One of my favorite Edward Abbey rants in Desert Solitaire is about tourists who won’t get out their cars in a national park and who suffer the illusion that they have actually seen the place when they haven’t walked in it.
For me, walking is a way of getting to know a community and its personality. I seldom sit in waiting rooms when I could be out exploring. A place doesn’t have to be scenic to have character; even a kind of dreary character can be interesting to a writer. While waiting for oil changes at the Ford dealership in the town that inspired Cauwetska in The Calling, I explored the neighborhood behind it. Many years later when I wrote the book, I knew which house Mae and her mother would move to in the opening scene and I could see, hear and smell every step of the life-changing walk Mae takes that evening.
In my review of The Pot Thief Who Studied Pythagoras I mentioned the narrator Hubie Schuze’s reflections on the superiority of walking compared driving. The line that stuck with me from this particular scene is I saw a baby gopher—one of the many things one could not experience if driving a car. I’m trying to find the chapter for another quotation but I keep finding all his other walks in Albuquerque instead. Hubie walks in his city quite a lot.
Based on this literary precedent, I believe it can’t be remarkable to be walking in Albuquerque, surely not so odd that a complete stranger should offer me a ride—and yet someone did. I arrived early for a yoga class Tuesday and decided to walk a few not-very-scenic blocks to pass the time rather than sit. A man of about fifty to sixty, driving a nice car, rolled down his window in passing and asked if I needed a ride. New Mexico is a friendly place, where we talk to strangers all the time, but I’ve never been invited into a car. I was so stunned I just said “No,” forgetting add “thank you.” What was this man thinking? I was wearing yoga clothes, flip-flops, and a sensible sun hat, so I don’t think I looked like some middle-age hooker angling for business at five-thirty in the afternoon. I didn’t look feeble, either. When I was walking in T or C a few nights earlier, a woman I’d never met before asked me what I did to stay so fit. She was getting out of her car, and she didn’t offer me a ride. (On that same T or C walk I passed a group of people who’d been rafting on the Rio Grande. They’d just unloaded their gear and I think they’d been imbibing a little on their trip. One woman, still holding a half-empty beer bottle, hugged another, and liquid poured from the bottle to the ground. The recipient of the hug asked, in a most serious tone, “Are you peeing?” You couldn’t get a laugh like that while driving. That was as good as seeing a baby gopher.)
When I went to the corn dance at Kewa Pueblo (Santo Domingo) earlier this week, I chose to park a distance from the plaza and walk. Twice, shuttle bus drivers tried very hard to let me know I could ride. I know they were just being courteous, but I couldn’t bring myself to ride. In my work in progress, this pueblo will be one of the settings, and walking helped me to soak up details.
When I walk in Santa Fe, no one offers me a ride. The city is full of pedestrians, some of them very interesting. While I walked to the Best of Santa Fe Block Party last Saturday, I encountered young women striking dance and yoga poses on the streets. This evening in the Plaza at Bandstand, I saw a tall trim Anglo man with a white tiny goatee wearing a little round flat African hat in pink and green and orange, pink John Lennon sunglasses, an orange-and-green African print shirt and a swath of similar fabric wrapped around his waist over his bright green shorts. All the clothing looked new, clean and crisp, a carefully chosen concoction.
The best-dressed dog at Bandstand belonged to man whose lean, scruffy appearance and worn-out backpack suggested he might be homeless. He had placed a pair of sunglasses with bright orange frames on the nose of his dog, a gentle, friendly mutt. Children broke off dancing wildly to the Santa Fe Chiles Jazz Band to pet the dog, and the man was gracious, careful of the children’s well-being and his dog’s good behavior. The way he steered and guided his dog made me think perhaps the glasses were there to indicate that the dog was blind. I had to wonder about the story behind his apparent good cheer in what looked like tough circumstances. Now, while writing this, I wonder if anyone ever offers him and his dog a ride.