The sun disappeared a while ago and it’s getting darker. I don’t recognize any of the streets. I’m 60% sure I’m walking in the direction of my neighbourhood. The remaining 40% is making quite a fuss in my brain. “What if you should have turned at the previous intersection? You know you’ve been walking longer than you think you should have…Ask someone. Turn around. Retrace your steps. FLAG DOWN THAT TAXI.”
The doubts grow. I keep moving forward. If I am where I hope I am, I’m journeying the Nth side of some awkward shape with N sides formed by my footsteps and will soon loop back to the start, ie. home. I could ask someone for help and I decide to do that if I still don’t know where I am in fifteen minutes time. But the reality is that I simply don’t want to. This is a challenge and I want to figure it out. I want to be able to look back on this walk and tell myself that I was confident all along, that my gut knew what it was doing even while my thoughts quavered.
And then it happens. A street corner that I recognize. It’s not my street corner, or even a street corner very near mine. But it’s familiar. I’ve been lost here before! I wandered this way a few weeks earlier, also with no idea where I was going at the time. Now, however, the route I’ve taken today clicks into a mental map built on previous walks, linking to the mental map from when I last wandered here. I feel like I can actually hear that click and it is so, so satisfying. How often in life do we so tangibly recognize not only a new piece of information entering the brain – which happens regularly, such as when we learn new facts or the name of someone new – but the perfect alignment of that new information with an existing structure (or map) of knowledge in the brain? How often does new information fit perfectly in a jigsaw in our minds? It’s magical.
Between Rio and Berlin, in the last year I have walked more on a daily basis than ever before in my life. This is partly because I love walking. I enjoy physically moving and getting exercise and fresh air; I like observing the people, buildings, and street art that I’m passing; and I love that walking is slow and intimate enough with the surroundings that I constantly see or hear new things. This is true about walking anywhere, but the experience is intensified in a new city, abound with so much unfamiliar territory. I’ve also been walking a lot because it’s the best money-saver there is. I’ve been known to walk two hours from one side of a city to the other for a day of exploring a new neighbourhood, all before walking (or hobbling) the two-hour journey back home.
If I have a specific destination in mind, I find a walking route on Google Maps and scribble directions to myself on paper. (No, I don’t have a smart phone. More on traveling with Google Maps and technology in a later blog post!) This worked really well the one time I planned out a complicated five-hour walking route across Berlin, got about halfway around the loop, and then lost the paper with all my notes. I refused to retrace my steps back (that would be too easy!), so I guessed my way back until I stumbled into that amazing “I’ve been lost here before!” moment.
Other times, I just set out in a direction and see where I end up. On one occasion in Berlin I had no idea where I wanted to go, saw a pile of of leaves blowing, and decided to get my Pocahantas on and follow the wind. The wind died down before I’d reached the end of my block. It was a nice idea though. I ended up following a canal instead.
It took me past some of the most random street art I’d encountered in Berlin. In BERLIN. That’s saying a lot.
The same route took me past run down factories I imagined had been left abandoned since World War II. For all I knew, they’d been abandoned only a few years previously. It didn’t matter. What I imagined was enchanting anyway. The route whisked me through parks, past bakeries (don’t mind if I do…), around a petting zoo (why not?), and across patchwork-quilted land made up of tiny garden plots where Berlin’s urbanites escape the city. I ended up turning around at Pankow, a bland suburb pretending to still be part of the city, where nobody would have strong desires to travel to unless they lived there. And yet it was one of the greatest walks I’ve ever done. Why? Because I had no idea where I was going! But where I was going by was great.
Urban hiking. Is that a thing? It should be. I’ll end with a working definition: a planned or unplanned walk in the confines of a city of at least one hour in length in which the primary purpose of the experience is the journey itself.
Share your urban hiking experiences in the comments below!