Archive for Walking Philosophy

Ideas for Rainy Day Walks

Earlier this year I had a few things to say about wet weather, but now that it rained last week and it is raining again on and off this week, I thought I’d share a few more thoughts. First of all, I had to laugh reading my statement “I enjoy walking in a mist or light rain, but I do try to plan walks so that I do not get caught in a downpour” because Friday afternoon found me walking for 45 minutes in the heaviest period of rain of the day. My shoes were full of water by the end, and the rest of my clothing was pretty soaked as well. It had such a long time since it had rained that I forgot that that shoes I was wearing and the tiny umbrella I was carrying were inappropriate for the weather.

Despite getting drenched, I was thinking about how walking in wet weather opens up the opportunity for some unique observations. In terms of looking at architecture, this is when I spend a great deal of time looking at roofs, gutters, awnings, and how houses are protected from the elements. I’ve been particularly surprised by the number of architecturally interesting downspouts, many of which are designed from copper. Local Ecologist talked about rain barrels in a post awhile ago, which are used to collect roof water runoff for watering and other uses. So far, I have not spotted any rain barrels in my walks, but I imagine that this is because most are located at the back of residences. I have spotted several nice-looking rain chains, which are chains attached to a roof to collect water in a pot, basin, or drainage system. An interesting exercise, especially in the hills, is to look for drains that travel under the sidewalk and to the storm drains and then follow the path the water takes from the house to the street.


Observing what happens to water on the street is easy as a walker because (unless you are wearing galoshes) you are probably watching for the places where the water floods at curbs and street crossings! Puddles, potholes, sand bags and other flooding prevention, are all things to look out for during or after a rain. An interesting bit of environmental history that I learned from Richard Walker’s The Country in the City (history of the conversation of the Bay Area’s greenbelt) is that the idea of storm drain stencils originated in Berkeley. If you look down at the drains in Berkeley, you’ve probably notice the bright “No Dumping, Drains to Bay” stencils; this stenciling idea has been adopted by many cities to help remind people not to dump toxic materials into the drainage system that may connect to a bay, river, or ocean depending on where you live.

If you enjoy people-watching, a rainy day is a good opportunity for this activity — rain-gear, umbrellas, reactions to rain, etc. Berkeley and the Bay Area can get a fair amount of rain or not much at all, depending on the year. I don’t see nearly as many people unfazed by the rain as I have on visits to rainy cities such as Portland (Oregon) and Seattle, nor as many people who venture out in the wet weather without an umbrella. And, although I have seen plenty of people braving the rain on bicycles with fenders, I often see the bikes locked up without plastic bags or covers over the seats. I am always on the lookout for other people who seem to be enjoying the rain. Getting a little wet seems way more appealing to me than be in a car in rainy weather or being stuck inside all day, and a warm beverage afterwards (or carried along in a thermos) makes the experience even more satisfying. I am hopeful that more people will get out for walks when it is raining; that is why I made sure to smile and indicate that to others that I was having a good time even as I sloshed along the pavement on Friday.

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Why People Walk, Part 5: Exercise


Photo by Joe Reifer

More in this series: Art, Psychogeography, Car-free, Spiritual & Meditative

I did not originally imagine writing anything about the exercise aspects of walking because it seemed pretty obvious that one of the main reasons people walk is to get exercise. But then I remembered that at one point it wasn’t so obvious to me that walking was a way to stay fit. From about age 12 and through college and beyond, I did quite a bit of running for fun and exercise. Soon after college, while working for a nonprofit organization, I got to know a (I thought at the time) middle-aged woman who was a regular and enthusiastic volunteer for the group. She was active in race-walking, a competitive sport that involves walking very fast. One day I got a chance to look at some of her race result clippings, and was surprised to see her listed in the 70-79 age group! This was a turning point for me to realize that walking could be good exercise and to see an example of someone who — at least partially as a result of walking — was enjoying an active and rewarding retirement and had the energy to do volunteer work and pursue other interests later in life.

