When we first moved to California, I was excited to live only two miles from the school where I’d be teaching. That and the fact that San Diego’s weather is gorgeous ALL THE TIME meant that I could walk to work nearly every day of the year. Grad school had put the pounds on, and here was my chance to shed them.
Little did I realize all the benefits and blessings that would come my way through my daily commute.
It was a chance to start each day in the fresh air and sunshine instead of the stale air of a car. The exercise cleared the night’s fog from my brain, and I kept pace with the music from my ipod. I would arrive at work in a good mood even if I hadn’t slept well, ready to face 8 hours of being in a small room with teenagers.
I started to notice things on my walk that I might not have noticed in a car: elaborate spiders’ webs hung with beads of dew; the first fuschia blossoms on a bougainvillea; red-tailed hawks circling the sky; slanting rays of sun piercing the fog on the hills. The smells were even better. There’s a tree full of purple flowers in our neighbor’s yard, and you can smell the musky perfume of those flowers when you turn the corner on our street. Sprinklers produced the delicate scent of rain on grass. The neighbors’ loaded fruit trees gave me heady whiffs of orange and lemon.
What was totally unexpected was the way walking to work would change my perception of the people around me. I realized that when we drive, we don’t really venture outside our own worlds. Our cars are an extension of our homes. The car is a sealed environment, and we’re in control of the temperature, music, conversation, and company. Unless we pick up hitchhikers (which I don’t), we don’t meet new people while we’re driving. When we get into our cars, we see other drivers as obstacles to our goals. They make us slow down or stop; they get in our way; we compete with them for space on the road and in the parking lot. Often, we don’t even see them as real people (and we yell at them accordingly).
Walking turns the people around you into community instead of competition. You make eye contact. You smile. Eventually, you start making friends. There’s Brenda, the crossing guard. We wave at each other every morning, and if I have time, I cross the street for a quick chat. She just started teaching her 16-year-old daughter how to drive, and it’s been stressful. There’s Olga, the big-hearted Latina who drives her three kids to three different schools every morning before driving 40 minutes to her workplace. About once every other week, she rolls down the window and cheerfully offers me a ride (because, ya know, what she really needs is 4 stops before she begins her commute!). There’s Joanne, the retired multi-millionairess who walks with a plastic bag so she can pick up any trash she sees on the sidewalk. There’s the elderly Chinese woman who doesn’t really know much English beyond “Morning!” but we always give each other big grins, because we are friends.
Walking to work has helped me get physically healthy, but it’s given me a much more valuable gift. It has pulled me out of my comfortable autonomy and helped me recognize other people’s humanity. I hope that I can take the lessons I’ve learned through three years of walking to work and keep the same mindset even if this fall I’m confined to my car.