I walk around my block almost every day. Sometimes I miss a day, but I’m pretty religious about it. It’s 0.9 miles around my block – some of it downhill, some of it uphill — and it takes me about fifteen minutes. Not too long to disrupt much of anything, but long enough for me to consider it “exercise.”
I go out of my driveway and turn right. It’s immediately downhill, so it’s an easy warm-up. I pass my neighbors’ houses. I have an interesting mix of neighbors: doctors and lawyers, journalists and retirees, new people and some people who have been here since the 1950s. More than a few work at the nearby Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a federally funded research and development center and NASA field center. Quite simply, I live in a town full of rocket scientists.
Sometimes I see other walkers (with or without their dogs.) Sometimes runners, sometimes bike riders. I’ll usually say ‘hi’ unless they’re in an iPod or a serious athlete.
I pass “Fairhaven,” the home built in the 1920s by the movie star Victor McLaglen, famous for his roles in some of John Ford’s greatest movies, including THE INFORMER for which McLaglen won the Best Actor Oscar in 1935. He brawled across Ireland with John Wayne as Maureen O’Hara’s brother in THE QUIET MAN and brawled across India with Cary Grant and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. in GUNGA DIN. McLaglen owned this whole area before his death in 1959. When I walk by Fairhaven, more often than not, I’m spun into thoughts and fantasies of John Ford.
John Ford is one of my absolute favorite movie directors. Hell, he’s one of my favorite artists, regardless of medium. I revere his “complex simplicity,” his amazing eye, his character building, his sense of drama, his big-swing grandeur – so many things I aspire to as an artist. MY DARLING CLEMENTINE, HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY, and THE GRAPES OF WRATH are among my favorite movies of all time. (I just bought a BluRayClementine. Sublime!) I have a tiny homage to Ford in my novel WHAT IT WAS LIKE. My guy describes his last night at Camp Mooncliff as “moon bright,” a lovely expression I got from the exquisite YOUNG MR. LINCOLN, one of the three films that Ford made in 1939, the other two being the massively entertaining DRUMS ALONG THE MOHAWK and the genre-defining STAGECOACH.
Ford was a complex man. I’ve read two biographies about him. Not a nice guy, but sometimes he’d do something heroic and brave and against the tide. I like a lot of artists who were/are not apparently “nice guys” – such as V.S. Naipaul, Saul Bellow, Giuseppe Verdi, and Van Morrison. T.S. Eliot was an anti-Semite. Paul Valery was a Nazi collaborator. I don’t think that Bob Dylan or John Lennon or Keith Jarrett are/were very nice guys. It’s always the same: “Trust the art, not the artist.”
A little while after Fairhaven, I turn left and start up “Heartbreak Hill.” OK, it’s our “heartbreak hill.” It’s not the twentieth mile of the Boston Marathon, but it’s uphill a quarter of a mile, enough to get one’s heart going pretty damn fast. B’thump – b’thump – b’thump. That’s why we call it “heartbreak.”
All along the way, I pass lots of flowers and trees, all year long. This is southern California, after all, and we have six growing seasons: something is always in flower. There are tall stands of birches and solo palms. I pass three beds of star jasmine that bloom several times a year and smell fantastic. I pass four enormous eucalyptus trees, and I always strip off a fragrant, oily leaf and bring it to the Tiny Goddess. Sometimes fierce, crazy-barking dogs startle me, even behind their fences. I pass a flood channel that cuts under the street, down from a drainage basin up in the mountains. Coyotes often use the flood channel to come down from their dens and hunt for little white dogs and stray pussycats in these nice, suburban neighborhoods. I always look down the flood channel for coyotes, but I never see them.
Usually I walk in the morning, to get my day going. But if I walk at sunset, there is a moment when the San Gabriel Mountains all turn a soft rose color. (I used to have a great view of the “pink moment” from my driveway, but my neighbor bought the house next to me, tore it down, and built up two stories. There went my view.) But walking at sunset is quite a show. Sometimes it’s laughably beautiful, like a painted backdrop from some MGM ‘30s musical.
I confess that I use my walk not just for exercise and getting oxygen into my brain. (Did you ever see that comparison MRI of the brain before or after exercising? I rest my case.) I also use my walk to create work.
The Germans have a lovely expression. They speak of the “erkenntnisspaziergang,” or cogitation-stroll. It’s a walk specifically taken for the purpose of thinking. I take my walk with a pen-and-paper, and nine-times-out-of-ten, I come back with something for my book. Walking is good for thinking. Kierkegaard said, “I have walked myself into my best thoughts.” And Dickens walked for miles and miles, fueling his great engine of Story.
And so … are you feeling sluggish? Stuck on an idea? Stuck for an idea? Walk around your block. It won’t kill you … and it could help you.
Unless you get hit by a bus, in which case all bets are off.
Peter Seth, author of What It Was Like, thankfully hasn’t been hit by a bus while out walking – yet. He continues to walk and brainstorm manuscript ideas.