I arrived in Boca Raton as naïve as Christopher Columbus when he first stumbled off the Santa Maria thinking he had landed on East Indian shores. I had visions of walking along serene Boca beaches, of pearly shells crunching under foot, of dolphins leaping in a golden sunset, and of encountering the occasional native Floridian under a palm tree to exchange pleasantries about idyllic life in a slow-paced beachfront paradise.
Of course, I knew nothing.
And as for paradise, I hope never to return.
Two or three hours’ walking will carry me to as strange a country as I expect ever to see.
My first full day in Boca, a Monday, I set out early to meet my afternoon class at Florida Atlantic University. I was the guest writer for the week, and eager to make the acquaintance of my new charges.
The evening before, I had dismissed a possible warning from Nicole, the graduate student who kindly rescued me at the Ft. Lauderdale airport.
“I enjoy a good walk,” I insisted when she offered to retrieve me from my hotel lobby each morning and deliver me directly to campus. “It’s only about a mile, right?”
“But I’m happy to pick you up,” Nicole repeated, an almost sad tone in her voice.
“I’ll be fine,” I offered breezily. “Just fine.”
The simple mile, a mere stroll for someone who enjoys walking, ran almost entirely along Glades Road, a six lane highway whose main purpose, it turns out, is to funnel thousands of automobiles every fifteen minutes or so onto, off of, and over I-95.
The storied interstate runs from the northern tip of Maine to just south of Miami, passing through fifteen states, skirting major metropolitan centers such as Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore, finally bisecting Florida like a rigid spine of concrete and carbon monoxide.
At the point that I-95 runs under Glades Road, passing through the heart of Boca, the interstate has ten lanes, and for most of my walk that Monday morning I was dodging entrance ramps, exit ramps, and scores of impatient drivers scowling behind tinted windows. They were clearly annoyed that this man, this pedestrian, this fellow without enough sense to find a proper gas-powered vehicle, was slowing everything down. Some drivers gave me the right-of-way, most did not, but it seemed as if none of them were pleased, or for that matter, accustomed to someone crossing the off-ramps on foot.
But being made of stronger stock than most, instead of curling into a fetal ball alongside the fourth on-ramp, tucking myself into the bushes with the discarded fast-food wrappers, beer cans, and condoms, I plunged forward, across the concrete-circles-of-hell, toward what my map told me would be the entrance to the FAU campus.
I had pictured – being the sort of fellow who visits college campuses with some regularity – that I would hit upon a more foot-friendly territory near the campus, a lively area, perhaps, peppered with carefree undergraduates, a few hackie-sacking slackers, some engineering majors staring into laptops outside a coffee shop, and a bar, certainly, or six of them, since students tend toward Herculean thirst. Along with this, I imagined a campus gate, a red-brick sidewalk, some sort of feline mascot in stone, and some easy, inviting way for those of us inclined to perambulation to find our way onto the campus grounds.
Poor naïve me.
Instead, what I found, in the bright white heat of Florida in April, was perhaps the most difficult intersection of all. I literally had to sprint across ten lanes of Glades Road (expanded at this point to allow for multiple turning lanes) in the small amount of time allotted in the red-yellow-green light system, and still, I was the only poor soul on foot.
I survived, to find a campus – not surprisingly, in retrospect – ringed by parking lots, one after another, after another.
We should go forth on the shortest walk, perchance, in the spirit of undying adventure, never to return, prepared to send back our embalmed hearts only as relics to our desolate kingdoms.
Having grasped that the I-95 overpass was not pedestrian-friendly, I secured a bus schedule and a better map on Tuesday, and planned an outing to the Atlantic Ocean, about four miles down the road.
Did the bus run to the Ocean?
Of course not.
Boca’s bus system connects shopping mall to medical complex to shopping mall, and not for the patrons mind you, because anyone who can afford to shop at the high-end stores of the Boca Raton Town Center Mall obviously owns more than one car. Judging from the weary looks of my fellow bus patrons, the bus system exists exclusively for those hard-working folks who wash the floors, empty the trash, and watch the night for the various commercial establishments along the way. The closest the bus would take me to water was a stop at the Publix Super Market, about 1.2 miles away.
Late that afternoon, I cheerfully stepped off the bus and headed east, toward the smell of water and the shriek of gulls.
And what I saw were homes, beautiful homes, walled homes, windows closed, shutters drawn, the occasional Cadillac Escalante parked in an immaculate driveway, manicured shrubs, ornamental bushes, warning signs on every lawn – “Alarm System installed” – and cars, whizzing past in every direction.
