Travelers, there is no path, paths are made by walking.
— Antonio Machado
On a personal basis, I am not much of one for structured fitness programs.
I am not a running enthusiast. I don’t participate in yoga, Pilates, step or spin classes. I don’t do Body Pump, TRX or Aqua Zumba. I do not belong to a gym, a bicycle group, a softball team or a kickboxing club. I don’t even like talking about these things, let alone hearing about them, which to me is roughly equivalent to sitting through a lecture (with copious slides) on the causes and effects of temporomandibular joint dysfunction.
This is, as I have said, purely a matter of personality and preference. Certainly, stating my preferences in this regard is not a knock on anyone who takes their fitness seriously. Indeed, I will admit to an occasional (very occasional) twinge of envy at those who exercise their bodies with such religious regularity, dedication and enthusiasm. But it’s not for me; I find other means of physical exertion and mental renewal.
What I do is walk. I walk to meetings, on errands, to catch up with friends for drinks or dinner, to visit Railroad Park or McWane Center or Reed Books or the Alabama Theatre with my children. Alone or with the kids, I hike — at Ruffner Mountain Nature Preserve, Red Mountain Park, Moss Rock, Vulcan Trail, Jemison Trail, or one of the new trails that seem to open by the week around here.
I also take less purposeful walks around downtown — long, looping urban hikes with no particular itinerary in mind, no set distance to cover, and abounding in digressions, sidetracks and spontaneous detours. My son and daughter often accompany me on these treks as well, but my preference here is to walk alone.
Every time I do so, I discover something I’ve never seen before. And every time I do so, I realize anew how much I love Birmingham — for its persistent shortcomings almost as much as for the progress I have marked with my own eyes over the past several years. We live in an interesting town, one in which, as Lewis Mumford said of cities in general, “times becomes visible” the more you walk, look and learn.
These walks also turn me inward. They impel me to confront myself, my hopes and fears and flaws, the areas of my life in which I am performing passably and those in which improvement is in order. They remind me that success and failure as defined by the increasingly constricted society in which we live are both imposters, that what matters in life is making sure that your effort is strong and that when all is said and done (I’ll quote the Beatles now), the love you make is equal to the love you take.
One recent Friday evening, I left the Weld office on 1st Avenue North around 7 p.m., taking a break from working late to free up some weekend time. I headed straight up 23rd Street, passing the YWCA and Bankhead Towers and cutting through the Park Place development. Other than some nice architecture to admire along the way, this particular route is not especially encouraging to anyone who thinks Birmingham is close to getting a handle on all of its problems. I saw people who clearly are living on the margins of life, unsure if our societal safety net will hold them, or if they will slip through and lose all hope. I encountered one drug dealer, one prostitute and one woman who asked if I knew anyone who could give her a ride to Roebuck.
I walked on over to Linn Park, entering from the Jefferson County Courthouse side. Almost immediately, I was approached by a man who looked to be in the range of 60 years old wondering if I could help him get something to eat. I didn’t have my wallet on me, but gave him all of the change in my pocket, maybe $1.25. He offered his hand, and I shook it and wished him luck, then continued on through the park. A little farther along, two young women, dressed to the nines for an event across the way at Boutwell Auditorium, were taking cell phone selfies in front of the fountain that is the park’s centerpiece. I stopped and asked if they wanted me to take a photo for them, which they did, and which I did.
Continuing on around City Hall and heading back southward, I passed the Greyhound bus station on 19th Street. A few people loitered outside, none of them meeting my gaze as I walked past — except for this kid, no more than 16, standing at the curb next to two big duffel bags and holding a skateboard. He wore an expression that was almost beatific, that said someone was on the way to pick him up and the fact that he’d had to ride a bus for hours to get here was just a part of life that he wasn’t worried about. We grinned and spoke to each other, and his tangible happiness made me happy, too.
I took a right at 3rd Avenue, just for the sheer pleasure of walking past the Alabama and Lyric theatres. Two blocks on, I took a left and followed 17th Street all the way down to the Birmingham-Jefferson Transit Authority’s Central Station. There, 50 or 60 people sat sweating on the benches outside, waiting for this or that bus at 8 o’clock in the evening. Nobody looked happy here, least of all one woman who sat by herself on the far end of one bench, holding a cell phone to her ear and with tears streaming down her face.
Heading back to the office, I stopped at the “Heaviest Corner on Earth,” 1st Avenue and 20th Street North, once the commercial hub of downtown. Of the four steel-framed skyscrapers that gave the corner its name during the early years of the last century, only one is fully occupied, and two are completely empty and in varying states of decay. But when I stand among them, I feel the history of Birmingham flowing through my veins.
Completing the three-block walk back to the office, my gaze was mostly fixed to the southeast, as I couldn’t take my eyes off the fat full moon rising over Red Mountain. Looking at it, I succumbed willingly to a thought that strikes me quite often.
I wouldn’t trade places with anybody in the world.