I’ve been reading a curious work titled In Your Stride, a manifesto of sorts in favor of walking. Written in England in 1931 by A. B. Austin, it describes the rapid changes of the rural landscape to accommodate the automobile—the widening of rural lanes, the straightening of curves, the paving of surfaces—and the influx of weekend visitors to the country and accelerating trend of rural peoples leaving for the cities (A road in is a road out, after all). The author doesn’t offer much of a solution, other than urging his fellow Brits to get out and walk for their holidays. But underlying this urging is the fear that the auto is changing something fundamental about the British life.
It is an odd and thoroughly alien concept for us Americans, these 84 years later, that we could walk any real distance. Indeed, that we would wish to walk as a form of transportation is no longer in our modern DNA. Our landscape has been on the whole surrendered to our automobiles. And that is even truer here in the country, where the casual walker is the commuter who has run out of gas, the “eccentric” who picks up trash, or the unfortunate DUI relegated to walking after an arrest.
It is, I find, one of the supreme ironies of our age that people routinely pack up their cars and drive hours to state and national parks for the pleasure of walking. Our cities, towns, and countryside, for the pedestrian, are like medieval castles walled off from the plagues of the outside world, where one can only visit at speeds fast enough to prevent contamination by contact.
I have long wanted to launch a rural walking society in which neighbors could walk the roads together, a rural ramble whose goal would be to reclaim the pathways of our communities. The sad reality, however, is that there is nowhere to go. The scale of the world we have created is suited only to fast transport. Any proposed rural ramble would have to deal with the paradox that most participants must drive to the start location, like those weekend hikers to the public parks, burning up the fossil fuels to get their dose of authentic nature.
A gathering of my neighbors walking to the nearest pub for an evening social would take three hours and 24 minutes. Then there would be the walk home. A walk to our good friends at Kimberly Ann Farms would take two hours, 32 minutes. Definitely doable, but the direct route involves a long stretch of state highway, not conducive to either health or peace of mind. A more scenic route, the old roads first designed for horse and foot, would take a mere four hours, 15 minutes.
No wonder that our rural ancestors visited for days and weeks at a time. The distance, the scale of the landscape, was so vast and the countryside so thinly settled that the effort of travel was rewarded with extended hospitality. Yet, a case could be made that the automobile decreased our overall social interactions even as it made casual visits more available, much like the introduction of the phone cheapened the value of intimate correspondence, while greatly expanding the circle of those we could reach. (And God only knows what texting or tweeting has done to further these trends.)
Still, I hope there is some value to reclaiming the old roads and byways of our country. That the pace of walking, “the eyes to acres” of Berry and Jackson, allows us to see both the beauty and the scars (to appreciate the former and correct the latter). That that slower pace encourages a neighborly word instead of the short wave from a speeding car. That a regular excursion by foot might nurture our sense of civic space in both town and country. That it might not only slow the clocks but ultimately provide the courage to throw them away.
Then, if we are diligent and lucky, the distance between farms will not be measured in time but in anticipation of both the journey and friendship at journey’s end. And perhaps we will find that we have enlarged our world by the simple act of reducing its scale.
Farewell to my cousin, Lynne Yeomans Craver. You were an elegant balance of joyful living and service to family, friends and community.