My grandfather taught me to walk. Not literally, though I am sure he and my grandmother were present for many of my first toddling moments. But the veteran and pharmacist was a passionate walker of the streets, and taught me from a young age to love traversing sidewalks.
As an 18-year-old, Grandpa Vern fought in the Second World War, trudging through the French and German countryside with a company of men who became his comrades and brothers. He told stories of beautiful, marred mansions and quiet country towns, of forested treks and nighttime marches. Perhaps it was military service that turned Grandpa into an avid walker; but whatever the origins of his passion, Grandpa turned its application homeward.
He and my grandmother lived in the same town and the same house for more than 50years. In that time, as work permitted, Grandpa took to the streets to jog or walk—and the sidewalks slowly became part of his daily rhythm. He preferred to walk to the grocery store, and would often run errands on his own two feet rather than using his little black pickup truck. After my grandmother passed away from cancer in 2002, Grandpa seemed to crave the sidewalk’s bustle, openness, and comfort even more. He would walk from his home to the downtown drugstore where he had worked until retirement, in order to deliver some of his homemade biscotti to the employees.
My grandparents lived several hours north of my family in Moscow, Idaho, a town nestled into the curves of the Palouse hills and hedged in by mountains. Walks with Grandpa were always pine-scented, and the dampness of rain often hung in the air. As we walked together, Grandpa would share stories about the homes we passed and their past or present inhabitants. A military veteran had lived in the house on the corner of Mabelle Street, one who painstakingly cared for his home and kept it in pristine condition. When he died, his son let the house sit vacant until it fell into disrepair. The grass in the front yard was waist-high and the windows were grimy with dirt. Whenever we walked past the house, Grandpa shook his head, mourning quietly for the home’s deceased owner and for its former well-kept glory. For Grandpa, houses were reflections of people: their stories, their personalities, their virtues, and their vices—all on display.
In Look and See, the recent documentary about Kentucky author and poet Wendell Berry, Berry’s daughter Mary talks about her childhood walks with her father. As they walked through woods and past fields, she recalled, her father would constantly point things out to her, urging her to “look and see”—to observe and reverence the world around her.
Grandpa Vern had a similar vision. He wasn’t just a pharmacist and former soldier—he was also an artist, one who spent years making intricate model ships and beautiful watercolor paintings. His gaze was always drawn outward and upward, taking in every detail of form and color. It’s interesting to think back on our walks from the vantage point of time and technological innovation. Today, many of us walk quantitatively: we gauge our progress by three miles completed, 500 calories burned, 10,000 steps taken. We measure our progress through the world with Fitbits and Apple Watches and smartphone apps and podcasts.
But for Grandpa, walking was qualitative. It was about a series of stories: a process of taking in—and, when I was with him, sharing—a series of histories and truths, anecdotes and memories. My quiet grandfather, wearing his red jacket and baseball cap, seemed a fountain of information and love for this place, these streets where he had walked for decades. He didn’t just walk as a means to some quantifiable end; for him, walking was the whole purpose and point.
Many write about walking as pilgrimage, as a stepping out into the unknown, a voyaging away from home and hearth. Like J.R.R. Tolkien’s protagonist Bilbo Baggins, we see the road as an invitation into strangeness and foreign territory, a means to adventure and change.
Kierkegaard roamed the streets of Copenhagen, Dickens trekked through London, Whitman patrolled the streets of New York, and Rousseau rambled through Paris. These thinkers and literary men saw something exotic and freeing in the city streets. Walking, for them, was an individualistic and artistic endeavor.
But Grandpa’s walking was neither of these things. He followed the same paths, past the same homes and shops, for decades. His walking was not a reveling in new turf or strange faces, but rather a ritual of commitment to the same earth, brick, and human components of place. He watched trees age and children grow, homes flourish and fall into disrepair, families move and college students graduate. And still he walked.
There’s a vast difference between getting to know a place with your two feet, and knowing it via car. As a runner, I’ve noticed that my speed greatly influences my ability to take in passing geography; even at a jog, I miss details. Experiencing a street at 25 miles per hour cuts out huge chunks of detail and color, desperation and beauty. Our gaze is limited by the necessary act of keeping our eyes on the road, as well as by the detachment the car offers via insulated windows, air conditioning, stereo speakers, children talking or crying, or companions laughing.
