Wednesday, August 14, 2013

A Life on Foot

 Sole Survivor

Sartre famously asserted that hell is other people. For me hell is other people telling me I really need to learn how to drive. Any statement beginning with the words “you really need to” is bound not to go over well with me anyway. But I guess there are so few life choices one can safely give a person a hard time for these days, non drivers like myself will just have to put up with the persistent patronizing attitude of a certain percentage of drivers, safe in our knowledge that when the apocalypse hits, and all the car batteries die at once, we will already be walking home from the store loaded down with provisions.

 Cats Yes, Children No

A long time ago I came up with a short list of things I would never do.  This list included items of varying degrees of certainty, given changing times and needs and opportunities, and ranged from the practical to the deeply personal. I knew quite young for instance that I would never have children. Cats, yes, children no. Until recently people who considered a life without children as somehow inferior were almost as insufferable to deal with as people condemning a life without a driver’s license.  Nowadays, people have learned to lay off that particular life choice, just in time for it to be for me a biological moot point. 

I also vowed never to be on Facebook or own a cellphone. Okay, you win some you lose some.  That leaves never using luggage with wheels and never driving a car, and those I am sticking with to the not at all bitter end. The day you see me rolling my belongings behind me at the airport instead of carrying them, you have permission to put me inside the suitcase and wheel me to the cemetery. When I haul my dufflebag through airport terminals and train and bus stations, do I approach all the wheelers and say “you really need to learn how to pack light enough and exercise more so you can carry your own luggage?” No. That is not, pardon the pun, how I roll. 

 How I Roll

There are a lot of things I never learned how to do. I am sure anyone reading this has quite a few of their own. By this time in my life, if I have not gone ahead and learned them, it is probably because, like Bartleby, I prefer not to. Maybe I did not have the resources or opportunities at some point, but most likely now it’s lack of need and interest, plain and simple. It is certainly not for lack of the right teacher. And if it were, it is kind of arrogant to think it is you I have been waiting all of this time for, or that your interests are my interests, or that your necessities are mine either. I am not an “oh I always wanted to do that!” kind of gal. Generally I don’t wait to act on my desires.  Which is why my blood boils when the statement following “you really need to learn how to…” is almost always a superficially kindly but oh so deeply condescending “it’s easy! I’LL teach you!”


Do I look sound or act like I have lived 50 years in a state of avoidance, fear, ignorance, repression, frailty, dependence or whatever, just to arrive at this liberating moment when I would finally fulfill my lifelong dream to learn to drive a car? Because of you?  Drive a car I will not;  drive this point home and possibly into the ground, I shall. Let’s get the facts straight. I grew up in New York City, where, for the most part, people don’t so much question the pedestrian lifestyle. It’s the city, you really have to work hard to establish a deviant behavior worthy of notice and besides NYC is a walker’s paradise. Not only is it a pain in the ass to keep a car, you don’t even have to rely on the ridiculously convenient bus train and taxi options, you can hoof it just about anywhere, and if you are like me, you enjoy it so much eventually you consider clocking 5 miles just getting around part of your regular daily routine.  If you are really like me, this love of covering distances on foot turns into a passion for hiking and ultimately marathon and ultramarathon events that put you more in touch with your quintessential human self than you could ever imagine. You don’t train for 26 miles in Maui at 90 degrees and 90 percent humidity by riding in an air conditioned car all summer. But I digress.

 And I carried a backpack the whole way

Not having a car or driving knowledge living in Manhattan worked just fine for me for forty years. My life was full, believe me. When I moved to the Boston area in 2002, I continued my non-driving ways and that too worked just fine. Occasionally a driving friend was enlisted to get me somewhere when there were no other options, but 99% of the time all my necessities could be met on foot. I ate less and chose more wisely because I could only eat what I could carry home from the supermarket a mile from home and restaurant visits too required a calorie burn getting to and from. I had thighs of steel because carrying things while walking does that. I didn’t need a gym membership. Life was my cardio. I never had to worry about getting home from a bar drunk because no one ever got killed by my staggering into them on the sidewalk at 3am.

Then a man with a driver's license came into my life. I stopped walking everywhere. In fact, my initial horror that we hopped into the car to drive even the shortest distances soon gave way to a kind of stultified complacence. I no longer asked “can we walk there?” and I did not even check the maps for routes and distances. Having a car did not make my life any easier or open up new vistas of exploration. In fact, I stopped traveling because the man did not want to fly (and did I ever say “you REALLY need to get over your fear of flying – I’ll teach you!” – you guess).  We drove to the trail I used to walk to to walk ON. I began to gain around 10 pounds a year. The mental mechanism of factoring in walking as part of any undertaking I contemplated became as flaccid as my muscles.

 Subaru (Un)official car of the state of Vermont

Fast forward to the here and now. One of the reasons I chose Rutland as the place to be in Vermont was its walkability. It’s not the most exciting place, but if you are near the downtown you can eat, drink, shop, take the bus to nearby cities for the day, do laundry, see a movie, see art, get your cat to the vet and yourself to the hospital. The bus and taxi options could be better, but with a little clever planning, of which I used to be an expert, and the occasional lift from a friend, it is not only entirely possible to live here without a car, it’s downright enjoyable. Is it the greatest city on earth? No, but there’s the NYC bound Amtrak for that.  