One of the great things about walking for exercise, one that is often brought up in articles about walking, is that it requires very little equipment; a good pair of walking shoes is a relatively low investment compared to most other athletic endeavors. If there are too many hurdles to jump through in terms of time and expense, exercise can seem like too much of a hassle for some people. On the other hand, people who enjoy gear and equipment have options for walking: headphones and music devices, walking poles, clothing made with technical fabrics, etc. I fall into the minimalistic category for walking, so I only in the past year or so had noticed step-counters and pedometers that tracks the number of steps a person walks. It appears that step walking has steadily been increasing in popularity and is often used as a motivational tool for starting a walking fitness program. It looks like 10,000 steps a day is often the goal of such programs, which is equivalent to about 5 miles. Additional fitness could be obtained by walking more steps and/or at a faster pace. At first I didn’t understand why one would track steps instead of distance or time, but now I realize that with steps it would be easier to figure out things like walking up stairs or totaling a bunch of smaller walks throughout a day. I doubt I’ll get one of these myself, though I do wonder just how many steps it takes to walk all of Berkeley…

Another aspect of walking for exercise is the treadmill. I have met a couple of people who enjoy walking on the treadmill indoors at the gym, but many more people find it to be incredibly boring. Here in Berkeley, it is a rare day that one would be forced indoors to a treadmill due to weather conditions, and walking outdoors is an option year-round. For those who do not enjoy gyms or cannot afford a membership, walking outdoors for fitness is an option here in the Bay Area with its usually mild climate. One of the coolest ideas I’ve heard of in terms of fitness programs is the Green Gym in England. The idea is to meet regularly to do volunteer work that is physically active, such as gardening or environmental conservation. The sessions start with warm-up exercises, and the participants get the benefit of both exercise and volunteering for their community! I think that the Green Gym is a great concept that could be combined with walking and applied here in Berkeley. I imagine starting at a transit-friendly meeting place, walking to the volunteer location as a warm-up, and then doing active volunteer work. This program would be a great collaboration with the Berkeley Partners for Parks, which amongst its member groups would offer opportunities for habitat restoration, creek cleanups, path-building, garden work, and much more. Walking to the locations would fit in with Berkeley’s climate action goals outlined in Measure G.

What if you really want to walk for exercise, but live somewhere that is unsafe or otherwise inhospitable to walking? If you work or go to school in a different neighborhood, you could take your walks from that location. Think about any other locations you visit regularly; could you walk in those places? Another option is to check the transit routes near where you live to see if you can ride the bus or train to a location that is better for walking. Coming soon, I will post some additional ideas about walking safety that have come up throughout the course of the Berkeley walk.

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Why People Walk, Part 4: Meditative and Spiritual Walking

More in this series: Art, Psychogeography, Car-free

When you live somewhere most or all of your life, it’s easy to get to a place where you think you are familiar with long-running events in your community. Earlier this summer I was thinking about how I had probably been to just about all of the street fairs, festivals, and other regular summer events that take place annually in the Bay Area. And if I hadn’t been to some of them, at least I was aware of their existence. I was thinking about this in the larger context of this walk of Berkeley, and how it has slowly made me aware of how exploring and learning about a place and its history, customs, people, geography, etc., have shown just how much more there is to discover about the place where I live.

A few weeks ago I ran across the book Opening the Mountain: Circumambulating Mount Tamalpais, A Ritual Walk. Published last year, the book describes an all-day walk (about 15 miles) that circles Mt. Tamalpais (for readers outside of the area — this is a mountain in Marin County, north of San Francisco) with stops along the way for chanting, poems, etc. The ritual was started in 1965 by Beat poets Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, and Philip Whalen, and was inspired by Eastern practices of walking clockwise around a mountain, rock, or some other venerated object or person. I surprised to learn that circumambulation continues to this today, with groups doing the walk on the Sundays nearest the equinoxes and solstices. Of course, I immediately decided that I want to do the walk soon myself — hopefully on around my birthday in a couple of weeks. But how did I miss this? My range of reading and interests covers the Bay Area, hiking, walking, Beat literature, Eastern religion, etc., but I had never run across this particular ritual until now. Doing a bit of searching online, I noticed that most everything I found was book reviews and bookstores selling the title. It was both re-assuring to find an example of something I hadn’t heard about before, and exciting to think about what else is out there that I have yet to discover.

What comes to mind immediately in thinking further about spiritual walking is pilgrimages. Pilgrimages, of course, have been part of many religions — and often take the form of walking (sometimes very long distances) to religious sites. Walking can also be spiritual without a final destination, where the walking alone is the spiritual practice. A typical image of meditation is of someone sitting quietly in one place for a length of time. But meditation can also take the form of walking, in practices such as circumambulation, and with a combination of walking and breath awareness. In A Guide to Walking Meditation, Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh notes:

Choose a nice road for your practice, along the shore of a river, in a park, on the flat roof of a building, in the woods, or along a bamboo fence. Such places are ideal, but they are not essential. I know there are people who practice walking meditation in reformation camps, even in small prison cells.