What I didn’t see: birds, squirrels, children, elderly folks out for a stroll, people in their driveways, people on porches enjoying the day, folks walking to the corner market for a quart of milk, or anyone on foot.
Except when I reached the causeway, a drawbridge set in place to let the massive yachts and sailboats into Lake Boca Raton, where I saw a young man of 20 or so down by the water with a four-foot iguana on a leash. The iguana was swimming, and the young man was holding the lizard’s tether along the bank of the inlet.
I couldn’t get close enough to the young man to speak with him, so I waved.
He waved back with his free hand.
I have met with but one or two persons in the course of my life who understood the art of Walking, that is, of taking walks – who had a genius, so to speak, for sauntering, which word is beautifully derived “from idle people who roved about the country, in the Middle Ages, and asked charity, under pretense of going a la Sainte Terre,” to the Holy Land, till the children exclaimed, “There goes a Sainte-Terrer,” a Saunterer, a Holy-Lander.
“You walked? You actually walked?”
My students were incredulous. One or two gave me a look suggesting that I had a screw or three loose in my head. I had not only walked from the Publix to the beach, maybe twenty minutes past those desolate mansions, but then I walked from the ocean back to my hotel, another 90 minutes or so.
This was after some difficulty actually finding the ocean, because it was hidden behind high-rise apartment building and condos, all of which announced: “Beach Access for Residents Only.” The beach, by law, is free for everyone. You just aren’t allowed to cross anyone’s property to get there.
“No one walks in Boca Raton,” my students laughed, when I told my story.
“You could have been killed.”
“I sure wouldn’t walk here.”
“Damn. I wouldn’t live here.”
And it hit me then, in the wonderful way that hindsight suddenly makes sense of disparate confusions: none of these students lived in Boca. FAU exists only because I-95 provides such easy vehicular access to a student body spread up and down the Miami-Port St. Lucie corridor. Boca is just a resort town for the wealthy and the retired.
My FAU student friends live wherever they can afford to live, and that’s some distance away. They drive in to campus every day, take a class or two, and then rush off to (often full-time) jobs, twelve or twenty exits up or down the interstate. No one but the fool that is me would actually imagine walking to this campus.
My vicinity affords many good walks; and though for so many years I have walked almost every day, and sometimes for several days together, I have not yet exhausted them. An absolutely new prospect is a great happiness, and I can still get this any afternoon.
Like all deeply-ingrained habits, my sauntering began early, in grade school. I didn’t walk twenty miles through chest-deep snow in bare feet, but I did walk a half-a-mile each day, rain or shine, and we lived along the Lake Erie snow belt. There was, indeed, a candy store along the way, and though the Sisters of St. Joseph would not allow us to eat penny candy during class, you could circumvent the prohibition with a five-cent box of Smith Brothers cherry cough drops and a fake cough.
Walking home was even better, because there was no time limit, no opening bell, so I could wander, up and down the odd avenues, past the excitable dog behind the rusted fence, into the woods that bordered Sixth Street, down to Frontier Creek to float leaf boats, or past the house that contained a feral, hair-covered, criminally-insane thirty-year-old “wolf man” chained to a wall. We spent a fair amount of time trying to catch a glimpse of this poor fellow in the tiny attic window, but oddly, no one ever reported a credible sighting.
These walks, to and from school, are how I learned the patterns of my neighborhood, the habits of the people, the comings and goings of the man who actually wore a suit to work every day, the family that gathered around the piano to sing songs before dinner, the foreign woman whose front porch smelled liked cooked cabbage, the housewife who was always rushing off in her car with an angry look in her eyes, the young couple with what we then called a “retarded child,” the elderly man who took ten minutes just to walk up his own driveway.
You come to care about a place when you know it this intimately, when you see the patterns, and discern the subtle changes. One day the elderly man was no longer taking his morning walk. The poor family in the ratty duplex disappeared overnight, the front porch littered with whatever didn’t fit into the back of the truck. There was a window broken on the angry women’s car, and two weeks later she was gone as well.
Me thinks that the moment my legs begin to move, my thoughts begin to flow.
I live in a small college town in Appalachian Ohio, and I often walk to work. It takes me forty-five minutes, which can be tiring at times, but the more I do it the quicker the time goes by. For a while, I thought: you could get more work done, write more essays, clear more e-mails from your inbox, if you didn’t spend 90 minutes walking to and from campus. But then I realized I did get more work done on the days that I walked, because I was sharper, clearer, had used some of the foot-time to sort the detritus from my brain and identify the daily to-do list that actually mattered.
But what I really like about walking to work is that I see people.
