When I applied to the course, I discussed how walking had previously been a very individual practice. I wrote:
For me, for me, for me, though. That’s why I want to take this course. When I think about walking, I think about the way that it has calmed me, or transported me or delighted me. But I want to explore the power of what is shared and exchanged with others through walking. Do the meditative qualities of walking function similarly with a group? Are there different qualities instead? What is fundamentally different about a walk shared with others?
And even though the New York City component of the course was meant to involve solitary walks, I didn’t take any alone. The course overlapped with a busy, far-more-social-than-normal period of my life.
My friend Marianne from Berkeley, California was visiting me when I had the introductory meeting, and ended up tagging along. The first week’s walk found me in Ithaca, where I had driven up with my brother and two friends to visit Amy, my oldest friend, who I’ve known since I was six months old. I walked with them all through the town of Ithaca, through an enormous book sale and through autumnal gorges. The next week, I pondered vacancy with my good friend Katy, and miles later, we were further from a definition of vacancy than when we began. I was late for my next walk because I’d been out of town in Cambridge, Massachusetts during the weekend (and it had been pouring, and then snowing for the first time), and so Monday night, I walked through Times Square and the Hudson River piers with a friend I hadn’t even known when the course began. (When we first met, we’d conversed about this very walking course.) And then the final walk, my birthday, 17 people joined me on an 11 mile trek across Brooklyn. Some, I’d known for 25 years. Some I met that morning. And even in my home town, I was traveling.
So I never walked alone. It seems obvious that this would happen, as I write this on the train home from yet another scheduled weekend away–this time, a wedding in Washington, D.C. But it clearly didn’t seem obvious to me in early October, as I quietly wrote the application essay for the course. In some ways, it seems that the new more social version of my life is a result of some of these walks, that this is the new normal.
An hour from Penn Station now, for the first time in months, I don’t have my next ticket out of New York City; for the first time since the spring, I don’t know what I’m doing next weekend. Usually after periods of intense socialization, all I want to do is be alone, to walk alone frequently. But this time, I’m inspired to continue being with people.
Even though the time has been filled with friendships new and old–with people who I know I can depend on, and who I’ve been learning I can rely on–I’ve consistently been surprised that people have been willing to–excited to–join me on hours-long walks for a walking course they didn’t exactly understand. But what I’ve learned is that I shouldn’t be surprised; when you’re enthusiastic about something, passionate about it, people want to join.
And so my recommendation for the final exchange is that people find friends or family or people from different parts of their lives (walks of life, I’d say, but that would be wince-worthy), and plan a long walk that involves these people in some way.
Some of the walkers danced in the middle of floor until 1am, drinking artisanal beer, snacking on salty meats. Others reclined on my bed as if they lived there–as guests tend to do in my one room studio, where you’re always in my bedroom, my living room, my kitchen, my foyer, my atrium–splayed out as though they were in an orientalist painting of an opium den. Which was the reasonable response, far more reasonable than dancing, after such a long walk. And yet, after 11 miles on Bedford Avenue, Brooklyn’s longest street, we danced.
In a tiny room filled with nearly 40 people celebrating my birth, those who hadn’t walked 11 miles–those who had no excuse not to dance–asked those of us who had, “What did you see on your walk?”
Maybe it was the adrenaline and exhaustion, maybe the artisanal beer providing too great a proportion of my hydration, but I found it a hard question to answer. We had seen lawns that looked like miniature golf courses. We had seen a gorgeous Art Deco Sears. We’d feasted on baclava and Turkish coffee at the start, spaetzle and beer at the finish. We’d seen neighborhoods change a few times, and seen too few options for food in the opening miles, as the baclava’s sugar had been digested miles ago and hunger built block by block. We’d watched Jewish children celebrate the end of Shabbat in Williamsburg, we’d marveled at the dystopian housing project where Ebbot’s Field used to be, we’d gawked at the beauty of Eastern Parkway. We’d eaten tacos and apples and potato chips. We’d looked for Thomassons, and found a few. We’d taken photographs of beauty on disposable cameras I haven’t yet developed, and some immediate pictures, too.
Yet none of these elements could rightly receive attribution for what the day had been. At a party whose warmth surpassed my friendship with and love for any given attendee, I was being asked about a journey that was greater than any one of its elements. I had thrown myself a gestalt-themed birthday party.
17 people had walked with me for 11 miles as I celebrated turning 28 on a Saturday, wondering if, when my next Saturday birthday came along, I’d have the energy to do the same thing. 11 began in Sheepshead Bay in the morning (and 3 had joined me at my house to take the subway out). But I think, if any given moment could capture the beauty of that day that has energized me so completely one week out, it would be this:
Walking in a group of people I love, and seeing, a few blocks away, yet another person who was there, ready to join in. Knowing that if I stopped where I was, with the people I was with, I’d be happier than I ever could have hoped. But if I kept walking, just a few more blocks, a few blocks more perhaps, even more was waiting.