Playing tourist

Walking home from the Montlake freeway bus stop on Fridays is getting to be a habit. Today was my third time. It’s about three miles, but I made it slightly longer today. I went two blocks out of my way to walk on a side street instead of on one of the main streets. Walking is good because… well, for a lot of reasons. It’s free exercise. And the walk from Montlake is very pretty. It parallels a valley and a hillside to the east, which are sometimes hidden by houses and trees, and are sometimes visible from a wide-open streetcorner.

In one spot, a small house sits a little north of the actual corner, and the owners have turned the corner lot and the lot to the east into a big, open garden with small shrubs and groundcovers. The ground undulates downhill to a wall with firewood piled against it. Other houses continue on down the hill and start back up again, with a backdrop of tall firs and maples on the ridge behind them. I love this particular house. Some people are able to landscape a large area, eliminating lawn, and make it look good and have a unique character at the same time. Many beautiful yards clearly follow a specific style and look like they were landscaped by a professional. I love those gardens too, but the ones I really fall for are the quirky ones. Part of the secret to that picturesque quirkiness, I think, is to repeat some of the plants throughout the yard but without massing them together, and to resist the urge to over-plant. Spaces in between can be filled with stepping stones, smaller plants, rocks, bird baths, and creeping ground covers.

In theory, our yard is perfect for unique, open landscaping. It’s a double lot with a very small house and lots of lawn. The main obstacle is the difficulty of removing and getting rid of the grass and the extensiveness of the soil amendments that would be needed. As a (usually) one-person project, our landscaping is going to continue to proceed bit by bit and not in sweeping swaths, as the garden writers might say.

Another thing I like about a long walk is the way my slow, linear movement along the sidewalks seems to straighten out my thoughts. Even when I repeatedly think over the same situation or problem, I make more progress in it when I’m walking than if I’m, say, lying in bed or sitting at my desk at work. The small but sustained physical effort of walking seems to drain excess energy out of the thinking process so that I can think with a more relaxed mind. And even if I’m not thinking about a problem but am relaxed to start with, things I see will almost always spark writing ideas. And gardening ideas! My latest gardening dream is to have my own roto-tiller for ripping up grass, or whatever the right power tool is for that. But at least now, doing it the slow way, with manual tools, I get to burn tons of calories for a later trip to Burgermaster. Or my favorite kind of fried rice (“salt fish and diced chicken,” if you want to know) from Ho Ho Seafood Restaurant in Chinatown.

And one final thought about walking. I started taking long walks home from work a few years ago here in Seattle (on days when I didn’t ride my bike), and I’ve felt a growing sense that it’s, maybe not quite rebellious, not quite subversive, but let’s say eccentric. The working world is always busy and in a hurry, always dashing to the next obligation and preoccupied with the next thing after that. Choosing to walk for an hour instead of taking a twenty-minute bus ride feels like a surprising and simple refusal to spend the entire day with the anxiety of rushing. Walking across town says my time is mine. Sure I want to get home and I have things I want to do there, but it will still be there in an hour, and I want to spend that hour sightseeing on foot. Playing tourist, every day.