The physical therapist, who comes to evaluate my son, is thrilled with our upstate New York property. A short, steep hill moves from our front porch into a brief, undulating yard and from there to a former cornfield now thick with swamp grass and milkweed. The yard itself is overrun with crabgrass, dandelions, broad-leaf plantains, and mock strawberries dangling tiny yellow flowers. My husband mows a narrow path through the field, which in later years our son and then our daughter will call the “nature trail.” Both the yard and the trail are ungroomed and bumpy, full of hillocks and hidden woodchuck holes and, in spring and early summer, soft with a sucking squishiness that betrays their former existence as wetlands.
“These are great uneven surfaces,” the physical therapist says. My son, who was originally evaluated for speech therapy just before his second birthday, has also qualified for physical therapy through the Early Intervention program due to his low muscle tone and delay in walking. When the program coordinators recite the litany of his delays (at two it was gross motor, fine motor, speech, and sensory issues; they got more specific and somehow less relevant as he got older), I mentally wave them off. He was born seven weeks early, through emergency Caesarean when I came down with HELLP Syndrome and my blood platelet levels crashed below thirty billion per liter, leading my liver close to failure. After his birth he spent a month in the NICU, prone to bradycardia and sleep apnea and struggling to breathe when two pneumothoraxes prevented his lungs from expanding. Whatever delays he had, I figured he’d earned them.
The therapist comes to our house twice a week for half an hour, getting my son to stand at his little table, bend down to pick up small toys, step over objects; she trains him to walk instead of crawl up the stairs, and to alternate left foot-right foot by holding his dominant foot down so he can’t use it every time. She teaches him to use the banister, and to stand on a wobbly pillow while playing at a table.
Most days, though, we go outside. There is nothing better than him staggering over all these little hills and bumps and tufts of grass, which, the therapist tells me enthusiastically, will feed rapidly into his strength and stability.
I have no idea what she’s so excited about, and my ignorance betrays the privilege of having grown up poor in a poor Montana town. My childhood memories are all underpinned by the motion of walking, whether up a mountain or to school or the playground or the ice skating rink or my friends’ houses, walking and running during long summer days or crunching across the frozen sidewalks in winter’s nose-biting cold, zipped into coats that were never quite warm enough. I rarely got a ride even to the far side of town.
The physical therapist mentions other babies she sees, packed into small apartments in dangerous neighborhoods, with families too poor to buy diapers, much less dream of one day living in a house with a yard. She and the occupational therapist mention in passing research linking extensive crawling to later reading skills, or walking on uneven surfaces to complex neurological development, and I still don’t understand why our wild field means so much to her.
I didn’t get it until four years later on my daughter’s first day of preschool at a local nature museum, a place I love because the kids go hiking every day in all kinds of weather and learn to care for animals in a classroom with just the right level of chaotic messiness.
At the parents’ orientation the museum director told us of a school group they’d hosted over the summer, who’d come up from New York City. “We actually had some trouble because some of these kids couldn’t go hiking.” She pointed to the wide lawn that sloped toward the fields and goose pond fronting the nearly two hundred acres of forest and hills owned by the museum. The lawn is more groomed than ours—thicker clover and fewer thistles—but still uneven and hilly. “They had never walked off of pavement before,” she said. “It was really hard for them. For the first hour they had to just get used to walking on the lawn.” Later, the director of the preschool program tells me that this is a problem they’ve had with preschoolers before, who can’t walk on the hills, have to adapt to the paths. Some of them have trouble simply stepping over toys in the classroom. One three-year-old started out the year tackling every hill on his hands and knees, his brain and feet never having developed the coordination to navigate such uncivilized terrain.
This small strange thing, the treading of uneven ground, which has defined human motion for millions of years and is so cognitively intense it’s almost impossible to teach a robot to do it, is suddenly becoming, along with so many other things we used to take for granted like clean air and clean water, the sole province of those who can afford to live in the country or leave the city.
