I took a walk today. Is that crazy or what?
I mean, seriously, is that crazy?
Before we consider that question with sincerity, I’ll say right off that I love taking walks. I take them all the time – every day if I have the chance. Sometimes my walks are long and at least a little rugged, sometimes way up in the mountains or on the shore of a lake. But usually my walks are not very far – maybe a mile or so – and cover familiar territory in my neighborhood. In fact, I have, in essence, a very well-worn path between my house and the nearest store where I do all my routine grocery shopping and whatnot. I don’t have all the leisure time required to take walks every day, but I find if I combine my walks with errands, that allows me to take more of them, and, at the very least, not feel as if I’m “wasting” my time doing so.
It started over twenty years ago, when I had a suspended driver’s license (another story for another time.) I wound up moving to a different state during the period of my license suspension, and was unable to get any limited driving privileges at all. So long before it was at all trendy, I’d every few days grab my heavy-duty canvass shopping bags and walk a mile or so to the grocery store, buy as much as I could comfortably carry, and then hoof it home again. And I grew to enjoy those outings; enjoy them so much that I continued taking them after I got my driving privileges back. Since then, I’ve lived in a dozen or so different homes in different parts of the country, some in big cities, some in sprawling suburbs, some in remote rural areas, but wherever I’ve lived, I’ve tried to establish a routine in which I can take frequent walks and do my errands at the same time. At a couple of the remote places I’ve lived this was pretty impractical; but most of the time it’s been great. I’ve actually come to dislike driving my car – at least on short trips around town – so much that I do as much of my commuting and errands as possible without using my car. And, I say with all sincerity, I love it. I don’t do it because I have to or out of guilt, I do it because it’s enjoyable and good for my body and spirit.
Oh, yeah, did I forget to mention that today was pretty cold? We’ve had some snow, which has melted and re-froze, leaving patches of ice everywhere. And there’s a winter storm warning in effect advising us that more heavy snow is on the way. One more good reason – in my mind – to walk instead of drive.
One thing I love about walking is that while I’m doing it I can let my mind wander. I’ll sheepishly admit that sometimes I even start talking to myself, and I have no idea how many people driving by in their cars see me doing so. When I’m walking, I don’t really care. That’s what I was doing this morning on my walk – not talking to myself but simply letting my mind wander. I took a slightly longer route to the bank to avoid a narrow stretch of road where there is no sidewalk and the snow is likely piled up right next to the road. This alternate route takes me through an area with some relatively small commercial buildings – some healthcare facilities, businesses, etc. As I was walking, stepping over the various piles of ice-covered snow and trying not to slip on the flat icy spots surrounding them, I noticed one business on a corner that I hadn’t noticed before. It was a land surveying business, which in that moment as I navigated my way down the edge of this non-sidewalk-adorned street (of which we have way too many in Yakima) stepping up onto the curb when the snow let me and when it didn’t being careful not to walk too closely into the route the cars would take (fortunately this was not a very busy street) it suddenly struck me as funny – or at least ironic – that I was, in that very moment, walking on a street designed only for cars past a land surveying business. I mean, who surveyed this land and decided there was no room for a sidewalk? Who decided to cut this land up into paved streets, paved parking lots, and box-like buildings, with pathetically small and un-natural looking little strips of grass between them? Who, in other words, decided that this land should be developed in a way that is deliberately designed to discourage one of the healthiest and most time-honored activities of the human race: walking?
I had to emerge from this little non-neighborhood and cross one major thoroughfare in order to get to the bank. As I approached, and saw all the cars and trucks whizzing by, and pushed the button so the light with the little walky-guy would turn white so that scores of large metal vehicles would all come to a momentary stop to allow one crazy pedestrian to cross, I thought about this weirdness. I thought about how weird it was that we design buildings, neighborhoods, even entire cities with the assumption that people are incapable of transporting themselves more than about fifty yards without the aid of automobiles.
And then I began to wonder if maybe I was the crazy one. Maybe, I surmised, there is something in human DNA (“normal” human DNA, anyway) that compels us to find the least physically demanding mode of transport possible in whatever time and culture we live in. Maybe it’s crazy to consider the burning of fossil fuels, the leaching of toxic chemicals from radiators and tires and every other device on your typical automobile, the spewing of exhaust and greenhouse gases into the air we breathe, the positive and negative health aspects of sitting on your butt versus walking, the effects of adding more cars and fewer pedestrians on human communities and the attendant alienation we suffer by seldom encountering other human beings but all too frequently encountering other metal boxes (how many times have you found yourself saying “I hope that car doesn’t pull out in front of me!” as if the car was a sentient being?) Maybe it’s simply unnatural to consider these things. Maybe the rational thing to do – and that’s how we define “crazy,” i.e. “not rational” – is to simply take the path of least resistance: Gee, I’m out of milk – I’ll go get in my car, apply several hundred amps of electrical current to some metal magnets surrounding a long coil of copper wire and simultaneously combine a combustible liquid that was distilled from oil buried thousands of feet below the surface of the earth half a continent away with lots of that free, invisible stuff called air and inject this concoction into a collection of metal cylinders assembled in some other distant part of the earth so that this fuel explodes several times a second in each of these cylinders, creating the power of dozens (or, better still, hundreds!) of horses so that my three-thousand pound box of metal complete with a heater, air conditioner, stereo, satellite navigation system, theft detection system, four-way adjustable seats and passive restraint systems (in case I become one of the thousands of people every day to get into an “accident”) can transport me through a blizzard of dozens of similar contraptions the whole mile to my nearby grocery store to get a gallon of milk that came from a cow. Oh, that’s so much easier than walking to the store – especially when it’s cold outside!
