It’s the season for finding reasons to remain indoors and stationary, but one bold Mainer will no longer be deterred. (Or will he?)
By Paul Doiron[I] don’t walk enough. Not many of us do, according to the American Heart Association, which recommends that we all spend at least 30 minutes ambulating briskly every day. But you already know that, don’t you? You’ve heard about all of the health benefits of walking: lower blood pressure, lower cholesterol, lower risk of diabetes, etc. And yet, if you are like me, you have prepared the ultimate, all-purpose excuse for remaining sedentary. It’s right there this very minute outside your window: stark, white, and undeniable. It’s called winter.
The public service campaign to encourage walking as a healthful activity has been premised on the idea that (just about) anyone can do it (just about) anywhere. You don’t need special shoes; you don’t require an indoor track or a treadmill; you should be able to open your front door and get moving.
But there’s the rub, say Mainers. Even at the height of summer, many of our roads and streets are downright unfriendly to pedestrians. The town where I live is better than most; it has actual sidewalks that radiate from the village center only to peter out inexplicably, often where they are most needed. If your goal is to take a constitutional of more than a mile, sooner or later you’re going to have to step into heavy traffic. (And into the dark too, as Maine isn’t exactly over-equipped in the streetlamp department.)
Winter, of course, is worse. In many places, homeowners are required to shovel the sidewalks in front of their properties: a duty some take seriously, and others not at all. Municipal walkways take a backseat to roads made for motor vehicles. If the snow is heavier than the plows can handle, some sidewalks may remain buried until spring.
Given such obstacles and excuses, you might expect pedestrians in Maine to be rarer than blue lobsters. And yet, that is not the case. I can scarcely think of a drive I’ve taken this winter — at all hours of the day and night — when I haven’t passed at least one hardy soul making his or her way along a snowy roadside. Desperation may compel some of them (we were all carless teenagers once). But I like to think there’s something else at work. Mainers are not easily daunted. People who choose to live here are less likely than most to forego our plans and resolutions for the sake of the trifling weather.
Maybe we’re throwbacks in that regard. My friend, longtime Down East contributor Wayne Curtis, wrote a book titled The Last Great Walk: The True Story of a 1909 Walk from New York to San Francisco, and Why It Matters Today, about the largely forgotten era when foot travel was the default mode of transportation and long-distance walkers were national celebrities. Wayne’s point is that we’ve lost something essential over the past century as we’ve become a species of riders. Humans, after all, evolved as upright apes. We owe as much to our arches as to our brains.
I finished The Last Great Walk realizing just how empty my excuses were for spending the month of March on my couch. Our ancestors didn’t let snow stop them from going afoot. So I laced up my boots and set out to join those I’d passed so many times in the comfort of my car. Cold air filled my lungs, and I could feel the steady pumping of my heart. I rejoiced in my dauntlessness. The next day I ventured even farther.
Then, on the third day, I stepped on a patch of ice and twisted my ankle 90 degrees. Sure, I had to limp home, but my spirit was unbroken (merely sprained). As soon as the swelling goes down, I will be back out there among the ambulatory. One step at a time, right? (Editor’s Note: Paul’s ankle has since healed and he’s doing well.)
Featured image: After the Rain, Limington, Maine, by reader Pete Talbot.