There is a women, a nurse who I imagine works the overnight shift, because I see her in her front garden often in the late morning, still wearing her medical smock. I complimented her on her roses one day, and she beamed. Now we wave and smile every once in a while.
Two weeks back, I spotted a bird, obviously young and just fallen from a tree, on the front lawn of a student apartment house. Two college kids – modern day hippie types – were sitting on the porch, so I pointed out the bird to them. The young man, dreadlocked and tie-dyed, stopped everything, tied up his dog who was suddenly curious as well, and rescued the bird.
There is an overweight gentleman who spends every afternoon on a porch swing, and we nod and smile regularly. There are regular joggers who seem to really like that I step aside onto the grass when they come up to me, so they can stay on the sidewalk, where there is less chance they will turn an ankle. There are these guys who have been sandblasting all of the paint from a beautiful but down-and-out Victorian house for months, and every once in a while I mention that the project is coming along well. They seem to appreciate it.
The notion that our cities and towns are losing any sense of community, that neighborhoods are no longer places where one family looks out for another and everyone feels safe, that neighbors don’t even know the names of the folks right next door, is widespread, cited in newspaper editorials, listed as either symptom or cause of any number of social ills. We shake our heads and sadly wonder what has gone wrong.
Hey, we aren’t helping each other here!
Get out of the damn car and walk around.
Get to know your street, the street behind you, and the people up and down your block.
When sometimes I am reminded that the mechanics and shopkeepers stay in their shops not only all the forenoon, but all the afternoon too, sitting with crossed legs, so many of them – as if the legs were made to sit upon, and not to stand or walk upon – I think that they deserve some credit for not having all committed suicide long ago.
Henry David Thoreau, author of the occasional quotes embedded in this essay, didn’t live to see the automobile.
That’s probably a good thing. He was cranky enough.
Suicide, he says? People forced to sit all day in offices, stores, and cubicles should be commended for not taking their own lives?
Perhaps he was just exaggerating for effect. Writers have been known to do that.
Or maybe he truly believed what he wrote. Perhaps he saw what I began to see as I persisted in my vain attempts to saunter through Boca Raton, to find some heart to that unapproachable community, to claim some small corner for the humble foot soldier against the unwelcoming intersections and ubiquitous automobile.
The fact that no one but me was out and about, that no one else was strolling along the sidewalks, working in their side yards, trimming the yellow roses, throwing Frisbees, or walking wiener dogs on their stubby little legs, combined with those grand, sprawling homes all shuttered, air-conditioned, set off by fences and inhospitable gates, put me to mind of mausoleums, or Egyptian pyramids. These would be grand structures in which to be entombed, really, but there is time enough for that after death.
And now maybe I’m the one exaggerating for effect, but just as being shut away in one of these hermetically-sealed homes, surrounded by nothing but television and burglar alarms, seems something like a premature burial, the prospect of living your days inside of an automobile is not much to be preferred.
In death, our souls are transported, though we do not know in precisely what fashion. In Boca, our souls are transported, by sports cars with spoked rims and tinted windows.
Either way, that’s not quite living.
My apologies to Mr. Thoreau. Perhaps I’m the cranky one.
But here’s the simple truth:
When I’m sauntering, wandering, strolling, ambling, rambling, bopping along on two sturdy feet, I’m much more optimistic. I feel entirely alive.
Dinty W. Moore is the Director of Creative Writing at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio, a town he describes as “the funkadelicious, hillbilly-hippie Appalachian epicenter of the locally-grown, locally-consumed, goats-are-for-cheese, paw-paws-are-for-eatin’, artisanal-salsa, our-farmers-market-rocks-the-hills sub-culture.”
Before he became a writer, Moore worked as a police reporter, a documentary filmmaker, a modern dancer, a zookeeper, and a Greenwich Village waiter. He is the author of The Mindful Writer: Noble Truths of the Writing Life; Crafting the Personal Essay: A Guide for Writing and Publishing Creative Nonfiction; The Accidental Buddhist: Mindfulness, Enlightenment, and Sitting Still, American Style; The Truth of the Matter: Art and Craft in Creative Nonfiction; The Emperor’s Virtual Clothes: The Naked Truth About Internet Culture; the short story collection Toothpick Men; and the memoir Between Panic & Desire, winner of the Grub Street Nonfiction Book Prize. Moore’s writing has appeared in The Southern Review, The Georgia Review, Harpers, The New York Times Sunday Magazine, The Philadelphia Inquirer Magazine, Gettysburg Review, Utne Reader, and Crazyhorse, among numerous other venues. He is also the editor of Brevity, the journal of concise creative nonfiction. When he’s not writing, teaching, or editing, Moore grows his own heirloom tomatoes and edible dandelions.