Willard Labyrinth

Another form that spiritual walking can take is walking a labyrinth. A number of labyrinths can be found at churches, the best known of which in the Bay Area are probably the at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco. In Berkeley, an outdoor labyrinth can be found at Willard Middle School (Telegraph between Derby and Parker). The East Bay Labyrinth Project holds monthly walks at the labyrinth, but anyone can walk it on their own during non-school hours. The group is also hoping to bring a much larger labyrinth to the Berkeley Marina. Also in the East Bay, labyrinths can be found at Sibley Volcanic Preserve. I was particularly interested to find that labyrinth walking is mainstream enough to be described by the American Cancer Society as a “complementary method to decrease stress and create a state of relaxation.”

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Walking Along the Borders

As if there weren’t enough reasons already to get out the car, here’s another one that I have discovered: walking and bicycling have given me a much better understanding of geography and a better sense of direction. For a long time, I thought I was someone who was doomed to be terrible with directions. Put me in a car, and I probably will always be that way. I think my brain shuts down sometimes when I’m in a car because I’m not particularly interested in filling it with knowledge of all of the freeways, freeway exits, alternative routes to avoid traffic, and all of the other things that are involved in making a smooth trip from point A to B in a vehicle. Outside of the car, though, is a different story. Why is this? Part of it, in my case, is that I enjoy spending a fair amount of time looking at walking and bicycling maps, planning and imagining different routes, and studying the topography of an area. One thing that particularly fascinates me when looking at area maps is the borders of cities and towns. The historical and political development of particular cities and regions is often complex, and often some areas end up forming strange and interesting shapes and patterns on a map!

Early on in my walk, I noticed that many times the border between Berkeley and the next city sometimes ran right through a street. In most of these cases, I just walked the full length of a street, because it would be difficult to tell exactly where the border was (and it made for a smoother, though longer, walk). One day I happened to be walking along a section of the Berkeley-Albany border when it was an Albany garbage pickup day. I started laughing when I realized that on trash day I could figure out exactly where the border was by seeing where the line of garbage cans at the curbs ended.

A recent Salon article by Oakland resident Novella Carpenter, “Why I Pick Lettuce For the Black Panthers,” touches on a couple of points related to topics I’ve been planning to talk about here. One is about school gardens in Berkeley, which I will discuss in a future post. The other concerns my thoughts about the borders of Berkeley. In the article, Carpenter describes crossing over the border from Oakland to Berkeley:

After 30 flat blocks, the landscape changes. I’m in Berkeley. There’s a Nuclear-Free Zone sign and then the gleaming giant words “THERE” and “HERE” — a piece of public sculpture that has always rubbed me the wrong way. “There is no there there,” Gertrude Stein famously said of Oakland, her hometown. Seventy years later, does Berkeley, land of Priuses and million-dollar bungalows, really have to remind us?

This entry point to Berkeley is interesting because it is one of the few places I have observed where it is really obvious that you are going from a bordering city into Berkeley. After having walked near all of the borders, I’ve noticed that in most places there is a slow blend from one city to the next rather than an abrupt change where you know you are entering somewhere new. Berkeley’s west border is the Bay, and its east border is mostly either Tilden Park or University of California land. But where Berkeley borders cities (Albany, Kensington, Emeryville, and Oakland), it’s harder to tell when you’ve crossed over. The houses along the north borders of Berkeley are often similar to those of Albany or Kensington. The Claremont area blends with the neighboring Oakland hills. It’s really hard to tell (except for indicators like the Nuclear Free Zone signs on major streets and the Here/There sculpture) when you are going from North Oakland to South Berkeley. When I’ve walked in South Berkeley, I see the same things happening on MLK Jr. Way and on Adeline Street in Berkeley that Carpenter mentions seeing in Oakland. The only border area where there was a discernible change from one place to the other was places along the short Berkeley-Emeryville border — Folger Street seems much like the surrounding area of west Berkeley, but as you turn onto Hollis and across 67th on the Emeryville side, you are suddenly amongst industrial buildings that have been converted to offices and newly built live-work lofts.

