Thursday, August 18, 2011


these, according to my research, are objects known as trees
the weird skinny little lines above have been identified by cultural anthropologists as "telephone wires"
I'm a huge fan of walking. By “walk,” I don’t mean the fetishistic activity that involves arm and leg weights, a water bottle carrier, backpack, odometer, satellite system, and ipod. I’m talking about throwing on your sneakers, walking out the door of wherever you happen to be, keeping your eyes peeled, and taking an hour, two-hour stroll for the sheer, exuberant wonder of the enterprise. One thing I discovered driving cross-country is that you can be staying in some craphole Super 8 on a God-forsaken strip and walk a half-mile in any direction and be in paradise, a phenonemon I've experienced, among many other places, in Quartzsite, Arizona, Fremont, Ohio, Kearney, Nebraska, Memphis, Tennessee, and Colorado Springs.

Of course paradise means different things to different people. Coming back to L.A. from New Mexico just a few weeks ago, I wheeled into a Motel 6 in Flagstaff, took off for a walk, passed a long strip of other chain hotels, gas stations, cloverleafs, underpasses, exit and on ramps, and a half-mile on, happened upon a dirt forest road, completely deserted, where I picked a bunch of wildflowers, communed with several trees and watched the sunset before tramping back--enjoying the underpasses, cloverleafs, and gas stations as well--to my humble room.

I like walking in the desert, along the seashore, through the hills of Appalachia, but I also like back alleys, warehouse districts, railroad tracks, soulless commercial strips, rickety bridges, access roads, and general rural and urban blight. The edges are always where things get interesting, where you have space to dream, where people will say hi. Or not. Sometimes "the edge" means walking early in the morning or one of my favorite times, around dusk when most people are driving home from work or eating dinner.

this is called a post office, or to certain snappy types, a "PO."
astute observers have spotted such buildings in many metropolitan
and even rural areas
So a couple of weeks ago, when my friend Judy recommended a book called Outside Lies Magic: Regaining History and Awareness in Everyday Places, I went right to the downtown library and checked it out. The author is John R. Stilgoe and imagine my surprise to discover that while I thought I was just engaging in an under-the-radar, poor-person's activity this guy teaches classes at Harvard! Sure! Who knew you needed to take, or could make money teaching, a class to learn that telephone wires, freeways, and strip malls are worthy of notice? Though I'm not so sure a class wouldn't wreck my own little meanderings. I don't think of my own forays as some kind of special activity. I have enough pressure in my life as it is.

Anyway, Stilgoe is absolutely on to something. Here's how his book (which came out in 1998) begins:

Get out now. Not just outside, but beyond the trap of the programmed electronic age so gently closing around so many people at the end of our century. Go outside, move deliberately, then relax, slow down, look around. Do not jog. Do not run...

Abandon, even momentarily, the sleek modern technology that consumes so much time and money now, and seek out the resting place of a technology almost forgotten. Go outside and walk a bit, long enough to forget programming, long enough to take in and record new surroundings.

Flex the mind a little at first, then a lot. Savor something special. Enjoy the best-kept secret around--the ordinary, everyday landscape that rewards any explorer, that touches any explorer with magic.

The whole concatenation of wild and artificial things, the natural ecosystem as modified by people over the centuries, the built environment layered over layers, the eerie mix of sounds and smells and glimpses neither natural nor crafted--all of it is free for the taking, for the taking in. Take it, take it in, take in more every weekend, every day, and quickly it becomes the theater that intrigues, relaxes, fascinates, seduces and above all expands any mind focused on it. Outside lies utterly ordinary space open to any casual explorer willing to find the extraordinary. Outside lies programmed awareness that at times becomes directed serendipity. Outside lies magic. 

Stilgoe notices the "secret corridor that snakes behind the backs of the commercial buildings." He observes, "So the exploring walker or bicyclist understands the relationship of hills and muscles, and knows that even now businesses cluster at the base or top of hills, rarely midway along the grades." We learn that "Everywhere in the [interstate freeway business] cluster [of chain motels, fast-food restaurants, parking lots etc.], designers create open views, long vistas that not only encourage motorists to look ahead, but provide no places where a moving automobile might be shielded by plants from an oncoming motorist. But far more important is the determined effort to remove--or, to speak more accurately, to never plant--any vegetation that will screen a criminal."

