Most people cannot remember their first steps even though the event was a major milestone for their parents. I can’t either, but I am sure that it was a thrilling feeling to balance and move forward on one’s own two legs. It has been the beginning of a lifetime of exploration and wonder. I can’t recall anytime when I did not enjoy walking. Recently, I have relocated my law office to downtown New West, which allows me to walk to and from work. I no longer pay any attention to the road reports on the radio nor do I pay much heed to the complaints of drivers and public transit commuters. I am not insensitive to their troubles, but they seem to exist in some far off land.
The pleasure I get from walking extends to the holidays my wife and I take. Four years ago, we took our first vacation to Italy. It was a walking vacation. No, not one where they drop you off in a city and let you wander around. This vacation involved walking from town to town on trails. We were given a set of instructions of how to navigate to the next town, which were something like: “with your back facing the town square, walk 200 metres to your left until you see a large Cypress tree on your right, turn there and walk 150 metres to the edge of a vineyard, turn left and go up a slight hill for 700 metres, etc. “ The instructions were not always that clear. In fact, on our last walk, in Tuscany, we spent 3 hours just trying to get to our first major signpost. In all, that day involved about 11 hours of walking in the hot Tuscan sun, an encounter with wild boars, almost running out of water but ended with a winery owner driving us up the hill to our destination, the town of Montalcino where we had the most lovely dinner and fantastic wine.
Some of my most pleasant memories of Italy revolve around the ritual of La Passeggiata, the evening stroll. It is usually through the central plaza of town and everyone participates- young lovers, couples pushing baby strollers, older folks using canes. It is a time to socialize, let the mind unwind, let the appetite build for the evening meal. It is an exercise in solidarity that we are all together enjoying ourselves and our ability to move.
Walking allows us to interact with the world at a human pace. Jan Gehl, the Danish architect says “life takes place on foot”. He talks about a “three mile per hour city” which is detailed and scaled in such a way that you can have a glorious time simply walking through the city because the architecture is made for the walking eye. Old European cities, built long before the motor vehicle are this way. I believe that New Westminster is best enjoyed as a “five kilometre per hour” city.
The distance across New Westminster from Thompson’s Landing Park to Braid Skytrain Station is about 10 kilometres and from 10th Avenue down to the Fraser River is about 3 kilometres. We are a compact city that lends itself to walking. From my house, I can walk to my exercise gym at the Centennial Centre, the library, my doctor, my dentist, my massage therapist, numerous grocery stores and restaurants.
Walking allows me to gauge the mood of the city. When I moved to NW in 1987, the downtown area seemed abandoned with its best days behind it. Today, the downtown is booming with new construction, teeming with young people with their kids and featuring new restaurants and retail stores. As you walk, you can feel the sense of optimism and the spirit of renewal. At the same time, the city’s heritage provides a foundation. 4th Street hill is partially paved but it has a brick surface in some sections that is a reminder of the chain gang from the Penitentiary that built the road. As I walk through Queen’s Park with its magnificent trees and floral displays, I can envision the great Agricultural Exhibitions that were held there before the PNE took over. Did you know that there was once a zoo in Queen’s Park with coyotes, bears and cougars? A little wilder than the present petting zoo!
I encourage you to build more walks into your day. If your head is full of thoughts, they will evaporate into the air, replaced with close observation of your immediate environment. While walking in NW, I have discovered a local hotel with some very famous guests, concrete table tennis tables and a Romanian Church Signpost traditionally placed at crossroads for travellers to ask for God’s blessings, guidance and protection. When walking, each street, each turn at the corner can bring some new experience, some revelation. We are all travellers in this world and the best way to travel is by walking. Ditch the car and put one foot in front of the other. You will have a great time.