I live in Arlington, Virginia and work in Washington, DC and every day I walk about five miles, two and a half to the metro station in the morning, two and a half home. My commute takes me through a park, across a footbridge over Four Mile Run, through residential neighborhoods, across a highway. I’ve walked the route in the muggiest summer mornings when the heat is already beating off the pavement at quarter to seven, in downpours, in fog like cold sweats. I’m the one you glimpse through the slop on your windshield and think: that person is insane.
When my sister and I were first checking out the place where we live now, my sister asked our prospective landlord if it was possible to walk from the apartment to the metro station. The landlord hesitated, looked perplexed, and said, “It’s possible. But I don’t know why you’d want to.” She said there were places close enough to park. My sister told me later that she thought to herself, “Well, you don’t know, Alyson.” The first thing I did after we finished moving in our furniture was take the dog, and set off to explore my new daily route to work. I wanted to chart the path and see how long it would take to traverse, because I know that on foot, no two miles take quite the same time to travel.
I believe in traveling by foot. Miles traveled in the car always have the same rhythm and the same feel to them – you know if you make this light, you won’t make the next, you know where the traffic snarls up because of the merge lane no one is ever prepared for. But a commute on foot is different every day. Nothing ever just flows by; you are traveling slowly, so you have no choice but to examine what you pass – the box turtle peering at you from the gutter, the woman who runs every morning with her three-legged dog, the leaves coming very gradually off the trees. Fall starts a lot earlier than people think and when you are out every day in the thick of it you are the first person catch its drift.
With all those minutes and nothing to do but put one foot in front of the other, there are lessons to be learned. Carry a jacket that will keep off the rain. Wear shoes that are kind to your feet. Those muddy spatters will rinse out of your skirt just fine. They are addictive, these ideas, and sustaining: that no matter fierce the cold, you’ll make it if you can just hang on and keep moving, that there are an infinite number of things to look at around you, that human beings leave crap behind them every conceivable place they go, but that they also plant beautiful flowers. Through their windows you can sometimes glimpse their pictures, the colors they paint their walls, the things that matter to them. This is what you can’t see from the highway, what is lost in the speed of a passing car, and what keeps me walking. Day in, day out.
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