We are living a very peculiar lifestyle, we get to experience situations that very few people have access to. The good and the bad, like walking on a disused railway track like iconic vagabonds.
It happened yesterday, when we took our much needed stroll to the grocery store to gather provisions, 2.7 miles away from where Tranquility is docked. It may seem far, but to us it is a reasonable distance to cover for food. Walking gives us a nice opportunity to see the places we are visiting, have sometimes meaningful conversations, exercise. It took us almost an hour to get there, walking in the countryside of the Delmarva southern tip, passing by a golf course, fields of cotton, horse ranches and a cemetery. The path was not well suited for pedestrians, but at least traffic was not too bad, and the mild and sunny afternoon was a special treat.
When I walk in America I always feel a little bit subversive. First I always notice that nobody else is doing it. I am of course not talking about big cities, or downtown strips where people walk purposely on sidewalks that keep them safe from traffic. In that case they probably just parked the car not far away or left the train to cover the last steps to get to their destinations.
I am talking about walking in city outskirts, suburbs, small towns and strip malls. As live aboard cruisers we end up in random places where we need to get supply, or just visit particular sites, and we don’t have a car, mainly because we cannot carry one with us onboard I guess. Everywhere we need to go, we go on foot, hire a cab or rent a car if that requires long traveling. And we feel strange. Drivers give you “the look” (a combination of astonishment, curiosity and pity ) as they pass you, some of them even press on the pedal trying to “rolling coal” or honk to acknowledge your presence. It’s no coincidence that roadsigns state “stop for pedestrian” rather than “stop for people”.
Walking is becoming more and more dehumanizing. Pioneers who once used to walk through plain and savannas are now regarded as “pedestrians”, somebody who is in the way of the traffic flow. If this sounds a little too dramatic just consider for a second the very basic concept of “Jaywalking”, which happens when a pedestrian crosses a roadway where regulations do not permit doing so. It is considered an infraction but in some jurisdictions, it is a misdemeanor or requires a court appearance.
What happens where there are not designated paths for pedestrian? Would that be a case where walking becomes a criminal act? “Jaywalking” is a clear sign that the road belongs to cars. That’s why we felt somehow safer when we walked alongside the railroad tracks, luckily not in use anymore. When we walk a random intersection we often ask ourselves if an officer would be entitled to fine us for Jaywalking. If you walk in America you know that it’s not always clear where you are supposed to step around intersections.
People we get to talk to always offer us rides or the use of their car out of kindness, when they learn about our walking intentions. But they are also concerned because but also because it’s not normal to walk few miles to places like the grocery store. It’s not just that, it is straight-out dangerous. Many times we had to explain that it’s ok for us, that this is how we exercise and add other reasons to motivate this bizarre behavior of walking. Plus, on our boat we don’t have very much floor area so walking is very enjoyable every time we have a chance to do it.
The lack of safe walking paths all along the east coast is discouraging. The more people stop walking the more trails and walking path are disappearing. I am sure urban planners like Kate would have sophisticated explanations why America is so badly designed for walking, but it seems reasonable to boil it all down to one main responsible: cars. Everything in America is designed around cars, the most important form of transportation, in particular commercial areas like strip malls, shopping plazas and such.
It’s scary how an urban design issue is deeply influential in how we think about society. When we were in Georgia (the place where I lived the longer in the US) the sight of a walker on the side of the road would trigger a big flag. I remember saying this to Kate: “Oh look at that guy, he’s walking (not jogging) the causeway… that’s a big flag over there” meaning that when a somebody in civilian clothes walks somewhere the reason must be a problematic one: a broken down vehicle, a homeless situation, too poor to own a car, a person up to no good. The sense of distress permeates these hypothesis as we drove by on our vehicle. “Can you imagine being there? With this heat?”
Now that we don’t own a car anymore our point of view completely switched. Now we are the anomaly, the vagrants, the subversives. At a certain moment, during our walk, Kate stopped and looked at me saying: “I feel weird, we are not supposed to be doing this”.
“You are right” I said, “It shouldn’t take us three hours to do groceries, it all should happen faster, so we can do more other things”. Time is a valuable resource, therefore it is better to do things as quickly as possible, especially moving, at the expenses of something that makes us truly human like walking.
Walking upright is one of the basic human characteristics, a revolution that boosted our survival skills allowing humans to walk faster and farther, facing up to spot potential dangers, and liberating our upper arms to accomplish more tasks. It is sad how today this is somehow endangered, how fitbits and other exercise apps had to be invented to force people to walk more, how it all became a workout and people can’t wait to go hiking during weekends, to regain the health we lost for not walking in the first place.
I like to walk, a lot. I think that together with sailing it is my favorite form of transportation. Walking is even cheaper, you only need a pair of good shoes, and that only if you are picky walker. Any shoes really would do fine. Walking is becoming more and more a privilege, regarded only to who have the time to afford it or to who live in communities where walking is possible and not a russian roulette played with cars.
Or to people that have no alternative, like us.