The quote from this article really brought me back to thinking about one of the original reasons why I started this walk. Do you really have to walk every street?, many people have asked. It may seem like a silly exercise to some, or an obsessive-compulsive project, but as I near the end of walking every street, I am glad I have made the effort to do it. One of those reasons is that Berkeley could otherwise just seem like the “land of Priuses and million-dollar bungalows.” There is no denying there are a lot of Priuses in Berkeley, and there are plenty of million-dollar bungalows — I have seen quite a few of both. I have seen parts of Berkeley that still fit with the image of 1960s Berkeley. But I have also seen that there is a lot of everything else in the range of income levels, types of cars, level of environmental awareness, social behavior, and so on. This morning, for instance, I was reading a new South and West Berkeley Transportation Plan (posted on the city’s Transportation website) which in its analysis notes that (from Metropolitan Transportation Commission findings based on the 2000 Census) “fully 39 percent of South and West Berkeley residents were living in poverty.” Is this number accurate, or has it been adjusted to fit the needs of this study? It’s hard to know, and I have never been one to trust statistics in studies. But based on my experiences having walked in south and west Berkeley, I would have come up with a similar percentage. Instead of just reading this article and wondering whether to believe it, I actually can decide for myself whether it is true from what I have observed. And, hopefully some of what I have written about in this blog has given others a look at the many aspects of Berkeley and has encouraged a few people (my ultimate goal) to get out and walk around their own communities!

Also — I’ve found that thinking about borders has been quite a bit of fun, and it has also led me to wanting to spend time in the future walking in small communities that have branched off from the rest of a city (such as Piedmont and Kensington in the East Bay) to see what the borders are like in those areas and what, if any, differences there are between those areas and surrounding cities.

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Front Porches

I had fully intended to continue Signs of Spring as a short series. Maybe I will get a chance, but right now it feels like summer. However, my walks over the past few days of warmer temperatures have shed some new light on a question I have been pondering over the past few months: why don’t I see more people sitting out in front of their houses on their porches or stoops, and what sorts of conditions would need to occur for this to happen more often? I had wondered upon starting this walking project if I would talk to many people who lived in the homes on all of the streets of Berkeley that I was walking. I have had a few conversations, but not as many as I had expected. Ironically, the last time was early on a weekday morning with a woman who was examining the smashed windshield of her car and was stressed about how she was going to get the window fixed, make it to work, find a safer parking spot for her car, etc. We had a good conversation, but it felt slightly odd reassuring someone about a car headache!

In any case, early in the Berkeley walk I found myself sometimes having an idealistic daydream about taking years to finish the walk because I couldn’t make it down one street without having several interesting conversations with the people who lived there. Of course, I knew this really wouldn’t be the case, but I did start to wonder why I could sometimes have walks in residential areas where I barely saw anyone outside their house. My first thought was that long work hours and long commutes meant that many people were not home that often. This could be true in some cases, but Berkeley also has lots of students, people who work at home or not at all, and other alternatives to typical work patterns. Commercial districts are busy at all hours, and streets are rarely empty of cars. And then on weekends, when I do much of my walking, it’s not often that I see someone reading a newspaper or a book on the porch.

Another theory, and a valid one I think, is that many Berkeley houses have small porches. Porches here, for the most part, are not the kind that you might find in other parts of the country that circle the house or are large enough for a porch swing or other seating. Many houses have small chairs on the porch, but not ones that seem comfortable for long sittings; they are more likely used to remove muddy shoes or set down packages before entering the front door. I have also considered the idea, run into the ground in the media, that we are becoming more and more internal, that we spend more time in front of the TV set and the computer and less time outside and socializing with our neighbors. I don’t want to spend too much time on this — most of you have heard or read about this too many times — and I also can’t say for sure whether it is true or not.

All theories aside, what circumstances might cause people to sit on their porch or stoop? I wasn’t sure until I started noticing a pattern of people sitting outside with their cell phones. Whether it’s to get better reception or to gain a bit of privacy from the rest of the household, the porch seems to be a favorite spot for chatting on the mobile phone. Obviously this is completely different than sitting on the porch and talking with people as they pass by; I have not once had anyone look up from their conversation and wave or smile. But perhaps some people will talk to a neighbor after they are done on the phone. One amusing thought I had, as someone who tends to question statistics, is a survey result saying that “people spend x% more time on their porches these days” (with the increase due not to more socializing but the sharp rise in cell phone use).

This week, however, temperatures have been higher that usual for this time of year. Suddenly I have seen all sorts of people outside: kids playing in the sprinklers, people reading books on the stoop, others socializing. Many of the houses here were built without much insulation, and even those who have decent insulation and some fans are not accustomed to high temperatures. Heat waves in an area with normally mild temperatures can bring people out and socializing with neighbors and passers-by. On one short walk to the grocery store I passed a man yelling across the street to offer a neighbor a cold beer, and then talked to some children who were picking strawberries from their front-yard garden.

I hope by the end of this walk to have some other thoughts to share about the lack of porch-sitters, and what might change the situation. As usual, any opinions are welcome!