As Rebecca Solnit notes in her book Wanderlust: A History of Walking, cars are necessarily insular spaces—and as we travel in them, we disconnect from the world around us.
“Many people nowadays live in a series of interiors—home, car, gym, office, shops—disconnected from each other,” she writes. “On foot everything stays connected, for while walking one occupies the spaces between those interiors in the same way one occupies those interiors. One lives in the whole world rather than in interiors built up against it.”
Walking is a slow and porous experience. The words we use to describe it—meandering, sauntering, strolling—have their own leisurely and gentle cadence and suggest a sort of unhurried enjoyment. But to walk is also to be vulnerable: it forces us into physical interaction with surrounding streets, homes, and people. This can delay us, annoy us, even put us in danger. But it connects us to community in a way that cars never can.
In an essay for Why Place Matters titled “GPS and the End of the Road,” Ari Schulman writes that “just as important as what we see in the world is how we go about seeing it. We are adept at identifying points of interest, but pay scant attention to the importance of our approaches to exploring them; our efforts to facilitate the experience of place often end up being self-defeating.”
Modernity urges us to get anywhere and everywhere as quickly as possible: to use Google Maps and Waze to determine the quickest means to every destination. But by obeying the law of the shortest and most efficient route, we stunt our ability to love a place. It’s only when we determine to experience a place one plodding foot at a time—step by step, hour after hour—that we can foster a full and unsullied relationship with its sidewalks and roads, shops and houses. As with any ritualized practice (exercising, playing an instrument, praying), the more we walk, the more we build a passion for our exercise.
In You Are What You Love, James K.A. Smith writes that love is a habit: a daily training of our souls. By immersing ourselves in specific “liturgies”—daily rhythms, habits, and stories—we shape or tune our hearts to specific loves. This training is “more like practicing scales on the piano than learning music theory,” writes Smith. “The goal is, in a sense, for your fingers to learn the scales so they can then play ‘naturally,’ as it were. Learning here isn’t just information acquisition; it’s more like inscribing something into the very fiber of your being.”
While Smith’s book is focused on ecclesiastical worship and love for God, his theory of the human heart and the importance of liturgy applies to every area of human life. After all, if we are ruled by our hearts and not just our heads, then every practice we engage in is important in the formation of our desires and our character. Every ritual and rhythm is ingraining something into the fabric of our being. My grandfather’s walks were—or at least, with time, became—a ritual of love, a daily recitation of devotion to Moscow, one block at a time. And as he spent time out loving his city, it comforted and loved him in return.
“When you give yourself to places, they give you yourself back,” Solnit writes in Wanderlust. “The more one comes to know them, the more one seeds them with the invisible crop of memories and associations that will be waiting for you when you come back.”
After my grandmother passed away, I believe my grandfather’s explorations through Moscow were a way to remember her, to forge new associations, and to experience the kindness and warmth of his neighbors. The insulation of the car would not have afforded the same sense of camaraderie and kinship that the open streets did. What’s more, by making me his walking companion, my grandfather let me share in that camaraderie and kinship—and seeded in my mind that same invisible crop of memories. He taught me how to “look and see.”
Moscow has long been run by people who love it, by individuals who see it as a place, not just a space. It’s been well-loved and stewarded by people like my grandfather, who know its history and its rhythms and respect them. While many of Idaho’s communities have succumbed to sprawl and car-centric planning, Moscow has always, somehow, held on to its roots.
After new highways, strip malls, and post-World War II suburban planning began diverting commerce and life from its downtown, Moscow planners put together a Main Street revitalization project in the 1970s and ’80s. They diverted traffic from Main Street to two one-way streets running along either side of it. They narrowed the four lanes of traffic that had dominated Main Street to two, and put free diagonal parking along both sides of the street. They planted street trees, and built a public plaza at Fourth and Main. Because of their efforts, Moscow’s downtown remains a hub for locals, university students, and tourists. It bustles with energy and commerce, farmer’s market activity on weekends, and the sound of jazz students performing on Friday night.
Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and essayist Wallace Stegner once wrote, “Deeply lived-in places are exceptions rather than the rule in the West. For one thing, all western places are new; for another, many of the people who established them came to pillage, or to work for pillagers, rather than to settle for life. When the pillaging was done or the dream exploded, they moved on, to be replaced in the next boom by others just as hopeful and just as footloose.”
But Moscow has avoided this cadence of boom and bust. Perhaps this is owing to the people who lovingly planned it in the 19th century, the university that endowed it with a rich intellectual and cultural life, or the agricultural community that turned it into a commercial and social hub. But I contend that its success is also due to ordinary locals like my grandfather, who rooted themselves in Moscow and dedicated their lives to its flourishing. Their years of devotion seem to have etched color, meaning, and continuity into the very bones of this town.
Moscow is the only city in Idaho I came to know via my own two feet. Because of that, its sidewalks have always felt as important to me as its buildings: they are the blood vessels connecting everything, keeping its spirit alive. Moscow’s walkable streets create funnels of life that stretch from campus to downtown, from downtown to neighborhood and suburb. Although there are portions of Moscow that are less navigable by the human foot, its primary “body” has remained intact. And for people like my grandfather, that continuity is an immense gift—as well as an immense opportunity to give back.
Strong Towns founder and president Chuck Marohn told me in a recent phone interview that walking is the first step in town and city revitalization. “If you want to understand your community, you have to walk,” he explained. “Get out and experience the city at two miles an hour. It will dramatically impact you—it may be overwhelmingly painful, but on the other hand, as you start to see the city, you’ll realize it’s dripping with opportunity. When you see a city at two miles an hour instead of 30 miles an hour, it changes everything.”
Walking, for my grandfather, was a choice. But it is important to note that many moderns cannot walk, because they inhabit spaces and places that are not walkable. Northern Virginia serves as an interesting example of this: in some neighborhoods (my own being one of them), narrow country roads that two centuries ago were shared by horse and pedestrian are now dominated by busy commuters, many of whom speed along precipitous curves and narrow bridges. Some intrepid bikers brave these routes, determinedly staking out their space despite the dangers. But pedestrians have been cut out of the equation on these roads—and as a result have lost their ability to truly dialogue with their place and its surrounding environment. In these communities, the liturgy of walking has become impossible.
An even greater travesty comes, however, when some people inhabiting unwalkable spaces must anyway, due to life circumstances—and are thus forced on to perilous freeways, busy intersections full of careless drivers, and unpaved roadsides. When the car intrudes into pedestrian country, it may serve as a delaying nuisance, but it’s a momentary and slight one. When humans are coerced into the exclusive domain of cars, on the other hand, they risk life and limb simply by traveling on their own two feet.
In these environments, the car circumvents the walker, encouraging an urban solipsism that is dangerous for community and disenfranchising to the individual. Many impoverished Americans feel the financial and emotional stresses of living in a car-centric country without a car. Their hardships demonstrate the fact that walking is not just an aesthetic choice. When our streets are walkable, it has the ability to empower and reunite us with our communities, enabling us to live a flourishing and full life.
Since taking those quiet Moscow walks with my grandfather, I’ve traveled across the country and rooted myself in a new community. As a Washington, D.C., intern and then journalist, I frequently walked from Dupont Circle to the U.S. Capitol, Farragut Square to Adams Morgan or Georgetown. When my husband and I moved to nearby Alexandria, Virginia, we walked King Street countless times, etching new memories into its bricks and cobblestones with every quiet stroll. After our daughter was born, I began taking her with me via stroller to the Mount Vernon trail or favorite haunts in D.C. We fostered our own walking liturgies in this new place and grew to love it more with every step we took.
But I have not yet walked or loved a place as my grandfather did. I have not stayed put long enough. My walking is still more pilgrimage than it is loving liturgy. And in this sense, I (like many others in my generation) have not yet fully loved my place. Still, every time I step out my front door I am reminded of the power of the sidewalk—to connect us, to comfort us, and to enable us to “look and see.” Grandpa Vern taught me that walking can be loving, if we choose. Maybe someday I will be able to walk—and love—like him.
Gracy Olmstead is a writer and journalist located outside Washington, D.C. She’s written for The American Conservative, The Week, National Review, The Federalist, and The Washington Times, among others.