I took up regular walking because I needed to tend my physical self better. Most weeks, I walk five days, and usually, I’m walking around San Francisco. I took it up as exercise for the body, but it’s turned out to be an important spiritual practice too.
Walking brings things into focus that just aren’t visible from a car or bus, or even a bike. I start to wonder: why is there so much trash in the street in this neighborhood, and not in that neighborhood? Do the street cleaners skip this block sometimes? Do people just throw more stuff onto the sidewalk here? The city trash cans are often overflowing on this block–why is that?
A street planted with trees feels completely different than an otherwise identical street one block over.
The city’s many murals become intricate paintings at a walking pace. I’m in an art gallery now.
Walking creates enough small encounters to fill a Jim Jarmusch movie. One afternoon as dark was falling, I passed an apartment building and heard a woman in the stairway crying as if her heart were breaking. I paused for a long time, pulled between sympathy and respect for the privacy so hard to come by in city dwelling, unsure whether to venture up the steps and ask if she was okay. I resumed walking; my own heart stayed at that building for the rest of the evening. Another time I passed a couple standing still on the sidewalk, holding each other, eyes open, not speaking, not kissing.
Walking along the San Jose Expressway, where walking is not encouraged (the sidewalk ran out), I could peek into back yards that are a few meters from rushing traffic. Some houses predate the expressway and clearly used to have a quieter yard; others were built later than the road. One of these has a balcony; its view is four busy lanes, and I wonder whether anyone has ever sat out there.
On that walk, I discovered a pathway that meanders behind the houses for a few blocks along the expressway. I had had no idea. It was like entering a secret world. That was the kind of walk I like best: I set out in a new direction, just taking streets as the names took my fancy, allowing myself to get lost and then find my way back home. I can’t get lost for long before I come to a street with a familiar name, but I feel like an explorer anyway. One house has its Christmas tree up in the front window (it’s November 15). This whole block has a sweet, Hobbiton feel to it, and I muse a while before I figure out why: to enter a house, you pass through an archway and up a roofed set of steps. It makes everything feel cozy.
Behind these walls, people are sleeping, talking, watching television, eating, making love, worrying, reading. It seems both odd and fitting that each of these stories is playing out just feet from another one, with nothing separating them but a wall and almost complete ignorance of the other’s existence. Sometimes I think about the beings in the houses; sometimes I speak a prayer in my mind for each one, wishing them well. Other times I’m miles away, listening to the podcast that comes through the earbuds into my head. Those stories aren’t really any farther than the ones right here.
I walk a tiny circuit, a few miles of this planet, a twisted line beginning and ending at my own house, all on a bit of concrete someone poured and called the sidewalks of San Francisco. When I get to the end of my journey, I’ve traveled in more than space.