* * *
My father’s Russian accent is still thick after over thirty years as an American, and he still forgets his articles—a, an, the, which don’t exist in Russian. “My friend Pyotr—Petya—and I, we walked all canals, all over bridges, talking about art and literature and girls,” he tells me. “We walked for hours, all day.” We’re looking out over the embankment of the wide Neva, toward the four-hundred-foot gold spire of the Peter and Paul Fortress built by Peter the Great. In later years my father will tell me other stories, of hanging out with gypsies by the incongruous blue mosque in his neighborhood, of Stalin’s anti-Jewish paranoia and how the other kids used to tell my father they were sorry he had to die, he seemed decent enough; but when I first get to know his country, his city, his memories are full of walks and friends and standing in ubiquitous lines for sausages or fruit or bread. The Leningrad he grew up in, now revolved back to its original name of St. Petersburg, barely exists anymore, preserved only in private spaces like his brother’s apartment, where my uncle and aunt serve up preserved mushrooms they’d gathered in northern woods the previous summer, and meat in aspic, and skinned potatoes in dill, talking long into the night over tea and dishes of sticky-sweet varenye jam. A Lexus dealership recently opened up next to the building where my father and his siblings were raised in a one-bedroom apartment.
I am in St. Petersburg for a two-week writing conference, a last fling with ambition before my husband and I have children. In the evenings I eat with my relatives and watch the World Cup soccer tournament. Three days a week I attend writing workshops and readings, coming back later in the weird pink midnight light of midsummer to drink vodka with the visiting writers.
But mostly I walk for hours. St. Petersburg is hot in the summer, with inversion-heavy air that makes breathing difficult and seems to press blood vessels against the skin; my feet and hands feel puffy, my entire body swollen, as if the blood itself is straining outward for more oxygen, but still I walk.
My stride extends over canals, across the Neva River, out to the edges of poplar-covered islands carpeted in uncut grass and wild chamomile, where women’s flower-print dresses and jarring piped music remind me of the Soviet Union I barely knew.
Even growing up in my small Montana town I could never walk like this, up and down over rivers and through neighborhoods and parkland for as long as the day lasted. My hometown petered out quickly into a single highway with little shoulder and farmland embraced by miles of barbed wire. In those days, freedom was found in driving, racing west or north, off toward new frontiers. Getting out meant getting in the car.
By the time I leave St. Petersburg, I am addicted to walking. I spent my childhood and teenage years hiking the Rockies, but in this, in being able to step out my own front door and walk for hours, I’ve found a new passion, a new way to be and move through my life that feels real and awake and alert and present. Essays tumble out fully formed and a novel begins to take shape; I pen long letters to my husband and carry index cards to write down ideas that seem to fall on me like snowflakes.
I understand why my father used to lope all over the canals and islands with his friend Petya, discussing girls and art and their latest smuggled Beatles album and the forbidden Solzhenitsyn manuscript their families might have read in secret the night before. Walking makes freedom more than an illusion. During my two weeks in St. Petersburg, thoughts and conversations shift and move as if my mind were thawing, a river constantly breaking up ice jams.
And my back has stopped hurting.
* * *
The pain started somewhere in the middle and slightly to the left, between my shoulder blades, when I was thirteen. I told the doctor it felt like one of my muscles was snagged on something, a term I use again over twenty years later to describe similar discomfort near the bottom of my ribcage, decidedly to the right of my spine. Snagged. The sensation reminds me of fishing in my early years, the long days of bored annoyance as my mother cast her endless flies, and the frustration when, invariably, my own worm-strung hook got tangled in a river’s log—also called snags in our peculiar regional lingo—or in the weeds at the bottom of a lake. My chiropractor tells me this pain is a rib slightly out of place and he pops it back. The snagged feeling is lessened but not gone.
