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Life at walking speed

June 1, 2006
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Life at Walking Speed by Gary Tetz
    When I caught myself pulling clothes directly from the dryer and putting them on, I knew life was moving way too fast.

I was dressing in the dim light of the open appliance door, standing between Fizbo's1 dish and the Swiffer2 mop supplies. My garments were going from dirty to clean and back to body directly, without ever getting folded or properly put away. It was pitiful, really.

Short of lying fully clothed on a wet rock and having a laundry professional beat me clean with a stick, then chase me until dry, I realized there were few further efficiencies to be gained in this process. So I determined to slow life's frantic pace in the only other way I could think of-by selling my car and taking up obsessive walking.

For those of you who spend your days pushing med carts up and down hallways or chasing madly after disoriented residents and irate family members, this probably doesn't sound terribly impressive. But understand, I'm not talking about a simple stroll around the block, a perambulation to the mailbox, or a casual lollygag with the garbage can to the curb and back.

No, this is serious walking-to the dentist, to the grocery store, to the bank, to the library.3 I avoid freeways and tunnels, choosing instead a bike path winding through a scruffy meadow populated with frightening numbers of hostile moles and rabbits.4 It's about a three-mile trek from my home to anywhere I need to go, and I tend to go there often. Rain or shine. Sometimes every day.

Obviously, this requires some coordination and forethought. Like a trip to town with Laura, Pa, and the rest of the Ingalls family,5 I pretty much have to make a day of it. An hour to get there,6 a couple more to accomplish my various missions, and another to get back. The simplest mistake in itinerary planning could mean sleeping on the street and returning home in the morning, or even in the spring. The pressure is intense, but the benefits are incredible.

For starters, the physical rewards are undeniable. I credit this new walking regimen with my rapid and miraculous transformation from sluggish and rotund to sluggish and rotund with very sore shins. My blisters are the size of Costco poppy seed muffins,8 and my hitherto pale complexion has been replaced by a vibrant color I call, "Wow, I'm really sunburned."

Walking has also made me more efficient. I no longer go places I don't really need to go, or see people I don't need or want to see. Behind the wheel of a car, such decisions are made on a whim, or with all kinds of guilt-based baggage attached. Walking in bad tennis shoes on a stormy day with a poorly attached hairpiece, life is reduced to the barest essentials.

Likewise, I've used walking to refine my social network, to weed out marginal or uncommitted friends. Without transportation, I can answer all invitations with, "I'd love to come, but I have no car." Those who respond with awkward silence or "Oh, that's too bad. Maybe next time, then," are summarily jettisoned. The friends who regularly deliver themselves Domino's-style to my door are the ones I keep.

Financially, walking has been a serendipitous godsend. Now that the price of gas has eclipsed wine,9 peanut butter, and joint replacement surgery, it represents essential family financial policy.10 It also drastically reduces those budget-busting impulse purchases. Never once, for instance, have I walked to town and returned with a 42-inch plasma television strapped to my back.

But the most important benefits I've experienced from all this fanatical walking are hard to describe. You really have to be there. I'm becoming addicted to the feeling of earth under my feet, sun on my shiny scalp, and fresh air against my skin. For at least an hour, the world slows to match my pace, and even the sound of traffic is peaceful now that I'm not in it. Walking quiets and disperses the screaming rush hour in my head and is the most effective mental decongestant I've ever tried-one I highly recommend to all of you trapped in the daily gridlock of PPS, HIPAA, or RUG-53.

Be careful, though. Walking can open some exhilarating but treacherous metaphorical possibilities. When we dash through our days at 60 miles per hour or 30,000 feet, most of us are really only interested in where we left and where we're going-what's out the window in between is just irrelevant scenery. At walking speed, you'll become part of everything you pass and experience, and the journey will be inseparable from the destination. The danger is that when you stop to smell the roses, you'll probably feel obligated to water and prune them, as well.

That's why walking should be required in our society. Planes, trains, and automobiles allow us to rush past and fly over unpleasant realities. Out of sight leads to out of mind, which among other things, leads to too many sad-eyed seniors sitting alone in nursing homes waiting for visits that seldom come. I know we can't turn back the clock, slow the rotation of the Earth, or all move together to Walton's Mountain.11 But we can resolve to live our lives at walking speed, noticing the needs all around us and pausing long enough to help each other meet them.

Speaking of which, I need a quart of milk. Can somebody give me a ride?