So yes, walking allows my mind to wander. Just yesterday a friend wrote something about mental illness on that all-too-common social media network, something that had prompted me to think about this idea of who’s crazy and who’s not. Even if there’s no objective answer to that question, this I knew as I walked to the bank this morning: some people think I’m crazy to walk to the store as much as I do, in whatever weather; and I, for one, think that most people who are unable to imagine life without their car are crazy.
Anyway, I got to the bank, went inside, and approached a familiar teller. We bantered about as we usually do, chatting about the weather and joking about how she wants a cut of my withdrawal or something like that, and inquiring how the other’s day is going. Then she looked at me, noticed my fully-zipped winter parka, my hat, and, I’m guessing, my slightly enhanced breathing, and said “Are you walking?”
To which I replied “yes.”
To which she replied – and I swear I am not making this up – “Are you crazy?”
I want to pause here for a digression: I don’t really want people to think I’m crazy. I guess I don’t care if they do, so long as I don’t know about it (like when I’m walking and talking to myself and people are driving by seeing this crazy guy plodding through the piles of snow on the side of the road babbling away to himself – so long as I don’t see them see me, then I guess I don’t care.) But when I’m face-to-face with someone, I don’t want to do anything that will raise suspicions in their eyes that I’m a little beyond weird or eccentric. That creates uncomfortable social situations. So in that moment the only thing I could think of to do or say in reply was to not laugh out loud. I stifled my laugh, and retorted with some nonsensical but seemingly non-offensive reply. Then, after a moment or two as she processed my transaction, I said what I probably shouldn’t have if my goal is to avoid uncomfortable social interactions. “Not as crazy as people who drive on days like this.” I said.
I expected her to giggle, or to at least roll her eyes and say something like “Yeah, right.” But she didn’t. She simply looked at me like – you guessed it – I was crazy.
Another digression: Did I mention that the bank I go to is not really a bank? It’s a credit union. And not just any credit union – it’s the smallest, friendliest, most community-centered credit union I’ve ever belonged to. I mean, I think it might be the smallest, friendliest, most community-centered credit union in the whole world. There’s only one branch – less than a mile from my house – and I think they have only about three employees or something – one of them being this teller. I’ve long been a supporter of credit unions and small banks, but I joined this one only about a year ago in response to the Occupy Wall Street movement. I joined it not only to take my funds out of the relatively small regional bank I had been at most recently, but in the effort to try to make cash – remember cash? – my primary means of financial transaction. I very seldom use my credit and debit cards any more. Instead, I take my paychecks to this one branch of this little credit union (often walking so I don’t use the drive-through) and give them to a human being (this teller) and request cash back after depositing those funds I need for the bills I can’t pay with cash. And I swear, after doing this for over a year I can say that I’ve never once had to stand in line waiting for my teller. On only a few occasions have there been any other customers in there, and when there is more than one of us, one of the other two officers who sit behind desks opposite the counter quickly runs over to help the other customer. Except for the look of the building, which resembles most other suburban bank branches, this is my grandfather’s bank. This is the Bailey Building and Loan. And I love it. It’s even better that I can walk to it easily.
I don’t think that this teller knows any of this about me, about why I have my account in this credit union. Maybe she doesn’t really care about that; to her, I’m just another customer to whom she offers her service whenever I walk in the door. I don’t know very much myself about why she chooses to work there, but I suspect, based on my varied history working in a variety of institutions large and small, and based on what I know about the seemingly turbulent banking industry, that if I worked in a “bank” which only had one branch, three tellers, and hardly ever a line of customers, I’d be worried about my job. And yes, given that the vast majority of people in our community choose to zip around in their three thousand pound metal boxes going to the countless drive-through ATMs owned by Bank of America or Chase or what have you, if I were in her shoes I’d probably wonder why people like me choose otherwise; why her customers choose a different path, a path that is more human than mechanical; more community-centered than individual; slower, smaller, and kinder than the path that the multitudes choose.
This is the digression that went through my mind as I speechlessly stared at her after I made the remark about people who drive being crazy. It just didn’t compute to her; she couldn’t relate at all, or see any irony in it. And this made me wonder whether she could see the connection I’m trying to make here: that the reason I walk my errands on cold December days is exactly the same reason I keep my money in the credit union that she and precious few others work in. If I’m not going to walk to the bank, I might as well just do what everyone else does and drive to any one of the thousands of drive-through ATMs around town and around the country, seldom touching cash or speaking to another human being to make my financial transactions. Her job can be replaced by a machine, and, unfortunately, probably will be someday – unless enough of us decide to forsake modern conveniences and efficiencies and take the time to slow down, walk the streets, support local businesses, and work with one another to maintain compassionate human communities right where we live.
I hope she understands that this is not crazy.