Perhaps a few of you — as I did — fell under the spell of Jim Fixx's bestselling The Complete Book of Running, which was published in 1977, and so you too began jogging for regular exercise. Having been an exceptionally unathletic child, I was not a natural runner. A former friend once observed me jogging past his house in my coral-colored running shorts and described my unique ungainly style as that of an "arthritic flamingo." Yes, it was at that very moment that he became "former."
When poor Mr. Fixx was found dead seven years later of a massive heart attack by the side of the Vermont country road where he'd been jogging seconds before, I took this as A Sign that I should find a less strenuous type of regular exercise. In truth, my aching knees had been A-Signing me pain long before his untimely death, so I knew I should retire those coral running shorts and give my gnarled knobby knees a break. It was at this point — right after his death in 1984 — that I discovered the wonders of walking.
And so for the last thirty-eight years, I have fast-walked every day, and I proudly and neurotically emphasize EVERY day. On those rarest of occasions when weather or commitments will make walking impossible, I make sure to walk twice on the following day. There's nothing like a mild case of OCD to keep me on my toes—and heels. I always walk three miles in thirty-eight minutes, which is one mile every 12.6666667 minutes --to put way too fine a point on it. Such a pace allows me to call my exercise "fast walking." I'd read somewhere that brisk walking becomes fast walking when your breathing still allows you to carry on a conversation but you cannot effectively sing the words to a song. If any of you have ever heard me sing, you'd know that I’m a natural for this workout.
In fact, I prefer my exercise to be like the "L" in “walking” — silent. I often pass strolling couples engaged in deep conversations and realize how such companionship must seem to make the exercise pass more quickly and delightfully. I've even denied myself the pleasure of using an iPhone with cordless earbuds to listen to my favorite music or those incredible (but perhaps slightly overrated) recorded lectures of Professor Engel. I prefer silence.
Well, actually, I like my walks not to be silent but rather to be filled only with the sounds of nature surrounding me as I move quickly from one street or lane to the next. There are no babbling brooks nor buzzing bees along my route, so it is of course the birdsong that delights me most. My walks always begin about thirty minutes before sunrise, when so many birdies seem to be tuning up. I remember learning in a college meteorology course that birds sing at dawn because the temperature, humidity, and wind are usually at their lowest, and therefore their territorial sounds are guaranteed to travel the farthest.
And speaking of traveling sounds, I realized early in my walking career that although I obviously could only see ahead of me and only touch what was within arm’s length, I could hear in all directions at once. Now there’s a super power I hadn’t appreciated before. I admit that my name recognition of specific complex bird sounds has remained constant since I was four years old: just one (owl); complex sound — (whoo). But the joy is in the listening, not in the naming. All the anonymous chirps and cheeps, warbles and trills, tweets and chatterings nourish me spiritually as the fast-walking exercises me aerobically. The Austrian poet Rilke believed that a bird’s song can create a sky within ourselves because we feel the bird does not distinguish between its heart and ours. How I wish I possessed his lyrical gift for stating that!
My walking route passes the boundary of a golf course where a narrow ledge at the top of a high slope overlooks the 18th hole. This raised bank — or “The Berm,” as the club members call it — attracts more singing birds than anywhere else in the neighborhood, especially right before sunrise. There they perch, singing their little hearts out. I make it a point to be there as early as possible in order to listen to that marvelous chorus. In June that means at 6am. As opposed to my once hurried jogs, I slow my pace as I near the slope just to have a few extra seconds of their full-throated joy. But if I appear much after 7:00am in the hot summer, golfers are already arriving, and the birds have all flown away.
I wish you could see me and my fine feathered friends some summer sunrise on that elevated bank. You couldn’t miss us. All of us Early Birds are gathered there — and we do indeed get The Berm!