Walking distance: How it grew, shrank, and grew back

At first, "walking distance" was two or three wobbly steps into outstretched hands. I was enticed, I found out years later, by a Hershey's chocolate kiss dangled just out of reach. Soon I was strutting nonstop, but my walking distance was limited by my parents. They scooped me up when I was headed for peril.

In the small town where I grew up, almost everywhere I wanted to go was within walking distance - my friends' houses, school, church (Sunday school and junior choir), drugstore (comic books), grocery store (errands for my mother), and the park (sledding and swimming). Since I was closer to the ground then, I noticed interesting things such as acorns, odd stones, milkweed pods, and the sky reflected in puddles.

When we moved six miles away, I might as well have moved to the moon.

The towns were separated by vast farm fields along a road with fast traffic and no sidewalks. It never occurred to me that six miles could be walking distance. Going back to visit was an expedition by car at parental convenience.

But everywhere I wanted to go in my new town was also within an easy walk of a mile or so. Later, I also walked to the local college - a two-mile round trip - two or three times a day. I never thought of walking as "exercise." It was always just getting where I wanted to go.

My first job after college, an hour's drive away, made a car a necessity. Then it became so easy to save time by driving the walking distances. To shed the day's tensions, I walked at night in my neighborhood, passing vignettes of life framed in lighted windows, encountering only a few dog walkers. Then there were two attacks on women at night a few blocks away.

I quit walking outdoors at night and began walking laps in the house - living room to dining room to kitchen. This greatly amused my family, who chuckled as I circled while conversing.

It also amused the cat, who crouched under the dining room table and ambushed my shoelaces when I passed. My track became visible on the carpeting.

Gradually, walking became "exercise," something I thought I should do but wasn't doing enough. I did the fashionable thing and joined a fitness center. My friend Arlene once remarked while we were driving there that "If we just walked there and back every day, we wouldn't need to join." But that would permit my excuses of "too hot out," "too cold," "too dark." It's open 15 hours a day and has weight machines.

On the indoor track, I plodded in aimless ovals, going nowhere, one-tenth of a mile per lap. Had I gone five laps or six? I kept losing count. There was nothing interesting to look at except the logos on the backs of the T-shirts of the people passing me. My walking distance was shrinking from boredom.

Today I'm still trudging on the track when it's too hot, too cold, or too dark. But now I'm back outside on other days, going somewhere in particular, perhaps heading for the library, post office, or coffeehouse, each about two miles, round trip. I'm waving at or talking to people I wouldn't encounter otherwise. I pick up an occasional acorn.

Sometimes, as an incentive to extend my walking distance, I make my destination a far-off snack-food store to buy a very small package of chocolate kisses.

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