Atlanta Urban Walking Trilogy

On Memorial Day weekend I finished an urban walking trilogy. One morning in 2017 I set out to walk 19 miles from the heart of downtown out east to the top of Stone Mountain. I had toyed with the idea for a while, and figured one morning, what the heck. Why not? As soon as I finished, I thought about where else I might go. In 2018, it was 23 miles out northwest to Kennesaw Mountain’s summit. This year, I did a little morning 13-miler down to the airport.

Most of the time on these walks, it’s not really enjoyable. The streets and highways aren’t friendly for pedestrians. The sun bears down on you. Hard sidewalks (when they exist) make my feet hurt. I walk past industrial parks, encampments for those with no other place to sleep, empty lots, next to 4-lane highways, underneath interstate overpasses, past strip malls, past front porches. I feel kinda scummy and outcast, especially when just starting out. But eventually there’s a sense of place I develop, connecting the pieces, filling in the gaps, that I don’t get in other ways. And there’s a satisfaction of looking back to where I came from, and knowing what’s in between.

Like most dumb Type 2 fun I do, I’m… not exactly sure… why? But when I get ideas, and wonder what-ifs, and they don’t go away, it’s usually best to try to give them life.

Why Walking Helps Us Think

When we choose a path through a city or forest, our brain must survey the surrounding environment, construct a mental map of the world, settle on a way forward, and translate that plan into a series of footsteps. Likewise, writing forces the brain to review its own landscape, plot a course through that mental terrain, and transcribe the resulting trail of thoughts by guiding the hands. Walking organizes the world around us; writing organizes our thoughts.

– Ferris Jabr.

There are two ways of walking through a wood. The first is to try one of several routes (so as to get out of the wood as fast as possible, say, or to reach the house of grandmother, Tom Thumb, or Hansel and Gretel); the second is to walk so as to discover what the wood is like and find out why some paths are accessible and others are not. Similarly, there are two ways of going through a narrative text.

“Night Walks” by Charles Dickens

For a while there, Charles Dickens was suffering from insomnia, so he took up walking “houseless” around London until the sun came up. A great portrait of a city and state of mind:

The restlessness of a great city, and the way in which it tumbles and tosses before it can get to sleep, formed one of the first entertainments offered to the contemplation of us houseless people. It lasted about two hours. We lost a great deal of companionship when the late public-houses turned their lamps out, and when the potmen thrust the last brawling drunkards into the street; but stray vehicles and stray people were left us, after that. If we were very lucky, a policeman’s rattle sprang and a fray turned up; but, in general, surprisingly little of this diversion was provided. […]

At length these flickering sparks would die away, worn out–the last veritable sparks of waking life trailed from some late pieman or hot-potato man–and London would sink to rest. And then the yearning of the houseless mind would be for any sign of company, any lighted place, any movement, anything suggestive of any one being up–nay, even so much as awake, for the houseless eye looked out for lights in windows.

“Night Walks” by Charles Dickens

Each time he took a walk, he felt as though he were leaving himself behind, and by giving himself up to the movement of the streets, by reducing himself to a seeing eye, he was able to escape the obligation to think, and this, more than anything else, brought him a measure of peace, a salutary emptiness within… By wandering aimlessly, all places became equal and it no longer mattered where he was. On his best walks he was able to feel that he was nowhere.

Since I moved a couple weeks ago from sub-suburban Atlanta to closer to the heart of town, my walk score went from 3 to 77. And what’s more, there’s the x-factor of actually having sidewalks.