I have been here almost two years, and I swear I have seen so much of the area from the window of a car I may as well have not been here at all. The Vermont I fell in love with was the one I knew back in the 80s 90s and 00s when I would visit my parents – by bus – in their summer rental and spend a week doing morning walks along the highways or back roads, as long as 10 miles. Maybe I am an old soul from a time when there were no other options but your own stamina, but there is something so immediate and connected about taking in landscape on foot. And to do this just as part of your designated fitness or leisure activities is okay, but for me, I cherish the fact that even going out to buy a sandwich, I am in touch with the air and ground of the city I live in, not enclosed in a metal box with the radio on and the world outside rushing by unnoticed, unappreciated.

 Ready for Anything 

Now that both the man and my place in the passenger seat are no longer part of my life, I am spending the first weeks living in my new apartment walking along the street doing errands and getting my bearings. Things I have driven by a million times are suddenly revealing themselves to me.  The Vermont I remembered and loved was here all along, it was I who failed to find it. I can’t wait for the seasons to change to see certain vistas you can only take in from the vantage point of a walker.  Everything I need to do is getting done, with some help from friends, yes, but what are friends for? And what better way to find out who they really are? I come not to judge the drivers among you. I understand and accept that there are lives with circumstances and choices that make having a car necessary. But a life on foot is what works for me and you can’t teach me otherwise.


  1. Yay. I am also a non driver. And mostly it works. I like walking. And it opens my eyes. Which is never a bad thing.
    Yes, it is sometimes less convenient. So what?
    And yay on the children front. I would have liked children, but it didn't happen. However being told that 'not having children is a selfish decision' sends me ballistic with rage. I have never met anyone who had children for altruistic reasons - and would doubt their sanity if I did.
    Yay to cats, yay to walking.
    Yay to you.

  2. EC - I knew you were a walker, and a cat person (you know the old line, "children are for people who can't have cats") but it both thrills and does not surprise me that you are also of the non-driving elite! To say "mostly it works" is about as much as you can say for anything - that's a rave review! And cars are not that convenient - ask anyone in Boston dealing with draconian parking rules and regulations, or anyone whose vehicle dies in the middle of nowhere. Every choice has its pluses and minuses. What burns my butt is when - in the matter of drivers and non drivers and so many other cases - the people on the other side presume that my side is all minuses and I need to be enlightened. Right. Thanks so much for being there to read these posts - sometimes I think I am writing them just for you! And that is a fine audience indeed. Be well.

  3. Dear Gabriella,
    Only everything in this post hit home for my wife and I, so a comment had to come. First, my wife (second marriage for both of us) chose not to have children. Second, we dearly love cats. We brought one back with us when we returned from nearly two years in Italy and enjoyed her company for nine great years. She actually adopted us, walking down a county lane one day. Who were we to deny the bond!
    Third, nearly eleven years ago, we sold our last home and became city dwellers in Portland, Oregon. It was a revelation and we've never looked back. Our lone car sat in the building garage mostly. Michele was able to take light rail to her job at the airport and I walked, jogged, took buses, the trolley or light rail when necessary, which was seldom.
    Like you, we discovered the wonders of being on foot and chose to rent in buildings close to everything we wanted or needed. Almost everything we'd been taught turned out to be...well, let's be kind and just say it wasn't for us anymore.
    We're always amazed at how much we missed in all those years of suburban living, tied to a car--for everything. I think we both look forward to the day we can get rid of the car forever. We've invited many of our family members to see what city living is like, but almost none took advantage of the opportunity to see for themselves. It's a little sad so many people simply cannot imagine a truly vibrant, forward-looking city. A city which is user-friendly to bikes and pedestrians and offers mass transportation options. Their loss.
    Keep walking and shining a light on a better way to live. All we can do is try.
    PS Just remembered another thing: For several years, I wore Asics shoes, too!

    1. Gary thanks so much for this comment from a fellow member of the non-driving minority - thing is we used to be the majority - there was a time when cars were considered a luxury not a necessity, and most urban and rural people managed without them. Thing is, human beings are highly resourceful creatures and come into the world with brain and brawn sufficient to do just about everything and get around too. The notion of "convenience" in life, whereby we get things done for us that we could be doing ourselves has gotten completely out of hand and hurt the planet in the meantime - but that's a whole other post! The fact that we all now have to return to some of the old ways like being on foot or a bike in order to preserve ourselves and the planet before it's too late is hopeful but sad at the same time.

      Ironically, the car that has been my undoing the past couple years used to belong to my Dad, a 1996 wagon that spent most of its life in a NYC indoor garage and was only brought out for special occasions and then eventually literally just to turn over the motor lest the vehicle forget its purpose. My Dad finally gave it to me because in his 80s he was no longer medically cleared to drive. It had only 25 thousand miles on it - after 15 years!

      As for being child-free and cat-dependent, I applaud you on both these choices, again ones that used to be not so popular or acceptable. Here's to full lives led in the company of cats, and on foot. And in Asics, no less! Still my favorite shoe. I have not used them nearly enough the past few years, but they are about to be brought back into some serious service!

      Thanks again for your comment - always good to see you in this space!

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