Jan 28 2012
Once upon a time, people of all ages walked. In the small farm town where I grew up, few families had more than one car and a surprising number had none. People walked to work at the local seed plant. Kids walked (or rode their bikes) to school. Mothers pushed babies in carriages to and from one of the three grocery stores or the many doctors’ offices. The seventy-something librarian even cycled around the village retrieving overdue books. And if you needed to get out of town you could take the train.
All that is gone now. The train doesn’t stop at my old home town anymore. The seed plant shut its doors many years ago, along with the local hospital—and the doctors left town soon thereafter. All but one of the grocery stores has closed. And while people still walk, it’s now something to do when there’s nothing interesting on television. The ordinary business of everyday life—work, shopping, taking the kids to the doctor—requires getting in a car.
Sound familiar? Of course it does. Many people I know spend about as much time alone in their cars as they spend with their families at home. And it’s not just adults. Few kids walk to school, even when school is only a ten-minute stroll from their front door. Homeowners complain endlessly about their burgeoning tax bills, but the school buses keep rolling along. The results are easy to see. Whatever his or her age, the “average American” increasingly resembles a Teletubbie in profile (minus the funny topknot). My home county is a case in point. We’re close to the top in the Empire State’s Obesity and Inactivity Stakes, a proud boast that the local Chambers of Commerce somehow forget to include in their press releases. But the Chambers’ flacks aren’t always so sluggish. For example. they’re quick to tout snowmobile and ATV trails as one-stop solutions to the county’s continuing economic malaise. Walkers and cyclists don’t drop enough money at the bars and gas pumps, it seems. So our real problem isn’t our collective inertia. It’s our tight-fisted ways. If we just had more gas-guzzling toys and more places to play with them, all would be well.
There’s more at work here than simple no-nothing perversity and the mechinations of local gasoholics, however. The face of rural America is changing. The car is king. Walkers and cyclists are left to scrabble around for whatever crumbs remain after the king has eaten his fill. Even in small towns, Main Street has surrendered to Big Box storefronts, all of them protected from the threat of pedestrian assault by asphalt moats hundreds of yards wide. Only the boldest walker will attempt to trek across these barren wastelands. And before you can tackle the moat, you first have to get to the Big Box store. Which brings up the subject of sidewalks. What about sidewalks? Often there are none at all, but when, through oversight or nostalgia, a few crumbling concrete slabs somehow survive, they’re ignored from November to May. The roads are kept clear, of course. (The king must be served, right?) As for the sidewalks… Well, look for yourself:
You can’t tell from this picture, but the sidewalk here is uneven, narrow and cracked. Two adults would be hard-pressed to walk abreast, much less pass one another. Luckily, though, pedestrian traffic is nearly nonexistent. And the best bit lies just down the road, where the sidewalk suddenly drops more than two feet to the level of the crossroad on an asphalt berm that descends at a one-in-one grade. If you’re a climber, it’s a good place to practice your flat-foot technique. If you’re not, however—if, say, you’re a young mother pushing a baby in a stroller—it’s something else. Let’s call it a challenge, shall we?
But that’s not all. As you can see, winter adds a little something extra. Since the sidewalk lies below the state highway grade for much of its length, any pedestrian foolish enough to venture out will get a faceful of salt and grit from every passing car. And if that’s still not challenging enough, there’s always the ice-slick surface concealed just below the snow, waiting to send the unwary pedestrian sprawling. Can you say “slip and fall”? Well, don’t worry. Your lawyer can.
Thank goodness the highway is clear. So there’s always a place to walk. But be ready to jump out of the way if one of the kings of the road decides to teach you a lesson, perhaps by swerving dangerously close. It’s not a rare occurrence. Roads are for cars, after all, and many drivers feel duty-bound to remind pedestrians that they belong on the sidewalk. If a few walkers are killed or maimed in the process, that’s just too bad. Kings have no need to defer to lesser mortals.
The moral of my story? Just this: There’s more to the much-ballyhooed “obesity epidemic” than simple laziness, though habitual indolence certainly plays its part. America was once a nation of men and women. Now it’s a nation of cars, and the cars are doing just fine, thanks. But for how long, I wonder? And at what cost?
Questions? Comments? Just click here!