Urban Night hiking: observations on culture

We got back home to Bend, Oregon on December 20 after three months away, most of that in Barcelona, Catalunya. With the help of Beth’s fit bit, we figured we had walked more than 600 miles in the 93 days we were gone, with most of that in urban areas of Spain, Ireland, Czechia, and Morocco. Now that I’m home, I’m continuing urban hiking. However, the contrast between here and there could not be more striking.

In Barcelona, everybody walks, and at all hours of the day. We used public transport and walked every day, sometimes more that 10 miles. The streets are always crowded with people. Sometimes drunk people would be walking home past our apartment and singing almost every night until 4AM. Although there was a lot of petty crime like pick-pocketing, we never were afraid to walk, even at night. We were NEVER alone while walking in Barcelona.

Malaga, Spain on a December night

Now that I’m home, I’m continuing walking a lot to get ready for my upcoming long walk through the Mojave Desert this Spring.  I’ve enjoyed the solitude of hiking alone in nature here, something that I missed while in Barcelona.  The first few weeks home we experienced above normal temperatures for Central Oregon.  I headed east toward the Badlands and walked at least three times a week through the Juniper and Sage ecosystems east of town.  I didn’t see anyone each time I hiked.  I saw lots of tracks that my wild friends left behind in the dirt: Mule Deer, Squirrel, Coyote, and an occasional human footprint.  I did see a Cougar paw print crossing the trail too!  I took pictures of the low angle sun on the Juniper trees and rabbitbrush and enjoyed the solitude.

Central Oregon steppe in early January

Now that school has started, I don’t have as much time to make the drive as far East.  The weather has turned colder, so I have resorted to urban hiking again.  Around New Year’s Day, I would bundle up and walk the residential neighborhoods at night, taking in the sights of Christmas lights.  Most of the time, I was the only human on foot in the area. 

On January 2, I went for a night walk through neighborhoods to the north of ours. I figure I walked about 4.5 miles that night, and I only saw one couple walking their dog. They were walking in front of me. Dogs spend a lot of time during their daily walks sniffing their neighborhoods. Their acute olfactory sense helps them to understand and spatially orient their environment. In a sense, their understanding of their geography is based on olfaction. Mine is based more on visual and auditory observation, although since I have been walking at night when vision is limited, I think I am beginning to hear and smell better. I have even detected the smell of a dog at times, even when there is none around, nor any dog waste either.

Since the couple are strolling and allowing their dog to explore his environment, I began to close the gap between us and would soon pass them. Not wanting to startle them or the dog on a lonely night, I said “Happy New Year” as I got nearer to them. Stunned and surprised, they quickly turned and nervously said, “Same to you”. Strangers don’t talk to one another in Barcelona because there are too many people and you don’t know which ones you can trust. Strangers don’t seem to talk to one another in Bend either, but for different reasons. There are so few people walking at night, you end up being suspicious of anyone who does.

On January 4, which is the day of perihelion, I went out for another night walk, covering nearly the same route. Two policemen in separate cars were parked on opposite curbs of the same residential street, windows cracked half way down and talking to one another on a cold night. They stopped talking to one another and watched me intently as I walked on the street towards them. I bet they were wondering, “What’s this guy doing walking alone at night in a residential neighborhood?” “He is not walking a dog, so what is his purpose for doing so?”

I nodded to acknowledge them as I passed by on the sidewalk and greeted them with a “Happy Perihelion!”

“Good evening to you, sir”, they replied. They probably didn’t know what perihelion was and that today, January 4th, the earth is the closest it will be to the sun in our orbit for the whole year, by a whopping 3.5 million miles. If you think only geographers know that, I wished the same thing to a gentlemen earlier in the day at Duda’s pool hall and pub on Wall St. in Bend. He said, “Oh yeah, isn’t that when we are closest to the sun in our orbit? I had forgotten it was today”. However, by the reaction from the policemen, I think they were suspicious of me.

Experiences such as these remind me of a story that I read a long time ago titled “The Pedestrian” by Science Fiction writer Ray Bradbury, who also wrote “the Illustrated Man.” The Pedestrian was a short story set in a dystopian future, where nobody walked outside at night and everyone was huddled in their houses watching TV and being programmed and brainwashed in the process. Only one man walked alone at night. One night he was stopped by a police car who questioned him and made him get into the squad car. Only when the man realized that the car was automated, did he realize how dystopian his own future might become. I know what that guy felt like. The dystopian future that we all feared is here in suburbia in 2020.

