Laura O Foster


Laura O. Foster

Author, Pacific Northwest guidebooks

Go Take a Walk

by Laura O. Foster

From an essay originally in Ink: Powell's Books Literary Journal & Calendar of Author Readings and Events

"Let's take a walk." What a romantic and optimistic thing to say. Take a walk, and see where you end up; take a walk and leave behind deadlines, tasks, and peeves. I get cranky, often, at our culture and want to run away. But walking transforms me, especially if I go alone. Crankiness evaporates at an exchange of "good mornings" with a man cutting grass, or when I pass the house with the chimney-turned-rockclimbing wall, or the house whose owners have collected beach rocks and built dozens of rock cairns in their yard. Free to be anonymous, and free to keep moving, I'm entranced by people and their properties. Such warmth, such creativity, such artistry! I fall in love with the world that an hour earlier I was cursing.

To me walking rates up there with procreation and eating as the purest of human activities. No one had to invent it. I walk not in specially designed walking gear, and not for exercise but because I'm curious about the environment, both built and natural — alleys, old cemeteries, parks, river beaches, and staircases especially. And I can satisfy my curiosity only by walking slowly, sometimes backing up, sometimes staring skyward for minutes at a time, sometimes squatting, and often collecting leaves, nuts, or rocks. I prefer a slow approach, moseying and stopping often to wonder at the work being performed by a distant crane at a port terminal, or to imagine the clatter of a once-thriving immigrant neighborhood now left in tatters, a single house here and there, a set of concrete stairs leading to an ancient cherry on a now-vacant lot. The no-man's land under freeways is a good place to find such treasures.

Walking allows you to turn away, briefly, from progress, a societal goal that I think has been idealized beyond its merits. Walking is a joyful, maybe even a subversive, act because it is so unprogressive. You're not trying to get anything done except to see what's out there. You stop to run a hand over the hand-carved blocks in an old basalt wall; you pull up on tiptoe to peer over a wall into a city garden; you surreptitiously pluck a lilac or raspberry planted in a parking strip by some optimistic soul; you marvel at the fresh faces of young, energetic moms and their gorgeous babies peaking from Baby Bjorn packs. Walkers smile at each other and exchange pleasantries that leave everyone a bit more connected and happy. You're not getting anything accomplished, except acting like a human.

Walking alone is when the world unfolds. When I walk with friends it's not about the walk; it's about talking. We don't notice the old school building with a sundial in the gable end or the secret public trail, the one an adjacent property owner is trying to hide by letting his shrubs grow. But alone on a walk, I expand. I listen to a string of neighborhood tales told by an old man pulling weeds; I stop to exchange hellos and find myself learning the political views of a Latvian man edging a yard; I get invited into a couple’s Shangri-la of a backyard, I permit myself some situational ethics by trespassing here and there for a better view, and I scratch kitties who are hanging out waiting for some action.

stairsA frequent question I hear is, "Where do you get the routes for your books?" Picking routes is the most glorious part of writing walking books. I start by a long and happy session with topographic maps, AAA street maps, PDC maps, and It's kind of like planning a vacation: so many possibilities. On the maps, I look for transitions: where flat land rises, where land meets water, or where neighborhood meets industry; and for streets that curve, and dead-ends that I suspect probably aren't. I look for unnamed green spaces (often Water Bureau property) that someone will probably have carved a path through. Some places have intrigued me for years, like the Southeast Asian Vicariate, which welcomed Laotians in the 1970s; old neighborhoods behind noise barrier walls on freeways, Willamette Falls, and any neighborhood with the word "heights" or "gulch" in it. I avoid obvious tourist places; they are covered in other books.

And then I start walking. Dead-ends are a thrill; a few of them turn out to be telling the truth, but many have a pedestrian-only portal that leads you past steel barriers or blackberry thickets to a path that lets you cut through the ordinary grid. Other favorite places are urban river beaches where I feel slightly alarmed about my solitude, or vantage points that provide an offbeat view of town, like LaView Street in SW Portland, or from a bluff above the landslide that is Waterboard Park in Oregon City. After each new walk, I'm ready to sell my house and move to that neighborhood, and the thrill of discovery lasts the whole day.

A weekly meander in a city neighborhood or nearby small town will feed your soul and give you the sense you just treated yourself to a mini-vacation. The French, wouldn't you know it, even have a name for it: flâning, and it's the perfect respite from America's fast pace and drive to accomplish. So subvert the expected; set aside one thing you think you have to do today, and take a walk instead. You'll be glad you did.