If you know me, you know that I love to get lost on foot. A perfect Sunday afternoon back in Brooklyn usually included a long, meandering walk down streets and through alleyways that I’d never walked before. Like Matt of “I’m Just Walkin’,” I tried my best to walk new streets every time I set out. If only I had had his idea way back when I started and had photo documented my little journeys because I feel fairly certain that my feet tread over most of Brooklyn, a significant portion of Manhattan, and a nice expanse of the Bronx while walking New York City for the past seven years. The number of pairs of shoes worn out past rescue that I tossed out while packing is testament to the mileage I must have covered.
While I don’t know how many miles I’ve walked through the streets of New York City, I do know that now I feel the lack of that kind of exploratory movement where every turn could reveal a new building or a really old one, an unfamiliar monument or a road marker left over from the turn of the century, a group of kids playing in a fire hydrant or old women in house coats sitting on a porch. These twists and turns of my getting lost revealed the expansive and diverse cultural landscape in which I lived. Often, I’d stop in a bodega and buy a pack of gum just so I could peek into what items were featured in the store. You can tell a lot about a neighborhood by what is sold in its bodegas. Usually, these encounters led to conversations with the shop owner that almost always resulted in my learning something new about the area and the attitude of its residents.
I’m trying to transfer that same practice into my new life in Greeley, and it’s bringing with it an unexpected set of obstacles, the most significant of which is that people don’t tend to walk here unless they are doing it very obviously for exercise and in a park (usually indicated by footwear with reflective material and 3lb weights in hand). Last Sunday, I set out for an afternoon exploration, completely forgetting that shops and restaurants are closed on the day of rest. As I walked fairly purposefully up and down streets, a nice seeming older man pulled over and asked me if I was lost and did I need a ride. “No thanks,” I said. “I just like walking.” “Well, are you sure you’re ok, ma’am?” he said. “Yes, I prefer to walk.” Was that really so strange?
This incident reminded me of the time I was in Tulsa, Oklahoma doing research on Jean Rhys. I tried to walk from the library back to my hotel and realized rather quickly that there was no shade cover and that wasn’t a great situation for a 110 degree day. Suddenly, a two mile walk seemed impossible, and the bus used only by Tulsa’s most down and out was just not showing up. In that case, I was really, terribly lost, lost on how to prepare for the elements, so when a similar kind older man pulled over and offered me a ride, I took it. Those NYC instincts kicked in and I believed he would deliver me safely to my abode, which he did. But, last Sunday in Greeley, it was not 110 degrees, and I really just wanted to get lost in my new town. After two more men, one on a bike, one on a motorcycle had ridden up alongside me and asked me (with less innocent intentions) if I was lost, I decided to head home. Defeated and without the buzz of tapped out energy in my feet and legs that I’d hoped to develop by a good pavement pounding, I sat down on my porch and watched my street for awhile. No one walked by.
Getting lost in walking through populated areas offers my mind an opportunity to mellow. It clears space for thinking and, later, for writing. I wonder about how people live as I walk by their houses, and I wonder where their feet take them each day. Do our paths cross? Do we see the same things? Probably not. I was telling an acquaintance here about this “problem” I’m having with walking and he said, “But you have the Rockies! Go get lost in them!” Yes, I do have the Rockies, but that is the last place one would want to be lost.
Maybe this change is bringing with it an opportunity to see being lost differently. After a conversation with my English majors yesterday in class about Rebecca Solnit’s perspectives on being lost, I see the most important difference in how they view being lost and how I view it is that for them, it’s not about location, geography, and the body; it’s about losing yourself to uncover your true identity, and that is absolutely what they should be doing at age 18, 19, 20. I already did that work. For me, finding my way to being lost is about opening up and letting in difference to shake up my perception, jostle my senses, and be really embodied.
I’m going to keep on walking in Greeley, but instead of looking at the ground and lamenting my loss of Brooklyn’s endless streets, I’ll say hello to all my neighbors as they look at me funny for using their sidewalk.