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To Fully Observe, We Need to Walk

April 28, 2022 by admin

To Fully Observe, We Need to Walk

(Source: Unsplash.)

Back in 2013, I was on a trip in Idaho with two of our then-future Strong Towns board members, Andrew Burleson and John Reuter. After giving a talk in Driggs, we crossed over into Wyoming and stayed in Jackson. My plan was to rouse my colleagues early and take them on the 20-minute drive to the Grand Tetons, which neither had seen, prior to our heading on to the next engagement. I was really excited for them to be blown away.

Everything went according to plan and, after a short drive, we found ourselves standing alone on the edge of a snowbank staring at one of the most beautiful mountain formations in North America. I stood in reverent silence, taking in the sight with a certain amount of awe. For my colleagues, not so much.

This isn’t to suggest that they didn’t appreciate the view—I’m sure they did—but, if there is one thing true about both Andrew and John it is this: They love to talk. More importantly, they love to converse, to engage with thoughtful people in conversation. Whatever deep and stimulating conversation they were having that morning wasn’t going to stop just because I stopped the car, mountains or no mountains.

I had my moment of solitude, but it wasn’t a moment of silence. I love them both, but for an extreme introverted thinker like me, a week of travel with two extreme extroverts became a test of endurance. I spent many hours of that trip dozing in the back seat as the two of them talked about Strong Towns and a variety of related topics, seemingly without pause. I grew to love it, and it remains a fond memory for me, enough to overcome a moment of disappointment.

When people say that life is about the journey, not the destination, that Idaho road trip is my Exhibit A. Yet, the side trip to the Tetons was also about the destination. It was an amazing destination, but one we weren’t ready to fully appreciate. Subsequently, we didn’t appreciate it, at least not to the extent it deserved.

Chris Arnade, author of Dignity: Seeking respect in Back Row America, recently shared an article on his Substack called Why I Walk (Part 1). As is typical with Chris, the article was full of beautiful photos and subtle, yet profound, insights. If I can oversimplify: Chris Arnade walks in order to learn; to learn about a place, a people, and how they interact with each other.

(Source: Unsplash.)

I found myself thinking about the trip to the Tetons with my colleagues because Chris describes visiting the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. Iconic, it is a must see, yet the question remains as to whether a tour stop there captures anything more than could be had from a marketing brochure. Chris suggests that “it is a museum at this point” and that it feels a lot like other tourist sites we all have grown used to, with “tourists trying to do a quick walk through so they can check it off a list, and locals trying to sell you overpriced and silly stuff.”

Arnade went there, but he wasn’t picked up and dropped off in a taxi or tour bus. He walked.

More importantly, he walked there, back, and around, a practice and a journey that prepared him to learn about place, people, and community in a way that only walking provides. We can say it’s about the journey or we can note that walking provides an intimacy that automobile travel does not. Those are valid observations, but I think it’s something deeper. I think to walk is truly a path for discernment.

You can walk without observing. You can observe without walking. But learning about place, a people, and how they interact with each other requires both walking and observing.

As Chris suggests, walking “is being forced to watch the whole movie.” In contrast, being driven or even riding a bike is more like teleporting in. The context is lost. The preparation is lacking.

Christians (of which I am one) recently celebrated Easter, the culmination of the liturgical season of Lent. Over the years, I’ve had amazing Easters and I’ve had ordinary Easters. I’ve come to recognize that the quality of my Easter celebration has very little to do with what happens on Easter and everything to do with what happens in the 45 days prior, in how I approached the preparation period of Lent.

Did I prepare myself for Easter? Did I faithfully go on the journey that Lent presents, one of prayer, modest sacrifice, and neighborliness, or did I wake up one day and recognize that it was time to buy some Easter candy for my kids? Did I do the equivalent of being driven to the destination of Easter Sunday, or did I walk, carrying my burdens yet finding my joys in what I learned along the way?

When I reach Easter, I can tell exactly what I did to get there.

(Source: Unsplash.)

I share this all today because I’m more convinced than ever that, as Strong Towns advocates, we have to walk. We must take every opportunity we can to turn driving trips into walking trips. We have to walk so much that we wear through the soles on our shoes.

We can do it for the climate. We can do it for our health. We can do it because we are cheap, as our friend Mike McGinn of America Walks said back when he was mayor of Seattle. All of that is fine.

But we need to walk, and we need to do it with intention because that is how we learn. That is how we will arrive at the Strong Towns destination each of us are trying to reach in our communities, ready to be the informed advocate our places need.

If you walk, you already know what it’s like to speak with someone who doesn’t. They can’t fake it. Sure, they may exercise with a walk or take the occasional stroll to clear their head. It’s not the same, and you know it just by talking to them.

We have to walk. If you are an advocate for a Strong Towns approach in your community, be the person who has prepared themselves. Be the person who has put in the time to observe and learn, who knows where the struggles and the opportunities are. Be the person who not only visits the place, but has prepared themselves to appreciate all its subtlety and nuance.

Be that person. Walk. You can do it, and you’ll be so grateful you did.

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