Smash the Tyranny of Step Count

Bridge patina, Sligo Creek

I can’t remember the last time I went for a walk without a pedometer, or as part of accomplishing a task (like getting from my car to my office, or mailing something, or going to a market).

For some time I’ve been trying, with mixed success, to go for a walk at lunchtime whenever I am working from home. That used to be twice a week. Now that I telework every day, the walk is more urgent. Today I carefully mapped out a route that is 2.5 miles (according to GMap Pedometer) and has a good selection of terrain—steep hills, flat stretches, two parks with things to balance on. Somehow that had become the value of a walk: How many steps. How many obstacles. A quota. Quantifiable.

Two blocks into today’s walk, I went off the map.

A person was approaching with a dog on a leash, on a section of sidewalk too narrow for all of us to maintain a 6-foot separation. I crossed the street—and on a whim decided to go downhill instead of up, toward the creek, not to the crest of the hill. I’ve lived here in Takoma Park since May 2011, and am slightly ashamed of how little time I have spent in Sligo Creek Park—a narrow strip of paved paths, grassy spaces, playgrounds, and muddy “desire line” trails (where people walk because they want to, not because the path was paved for them). Trees, birds, flowers. Water flowing over stone. Little bridges. It’s a delight.

My Subparkour practice is best accomplished in thin-soled shoes (more contact with the ground, more communication with my feet, better balance/ proprioception). I found the limits of my shoe choice today. When I needed to turn for home, there were a few options: back the way I came; across a bridge to the trail on the other side; onto a street with a paved sidewalk. As I was deciding, two people emerged from a side-path, one of the muddy tracks through the woods along the edges of the creek. I asked them if that track came out somewhere public in the direction they had come from (back toward my home). To the casual observer, it looked like it could just run into someone’s back yard. “Oh, yes!” they said. “It’s not too far–it comes out at the other side of the bridge by the playground. And the view is great!”

The mouth of the path

I started up the track, but after only a few yards realized I wasn’t qualified. There was a section of the trail where the soil was bare and raked dramatically downhill, a 20-foot tumble to the creek if I lost my footing. Nothing to hold on to. If I had a walking staff or shoes with some traction I might have chanced it. I was considering: Forward, or back? Then one foot started to slide downhill, and then the other foot slid as well, the shoe twisting around my foot like bark sliding off a whistle. I froze, thinking quickly, how embarrassing it would be to need rescuing, how ridiculous it would be to take up a hospital bed at a time like this because I hadn’t known my own limits. I turned, carefully, carefully, back the way I had come. The twisted shoe slid almost off, and I was able to kick it ahead to a place I could safely bend over to get it. Barefoot in the mud.

Back on safe ground, I felt joyful, in a way I have not felt in years. Not in intensity—my life is full of joy—but in flavor: I had done something very unexpected, unplanned, difficult. It went badly. I saw it about to go very badly, and carefully recovered. It’s a strange flavor of fun, but it is fun. And then I realized: It has been years—I don’t know how many, but more than ten—since I struck out like that, on my own feet, walking a route I had not planned, walking the longer fractal-ramble distance that would not show on a map. Look at those flowers, are they wood anemones? (No, lesser celandine). Ah, those seeds are set, there will be less of that pollen soon, thank goodness. Look at those mushrooms, turkeytail, I wonder how long ago this tree fell? I am not brave enough to cross the creek on that log, but I would like to be.

So, that’s today’s message from The Distancing: There’s joy to be found when I’m not counting my steps, when I’m just moving through the world without a plan, on purpose. A tonic against worry. Recommended.