Tuesday, August 28, 2012

take a hike

I have a confession to make. One that is tough to admit, but I must get it off my chest. You see, I am a ped---no, it's not what you think, you chauffeurist pig! Pedestrian. I am a pedestrian.

It is true I own a car and have a valid driver's license. But I often choose to walk. And the more I walk, the more enjoyable it becomes, and the less effort it seems to require. Of course, there are many downsides to the Shoe Leather Express in this land of the Land Rover.

Since I rarely venture further than a radius of three or four miles from my home, I have come to be well acquainted with the few sidewalks and many road shoulders of my immediate Suffolk community.

I wouldn't say I keep to a routine schedule with my walks. After all, part of the mystique of mileage the hard way, is the freedom one feels as the lone rambler, making his or her progress slowly but steadily, while the modern world whizzes past, burning fossil fuels and rubber. Still, might one not logically assume that over time local drivers could intuit my iterant itinerary? Perhaps drivers would even come to accept my presence on the shoulder of the road with that sort of top-of-the-food-chain nonchalance that silverbacked gorillas show the lonely zoologist munching leaves on the periphery of their patriarchal group. Uhh, that would be no.

Maybe I have achieved a choking coexistence with the speeding majority of drivers. However, there is a persistent and aggressive subgroup of wheel men (and women no doubt), who apparently object strongly enough to my ambulations as to want to put me in an ambulance.

I refer to those motorists whose aggressive behavior is not unlike the false charge of an alpha male silverback. This type of driver and his passenger, whom I shall call "shotgun," will roll down the car window with the press of a button and let loose blood-curdling and invariably monosyllabic shouts as they zoom past. I assume this serves to mark territory in an auditory manner. Perhaps the driver then looks to his rearview and shotgun cranes his neck as they hurtle down the road in the hope of seeing the walking man start or stumble in the wake of this unexpected assault on his ears, which up until then had been enjoying the gentle symphony of birdsong and leaf rustle.

A variation on this theme is the car traveler who screams a phrase in the American vernacular, invariably comprised of a second person pronoun along with a word or two long considered a punishable offense by the FCC if broadcast. Sometimes for effect an arm is thrust out of the window, while the hand attached to it contorts to create an antisocial gesture, the one where the opposable thumb, upon which our species heaps so much hubris, serves no useful role.

The veteran pedestrian learns not to "take it personal." The walker freely chooses his mode of conveyance in part due to the time and opportunity it affords him to ruminate. Thus the hiker's mind has the leisure to contemplate the pressures which the automobile driver is under: monthly lease payments, rising gas prices, points on a license, an inferior wax job, a 30-decibel rap song, tailgating the jerk ahead while at the same time suffering the idiot behind who’s riding one's bumper. Then there are the ever widening safety recalls, an endless loop of cell phone conversations, and let us not forget rpm, mpg, and HOV worries. And with unmarked police cars patrolling for practitioners of road rage, there are few safe outlets left today for such pent up frustrations, other than of course the one offered by the habitue of the curbstone, the jaded jaywalker, the by-his-very-nature suspicious pedestrian: Why is that man walking anyway? Odd. Can't he afford a car? Loser. License revoked? Drunk. Never learned how to drive? Subversive.

Of course, most drivers are too hands-on with their cell phones to bother shouting or gesticulating obscenities to a stranger who doesn't even register on a radar gun. If those motorists veer toward the pedestrian at the last moment, chances are it isn't a well-timed feint intended to cause the walker to faint. It is probably just the result of inattention or a slippery I-phone. These drivers typically flash their brights or lay on the horn as they approach the man on the shoulder. Such drivers are usually riding that very same shoulder, either due to a sudden gust of centrifugal force following a familiar curve in the road or temporary amnesia as it affects the whereabouts and function of the brake pedal, or because such drivers prefer to view the shoulder as an extra lane for passing on the right. After all, they rationalize, this space will be another lane sooner or later when the road is inevitably widened. So why wait, just because the roadwork is behind schedule.

There are of course also drivers too numerous to count, who are convinced their Camry is as wide as a classic Caddy. They feel the shoulder is there to give them extra space in the face of oncoming traffic. Or perhaps those drivers are armchair civil engineers who doubt the legitimate design and construction of the highway.

I hate to sound like a pedestrian who has been buzzed closely one too many times by SUVs the size of a Hamptons hedgerow (I am), but most drivers seem more adept at pinpointing their real-time location with GPS than they are at keeping in their lanes.

Of course the seasoned pedestrian will also have remarked how differently drivers stopped at a red light behave when approached by the walker. Just stroll along a line of cars waiting for that light to turn green, and you'll hear something that sounds like a geiger counter thrown into a pile of yellowcake: the sudden clicking of door locks. Sometimes, if I am wearing old jeans, and haven't shaved for a few days, I'll stare at the driver and watch their hands tighten on the steering wheel, lips tremble, eyes stare straight ahead, while the superstitious drool as they mouth half-forgotten implorations of St. Christopher.

Despite the risks, the happy pedestrian keeps on truckin'. He knows thinking is always dangerous, whether you do it aloud in your boss's earshot or while walking the rural roads of Long Island. But he knows it is worth it. And then there are health benefits: shin splints, sore feet, and carbon monoxide poisoning. Never will the walker shiver in room temperature. Even winter weather seems toasty to the walker. As he begins his second mile the blood pumps thoroughly, keeping fingertips and ear helices warm despite the evil wind chill.

Another advantage of walking along the highways and byways is that you can sing or play the harmonica as poorly as humanly possible without causing grief to another soul. Whereas I'm told hitchhikers often wail, Dylan-like, "Stuck inside of Mobile, with the Memphis Blues again," I tend to sing an eclectic mix, including the Grateful Dead. The lyric of Ripple, by Robert Hunter and Jerry Garcia, includes these lines:

...There is a road,
no simple highway,
between the dawn and the dark of night.
And if you go,
no one may follow.
That path is for your steps alone.

So if you see a strange figure marching along the side of the road, remember that sidewalks are not ubiquitous or always clear of debris. If you reduce your speed, the pedestrian will notice this and pray you arrive safe, without a flat tire, a moving violation, or a human being on your grille.

No comments:

Post a Comment