America’s assault on walking

Whatever happened to the good old activity known as walking? Doubtless the ease in using a car to get where you want to go is its principal cause. Add to the list, our addiction to television. According to the American Time Use Survey (June 2011), the average American watches TV nearly three hours a day. It’s just so much easier after working all day to adopt the couch-potato route.

I don’t know about you, but in America we walk so seldom that sometimes I have this paranoia about it akin to the way I feel when I bring cloth bags to the grocery store as a gesture to keep things green. Hey, am I the only guy doing this thing? What am I, some kind of goon? Hey, stop your staring!

But, then, walking can prove quite hazardous these days. Here in Lexington, Ky, we’ve lost several pedestrians to cars over the last several weeks, people simply trying to cross the street. Guess you don’t have to ride a motorcycle to invite danger. Looking for an adrenal rush? Can’t beat walking! In 2009, The National Highway Traffic Safety Board reported that some 4200 of our fellow citizens were bumpered into eternity, another 59,000 injured.

Doctors nonetheless frequently recommend walking as part of the health regimen, say 30-minutes five days a week minimum; and, oh, emphasis on vigorous. Strolling just doesn’t cut it. Damn! Why do they have to weigh me down with still more guilt?

I don’t know how it goes in Europe these days, but I have memories as a student there walking with European friends distances measured in hours, not miles. How far is it to Magdalen (an Oxford college). Answer: about a half-hour. I so hope the American paralysis, already widespread over there, has exempted walking.

It wasn’t like this for me as a kid. In Philly, we didn’t have this yellow funnel showing up at your door. I walked to school day-in and day-out over a mile going and coming in all kinds of weather and through all kinds of danger (not necessarily of bumper mode). I was hit by a car once, but I take responsibility for that, a 10-year old jay-walking kid not looking both ways.

On days off from school, I mean days I took off as a hookey addicted kid, I’d easily rack up miles that would test the limits of any pedometer, scouting the sites of the downtown city. On several occasions, I’d even venture walking over the Ben Franklin Bridge to Camden, NJ, no mean feat as any Philadelphian can tell you.

Just maybe behind our growing aversion to walking lies a value shift, or preference for insularity over the great outdoors. Gone are the porches that once fronted American homes. Today we prefer our stadiums domed, our shopping in sequestered malls. We ride around in our cars with windows rolled-up. Blame it on the rise of air conditioning, if you will, but the plain fact is we venture out less.

Even our children. When I was a kid, I couldn’t wait to gulp down breakfast and get to the good stuff like playing stick ball against factory facades in urban streets. Nowadays, more often than not, many of us have to oust our kids from their rooms, away from keyboards, video games, and cell phones, thrusting them outside. On a summer day, our streets resonate a Stephen King air of eery quiet in their absence of children. Where are the Jonnys and Susys riding their bikes, running down the street, playing hop scotch or jumping rope? Where have all the children gone? Long, long time ago.

For the few of us still mustering that evening walk, the same solemn emptiness as evening huddles in street corridors and, everywhere, a blue light emanating from house windows.

Our aversion to walking extends even to what wilderness remains. We want roads. We want even more of them so we can look out from our metal cages, while enjoying the boon of instrument panels that can nullify outdoor temperatures. As adults, we take our insularity with us in an umbilical cord of laptop, smart phone, and iPad. Our assault on walking is simply a facet of our declaring war on the great outdoors. We want our gadgets with us in our tents.

Now the wilderness is one thing. What we really prefer are parking lots. The idea is to park close and keep the motor running.

About RJ

Retired English prof (Ph. D., UNC), who likes to garden, blog, pursue languages (especially Spanish) and to share in serious discussion on vital issues such as global warming, the role of government, energy alternatives, etc. Am a vegan and, yes, a tree hugger enthusiastically. If you write me, I'll answer.
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