November 29, 2013

I live in a western Fairfax County neighborhood that’s tucked between two busy roads. For years, it was impossible to venture beyond my subdivision on foot without risking death or dismemberment. There were no sidewalks, paved paths or shoulders. Sometimes, in a desperate suburban irony, I would drive somewhere just to take my daily walk.

Meanwhile, big new houses went up around me. Fields and farmhouses disappeared. Two-lane roads became four-lane roads. Fairfax County turned into an economic powerhouse.

I didn’t greet these changes warmly — until I lived with their unexpected consequences.

Each new housing development, each stretch of widened road — “amenities” I dreaded when they were proposed — came with a requirement that paved paths be built along their edges. At first, I was dubious about these suburban peace offerings, which showed up as silly strips of disconnected sidewalk that led nowhere. How much difference could they make?

A lot, as it turned out. The changes began when the road to our north was widened all the way to a shopping center and park-and-ride lot. Sidewalks appeared and, finally, we had safe passage along the busy byway. We could leave the car and bike the few miles to the commuter bus or, in a pinch, to the grocery store.

A few years later, the four-lane work moved south, past Franklin Farm, the mega-subdivision in whose orbit we circulate (and which is, like so many suburban developments, named for the thing it displaced). Now I could stroll to a swimming pool and a fishing pond, amble through a meadow filled with goldenrod and Queen Anne’s lace. It’s hard to believe that these places, less than a mile away, once were inaccessible on foot, so thoroughly have they become part of my walker’s topography.

The newest paved path runs next to a treacherously curvy stretch of road. When I first saw the bulldozers, I groaned, as I always do. But I wasn’t groaning for long. Yes, there is a bevy of “New Single-Family Homes from the Low $800s!” going up — but, thanks to those houses, I can stroll from my house to a view of the Blue Ridge Mountains in 10 minutes. It’s a view I didn’t know existed until the McMansions went in, and it never fails to capture my imagination. I can stand on the western edge of the newly bared ridge and look beyond the Dulles Airport control tower to the layered foothills beyond. I can imagine the slow, patient progress of pioneers pushing into the frontier — one path, one road, one clearing at a time.

I don’t know when I decided to embrace this place where I live. But it has something to do with walking the land, with learning, by heart and by sole, the roll and fall of it. The new paths have made this possible. They have changed my route, connected my neighborhood and, quite literally, opened my horizons. Most of all, they have helped me to belong.

Anne Cassidy writes the blog “A Walker in the Suburbs.”