Walking, the new luxury

Jan. 12, 2013 @ 03:16 AM

In his book “A Walk in the Woods,” Bill Bryson memorably recalled the alienating sensation of being the lone pedestrian in a town’s business district.

What he originally thought would be a simple journey – crossing a highway on foot – turned into a precarious navigation through an intimidating landscape of asphalt and looming concrete overpasses, with more than a few strange looks from people passing by in their cars.

The experience, he noted, was thoroughly dehumanizing.

You would think that a rural county like our own, surrounded by thousands of acres of lush countryside, would be a haven from such restrictions. However, most of this land is privately-owned, and thus, a good deal of it is off limits.

I’m convinced this is a major contributing factor to why so many of us in Rutherford County are overweight, myself included since I’ve packed on 15 pounds since we moved here.

I haven’t changed my eating patterns, either. There simply isn’t the immediate access to vast areas of walkable land here as there is where we came from, Colorado.

Much of Colorado’s wilderness is owned by the state or the federal Bureau of Land Management which, despite the latter’s authoritarian-sounding name, allows free reign to hike or camp almost anywhere. Even your dog can run off leash on BLM land.

Here’s something else getting in the way of a good walk, as Bryson and many others have observed: throughout the entire United States, we’ve abandoned pedestrian-friendly Main Street for big box stores located off the highway.

Just try and take a walk sometime to Wal-Mart or Lowe’s or one of the countless chain dollar stores that are proliferating everywhere.

There’s a reason why it’s purposely difficult. People tend to buy more stuff if they brought a car to haul it all back home. It would actually work against the big chain stores if it was an easy matter to walk to them, even from nearby neighborhoods.

So sidewalks are definitely out. Better instead to put down acres of parking lots.

Since we live just a few blocks from downtown Spindale, our family actually has more “walkability” to restaurants and certain stores – even our town library and local elementary school - than those who don’t live within town limits. But like most other people, we still have to drive for much of our shopping.

There was a time when car ownership gave us a freedom of movement unlike any the human race had ever experienced. But shaping our entire infrastructure around driving - and omitting to put pedestrian and bike lanes alongside every new road we built - has turned this freedom into a costly and health-compromising trap.

I know I can’t be the only one who longs to romp through miles of fields and forest – if only the nearest trail to do so wasn’t 20 miles away in a state park with a hefty entrance fee. And if only the gas to drive there didn’t cost over three dollars a gallon.

The big question: now that we’ve boxed ourselves into a pedestrian-unfriendly lifestyle, how do we get out of it?

As usual, the answer lies with thoughtful and motivated people who, as soon as they spot a need, start working to answer it no matter how long it takes. And as I promised last week, I’ll be featuring more of their stories in 2013.

In next week’s column, I’ll profile Jerry Stensland, whose work with the county and the Rutherford Outdoor Coalition has been instrumental in giving us more access to the natural paradise we live in.

Some of the results of these collaborative efforts: eight miles of trail between Spindale and Gilkey, new public access points on the Broad River, and a system of trails currently in development at Isothermal Community College.

Other projects are also in the works, with the potential to transform our health and give a long-term boost to our economy.

Volunteers are definitely welcome. If you’re an agent of change yourself – or think you have the potential to be – come back next week to learn more.


Stephanie Janard is a mother and full-time copywriter. She lives in Spindale. To reach Stephanie, email sjanard@msn.com