Charles Dickens, who frequently traveled 20 miles a day on foot, presumably in both the best and worst of times, said that “if I could not walk far and fast, I think I should explode and perish.”
I’ve come to appreciate that sentiment during these COVID-19-cursed months. Two daily 40-minute walks have helped relieve the stress and monotony of nearly identical days, days whose purpose too often seems to be filling the hours between a 7:30 a.m. coffee run and the Law & Order rerun at 10 p.m.
Locked-down Americans have had to cope with unprecedented frustration, isolation, and boredom. Routines have ossified. In particular, those of us working at home have adhered to the same daily schedule for months, occupied the same claustrophobic bubble.
Consequently, we’ve turned with vigor to distractions like binge-watching TV, housecleaning, snacking, and, for many, walking. Surveys indicate the number of Americans walking for exercise has increased substantially during the pandemic. And, like me, many of the most avid new pedestrians are seniors.
A scenic walk, as Dickens recognized, can serve multiple purposes. The exercise is important but, according to a 2020 study published in Environment and Behavior magazine, an outdoor stroll is better than a treadmill session for lowering stress and improving one’s outlook on life.
For me, they help unclog the words and unsnarl the muscles and neurons. And, with access to so much limited, they’ve lent more wonder to the outside world. That was especially true in autumn. When the sky was blue and the foliage bright, the mini-hikes became welcome visits to Oz amid the pandemic’s perpetual Kansas.
Along the route, I’ve found signposts that, like some neighbors, I now look forward to seeing each day: the well-populated bird feeder, the secluded cul-de-sac across the road with its wide lawns and evergreen-lined entrance, and a Dixon Ticonderoga No. 2 pencil that someone dropped or discarded in the grass months ago.
That pencil has stayed put through snow, rain, and unprecedented disruption, a monument to endurance in this era of loss. That no passerby has removed it is remarkable for my persnickety Chester County neighborhood, where unattended dog poop or a stray Tastykake wrapper can fuel days of outrage on the community chat room.
My main artery is the 1 ½-mile asphalt fitness trail that winds like a dark river amid 191 carriage homes. It starts alongside a tennis court and passes through a broad, water-retention area that’s become a reedy haven for deer, geese, and nesting birds. Then it winds around a grove of tall pines before gradually climbing into thick woods.
Meticulously landscaped, the seven-foot-wide path is bordered by sugar maples, fire bushes, birches, a variety of evergreens, and tall, decorative grasses. There are benches and an inviting gazebo. And from its summit, the spectacular northwestern vista extends almost into Berks County.
Sometimes my wife or toddler grandson will join me. The walks are especially liberating for the 2-year-old who, due to the pandemic’s restrictions, has spent much of his brief existence in confinement. Whenever he hears the word “walk” — no matter the context — he sprints toward the door, reciting a litany of the outdoor activities he’s ready to pursue.
“Throw pine cones and acorns in wa-wa … See plane in sky!”
I sometimes pass another toddler. This tiny, fearless boy regularly tears down the path astride a miniature balance bike, often chased by his remarkably relaxed mother. There are sweat-soaked joggers, dog walkers, casual packs of strollers, adolescents for whom the trail has become a meeting place.
Almost always I encounter walkers older than myself, like Jerry, a spry, 80-something West Catholic grad who loves to talk sports, or the visiting grandparents from China, India, Pakistan with whom I exchange nods of greeting.
At one spot, there’s always a few fat pieces of chalk. Passersby pick them up and scrawl colorful messages. Typically upbeat — “Yahoo, 2021!” “Let Jesus into your hearts” — their tone occasionally darkened during the heat of the recent election.
Bird songs, wind chimes, and the distant drone of jets descending toward Philadelphia International Airport provide the soundtrack. But the best accompaniment is a good audiobook, podcast, or music. Late one recent afternoon I was listening to “One Minute You’re Here,” a new song by Bruce Springsteen, a fellow 71-year-old.
“Footsteps crackling on a gravel road,
Stars vanish in a sky as black as stone,
One minute you’re here,
Next minute you’re gone.”
In the song’s midst, a young runner rushed past me with a startling whoosh. While I was bundled in a parka, hat, and glove, he wore only sneakers, shorts and a shiny Under Armour top.
Perhaps it was introspection triggered by Springsteen, but I thought, for a moment, that he looked an awful lot like I did a half-century ago. Likely between 18 and 21, he had a thick crop of dark hair, was about my height, and was just as lean as I’d been at his age. And rather than the kind of dogged determination you often see in runners’ faces, his bore an expression of unease I remembered too well.
Was this brief encounter of age and youth some sort of existential metaphor about time passing me by? Life’s fleeting nature? Youth that galloped away?
They were interesting questions for an old man’s long winter walk. The music waned, the daylight faded, and as I headed for home, the runner turned a curve and disappeared into the darkness at the top of the hill.