Making exceptions for the Ministry of Silly Walks, there are two basic modes of walking: Taking a walk and walking to get somewhere. Writers seem to specialize in taking a walk. Geoff Nicholson’s newish book “The Lost Art of Walking” has him taking long walks in the desert and makng one martini-glass-shaped circuit around Greenwich Village, with stops along the way for, yes, martinis. Will Self, in his Psychogeography series from the Independent, tries to give his walks a sense of purpose—he walks nine miles from his hotel near Chicago’s Michigan Avenue to a Wal-Mart on the West Side, ostensibly to buy a pair of socks—but the whole endeavor still registers as a conceit, a stunt. (He could have gone to a Walgreen’s a block from the hotel, but that wouldn’t have allowed him the room to ruminate on landscapes, economics and class.)
Out our way, there are some beautiful places to walk, but not a whole lot to walk to. You can go for miles doing a loop around ponds and through woods and past meadows, but if, like Will Self, you want to buy a pair of socks or a loaf of bread or a gallon of milk, you have to cross a U.S. highway or two and make due without sidewalks. As Ben Adler argues in this essay in The American Prospect, that’s a function of planning and zoning decisions that segregate residential and commercial space. “The way streets and neighborhoods are designed can make walking even short distances impossible,” he writes. I don’t have a lot of use for greener-than-thou New Urbanist arguments, but Adler is mostly right. It’s not so much that you can’t walk in the low-density hinterlands, but that walking ends up becoming a destination of its own. Sometimes you even hop in the car to drive somewhere where you can take a walk.
Somebody had the good sense to build some very nice bike trails and nature paths out here. But I wish they’d thought to connect them to more neighborhoods and downtowns and mini-malls. I wish all these swell walking places were attached to something worth walking to.
So, inspired by Nicholson, let me make a modest proposal: A martini-glass-shaped walking trail through the woods, with a few martini stations along the way. I’m picturing a few café tables set up alongside some pond or overlooking a bend in the river, people sipping a cocktail, admiring the plum trees in bloom. That would be somewhere worth walking to. Though you might have to stagger home.