Alli Harvey: Walking -- and driving -- the line on Anchorage streets

By ALLI HARVEYMarch 25, 2014 

Walking seems like the kind of activity that would be featured in a women's health magazine. I can envision the word WALKING splashed on the front cover, next to the woman in a sports bra whose shiny golden abs have seen hours more sunshine and several hundred more crunches than mine.

I walk 40 minutes to work on most days, but there are several differences (beside the state of my abs) between my version of walking and my imagined women's health magazine version. First of all, the colors on my daily commute are not fetching shades of bright pink and orange like they would be in a magazine. The colors are the subdued browns and blues of overcast March mornings in Anchorage.

Secondly, I'm not walking on a treadmill in shiny white sneakers; I don't have a heart monitor strapped to my (gleaming, tan) upper arm. I am hopefully wearing studded shoes, which have salt lines where they've been wet and dried from many walking commutes just like this one. If I'm not wearing studded shoes then people passing by are frequently treated to the sight of me falling down on slick ice.

The third major difference between my walking commute and that of the pretty lady on the cover of a magazine is that she's not at all worried about getting smooshed by cars. I, on the other hand, spend almost all of my on-foot commute worried about that.

When I'm walking, there is always the potential of a show-down between me (flimsy flesh and blood with studded sneakers) and a car (tons of steel and rubber, traveling with momentum). In terms of my health, this presents a pretty clear risk. If a car and I confront each other, even for just a moment, my odds of maintaining my health (or surviving) are not good.

So the thoughts I have on the way to work often concern my mortality. I think things like, "It would be a sorry way to go, dying on 15th while listening to this song that I'm kind of sick of, while stressing about some trivial work-related thing or another."

I also think, "I hope nobody is checking their email while driving, because the barrier between roadway and sidewalk exists only in our collective societal imagination; and if someone in their car decides to breach that threshold at just the right time I'm done."

It's morbid, right? But the thing is, I am often the driver: the person inside the multi-ton metal machine, observing the (hopefully) well-marked line between road and sidewalk. I spend plenty of time behind the wheel getting around town, so I know exactly how terrifying it is that there are pedestrians just like me everywhere.

I really don't want to hit anyone with my car. I would hazard a guess that 99 percent of the time that's true for other motor vehicle operators as well. I get angry when a pedestrian darts out unexpectedly, when people walk down the middle of the road, or when I see people forced to do dangerous things (think of Northern Lights Boulevard after a snowstorm, and tell me what kind of a sidewalk you see. None? That's right. I wouldn't want to be a person in a wheelchair trying to get onto a bus).

Unfortunately, people do stupid things in their cars all the time. When I'm in my vehicle, my mindset is that I'm surrounded by a powerful cage of metal invincibility. Besides, the environment in the car is so cozy. What could ever possibly penetrate my little mobile fiefdom, that customized domain where my music is always playing and I can go where I want?

I think of this attitude of invincibility as I'm the one on foot, navigating puddles mixed with ice, wondering what I'm inhaling from exhaust and dust getting kicked off the road. Is this health, I think? Am I really safe on the sidewalk, at all?

What I've come to, as a walker and a driver, is that even though cars and pedestrians should never meet head-on, they sometimes do. The way I see it, when I'm on foot I defer to the bigger objects that weigh much more than I do, even going farther out of my way than I legally need to in order to ensure my continued aliveness.

My rules of thumb of walking to work: when crossing a street I make eye contact. In the winter, when subtle gestures are covered up by my hat, hood or sunglasses, I turn my neck around as though I am pantomiming the act of "looking." I gaze toward the windshield where I know there is someone inside, even when I can't actually see a pair of eyes. In my gesture I am exaggerating the fact that I am watching. I think about the words "craning" and "peering."

Then I give a friendly little wave and smile as that car pauses for me a little short of where it needs to, the indication that the driver sees me and will not smoosh me. I look for car body language. Someone who is inching forward with the blinker on isn't trustworthy, while someone who has paused a distance short of the crosswalk likely is.

When on foot, I think about the things I love and hate about walking in Anchorage. Occasionally I think about the kind of abs I would have if I were on the cover of a women's health magazine. Mostly, I think about the successful navigation of our streets from point A to point B, and when I've reached my destination I can count it as a major victory in my continued survival. That's not really a bad way to start a day.

Alli Harvey lives, works and plays in Anchorage.

 

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