Step by step she gets to know her town

Many mornings between 5 and 6, before most suburbanites are stirring and before the first commuter train heads to Boston, the Rev. Caroline Edge laces up her sneakers and slips out the door for a walk. As she strides along tree-lined streets in Needham, Mass., she savors the pleasure of brisk activity. She also revels in the chance to be alone with her thoughts.

Mrs. Edge, pastor of Carter Memorial United Methodist Church, probably knows this town on foot better than any other resident. Eager for a new challenge, she embarked on an ambitious midlife project.

"I thought, wouldn't it be fun to walk the whole town," she says. That meant covering 536 streets in this 12-square-mile suburb of 29,000 people.

At a time when jogging, marathons, and workouts with personal trainers give exercise an air of solemn intensity, athletes may regard walking as the sport of softies.But as millions of Americans, including many retirees, can attest, its rewards are gratifying. Just ask the peripatetic pastor who has been walking in earnest for a decade.

To launch her project, Edge enlarged a map of the town and divided it up. Then she began covering each section, walking 30 or 40 minutes a day. Back home, she marked the streets she had traversed. "It helped me to get to know the community," she says.

Beyond physical activity - what she calls the "aerobic quality" of walking - Edge finds intangible benefits. "It just clears the mind. Sometimes I'll be working on a sermon. I have done my research, but I'm not ready to write. Then things will fall into place as I'm walking."

Describing walking as "a time of prayer and reflection" for her, she adds, "Sometimes I won't notice people driving by because I might be deep in thought."

Yet she notices other walkers. "I'm from Mississippi. In the South you say hello to everybody you meet, whether you know them or not. I always greet people. For the most part they greet me back."

She savors memories of particular walks as she covered the town. Early one morning, a full moon still hung low in the sky, silhouetting chimneys and roofs. Other days mist rose from the Charles River, which loops through the town.

Edge also remembers Sept. 12, 2001, for the "absolute stillness" that shrouded familiar streets. "Houses were dark and TVs were on, much more than normal. There was a sense of people watching and wondering." She was struggling to know what to say to her congregation that Sunday, aware that it would be a larger-than-usual crowd.

"I thought about the various feelings people would be coming with," she says. "You're trying to go about very normal activities when all of this is happening about you. I'm sure this is what people in Spain are feeling right now. The walking gave some rhythm to that week that was so irregular in so many other ways."

Walking offered similar stability following the death of her husband, Bill, last August, after 33 years of marriage.

Edge spent more than a year crisscrossing the streets on her map. When she finished, there was no medal, no certificate, no celebration - just the private satisfaction of achieving a personal goal.

Today Edge's walking route keeps her closer to home, but the pleasures continue. "This time of year, when birds are singing their spring songs, it's wonderful," she says. She also enjoys seasonal changes in gardens, describing several on her walk as "just extraordinary."

As other walkers emerge from hibernation, sniffing the spring air and relishing longer days, most will never follow Edge's lead by exploring an entire town on foot. Yet they know that a walk just might be one of the best ways to begin - or end - a day.

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