Friday, October 4, 2013

Reflections on Walking Studley Road

A couple of years ago, my doctor, the very fine Dr. Tim Wratchford, (whose wife Dr. Pam watches over Kathy), told me that if I didn't want to start wearing a bra (not that there is anything wrong with that), it would be prudent to begin an exercise program.

"What a horrible thought", I thought (the exercise part).

I have spent a fair amount of my adult life avoiding even the idea of organized exertion. When you ignore your doctor's advice you do so at your own peril. Besides, when traveling we walk a lot, and usually feel better for it. So, rather than drive the 1.2 miles to the post office each day I would walk instead. The round trip is only 2.4 miles, and since walking is a natural activity learned rather early in life, how hard could it be? It wasn't. In fact I found it exhilarating. Besides feeling better, the forty minutes or so it took was an opportunity to do nothing but think and let my mind wander where it wished. (A little like meditation, except you allow the ideas to come. If you doubt this occurs, try sitting for a half hour and think of nothing. It is amazing what pops into your head.)

Let me set the scene. Studley isn't a town, or village, or even a state of mind. It's got a general store, and post office (with the best post-mistress in the US). It's lovely and it's our home. Studley Road in bucolic Hanover County, Virginia connects the Mechanicsville Turnpike (Rt.360) to Shady Grove Road just shy of Chamberlayne Road (Rt. 301). These two major roads pass close by each other in Richmond and spread out like the sides of a pie piece as they progress generally northward. The little lane, down which we live, is just past the picturesque Enon United Methodist Church (who's bells serenade us if we walk on an hour marker) and lies on the Hawes Shop battlefield. The relic-hunters had a field day when we were building our house.

It is a beautiful, two lane, country road, with a white stripe on either side, no shoulders for the most part and usually two yellow lines (no passing) down the middle. Significant portions are 35 mph limited, but from our house to the post office the signs read 45 mph, which is generally ignored. There are gentle rises and one pretty exciting curve. The north side is bordered by farm land and woods, the south a smattering of houses and woods. Woods are the key attraction for me, except when the wind and rain cause them to misbehave as shown in this picture.

Kathy was fearful each day when I left, sure that I would end up on the side of the road joining the fairly significant number of lower order life forms that do. I believe the responsibility for not hitting a pedestrian lies with the driver. Secure in that belief the walker can be lulled into a peaceful dream state as time drifts away.

The first few days my attention was focused on (1) avoiding being hit by traffic, (2) the pain in every muscle and joint, (3) the inability to breathe and (4) the sound of my heartbeat pounding in my eardrums. Since these were novel experiences they kept my interest. After a few days, I ignored the traffic, the muscles and joints magically felt fine, the breath came and the pounding stopped. Also, a new awareness set in: I was thinking of the weirdest things. Was this a new path to enlightenment?

It's been two years now, I'm 30 pounds lighter, and I can't remember most of the thoughts. Since they were so insightful, interesting, and novel at the time, I figure I'd better document them somewhere I can find them in the future. Following are some random thoughts from an oxygen enriched brain.

Oh, two overused maxims before I start: "All generalities are false, including this one" and "Never say never and always avoid always."

- Young, blonde, female drivers never wave - older, blonde, female drivers always wave. I lift my hand to everyone as they approach, usually as a way of saying thank you for not hitting me. Most everyone waves or nods - not young blondes.

- Traffic eastbound (towards the Post Office) is always heavier than westbound. Why? I've walked at various times throughout the day but it's always the same. How do they get back?

- There are more pick-up trucks on the road than cars. This is followed by SUVs and vans. Every pick-up truck that does not have lettering on the side has huge, VERY NOISY tires, that signal their approach from a half mile away, and take a step ladder to gain entry.

- We love living in Hanover County. It's served by a good local newspaper (The Mechanicsville Local), with a lively editor, where we get our local news. The greatest enjoyment and insight though, comes from the letters to the editor. Topics vary and people are passionate in their beliefs. Amazing what goes on in the minds of the local citizenry.

- This one really gets me: the road is narrow, and if two cars are approaching, one from the front and one from the rear they both slow down almost to a crawl and squeeze pass me side by side usually with dirty looks plastered on the faces of their drivers. If only one of them kept their speed up (or both) this little dance would not have taken place.

- I have come to appreciate the varied fauna that exists on our little stretch of Studley road. Or did exist. I usually admire this diversity when passing an inert and smelly form on the side of the road. Possum are ugly with sharp little teeth. Snakes and frogs must be stupid, or slow, so many commit suicide by vehicle on this piece of asphalt. A large turtle the size of a dinner plate squished like a water balloon, with bursts of color radiating outward. It occurred to me that like a lot of people I've met, the harder the outside shell, the softer the inside. Family pets make me shudder.

And the smells! Skunks stink from the start, others mature over days. The worst, so far, was a small deer that had either been hit or shot and died in what passes for a culvert on the side. Rains flood the culvert every few days it seems, so the deterioration process lasted months. A tangential reflection is that the bird that I call a turkey vulture, is without doubt one of the ugliest species that ever evolved. Don't know what the originals looked like but now they are so mean looking I give them a wide berth as they play the part of mortuary worker.

- A lot of folks move over to the middle of the road, thank you, straddling the yellow lines as they pass. They will be rewarded with good karma.

- I've been beeped at a few times. Now that I think of it, that started only when Kathy started walking with me (about a year now) and may have nothing to do with me at all. She does walk gracefully as an angel might. I will have to give that more reflection.

- Stamps are a bargain. I don't care how much they cost - now about 4 bits, I think. The fact that we can address a card with a loving thought to a grandchild on Wednesday and by Friday at the latest they are holding that same card with a smile on their face seems a good bargain. And speaking of cards; no thank-you card, no inclusion in the will. Not accepting the story that Facebook or e-mail takes the place of it. Humor us.