Fast forward to today, the 20th of January. We had a few days of snow, but warmer temperatures have melted out the streets. It is Martin Luther King day, and school is closed. I walked 9 miles through the Juniper, Sage and Rabbit Brush east of town. I missed that solitude in Barcelona. I followed coyote tracks in the snow, which criss-crossed my own tracks of a few days before the snow arrived. The tracks went right up to a bush that I regularly leave my scent on. The coyotes had a sniff and knew I was back in their territory, but they didn’t pee on top of my bush. I take that as a sign of respect! Most canines will mark over other’s territorial markings to show dominance or to at least declare that this territory is shared. I wonder if the confidence I have walking through this ecosystem affects my brain chemistry, which in turn produces a pheremone which is detectable to an animal with a keen sense of smell. The coyotes knew my scent from summer time, but having been in Spain for the entire Fall, they must have thought I was no longer around. Now that they detect my scent again, how do they feel about me? Do they fear me? Do they think I am a huge creature because I leave my scent higher on a tree or bush than they do? Is my lack of fear from them evident in the scent that I leave? These are some things that I think about in the solitude of nature.

Mule deer track in early January near Badlands, Oregon

I have time to be alone with my thoughts and to think about people I care about. I recently heard that the father of a long time friend of mine recently passed away. He was an important person to me many years ago, when I was an undergraduate student from New Jersey living in a new culture in North Georgia. We viewed the world quite differently, but we accepted each other and he was like a father to me at times. I thought about all of the things we shared together long ago. I will miss him.

Night hiking in Prague…..a very social experience

I also think of the people I met in Barcelona, like Rodrigo or Jose, and wonder how they are doing now. Rodrigo was a good friend with a gentle nature, who is working a new job this year in the field of his profession; health care. Jose is a young, intelligent man with a good work ethic finding his way in Spain after leaving Venezuela. I hope that our paths cross again some day. I miss the vibrant, stimulating nature of walking in a Spanish urban area. When I stroll alone in Central Oregon, I often find myself describing what I see in Spanish, so as not to lose the connection to the people and the language that I had grown accustomed to the past three months.

What can we do to bridge the gap, to make walking here a more common thing that we all do? We need to unplug from technology and make cities more walk-able places. Our residential neighborhoods are not designed for the pedestrian, even though sidewalks are mandated with new housing construction. There are no businesses or local stores in residential areas, which forces people to drive to another part of town for the most basic of needs. Yes, the weather is more challenging here in the Winter than in Barcelona. But there is no such thing as bad weather, only improper clothing. We need to become more curious about the immediate natural and cultural landscapes surrounding us, not just glossy pictures in magazines of far away exotic places in the world.

The current occupant of the White House recently announced that our country will now have a “Space Force”, to go along with the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, and Coast Guard. If we truly want to be great again, I think we will need an “Inner Space Force”, one that focuses on Americans connecting with each other, walking with each other, and not being afraid of one another. I have hope for this because of the walk I did last Wednesday night.

I don’t have a picture of it, since I didn’t bring a camera that night. The ONE person I ran into on a suburban hike was a large older gentleman who was shoveling the new snow off of his driveway and the sidewalk. I thanked him for doing so. He stopped and we began a conversation. His name was Chris, and he had some health problems and his back was bothering him. I offered to take over the shoveling. At first, he balked. Later, he acquiesced. We stood out in the cold and chatted for about half an hour. We both agreed that this is how it used to be long ago; strangers helping one another and not being afraid of one another. We both felt different about that neighborhood after Wednesday night.

Thanks for reading…..keep walking….let’s conquer some inner space!

Peace,

Mick

3 thoughts on “Urban Night hiking: observations on culture

  1. Damn, Mick, this is one heavy and beautiful post. I love how you think — and move! Couldn’t agree more. Thanks for sharing.

    Like

  2. That was well written Mick. I do miss Barcelona and all the walking in the neighborhoods. Maybe as we get more daylight, people will be more willing to get off the couch and take an urban hike.

    Like

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