The Case for Perambulation

If you are, like me, a claustrophobic extrovert, coronavirus is hitting you hard. Not the disease itself, but the trapped-indoors-ness of it – especially coming off the heels of a long winter.

Had this happened in January, I’d be toast. Thankfully, though, it’s mid-March (right? We’ve only been stuck inside for 3 days, and already I’m losing track of months – I just now squinted at an expiration date on a carton of milk, sure that March 24 had already passed), and so the world is open to me, to us.

This is a short essay in favor of walking. It’s easy to stay six feet from everyone when you’re outside, though all cute dogs must sadly remain un-petted.

 

1.

In Iowa City, there is a park that nobody knows about. I discovered it while out with two friends in search of cows, and have written extensively about it in another blog post: it’s a folly created by a rich man, a textbook magnate, who was obsessed with Walt Whitman. It lives behind a gate. Fortunately, on that first walk, we were persuasive enough that the man who showed it to us gave me the code that would open it.

I took my friend Cristobal out one day in late spring, disregarding the fact that Cristobal is Californian and unused to mushy muck. Still, he gamely followed, and that day, we went I think five miles through bramble and field. We marveled at the sculptures dotting the woods, sat for a while by Whitman’s Pond, and wound up in the runestones, which are older than Stonehenge and came from an island where pygmies live. They are all over twenty feet tall, though half of them are buried in the earth, and if you touch them – which you are allowed to – you can feel the marks of an ancient carving knife.

Copyright property of Todd Adamson

(Photo credit: Lori Erickson)

We sat for some time in the middle of them. The day was cool, cloudy but not overcast – bright sun was followed by shadow. We offered, I think, prayers to people we knew who had gone, the same people who might now be wringing their hands in the beyond, helping us stay safe. That place is closer to the veil than most.

Then we wandered back into town, went to a house party, and two days later wet-footed Cristobal was as sick as an Austen heroine who’d wandered too long on a moor. I still feel guilty for walking him into illness, but he’s assured me that it was worth it.

 

2.

On the first day of proper quarantine, Saturday, I set out from our new house, heading south toward the river. We live in Northeast Minneapolis now, a land of tattoo parlors and tattoo-removal shops and dive bars and railroads; it’s hard to reach nature, as the river is bounded by high factory walls and the streets are diagonal with tracks.

One of those railroad tracks, I discovered, was abandoned; it followed its healthy brother like a shambling corpse. I walked on its ties, one foot on each. I passed other people at a healthy distance of six feet, all of us in our own worlds.

Up ahead was a shadow, or no – a child. Or no, a man.

An adult man, poised on the railroad track, one foot in front of the other on the rusty beam, arms out, balancing. I froze. Suddenly there weren’t any people around, and he was quite large and doing something slightly crazy.

But I kept going, following the wood, because I could see the river up ahead. He was humming, his feet one after the next, his arms spinning. I hoped he wouldn’t look at me.

Then he did, his eyes wild with joy under a beanie.

“It’s quite difficult to balance, you see!” he said in a thick Eastern European accent.

I laughed. “You got this, dude!” I said.

He laughed as well and said, “I do!”

I stepped swiftly past, and then I was all at once in a park near the river, a place I’d never been, beautiful and good.

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(Photo credit: Family Fun Twin Cities)

 

3.

Miles and I used to live on Franklin Avenue, in a carriage house behind a mansion, halfway houses on the other side. It was a fun neighborhood for parties – the parking lot next to our house was large, and there were a lot of interesting places nearby, like Ice House and the sculpture garden at the Walker and Spyhouse and the MIA – but was not without its dodgy characters, so we usually walked together.

One morning after a party we decided to head to brunch at the diner. (Closed now, like everything as of noon, but it’ll be there in the future when all of this is over.) The route took us over the highway and into the city. We wended through construction sites and around half-finished corners.

Ahead of us, walking out of the diner, were two people who were blind, or blind enough that they carried white sticks.

The funny thing about Franklin and Lyndale, one of the busiest intersections in the city, is that there’s a school for the blind right there. It has no windows, like the Masonic temple on Hennepin, and an inadequate crosswalk. Still, the blind people must not have many other options, because you regularly see them on those terrifically busy streets, doing a great job of navigating.

From behind us, there came a noise: jingling bells, very Christmas. Miles and I turned to look.

There’s an arts center across the street from the diner, and two jingle dancers were approaching in full regalia. They had bells literally everywhere, and they shook with every step. They were gorgeous in the sunlight – yellow and bright and all in motion. We stopped, transfixed.

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(Photo credit: Evan Frost, MPR News)

The jingle dancers walked around us, and the blind people walked toward them, and the jingle dancers swerved around the blind people.

And one of the blind women stopped, her mouth gaping, and went to her friend, “What the hell was that?”

 

 

I think about that day a lot, especially in times like these. What the hell was that, indeed. It’s a lesson to me: however capable you know yourself to be, sometimes there are moments that just aren’t anything like what you’ve ever experienced before, and all there is to do is to stand open-mouthed on the sidewalk, wondering at the many ways in which the world can enlarge, or contract, so suddenly.

I wish we’d stopped to explain it to them, but we didn’t. We were too amazed by what we’d seen.

Dudes, we’ve got this. Let’s go out and be good to each other, reaching out across our safe distances to expand the world.

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