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* * Walking distance

My feet hurt. I bet yours do too.

I recently wrote some columns about my Camino de Santiago in Spain, from the French town of St. Jean Pied de Port to Santiago de Compostela. I was pleased at the performance level I was able to coax from my aging body, as I walked from 12 to 21 miles per day on 34 of 35 days I was there. But my feet were another story, giving me constant problems.

Today I went to the podiatrist. I’ll tell you about it momentarily.

I’m pleased and proud to say that in spite of the physical challenge and discomfort I had on my walk, I was able to complete all 500 miles, walking all but 4 miles of it (I took a short taxi ride when I couldn’t find a place to stay). All that time on my feet gave me a new perspective not only on how people relate to each other but in a grander way how humans relate to the landscape.

When you think about “walking distance,” what does that mean to you?

Most Americans own a car and thinking nothing of hopping into it for even the shortest trips. Most American communities are designed around the needs of cars, and in many cases how to get cars through rather than into them, rather than the needs of pedestrians. Our area’s three main downtowns, in Christiansburg, Radford, and Blacksburg, designed more than a century ago, have narrow streets and small parking areas, much different than our malls and shopping regions that emerged in the last 40 years. In Europe, almost all communities were designed hundreds, even thousands of years ago. Streets are very tight, sometimes the width of a horse-draw cart, and often crooked. Parking is scarce to non-existent. It’s easy to get to stores, shops, and offices without a car and many people don’t own one. Buses and trains will take you to the next city or beyond, and departures are frequent.

There are lots of benefits to this.

One thing I’ve noticed in pedestrian environments is that people are typically friendlier to each other. When you’re on foot and going in the same direction, it’s easy to converse. Conversations among friends and strangers alike seem natural and commonplace. Conversely, while sometimes a motorist will allow you to merge your car into his or her lane with a friendly wave, loud honks of disapproving horns seems equally common, perhaps more so.

I can tell you from experience in my training and on the Camino itself that walking alone is deeply contemplative. It allows time for thinking about commitments and tasks, and fostering creativity. I’ve often said that my books were written not sitting at my computer but instead walking into the night on the Huckleberry Trail, where my subconscious was unleashed. Walking allows the inner voice to emerge, free from the distractions of the highway and the dashboard entertainment systems.

Another thing I noticed in pedestrian Spanish communities was that walking was a natural part of the day for everybody. Women pushing strollers, children on tricycles, older kids on bicycles, and adults walking, toting bags, carts, or even walkers, were all part of the daily scene. It has a unifying aspect to it, where there is less perceived status differences than there would be at a parking lot, with gleaming Mercedes cars parked next to battered Datsun pickup trucks. Kids grow up with walking as part of everyday life, hanging out with friends or family at the plaza or park, walking the family dog, or sharing a meal, often outdoors. These are great multi-generational experiences as older family members run into younger generations and spend time together.

There is far less pollution in pedestrian-oriented communities, with fewer cars belching hydrocarbons into the air. And they are far, far quieter. Some of the smaller Spanish towns were spookily silent.

And undeniably there is a health benefit. We have an obesity problem in America today that is costing our society billions of dollars and our citizens countless health maladies. People are designed for ambulatory movement, not for sitting in chairs where most of us spend our days. I lost 8 pounds in 35 days and I ate until I was full every day. It pains me to say this, but I’ve gone into stores and restaurants where 70-80% of the people were overweight, many of them obese. More weight puts more stress on our feet. Few Europeans are overweight, and almost universally they eat better, fresher, more nutritious food than we do.

My podiatrist said the bone structure in my feet is crooked, not easily fixed. And I have severe Athlete’s Foot fungus. But he’s confident I can one day walk great distances pain-free again. After my 500 mile Camino, I feel like any distance, given enough time, is walking distance.

What’s your walking distance?

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