“If the weather were not too wet, one was expected to ‘save the penny and walk.’“– Noel Streatfeild, “Ballet Shoes”
The opening pages of my favorite childhood novel describe a scene that was all too familiar to me as a child: a brusk adult jostling a small herd of protesting children through the front door onto the pavement, with full intent to round them up, on foot, toward the destination of the day. In the above case, the adult doing the corralling in question was the novel’s unsung hero Nana; in my own, it was any one of the sometimes-stern, always-sturdy Grown Ups that got lumbered with Us Kids (collectively known as The Rabble). Come rain or shine, whether it was school/church/a Sunday swimming pool excursion, petrol was expensive and walking was free – so we walked.
Ergo I was primed, from a young age, to be a Walking Person, just in the same way as some people become Gun People, or Horse People, or Church People. My family has several distinguishing features – to include a signature chin, a penchant for alcohol, a knack for phrasing things uniquely – but the pinnacle of these traits is an entrenched commitment to walking. I often refer to the ol’ Longworth clan as “hobbits IRL” to facilitate a light-hearted visual for anyone who hasn’t met them, but it’s a robust parallel – and this is perhaps most true of our dedication to trudging from A to B, whether the weather requires a mere “Jesus boot” (that is: a sandal) or a good old-fashioned welly-boot (and in England, it’s usually the latter).
Let’s just say, I did my elders proud. As an adult, I walk literally everywhere. And when I say “I walk literally everywhere,” this is not an American, hyperbole-laced-”literally” – it’s a stony-faced, British ”literally.”
I’ll admit, I do Uber here and there – maybe once a month, if absolutely necessary – but, that aside, my sole mode of transport is the pair of size-sevens (fives, if we’re on my home turf) at the bottom of my shorter-than-average legs. I enclose them in a pair of rancid running shoes, I lace up, I stand up, and I let them take me where I need to go.
And I wouldn’t have it any other way.
There are lots of us Walking People in this world. In fact, this lifestyle isn’t foreign to literally eighty percent of humans on Earth. If I were someone who lived in a country that was not America, or if I lived in a major American city that was old enough that it hadn’t been designed around a system of highways – or one that boasted a functional public transport system – to say that I didn’t drive a car wouldn’t elicit so much as a batted eyelid. But (arguably) unfortunately for myself, I am not someone who lives in a place where trainers trump tires.
I am someone who doesn’t have a car, a driver’s license, or a solid recollection of whether the brake pedal is on the left or the right – and I live in Phoenix, Arizona. And let’s just say: being a perpetual pedestrian in Phoenix, Arizona is not a task for the faint-hearted – or the dehydrated, or anyone not able-bodied, or, ultimately, anyone with an iota of sense in their heads. This passion truly does err on the side of absolute lunacy, both in the modern American mindset and with anyone given the facts of the situation: a young woman navigating the fifth-largest city in the U.S. – that also happens to lie in the heart of the Sonoran desert – on foot. Phoenix is hot, Phoenix is expansive, and Phoenix is dangerous.
How I got here is a long story, but the not-having-a-car portion has a pretty compact explanation. My parents weren’t wealthy enough to put me through the requisite course of driving lessons necessary to attain a license in the UK, and I wasn’t bothered enough – given my firm grasp on public transport, as the British are so wont to do – to spend my own meagre income on such a luxury. After moving to America for good, I had a year-or-so of tentative immigration issues that hindered the Driving Issue – and past that, if I’m being really honest, I was just too lazy to learn. I liked walking. And I did not like the idea of being in control of a scary moving hunk of metal.
I was not, however, too lazy to get places. When I lived in the middle of the Mojave desert, I routinely walked the nine miles from my house to my workplace, with dogged determination, every single morning; if it meant waking up at 4 AM, I’d wake up at 4 AM, and if it meant walking through hundred-degree heat, I’d swelter through it. And now that I live in Phoenix, while I’ve omitted a lot of mileage between the places I need to be, I’ve also inserted a few extra hazards – flailing vagrants in a city with a flagrant vagrancy problem are fine, for the most part, but there have been a handful of times that have bordered on Sketchy-with-a-capital-S. And in both places, I’ve had to accept that Summer Is Coming – that is, I’m going to have to get accustomed to being perennially sweaty again come May.
