius, so to speak, for sauntering; which word is beautifully derived ‘from idle people who roved about the country, in the middle ages, and asked charity, under pretence of going à la sainte terre’—to the holy land, till the children exclaimed, ‘There goes a sainte-terrer’, a saunterer—a holy-lander. They who never go to the holy land in their walks, as they pretend, are indeed mere idlers and vagabonds, but they who do go there are saunterers in the good sense, such as I mean.

    “Some, however, would derive the word from sans terre, without land or a home, which, therefore, in the good sense, will mean, having no particular home, but equally at home everywhere. For this is the secret of successful sauntering. He who sits still in a house all the time may be the greatest vagrant of all, but the Saunterer, in the good sense, is no more vagrant than the meandering river, which is all the while sedulously seeking the shortest course to the sea.

    “But I prefer the first, which indeed is the most probable derivation. For every walk is a sort of crusade, preached by some Peter the Hermit in us, to go forth and reconquer this holy land from the hands of the Infidels.”

    (Henry Thoreau)

  2. oinonio says:

    About three years ago my now-wife moved to the outskirts of Allentown, Pennsylvania to do a one year residency at the hospital there. After driving around the area she chose a condo complex just across an highway overpass from the hospital. With the winters in Lehigh Valley being somewhat harsh, she didn’t want to drive to work in the dead of winter, and the quarter mile walk to work would be pleasant.

    Unfortunately, having failed to notice the lack of sidewalks in the whole community, walking became out of the question. Despite the proximity of the hospital, there was no conceivable way to walk to it without taking a three mile, one hour detour. The direct route, beneath the overpass, was a six lane “boulevard”, was impassable despite being able to see the hospital from her living room window. She ended up driving to work; five minutes roundtrip, but several times longer with parking, and snow removal in winter. 

    Later in the year she noticed that obesity and diabetes rates were higher in this community without sidewalks than the Baltimore hospital she’d moved from. We’ve built ourselves into this epidemic. 

  3. No news, I live in Northern Virginia sans auto … not easy, the cars are death machines: running traffic lights and stop signs, turning without looking, driving while on the phone, texting, etc.

    NoVa is the ugliest place on planet Earth, nothing but parking lots and access roads leading to metal and concrete boxes with weeds and scruffy-looking weed trees. .

    Walking to the grocery store means crouching through a hole in a cyclone fence, hiking 100 yards through the ‘wilderness’ of stumps and cut trees and trash, across 1/4 mile of access/exit lanes of an interstate highway … hundreds do this every day but no account is given to them.

    I am now off to the center of town … it is a five mile walk each way but it’s a good day for it. 

  4. Fruity Blue says:

    “Glorious, stirring sight! The poetry of motion! The real way to travel! The only way to travel! Here today–in next week tomorrow! Villages skipped, towns and cities jumped–always somebody else’s horizon! O bliss! O poop-poop! O my! O my!”
    – Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows, 

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