The wind has bite, but the sun is high and indiscriminate on this early-spring day. Three blocks from the local high school, the usual choke of cars that idle on my street at 3 o’clock has disappeared, as has the noise that blasted from them. On the sidewalk, groups of teens who regularly parade loudly toward town can’t be heard. So much of the daily rhythm made by cars and people has stopped, and it’s left a quiet in my neighborhood that is both reassuring and unsettling to those of us who go for daily walks. But the walks themselves still bring comfort, if not because the world is quieter, then at least in response to its unnerving silences.
We’ve needed that for weeks here in the Seattle area, where the U.S. outbreak first emerged and where I live. The spread of the coronavirus has forced the temporary closure of schools, businesses and institutions, and state and city governments have ordered the public to shelter in place. Traffic has slowed on both streets and sidewalks. But this doesn’t mean that Americans aren’t leaving their homes.
In the days after shutdowns began to sweep the nation, visitors flooded national parks, forcing some to close temporarily to protect staff and prevent the spread of the virus. Over a March weekend in the Seattle area, hundreds of people crowded hotspot Alki Beach to walk, bike, play in the sand — despite statewide bans on large gatherings and recommendations for social distancing. For the most part, Americans can still freely get outside as long as they follow the six-foot rule. But that isn’t the case everywhere.
In Britain, the government announced a sweeping nationwide lockdown that restricted outside exercise to once a day, which police were granted the authority to enforce. France declared a two-month state of emergency, imposing still stricter rules: Residents could go outside for up to one hour to complete essential tasks and exercise within a half-mile of their homes, but they needed an official form to justify their outings. In states such as Washington and California, measures to flatten the curve have been comparatively less aggressive but nonetheless have involved shutting down all nonessential services and mandating residents to stay home.
Who would have thought that, just a few weeks ago, going for a walk would become such a luxury? Not everyone has the physical ability to walk, it’s important to note, nor does everyone live in a community where walking is a safe, feasible option. That was true before the pandemic, and it’s true still. But now, those of us who can get outside and walk, should, and not just because of the well-known health benefits, like lowered blood pressure and improved sleep. (Although who wouldn’t appreciate some better sleep these days?)
I started going for neighborhood walks when I lived in Chapel Hill, N.C. At 27, I had moved there for journalism school and had arrived from Seattle with plenty of grief in my heart and anxiety in my head. My beloved grandmother had died that year, and I was transferring as a first-generation college student, 3,000 miles away from my friends and family. I felt alone and hopeless. But it was a pivotal time for self-growth. Only after I began seeing a therapist and started going for evening walks, just to get out of my apartment, did the gloom begin to lift.
Chapel Hill was not what I’d call a pedestrian-friendly town. In fact, the South in general is notoriously dangerous for walking. But on paved trails I strolled. Along quiet residential curbs, I released my mind and let it wander. I paused to admire trees and houses, and nodded to commuters in their cars, gardeners in their yards. Without fully realizing it, my soul was connecting to something else, something larger than me: a sense of community perhaps, or a deep gratitude for the nature all around me, which grew and died and grew back again without a sense of scarcity or existential terror that had been haunting me. Exercise seemed irrelevant; it was more about finding space to contain all my wild emotions.
Walking sets our minds free, says Irish neuroscientist and “In Praise of Walking” author Shane O’Mara, at least in the moments we’re doing it. “Walking can allow you to escape yourself, and this non-ego focus is healthy. We should spend more time not thinking of ourselves,” he told Irish Times last year.
I have definitely felt liberated from the chaos of thoughts while walking, even in places like Chapel Hill, where sidewalks end abruptly and you must enter traffic, the only thing separating you from cars being a small stretch of pavement.
In Europe, walking isn’t just a way of escape, but a way of life in most cities, which were designed and built centuries before automobiles came along. Take Paris, a city that is demographically giant but geographically tiny, at roughly six miles across. The city proper has about 56,000 people living per square mile, about twice as dense as New York City, which has about 28,000 people per square mile. Getting around on foot is a practical matter, but Parisians also have a strong sense of pride in their pedestrian culture. For instance, after decades of increasing car use, as well as growing pollution and traffic, a concerted effort was taken by city government to “pedestrianize” city streets, to reclaim them for walkers and from drivers, and it has been successful: Since 1990, driving has dropped about 45 percent and cycling has increased tenfold. The city must be mourning the temporary loss of this ability to be mobile, because it was never just about exercise — but culture and identity.
Today in the United States, walking is framed as an acceptable form of exercise, one of the few activities we can do outside of our homes. It has never felt core to who we are as Americans. But at least we’re still allowed to do it, even encouraged by some. Maybe right now, we can get out and take a stroll and appreciate it for the simple escape it gives us. Just keep six feet of distance — and leave your worries at home.