See, as a fully-committed Walking Person – and yes, I am tempted to call myself a White Walker here because, yes, my skin is woefully unsuited to desert climes – I did, essentially, sign off on a lot of fine print that Regular People do not. I accept a lot of things as ordinary, things that might seem incongruous to ordinary life in modern-day America. In my case, being under the sun for approximately five hours a day means I have to accept that my skin will never, ever be an even color. I long-since ceased wearing makeup altogether – or, at least, I will embrace my skin sans-foundation until the day Jackson Pollock’s “drip period” starts inspiring beauty trends. I always, always carry a change of clothes. I never leave the house without a baseball cap, less for anonymity’s sake and more so because I would look like a snake in the midst of ecdysis otherwise. My backpack would make for a deeply amusing Cosmo-esque “daily essentials” feature, because I’m forever armed with anything I could possibly need while out on my feet, at any given moment. During the summer months, I add a little flair to my token North Face with a collapsible dog bowl that clips onto the mesh front pouch – I’d like to think it adds a pop of color to my personal summer It-shade (which, naturally, is black – because as with Regular People vehicles, black masks the dirt best).
I say none of this grudgingly, mind you. I’m aware that my left-field lifestyle isn’t for everyone – or almost anyone who wouldn’t consider themselves marginally unhinged – but the truth is: I love it. I love every second of my walks. I love departing for a trek before the sun rises. In my Mojave home, I loved the smell of the desert before the rest of the world woke up, and in Phoenix, I love seeing this car-friendly city from a pedestrian perspective.
When you walk everywhere, you notice things you wouldn’t from the driver’s seat – or any seat, for that matter. When you’re standing and walking about the world, you’re forced to notice what’s immediately around you in a way that isn’t possible when you’re checking your mirrors and worrying about the speed limit. You’re just a human as human beings should be: with two feet on the ground and a vertical vertebrae.
It’s a challenging way to live, but it’s also a deeply rewarding one. I may have a smaller world, but my world is an undeniably beautiful one nonetheless.
I get to be someone who forgoes road rage in favor of laughing out loud in the open air to podcasts, shutting out the thought that passengers in a passing car might speculate that I might be addled with methamphetamines. I get to be someone who doesn’t need to worry about the way I look because it’s a given that my hair is not going to be perfect, and I’m going to have a rim of salt around my eyebrows when the sweat dries off. I get to eat pretty-much-whatever-the-heck-I-want because my calorie expenditure is higher than your average crackhead. I also get to be someone who strikes up acquaintanceships with fellow passers-by, who – in Phoenix, at least – oftentimes are homeless, and oftentimes appreciate the smiles, the nods, and the pleasant hellos. And – well, I also get to forego an expense that makes me nauseous even to entertain.
The act of walking is – put simply – the simplest thing in the world, and I love the sheer simplicity of it with every fiber of my being.
I also love free stuff, so that helps. Ol’ Nana from “Ballet Shoes” got it right when she was banging on about saving the damn penny.
With that said – I do not, by any means, think that anyone planning on living a modern lifestyle ought to live a life as quietly extreme as my own. I do, however, think that the vast majority of Americans could take a cue from me, because being outside is important. And using your feet as a vehicle is very, very important.
If you take one thing away from reading this, let it just be to get the hell outside. Walk to the store you might have driven to. Walk the four-or-so blocks to your friend’s house. Walk to go get snacks when you’re feeling snack-ish and a perusal of the frozen section sounds like a good call. Wake up a little earlier and walk your ass to work, if you can, and if you work far away – suck it up and take the bus or the light-rail. Sum up your inner Frodo Baggins, and walk from stop to stop. Take the time to plot out time in your day to walk somewhere – time you might otherwise have spent sat on your ass watching trash TV, or sitting in unnecessary traffic when an extra ten minutes could have gotten you there seamlessly on the sidewalk.
Stop cooping yourself up and use the feet you were born with. You’ll feel a lot better for it. I might not be as wisened as my own greying family members, or Streatfield’s darling dowager, but as an eccentric Englishwoman I’d wager that getting the American populous off their heinies and out of their front doors/front seats might be a small step toward solving a heck of a lot of problems – and, on an individual basis, I guarantee it’ll make you a tad happier to boot. And whether it saves you a penny, an infinitesimal amount of your carbon footprint, or a few proverbial marbles – it’s most certainly worth your time.