Growing up in a country area, as I did in lower New York State in the 1950s, even as the sure and steady march of the suburbs was at my heels, I walked everywhere, as did all youngsters. School bus limits were set at two miles in Spring Valley, so we walked to the South Main Street School. After school, we might hoof it downtown. On weekends, when my mother cleaned house, my brother and I (and many a friend) were left on our own, and to our imagination, and so a walk to the woods or the hills kept us busy and in adventure for a hours.
The walking pushed the fat levels down, exercised us, cleared the mental cobwebs and gave us time to think. Walking became such a habit that I often found myself “turning on my head” as if it were a TV set whenever I took a hike. I’d leave school or the house and instantly began thinking about something -- say the life I wanted when I grew up; or I tried to solve a first-year algebra problem that I had been assigned; or I came up with the essay that Torger Gram wanted for sixth-grade English. Actually, I purposely walked for the essays. They were due Mondays, and I would leave my Hillcrest home, head down Karnell Street to State, to Hillcrest Avenue, to Route 45, to East Williams, to Hillside, to Stewart, to Trinity, back to Williams, to East Eckerson, to Buena Vista, back to Karnell. On that two-mile jaunt, I’d figure out what to write, though I would not pen it in my head since I’d learned that would spoil the sauce, that if I wrote the composition on my walk, it would not be as good the second time, on paper.
Young walkers often lose their stride to the lure of cars, and I certainly did that, barely using shoe leather for 20 years, until one very early morning, after a particularly stressful work at the newspaper where I toiled, I could not sleep. I had also gained 35 pounds more than I should have and, at 38, was without the energy I had always had. Instinctively, I took a walk, and it were as if I had been sent on vacation. I walked slowly at first, with some huffing, even on a level grade. But the next day -- and there was not only a next day, but a next week, next month and 31 next years now -- I found myself with renewed energy, 30 pounds lighter and with time for imagination.
All for free.
If I were the health care guru for the nation, I would offer baskets of apples, oranges and other fruit, free admission to state parks, money for walking trails and other encouragement to get those who wanted to do so into walking shoes. The country would save billions in health and mental health care expenses. And the people who walked would get the best benefit of all, the great "freeing" that comes with a good jaunt.