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Taking to The Street

Overcoming our fear of walking

By Phoebe Kosman

Vanserg is in Siberia. The Quad is the Gulag. You can’t ascend William James without a Sherpa. Our dinnertime conversation bears a passing resemblance to that of late-Victorian British adventurers as it degenerates into how-far-afield-have-you-gone games of one-upmanship: You had section in the Science Center? Well, I just got back from the Center for European Studies. You’ve got class in Lowell Lecture Hall? I don’t want to hear about it; I had to go to office hours in Hilles. Granted, late-Victorian British adventurers were probably more stoic.

And in a phenomenon that is peculiar, given the centrality and relative safety of Harvard’s campus, we devote as much time to avoiding walking as we do to complaining about how far we’ve been obliged to walk. We memorize shuttle schedules and keep the shuttle’s number in our cell phones. We are not above taking taxis to the Quad. On weekend nights, hordes of inadequately-clad undergraduates throng the Johnston Gate shuttle stop.

Why are we so reluctant to walk anywhere? Despite the rash of recent assaults, walking remains safe even at night: SafetyWalk’s reincarnation as the Harvard University Campus Escort Program means that no one need walk unaccompanied. Walking isn’t physically demanding, either, and we are in the bloom of our youth anyhow. Our hesitancy to walk seems instead to be a side-effect of our late-20th-century upbringing. We come, many of us, from a sidewalk-less, SUV-saturated suburbia that is famously inhospitable to walkers. Acquiring our cars was a rite of passage; our high schools were flanked by expanses of asphalt. Most of our walking was done at saunter, as we described long, lazy circuits of the mall. In my hometown, walking seems a dangerous eccentricity; when, at home over winter break, I walked to the end of Main Street, a high-school classmate I hadn’t seen in years pulled over to ask in concerned tones whether I needed a ride. Pundits seeking to explain what they’ve recently taken to calling America’s obesity crisis blame our sedentary habits.

But unlike our hometowns, Cambridge and Boston invite walkers. The brick sidewalks, despite their unfortunate tendency to capture kitten heels, are wide and well-kempt. The walk from Harvard to Central Square reveals an attractive, (slightly) more raffish side of Cambridge; in Boston, walks around the Common and Public Garden are rewarded with views of the golden dome of the Statehouse and of the swan boats.

Admittedly, walking lacks glamor; on the coolness scale of leisure-time activities, it ranks somewhere between pinochle and shuffleboard. When you try to conjure a mental image of a walker, you do not see Britney Spears. You see an Englishwoman of a certain age wearing oxfords and a shapeless cardigan, carrying a birding book and a pair of binoculars. It’s also true that history’s more famous walks—like that of Captain Laurence Oates who, crippled by frostbite and concerned he was weighing down Robert Falcon Scott’s Antarctic expedition, told his comrades “I am just going outside and may be some time” before striding off into a blizzard and death—are not ones you’d want to emulate.

Despite these liabilities, though, walking yields real pleasure. There’s something primal about it: the extension of the long muscles of your thighs, the swing of your knee’s hinge, the kick at the apex of your stride, the roll of your foot’s fine, differentiated bones against the pavement. Walking allows you to think: Charles Dickens, I read once, often walked 20 miles a day and would come back brimming with new characters, dialogue and melodrama. And Dickens did it in the days before really comfortable footwear. Too, walking provides a friendly view of the world. When you walk you often feel as manically neighborly as a Sesame Street extra. “Hello!” you want to cry to children being trundled past in strollers. Thoughtful merchandisers have adjusted window displays to your eye level; would-be Byrons nursing cups of coffee behind coffee shops’ plate-glass windows brood up at you. You hear bizarre, beautiful snatches of conversation. You receive unsolicited advice intended for other people. Sometimes you exchange smiles with strangers. If you take a walk now, you can find signs spring is coming: snowdrops, the firm green tips of daffodils poking through the snow. The shuttle offers none of these advantages.

So as the snow finally melts, stretch your legs. Strike out for Porter or for Central or just for the Quad. Make a gratuitous trip to Vanserg, and when you tell your friends about it at dinner, don’t make it sound as though it were a martyrdom. Spring came Saturday morning; you’ll see it best from the sidewalk.

Phoebe Kosman ’05 is a history and literature concentrator in Winthrop House. Her column appears on alternate Mondays.

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