Greensboro: Not really a walking town, is it?

Greensboro Photo: Tim JonesUnless you live in the fabulously-expanding downtown area of Greensboro, or around any of our colleges, it's not really that common to see many people walking to their destinations. I'm always a little aware of this, and rarely so much as today.

When I decided I didn't need to wait until tomorrow as planned, (when I had lined up a handy lift by another freelancing pal,) to get the new muffler I Couldn't Wait One More Day To Buy And My Neighbors Will Love Me, Too, Thank You Very Much, I tooled on over to a muffler place on West Market Street. I optimistically packed up my laptop so I could work while I waited. It would be really funny if I had videotaped, for you, the facial expression of the muffler dude when I asked did there happen to be, perchance, any wi-fi on hand. (Your facial expression would have been pretty similar, no doubt, if you'd seen where I was.)

There was no way I was going to sit in a stale waiting room for an hour or two and miss those prime working hours. What to do? Well, there's a Panera within a mile of the place, although you couldn't see it from the parking lot. My friends who live in larger (or differently-arranged) cities wouldn't have thought twice, but would have immediately headed on down the road. Me? I stood there in that parking lot, and contemplated my options.

It's a little tricky to explain why that is but I'll try. First, when I was about 17, I sometimes walked to my part-time job at a daycare center. It was a mere few miles between my house and the nursery, and the entire route took me through lovely, historic neighborhoods. No problem, right? Well, one afternoon as I walked, I looked ahead and noticed a blue pickup truck slow down, and the greasy blonde guy driving it, turn his head all the way around to look at me. I still remember the expression on his face. I realized the truck was the same one that had driven by me a few minutes before, and of course that was alarming.  When I soon realized the same truck was parked by the side of the road a couple of blocks ahead, you know I turned around. I took a different route that day, walking faster than ever before. And my new route took me along a much more heavily-traveled road. The same truck with the same blonde, greasy man passed me again several minutes later, again looking at me, but this time flanked by others who would have seen him if he'd stopped. I never walked to that job again.

What's that got to do with walking in Greensboro? I am not an uncertain 17 year old girl. Naturally I've taken hundreds of walks in the years that followed. In many different cities. No worries. But most of the time, it occurs to me, I walk in neighborhoods for pleasure, not from place to place, carrying my bags, out of necessity. No doubt if a woman is going to be accosted or even harrassed, it'll happen no matter what the purpose of her walk, bags or no bags. Nonetheless, I know my own walking choices have been affected by that long-past incident. Since that day, I've chosen to walk as others walk, when and where they walk, with similar purposes to the walking of those around me. Neighborhoods and parks? Recreational walkers abound. City streets with businesses and dwellers alike, coming and going? Walk as often and as far as you like. Otherwise, I've always had a little nagging sense of wrongness when I've trekked out on foot.

Today I reminded myself of the millions of people who don't live in these middle-sized towns, neither big cities nor small towns. Greensboro has suburban areas and rural areas, and it's almost as if there's an unspoken agreement that some streets are meant for walking and others? If you're there, you're best off in a car.

Never mind. Today I hefted my bags up over my shoulder and set off down the road, feeling mildly conspicuous - especially in the areas where the sidewalks disappeared - and ignored the occasional eye-meeting of drivers who looked curious. When they called to say my car was ready, I walked back up the road, just as I'd come before. It felt oddly liberating.

I'm not saying I'd like to start doing all my errands on foot - in this town it's just impractical. But as I walked today, I realized I miss living in areas where walking is more common. I want to do more of it. Maybe next time I move, I'll have to look into the downtown area again. Then I can walk whenever and wherever I want, and never think twice about it. That would be nice.