Roads vs. Paths

Friday afternoon I took the train to Grand Central, then walked a couple miles downtown to return a pair of shorts and try on backpacks at REI. As I walked, my face tensed in anger; my thoughts morphed into a stream of invective against fellow pedestrians (“It’s okay to PAY ATTENTION to what’s going on around you!” “Get the FUCK out of my way!”); my body shifted into alert each time I crossed the street. By the time I reached REI, I was a bitter, muttering, bristling mess.

Today, walking home from the Beacon train station, along a wide road in hot sun, my mood soured again. No, I wasn’t dodging plodders on iPhones – I was braving a route not made for me, reacting to its built-in brutality. (Last night, at dinner with, among others, a Ugandan priest, I noticed that he said “path” where I would have said “road,” maybe because even when he drives he’s seeing the route in terms of people first, then vehicles.)

What’s brutal about a wide, paved road? Well, great swaths of Earth were flayed to make it. Other swaths were drilled and hacked at, for matter to coat the gash. Still other swaths unwillingly yielded the metal and plastic comprising the vehicles for which the road was intended, and the oil to rocket them forward. Regularly, and without comment, drivers on roads like this kill creatures who are not human; often, and with comment, they kill creatures of their own species. The threat of death – the memory of death already inflicted – pervades my walk. The lack of shade, the dismissal of walker as afterthought, doesn’t help. Meanwhile, the metal boxes my brethren travel in shield them from congress with me, and their fellowbeings.

I felt, as I neared home, the price I pay for walking (am I being kind to myself, when I step outside?). And recalled a dream I’ve had for years, of long-distance footpaths threading town to city to farm to village (with huts at intervals, for stopping overnight). I could walk miles and miles – explore the county and beyond – if the local circulatory system acknowledged my existence. Why confine epic walks to paths like the Appalachian Trail? Why not stitch a web for foot travel everywhere?

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