I grew up in a subdivision about two miles outside of “downtown” (caveat: there were and are approximately 3000 stories in the naked city of MyHometownVille). Needless to say, this being America in the 1970s and 80s, that meant we drove everywhere. I never rode my bike outside of the subdivision, not even once, and trips to church or the grocery store or anything else local meant a car. (That, coupled with the fact that I only ever had one friend in the neighborhood and that only until about 3rd grade, meant that I never snuck out as a kid. Not even once.)
And then, in 1995, one summer off from grad school, I got a wild hair to take a walk. I’d never driven point-to-point anywhere on campus in undergrad or at Vanderbilt, except occasionally for softball when I wanted to go eat first. So for whatever reason, I thought “it’s only a couple of miles, that’s less than an hour walk, I got nothing going on, let’s go see what’s up” and set out on foot to see what I could see.
It was strange, seeing everything at foot speed instead of whizzing by in a car. There were no sidewalks, obviously, but there was precious little traffic anyway. I took a circuitous route that added almost an entire mile to the walk, so it was nearly an hour from my driveway to “downtown”, going first through the subdivision and then through a backroad or two that called to mind a stretch of pavement laid down and forgotten entirely. I saw moss on the rocks under the interstate overpass, I saw weeds growing through the blacktop behind a National Guard armory, I walked all the way to the library which I hadn’t patronized for a decade at least. (A year later, I would repeat the walk and steal a coupon for a free Arch Deluxe out of their copy of Time magazine. You can take the boy out of grad school…)
But the thing that stuck out to me as I walked all that way was…I was committed to walking it out on foot. There was no question of catching transit at any point, because it didn’t exist (not that I’d ever used transit in my life at that point anyway). I had no cell phone, and wouldn’t have for another six months or so. It was me, floating in space untethered in a place that I thought I knew perfectly well but looked far different on foot at 2 miles an hour.
I hadn’t thought about that in a while, until I found myself walking in Cupertino last week at certification training. Cupertino is not a pedestrian town. There’s VTA bus service crossing in a couple of places, but by and large it’s pure suburb. There’s no such thing as “downtown” and never had been, although there’s a flashy new strip-mall “town center” development trying to be that. And for some reason, crossing Stevens Creek Boulevard on foot where there was no crosswalk and walking toward a Target that’s really more of a CVS with notions, I flashed back to twenty-some-odd years ago and thought about what it means to be on foot in a strange place, even if it wasn’t that strange when you were just driving through. About stepping out into an unknown that you thought was a known.
And it made me think some more about those days in the 90s, and about the course of your own life relative to the wider world, and how sometimes, the depression comes not from how shit the world around you is turning, but how good the rest of the world is going…and leaving you behind. But that’s an analysis for another time.