[S]ometimes I have stolen forth for a walk at the eleventh hour of four o'clock in the afternoon, too late to redeem the day, when the shades of night were already beginning to be mingled with the daylight, have felt as if I had committed some sin to be atoned for. Henry David Thoreau
Sometime around 1875, my great grandfather, Alphonse Aqualino, left the orphanage in the Jewish ghetto in Rome, stowed away on a ship bound for America, expecting to arrive in New York. The ship made port, however, in the south. New Orleans probably? He didn’t hop a train or get on a bus, nor hail a cab. Alone, at the age of twelve, my great grandfather walked to New York City.
Years later, he told his grandson, my father, “It’s a good thing it was autumn. The apple trees were full of fruit. That’s how I survived. It was a little rough at first, but I got used to it.” (We are a people who like to eat.) That's pretty much the only thing he said about his sojourn.
My great grandfather who loaded his pockets with candy to satisfy his fondness for sweets, become the foreman of his bricklayer’s union, was a Manhattan pinocle champ, shared that candy with his young grandson.
All four of my grandparents: my wrought-iron worker Italian grandfather, my pull-the-family-through-the-depression through hat and jewelry-making Italian grandmother, my Irish grandmother who was foreman of a munitions plant during W.W.II and my Irish fireman grandfather were all walkers but not necessarily by choice. (Not only do I come from walkers but workers.) Walking was pretty much how one got around. It makes me sad to think how something that basic to daily life has been pretty well lost to us, and over such a short period of time.
I think if more people walked to and from more places and walked just to walk, we’d all be better off. Walking slows a person down. Jules Renard said, “Walk. The body advances, while the mind flutters around it like a bird.” The mind needs a little fluttering time, to be unglued from it’s zippity-do-da pace of “I’ve got to get this done! It is so important!” When out walking I find it less easy to attempt to be in more than one place at a time. It’s so damn compelling to be exactly where I am.
My mother was a walker. From the time I could keep up I walked with her. And it was no walk in Ft. Tryon Park either! The Manhattan sidewalks were our turf. I had to hold onto my hat and move my little girl feet double-time. My mother did most everything fast—from typing to eating to cooking but walking, most of all. And, effortlessly, in high heels. (Lucky for me, she didn’t sing lullabies fast, nor did she read more quickly than served the poem or story.) Also, lucky for me, our New York City walks always took us someplace good: Schrafts, the Automat, the ballet, Bernstein’s concerts for young people, the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
My father came to walking later in his life. When he got a job as a proctor at UCSC, he patrolled Stevenson College nightly. I’ll bet he holds the record for human beings getting skunked! He’s never walked quickly though. At work he always smoked a cigar wherever he went.
Michael—not of my blood lineage, but of my heart—is a true walker. I think he was born with boots on. Here’s a guy who’ll drive 5 hours, walk for 12 miles and the next morning, up at 10,000 feet, walk 18 miles! The last time we walked together at such elevation, I had to spend two days at camp suffering from an altitude induced migraine. That was it for my backpacking days.
Walking wasn’t my first choice for exercise. It used to be make my feet unbearably hot and unhappy—my feet felt trapped and got impatient in hiking boots. And walking is slow compared to biking, my favorite method of ambulation. On my 48th birthday I rode 100 miles alone on my beautiful bicycle. Michael arrived whooping exactly as I dreamed he would, scooped me and my bike up and carried us home. At age 50 I rode another 100. But that, for now, anyway, is that. My body and riding are on the outs.
Every time, like this afternoon, that I set my feet onto the path and slow down to a contemplative pace, I give thanks the whole way. I’m thankful for the sweat dripping down my back, for every curve in the trail and each unexpected thing, from vista to quivering leaf. I’d eat dirt, if I had to, in order to walk these trails, to feel the wind in my hair and the vitality of air filling my oxygen-thirsty lungs, to feel my heart’s exuberance, my feet firmly claiming their place on terra firma.