His other books include Lifeboat: A History of Courage, Cravenness, and Survival at Sea; Landscape and Images; and Train Time: Railroads and Imminent Landscape Change.

Me, I'm thinking of calling my next project Sitting on the Threadbare Green Velvet Chair and Eating Tortilla Chips. Cause sometimes it's nice to stay indoors, too. I'll bet folks would line up to take a class on that!

rare photo of a "gas station"
things called "cars" often acquire fuel here


  1. Outside lies poetry! William Carlos Williams found it in some of the more inauspicious places: behind the walls of the hospital where nothing will grow; in the pieces of a broken green bottle; in the famous red wheelbarrow glazed with rain water; in an old woman munching plums.

    Outside lies photography! I recently acquired the book of photographs A Hidden Wholeness by Thomas Merton and John Howard Griffin. Photography can be said to be "found poetry" -- at least as practiced by Merton, there was a delight in the random, the ramshackle, the accidental, even the deteriorating!

    And of course, outside there are strangely engaging people. And all manner of surprises. Even peering outside from the window of a bus, one can find these surprises.

    Good post! And props to Mr Stilgoe. (I love the word "concatenation"!)

  2. I just found your blog not to long ago, and I love it! I love that you mention Colorado Springs-- that's my hometown! I miss walking there very much. Now I live in Nebraska, but walking here is nice, too. :)

  3. If you haven't already read it, Heather, I highly recommend Wanderlust: A History of Walking, by Rebecca Solnit. Lots of goodies therein.

  4. After reading this post today, I was inspired to open my eyes on my daily walk to the office in Midtown Manhattan. Low and behold, there were discoveries! A little garden alley tucked away; the amazing canyon-effect of the skyscrapers if you look all the way down the street; overhanging trees that stroke the delivery trucks as they rush through. I have to say, though, that most of the things that catch my eye are the plants. There's so little of it that you're thankful when you see it. I know there is beauty in trash and broken beer bottles, but I'd just rather see some green and flowers!

  5. Keep sharing the beauty, Heather!

    On my walks, along with feeling the beauty of our Creator, I feel the spirits of the people who built the artificial things, as though they still hover around. The laborer whose sweat is still in the bricks and mortar of our buildings, bridges, and so on. I think about the every day concerns: The woman agonizing over choosing a dress for that special date; the love afairs, births, celebrations, lost loves, laughter and tears. How locked into the microcosmic they must have been, not seeing the big cities they were creating in their little lives.

    It's like that with our faith, with the building up of the Body of Christ. At last it will all be clear, the agony and the ecstacy, when we see God's Kingdom which He and his people are bringing about---on the spirit level.

    "The years teach much which the days never knew."


  6. I KNEW you all would get it! It's all right here, right now, at our thing Stilgoe doesn't much mention is PEOPLE, which is another big aspect of the Outside Lies Magic paradigm. The other people who are walking, loitering, waiting for the bus, swearing, crying, panhandling, strutting, schlepping to work or school, opening their stores in the morning, hanging out on the sidewalk, likewise wandering around the trainyards, access roads, back alleys...I love seeing the busboys and dishwashers outside the groddy side doors of restaurants, having a smoke...

  7. whoops, forgot to say I have read the Rebecca Solnit on walking, thanks, Bill--she came to the LAPL with her book on disasters a couple of years ago and I got see her read there, too...maybe you did as well...

  8. While I agree that outside lies magic, I am even more intrigued by the possibilites of awakenings from Sitting on the Threadbare Green Velvet Chair and Eating Tortilla Chips.

  9. I've reserved a copy of "Outside Lies Magic: Regaining History and Awareness in Everyday Places" at my local library (Phoenix). Looking forward to it. Thanks.

  10. Also, Sarah, I spent a week at the Benet Hill Monastery in C. Springs a few years ago, and spent lots of time wandering around the nearby residential streets, and trails at the slightly seedy nearby park...all with a lovely view of the mountains...

  11. NYC is a walking city, but, I will
    stay away from areas which appear
    a bit unsafe. I prefer not to court trouble.

    What is amazing, is that
    you can walk past the same place
    for years, and suddenly discover
    something that has been there-
    but you never noticed.

    Just be careful when you are communing with nature Heather.


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