- Bicyclists are the rudest road sharers. Period. And, I'm not interested in anyone arguing the point. I wave hello to everyone. I say thank you to everyone whose window is open. I say hello and wave to cyclists as they pass. Not one has ever said hello or deign do more than lift their head, usually in a silly air-streamed helmet, to give me a look of utter derision, as if I am on their road and heaven forbid they should have to shift slightly to their left to avoid me (as they make every car driver do much to their delight, of course). The one time we were almost hit was by a bicyclist and his wife/girlfriend drafting 6 inches behind him. She looked up startled, uttered something my mother never said, wobbled a bit but regained her stability. That little wobble gave me a small shiver of guilty pleasure.

- If you want to walk faster, swing your arms more quickly. I always thought it the opposite, the faster you walked the faster you swung your arms. The faster you walk the faster your heart beats. Still in a quandary over whether your time on this earth is limited by the number of heartbeats or longevity.

- Really enjoy renewal. The rhythm of the farmers. The wall of corn that greets us, or the soybean, or the wheat, that one day is gone, just like that. Love what the young couple has done to renew the house along the way that two years ago was dark, drab, and obscured by vegetation. It is now a bright flowered spot that brings a smile.

- The connection between the sense of smell and memory amazes me. When passed by a truck with a diesel engine and a not very well functioning exhaust system, I am immediately transported in time to July 1975, standing outside the terminal at Charles De Gaulle airport on the outskirts of Paris. It was my first trip overseas and my senses were on high alert. Happens every time, the memory as fresh as a baguette just removed from an oven. Sometimes when it's really hot, I get the "take me back to summer camp canvas smell", the memories are not as pleasant.

- Every spring day is a pleasure. The farms generate their own scents - if you are from the city and never walked a country road in spring, you are missing a unique joy. Mowed hay is quite different from mowed grass. Holly trees when in flower are sweeter than the honeysuckle which grows wild along the side and perfumes our walk. Wild onions grow on every fallow field. Our neighbors serenade us with flora that delights. My favorite is the pink tufted mimosa - never thought a tree would bring a smile, but it does, every day when it's in bloom.

- Littering - I just don't get it. We cannot take 5 steps without encountering litter. What goes through the mind of someone who finds it easier and acceptable to open a window and throw something out, than simply dropping it on the floor of their own car? Someone else has to pick it up and dispose of it. Oh wait, maybe that is the point? We've seen just about everything on the sides of the road. We can certainly tell when a new fast food place opens on Rts. 301 and 360. There is the detritus of amorous affairs and, we imagine, underage consumption of adult beverages. Based on what we see as we walk the mental composite of our litterer is that of a not very well brought up young, Marlborough smoking, Bud/Miller lite or RedBull drinking, McDonalds consuming narcissist, who has to jettison the evidence of his decadence before arriving home to retire to his mom and dad's basement until he's 26 (thanks Obamacare) after which he will get married and his wife will pick up after him. Harsh? Maybe. We also imagine these people are just passing through because they are not our neighbors and not Hanoverarians. I used to pick up something each day on the walk to drop into our own rubbish, my mom teaching that we should leave a place better than we found up, but there is just too much. It's disheartening.

- People fall into two major categories - the preference to be hot or cold. I'd rather be hot. Cold hurts. I like to sweat when I walk. I do not like to put on clothes to stay warm when the air conditioner is on. Kathy is the opposite. She loves to snuggle under a blanket with the A/C running. We think it goes back to ancestry. Mine are from hot/humid islands (Azores) Kathy's are from a cool, damp, drizzly, short summered (albeit beautiful) island (Ireland). It's in the genes.

- I like counting things. My mind naturally performs this function, but not with the granularity I enjoy so I got a stopwatch. With 2 years worth of data, the walk averages 33 minutes and 42 seconds. On any given day the time varies by about 15 seconds. That amazes me. It took an average 30 seconds longer when we started. The best chiropractor we have ever had, the excellent Dr. Eric Etka, told us to keep our heads up, and just like that, 30 seconds less. Amazing. I take 128 steps each minute, Kathy a few more as she has shorter legs. I think there are only two ways to take less time; increase the pace, or lengthen the stride. Neither works for any amount of time as the natural rhythm takes over, as it does in most things in life, I suspect.

- Speaking of chiropractic care, we've been seeing a bone doctor every month for the past 25 years or so. I became a believer the day I saw Dr. Beth Kamhi in Massachusetts for sciatic pain caused when I bent down the wrong way to lift an IBM card tray back in the good old days. After weeks of agony and having developed a fairly significant limp I walked into her office in pain and walked out cured. It works for us and as my friends used to say, it's cheap money. Oh, and for non-believers another old saw: "For some no proof is possible, for others no proof is necessary." Similar to religion.

- Embarrassing moments happen to all of us. I have three that occasionally make the circuit in my mind. The first was when I was 19 and tried to impress someone by telling a silly lie. We both knew it was and I had trouble looking her in the face after that. The second (I was about 20) when I foolishly agreed to buy a stolen tacky sports jacket out of the back of a car in the Raytheon parking lot. It cost $10 dollars, looked like it, and I never wore it. The third is too embarrassing to talk about, but it still haunts me after 40 years. Suffice to say I learned some lessons when I was young and they are still vivid.

- There are more. Isn't there always? The mind is like that. Some thoughts as I walk (metrics, the joy of sharing, boredom, BMWs, tipping your hat, horseflies, economics as God, changing your mind, advice asked for, elastic time, being thankful for criticism, the real sixth sense, bocages, opinions of grandparents, when human nature disappoints, the power of advertising, taxes, the 10% rule, the meaning of life - which I finally found by the way) are coming back to me slowly.

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