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Car-free Follow-up

It was a pleasant surprise to get so many email messages and comments in response to my post about car-free living. A common thread in many responses was the aspect of hauling large or heavy items without a car. It wasn’t really at the top of my mind, as it has been quite some time since I have been in need of a creative transport solution — mostly because we live in a small home and there isn’t much more room for more furniture or large objects. In a couple of months, though, I will be eyeing the melons and winter squashes at the farmer’s market, which would be somewhat heavy to carry the bags that I normally use. I realized that I had addressed this topic last year; take a look at my post about transporting goods without a car for some thoughts about bike trailers and rolling carts.

A term that How to Live Well Without Owning a Car uses is “car-lite,” to refer to a lifestyle where the car is used minimally and/or where a family might get rid of one of their cars and adjust to sharing a car. This an idea for the cases where there is a reason or multiple reasons why it would make sense to be completely car-free. So if there is a car sitting there to use, how do you stop yourself for jumping in the car in the cases where it isn’t necessary? Some ideas include planning ahead, trip-linking, and being okay with certain errands taking more time than they would in a car. If you want an easy motivator for getting more organized, not using a car might be one way to do it: because you can’t just drive everywhere when you are out of something or need to pick something up it’s much easier to keep a running list of errands. One of the best techniques that’s worked for me in terms of efficiency is trip-linking. Instead of going in and out multiple times, I look at what I need to do and plan a route that makes sense to get a few tasks done at once. Of course (as I mentioned previously) it’s pretty easy to do this living in Berkeley. This is not as easy in some suburban and rural settings, but not impossible.

I would love to hear from others who are living without a car or have minimized their car use. Please feel free to comment or send a message!

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Why People Walk, Part 3: Car-less and Car-free

Last week I read another book that I had been waiting for from the library, How to Live Well Without Owning a Car. I have read lots about the subject of living without a car, so I did not necessarily expect to learn anything new from this book, and in fact most of the ideas covered were familiar to me. However, I did find it to be an interesting read because of its approach — focusing first and foremost on the amount of money one would save by not owning a car. The author also emphasized throughout the book how “normal” he was — he works, shops at major stores, attends church, goes on dates, and goes out to parties and clubs — all without a car. A book with this format is probably going to reach a whole lot more people than one that focuses on the environmental effects and depicts someone who lives an unconventional lifestyle.

This book talks about “car-free” (or carfree) living, which is giving up ones car by choice. There are also many people who live without a car not by their own choice, primarily because they cannot afford to own one at the time. Regardless of which camp a person falls into, most people without cars have the same goal and similar choices for getting places without a car: public transportation, bicycling, and walking. Depending on location and circumstances, someone might use one or all of these methods, but most people are going to do some amount of walking if they do not own a car.

How amenable is Berkeley to living without a car? I was thinking this yesterday evening as Joe and I were returning from a walk nearby to do a few errands. We had between us some bike parts, a bag of coffee beans, some office supplies, and groceries — all from different stores and all purchased near our house. Taking care of everyday tasks and errands without a car in Berkeley is very easy for the most part (as long as you don’t live way up in the hills). Pretty much everything you would need is available right in Berkeley, and many of the stores that do not exist in Berkeley can be visited by taking BART for a couple of stops. Traveling as a family without owning a car may be more challenging, but I do know some families that get around well without using a car very often.

Speaking of BART, public transportation also allows someone without a car in Berkeley to go other places — San Francisco, other East Bay cities, and over to the Peninsula to connect with Caltrain. Berkeley also has an Amtrak stop for the Capitol Corridor, which goes down to San Jose one way and out to Davis and Sacramento in the other direction. Some trips are quick and easy, but others require some logistics and planning and a bit of time. Weekend trips to popular locations such as Lake Tahoe are pretty difficult without a car. Car rental locations and car share stops are both available in Berkeley.

One topic that was barely addressed in How to Live Well Without Owning a Car is safety. I am mostly thinking about being out at night, which the author talks about at night at various points in the book. If you are male and live in a relatively safe area, or if you are always able to go somewhere with a large group of people, this may be an option. Otherwise, night-time activities are a bit more challenging without a car. Related to this, public transportation in the Bay area either stops or runs very infrequently at night, and you cannot just hail a cab to take you home.

An awareness event called World Carfree Day occurs each September, and Berkeley has been participating for the past few years. However, this day happens to coincide with the How Berkeley Can You Be parade — which usually features a long line of art cars as part of ArtCar Fest. It’s a strange combination for one event to have a promotion of car-free living and a celebration of the car as art.

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