The Walker

Why I walk and to what I listen when I do.

Several years ago I decided I needed more exercise. Whenever I played with my children I ended up puffing like a beached whale. One Christmas I had to attend some office party, and when I pulled on the only suit I owned I couldn’t button the pants. The suit must have shrunk! I didn’t want to buy a new one, so I decided to make myself smaller.

We moved to Central Pennsylvania from the Washington, D.C. area in 1996. In DC I walked a lot. It was a simple matter to get off the Metro a stop or two early and hoof it a bit. Walking through the city was always a trip, a nonstop whirl of life. I loved it. Here in the suburbs walking—destination walking, anyway—wasn’t such an option. I drove to work; I drove to the store; I drove everywhere. And somehow while I was doing all that driving my suit shrank.

So I decided to start walking again. Now that I was embedded in the burbs I simply began traipsing through my neighborhood in the mornings. I devised a route that covered about three miles and took me up as many hills as possible, past the neat ’70s-era split levels and well-tended lawns that predominate in my development. I walk all year round, but not in the rain. I like the route I had mapped out. It forces me to walk uphill a lot—exercise!—so I pretty much follow the same track day after day. Sometimes that makes me feel like a zoo animal pacing around and around its cage, but over the course of the past few years I’ve logged hundreds of miles and worked my way through many pairs of walking shoes. Sometimes I meet people from the neighborhood I don’t even know and they’ll recognize me. “You’re the guy who walks,” they say.

On almost every walk I listen to music. At first I listened to cassettes on an old walkman. Then I switched to CDs. When I got my first cellphone, I loaded MP3s onto it until I had about 200 songs. Several years ago, I got an 8GB iPod Nano as a gift when I served as my best friend’s best man (I had to wear my suit for that occasion). Now I listen to the IPod when I walk. I have more than a thousand songs on it, but I’m finding out it’s not enough. It’s never enough.

I’ve always been interested in music. I used to play trumpet, and still pick it up occasionally. For a time in the 1980s I lived in Boston and edited a rock magazine there, although I think the only people who read it were the ones who wrote for it. I never became a full-fledged music geek, the kind of walking encyclopedia who can detail the differences between the mono and stereo versions of the Beatles’ “Good Morning,” but I know more about popular music than most people do. I once interviewed guitar hero Adrian Belew over breakfast at a Howard Johnson’s in Boston. In Washington I interviewed the Hoodoo Gurus, still one of my favorite bands of all time, in their hotel room. There’s a photograph of REM playing in Boston that often appears in music magazines. Look closely and you can see me standing in the crowd not far from the stage. I still have a closet full of vinyl records and I keep hundreds of CDs near the stereo. I have music playing pretty much all of the time when I’m home. A few years ago my best friend, the one who gave me the iPod, handed off his old 200-CD changer. I usually keep on shuffle so I can get a nice variety of tunes. At work (I edit a hobbyist magazine 25 hours a week), I play my iPod through some little speakers. I’ve never understood people who don’t have music playing as much as possible.

However, I must admit that I don’t really keep up with the new stuff anymore. Sometimes I buy a new CD, but it’s usually by an artist I already know, someone like Robyn Hitchcock or Richard Thompson. I listen to WXPN when I can, but ever since they “introduced” themselves to Central Pennsylvania I can’t get their signal at home or at work, even though  I used to get it just fine. For a few years I subscribed to Paste magazine and dutifully listened to the free CD that came with each issue, but I don’t get it anymore. I do have a lot of old Paste songs loaded onto my iPod, though.

So that’s what I listen to as I make my way around the neighborhood. I’ve had days when it was as if an occult hand had dialed up Earth’s gravity a bit and turned the morning into a slog. On the good days it’s transcendent, especially on a crisp, clear morning when the iPod shuffle finds only the best songs to give me a good walking rhythm and put a spring in my step. On some mornings I’ve seen deer on the opposite side of the creek that winds through the neighborhood. Once a wild turkey chased after me down a path, and I scared up an owl one morning, a big bird that swooped silently through the trees to escape me.

At least I assume it was silent. I had my music playing. I like the sounds of nature as much as the next guy, but I need tunes when I’m walking.

Tom Huntington is a writer and editor who lives with his family in Central Pennsylvania. His work has appeared in many publications, including America in WWII, American Heritage, British Heritage, Civil War Times, Invention & Technology, Smithsonian, and Yankee. He is also the author of Searching for George Gordon Meade: The Forgotten Victor of Gettysburg, Guide to Gettysburg Battlefield Monuments, Ben Franklin’s Philadelphia: A Guide and Pennsylvania Civil War Trails, all published by Stackpole Books. He was born in Maine and has also lived in Boston, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C.

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