You miss a lot of good smells when you don’t walk much. Or maybe you don’t miss them entirely, but you don’t get to spend as much quality time with them while, say, driving (or even biking) as you do while walking. This time of year, a quick stroll around the block can be an olfactory symphony, a Smell-o-vision rollercoaster of poplar balsam (along the river), crabapple blossoms, cut grass from the first freshly-mown lawns of the year, and freshly-blackened burgers from the season’s first barbecues.
I recently read a book, The Way of All Flesh, in which the author claims that smell is our most primal sense, the one that most closely links us to our animal ancestors—like dogs. Smells are a dog’s main source of news. You think spring offers a lot of new smells for people to enjoy, for a dog it’s like trying to get caught up with five months of The Wall Street Journal.
It’s a great book, by the way, The Way of All Flesh. It ranges over all sorts of bizarre philosophical terrain, but mostly it’s about decay, which Dutch author Midas Dekkers views as the natural and acceptable state of everything. Check out just this one excerpt, which I must share with you apropos of nothing: “The mouth is the death of the teeth. It’s not a safe haven your palate offers them, but a torture chamber, a battlefield, a hellhole, a death trap….A teeming metropolis, that’s what your mouth is. Like befuddled pub crawlers at the foot of old cathedrals, streptococci urinate against the crowns of your teeth, with a corrosive acid that no cement can withstand…”
People, Dekkers insists, seem to have gotten this idea that spring is a time of rebirth and awakening—that Mother Nature can’t wait to get started on all her spring projects, when the truth of it is that she would rather stay sleeping. Nature likes fall and winter best, when all the work is done and it doesn’t have to expend any more energy blossoming and mating. Not people, though. People can’t wait to get outside and get all caught up on their blossoming and mating.
It makes sense that spring and summer would be the ideal seasons for walking (although all seasons have something to recommend them—even winter has wood smoke, smell-wise, and for peaceful visuals there’s no beating snow falling in luminous pyramids around streetlights). I know the warmer months are ideal for me, because two of my biggest hobbies (finding stuff and figuring out what to do with it) are closely linked to spring cleaning activities. Furthermore, walking has a tonic effect on the body and a laxative effect on the mind, the simple rhythm of putting one foot after the other shaking things loose that have started to calcify upstairs. As Thoreau put it: “Me thinks that the moment my legs begin to move, my thoughts begin to flow.”
Walking, by the way, differs from hiking in at least two fundamental respects. First, hiking is something you elect to do, generally after picking out a pretty spot and driving to it. Walking you just do, in some cases because you simply enjoy it, in others because you don’t have a choice or a viable alternative. The history books are full of forced marches. Grandparents will tell you all about having to walk five miles to school in their day, uphill both ways, back when winter was 10 months long. You never hear about forced hikes, except maybe in sadistic Army parlance.
Second, hiking generally implies enjoying nature in situ—not the marginal remnants of it invading your lawn or digging up your tulip bulbs every year, or the bushy simulacra that we plant to remind us of a time when the wild came right up to the doorstep. You can find plenty of nature in the city, but when you go around looking at it, you’re still just walking. Hiking is elk and lupines and beargrass and glacier lilies; walking is dandelions and lilacs and the same two ratlike terriers that always come bounding around the back of the same house to yap at you. There are patterns to frequent walks along the same route, if not exactly routines.
I consider myself an outdoorsy person in the sense that I like to be outdoors. I might not be the first guy sprinting to the summit with a Power Bar in each hand, but I like things that grow where they grow, and I’ve never felt like you have to walk under some arch that reads “Wild Kingdom” to get a little communing done. In the city, the closest things to game trails and wildlife corridors are alleyways, an under-appreciated (by too many people) commodity that Missoula has in plenty. There was even a local artist, the late Tu Baixiong, who had both an affectionate eye and a skilled stroke for depicting these strips of backyard wild on canvas, fluttering laundry and all. It says a lot—both about Tu and about Missoula’s alleys—that the guy came all the way from China, and some of his favorite scenes to paint were the everyday wilds hidden, in plain sight, behind half the houses in town or better.
I never take a sidewalk through a residential area if there’s an alley running through the back. My puttering and urban-foraging year starts with serious alley research every spring—right about now. By April, I know who’s got unsprayed dandelions for winemaking and hop runners to try and transplant. By May, I know whose neglected rhubarb patches are ripe for daring raids at sundown. By late summer, I know whose apple and apricot trees are starting to droop under the weight of all those ripening ovaries, and then a little canvassing determines who might be willing to part with some or all of the fruit in exchange for yard-work or a share of whatever it looks like the finished product is going to be. I bat about .500 with fruit wines, jellies and syrups, but as any home winemaker will tell you, the real pleasure is in the making, not the tasting.
All year long, but especially in spring and summer, alleys are constantly filling up with and being stealthily emptied of a constant supply of stuff that people feel guilty about throwing out and hope alley-crawlers like me will come along and carry off for them. Construction and renovation projects produce scrap lumber and panes of old glass with nearly limitless possibilities. It’s like a big, free, yearlong garage sale, and nothing fires the puttering imagination like free materials; in many cases, they determine the nature of the puttering, instead of the other way around. A few years ago, I built a cider press out of mostly salvaged materials. It still needs a little work, but then I’m still waiting to come across some discarded oak staves to make the bucket. You never know.
If it weren’t for alleyways, it might never have occurred to me to try building a cider press. In fact, if I spent a tenth as much time driving past them as I do walking down them, I might not even notice alleys at all. Until recently, for me, good walking has been a pleasure coaxed from necessity—and elected necessity, I’ll admit, but a necessity nonetheless. At 33, I’ve never owned a car, which surely vaults me into some kind of rarefied demographic percentile for lifelong car-owners to gawk at. I haven’t even owned a bicycle since my last one got stolen and I was too heartbroken to buy another—in 1992. I don’t get all sanctimonious about my ecological footprint or anything (and it’s not like I never drive or ride in other people’s cars), but, yes, there’s a certain satisfaction in feeling like I’ve got some personal non-polluter credits saved up. If only there were some compensation for the time that bird crapped right on my head—something that never would have happened if I’d been in a car.
But lately, as mentioned, there have been changes: Last month I bought a house seven miles (and about $30,000) distant from Missoula proper. It’s a little too far to walk twice a day without cutting into time I need for other things, so now I either carpool or take the bus into town on weekdays, limiting extra trips taken in a borrowed car as best I can.
Public transport in Missoula is a more convivial experience than you’ll find in some cities. All last week, the driver on my route kept up this running gag about his “flying saucer sighting”—actually just a piece of round pink plastic on the side of the road.
On the whole, though, I’d rather still be walking everywhere. But at least the bus driver lets me carry lumber on his route.