← back

Distances Work Differently On Foot

February 11th, 2022

I remember, as middle schooler on my first real backpacking trip, spending five long days hiking through the mountains and then seeing all that work reduced to a 40 minute car ride back to the start.

Every mile had been an effort to put one foot after the other, and the car ride made that feel insignificant. Something felt really disheartening about that—like it wasn't as impressive. It made the struggles of the experience feel artificial.

I was used to that being the experience of backpacking, a labor to grind through distances that felt big but were actually really small. Until the Long Trail.

For those of you that don't know, the Long Trail is a 270 mile trail that goes from Massachusetts to Canada through the length of Vermont. And when I hiked it two years ago, that sense of scale completely flipped. The woods I was walking through and the seemingly small days merged together until by the end it took hours and hours of extra driving time to get home. And suddenly, the idea that I, on foot, could walk the length of a state made the world seem a lot smaller.

Not bigger, smaller.

I think a lot about that because it feels like one of the fundamental things that grounds all of us is a very general sense of space. Where am I in relation to other things I know? How far away are those other things? In the era of smartphones and FindMy, that basic spatial orientation is ubiquitous. When you arrive in a new place or city, part of the discombobulation and perhaps stress is coming from the fact that you don't have a complete picture of what is where, right? And for the places we know well, it's not just where we are and what else is around us but also, how long does it take to go to the other places? What would that journey look like? For me that awareness is a huge source of comfort for me. But most of the time, we only have that understanding for a few small places, like the center of your hometown or the Tufts campus.

I think that moving places on foot totally disrupts that. It expands to more spaces and makes the world feel smaller. Most importantly, it slows you down enough to pay attention to where everything is on that journey—to associate a unique experience with going to each specific place.

Hmm. Maybe this isn't making a whole lot of sense and I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's go back to the Long Trail example. When I drove through VT before the trail, I would look out the window and see the sights. I'd have a general sense of where I was in the state. But mostly I'd be detached. I got in the car, looked at the GPS, and got out at the destination. But after? I viscerally experienced every mile of Vermont. I saw the ecosystem change as I got farther north. And I have a bunch of feelings coupled with that journey. That's totally changed how I see Vermont.

Hiking 270 miles is an extreme example. It's also in the runs I go on as part of a normal week. Running to Winchester from Tufts or Alewife from home makes everything seem cozier and smaller, because I've experienced all those trips on foot and I know I can make them without a machine to get me there. It connects me to the places I'm in. A car destroys that possibility of connection—forces you to perceive all the important places in your life as distinct points separated by a vehicle ride, not as places that all exist at once, connected.

Today, it was really nice out so Zoe and I ran from Tufts into Chinatown to meet Amanda for dinner. We started at Davis, ran to Porter, through Harvard, through some back roads before rejoining Mass Ave and into Central. We kept going into MIT and past the Kendal station before going over the famous salt-and-pepper bridge, through Beacon Hill, past the Public Gardens, and into Chinatown. Only 6.5 miles, but through so many places we think of as distinct.

That skyline is a place, not a view

When Amanda saw us running toward her, she started cackling. And honestly, I can understand. Running from Tufts to Boston doesn't feel possible—isn't that supposed to be a T ride? But I think that's kind of the point. Somewhere along the way of being an efficient society we decided that the world was too big to travel on foot, and walking or running was just meaningless recreation. It's not.

I am aware that most people don't run like I do. Or hike. But I am promising you that you can still do this—go from one place to another even when it doesn't feel like they're close enough. It changes how you see the world in the best of ways.