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Original Essays

Go Take a Walk

by Laura O. Foster
  1. Portland Hill Walks: Twenty Explorations in Parks and Neighborhoods
    $7.95 Used Trade Paper add to wishlist
    "Portland Hill Walks is an excellent guidebook celebrating Portland's landscapes and neighborhoods. Laura Foster's detailed walks cover every landscape and every section of the city....Foster details Portland history and offers anecdotes on some of the more colorful residents of Portland's past, setting Portland Hill Walks apart from ordinary guidebooks." The Oregonian
"Let's take a walk." What a romantic and optimistic thing to say; it makes me melt a bit even to write it. Take a walk, and see where you end up; take a walk and leave behind deadlines, tasks, and peeves. I get cranky, often. 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 right up there with procreation and eating as the purest of human activities. No one had to invent it. So I eschew any kind of marketing toward walkers (except asking them to buy my book). If people walked for millennia on bare feet, I can live without air soles, tee shirts that wick sweat from my armpits, and microfiber pants that free my every muscle to be all that it can be. I walk in sandals, clogs, whatever looks good that day. Sometimes when I walk in the forest, I even take my shoes and socks off, which amuses my children. In town, I walk for miles in old jeans that a casual observer might say are too tight for my age, or if it's windy and warm, a skirt, so I can feel it whip around my legs. I wear a wool coat in the rain, not Goretex, which is just high-tech Saran Wrap, as far as I can tell. I won't buy "activewear," which seems to imply that if you're not wearing it you're sitting still; or anything with an elastic waist, which allows for intemperate food consumption; and I won't put expensive buds into my ears to enhance my walking experience.

I walk 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 once walked with the Mazamas, a hiking group I'd always admired from afar. But I was not brisk enough for them, and most of the group left me behind, a fact that's a tad more humiliating when you consider that I was the leader of that particular hike. They were in a hurry to get back to the clubhouse by 8:30 p.m. so members could continue on with their day's activities. Activities after 8:30 at night? I was slightly appalled. To me, the walk was a perfect end to the day, not just another event in my schedule.

The pace of the Mazamas and other sport-minded places like health clubs is so twentieth century. I prefer a slower 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 artistry of 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; they are just backdrop for our absorption in ourselves. But alone on a walk, I expand. I listen to a string of neighborhood tales (and politely extricate myself after thirty minutes) 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 permit myself some situational ethics by trespassing here and there when I want a better view, and I scratch kitties who are hanging out waiting for some action.

When I walk alone, I'm invariably stopped for directions. I love giving directions. I used to live in East Tennessee and when I'd ask for directions, they usually involved food: "Drive down the Pike a ways, turn at the White Store, and in a bit you'll see a Shoney's. Go half a mile and then turn left." Really, now, how is anyone to get anywhere with directions like that? For me, this lack of specificity and reliance on chain stores as signposts was a significant cultural barrier. When someone asks me how to get somewhere, they get north, south, east, and west, with a bonus explanation of Portland's street numbering system if they show the slightest bit of interest. There's a wealth of stories in the small specifics of life! One of the high points of 2006 was when I found a 1933 document at the Portland Archives that explained the story behind all those ceramic address tiles in town. I'd been wondering about them for years.

A frequent question I hear is, "Where do you get the routes for your books?" Picking routes is the most glorious part of writing a walking book. I start by a long and happy session with topographic maps, AAA street maps, PDC maps, and portlandmaps.com. 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 door 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.

I've tried the typical routes to happiness: redoing my kitchen, joining a health club, changing careers, dyeing my hair. All of them brought a measure of satisfaction. But take it from me: a weekly meander on a city street will feed your soul more fully than any hair job ever will. 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. spacer

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