The words I use to describe the pain that started long ago in my back, and which spread over the years up and down my spine, into my neck, through my shoulders and around my hips, reaching down to grip my ankles and cause occasional cramping in my fingers, reflect a life in constriction that makes my body something like a foreign country I am always exploring but in which I never attain the comfort of a native: the snags, two, one near my scapula and the other buried in the dorsal muscles; the frozen curve of pinatus, where a heavy diaper bag often hangs, connecting to the tight, locked knot on the right side of my neck. The teres major behind each shoulder smolders, radiating to the bursius and deltoids and partway down the biceps, like the deep, intense heat of a campfire burned down to coals so bright they make you wince, when you know it’s hot enough to tuck the baking potatoes, wrapped in tinfoil and poked with a knife so they won’t explode, under the char-black wood.
The psoas just under my hipbones is beyond pain; tightened and seized like a screw gone into a bolt so tight it’s lost its thread and will never come out without bolt cutters. That pain, more of a bothersome limitation, which I try in vain to alleviate now and then by lying sideways on a small ball of wood, is distinct from the newer stabbing and wrenching that goes on in my lower back. That one makes me think of gleeful little devils illustrating Dante, poking pitchforks into my lumbar vertebrae. The devils become more active when my three-year-old daughter narrows her eyes at me and screeches in protest at some rule or request. Lying down seems like it should help but doesn’t, although sleeping on the floor for a few nights sometimes does.
Some days I wake up and my entire body feels like it’s on fire.
The chiropractor, the best of the three I’ve been to over the years, provides some relief. The rolfer, a specialist in intense, painful massage that goes beyond deep tissue and promises what’s called “structural integration,” puts his considerable strength and all his weight into muscles and connective tissue to attempt digging out deep-seated, long-buried problems both physical and emotional. He’s good at digging. But afterwards the pains start to poke out again, a familiar forest of small animals tentatively shifting their noses to see if winter has gone yet.
I’ve tried several physical therapists, a variety of massages with more practitioners than I can count, a woman in Russia who doesn’t so much massage as beat the body black and blue, years of yoga, which made me more limber but didn’t shift the pain and sometimes inflamed my sciatic nerve; I’ve tried ice packs, heat packs, a variety of anti-inflammatory supplements, stopping drinking, starting drinking, cutting out supposed dietary irritants such as gluten or dairy, and a therapeutic book that promised these types of pains were purely emotional and psychological and I could get rid of them by writing down all my problems.
Nothing provides reprieve except one: being in a place where I can step out the door and walk, unfettered, for as long as I want.
* * *
My husband, our two kids, and I are in Montana for my younger sister’s wedding. Being here makes me horribly homesick. I miss the mountains, the air, hiking, huckleberries. My family.
We’re staying at a Super 8 a mile’s walk from downtown. The town, which my parents had moved us to when I was in high school, is a tourist destination with a lake and a ski mountain and miles of sidewalks and cycling trails that make it the poster child for walkable communities. But for the first few days our four-year-old son insists on riding in the apple-green double stroller with his one-year-old sister. Walking makes him tired, he says, and I remember the physical therapist’s diagnosis of low muscle tone.
Where we live in upstate New York the kids can’t walk anywhere, even with an adult. The four acres of former cornfield and uneven yard that the physical therapist once praised stop at a country road with no shoulder. The road is marked as a thirty-mile-per-hour zone but commuters usually drive closer to fifty. My family’s life is defined by a strict set of time-as-distance problems, with our house anchoring a web of physical and educational needs: grocery store, a twenty-minute drive; playground, fifteen; library and preschool, both twenty-one but it’s twelve from one to the other; coffee shop, twenty-two; dentist, thirty-five; pediatrician, seventeen; swimming lessons, thirty, all on roads with little or no shoulder. The bookstore is across the street from the grocery store, but it takes five minutes to drive from one to the other because the street has five busy lanes and no crosswalk.
The post office, a mile down our road, is the only destination I think of in terms of distance instead of minutes. Nothing here is walkable unless you’re an adventurous and nimble adult who has all day and can leap out of the way when a texting driver isn’t paying attention.
Walking as a way to get places, as a form of transport, both an innate human activity and what should be an inalienable right, is foreign to my children. Once they got old enough to move, without being carried, beyond the bounds of our wildflower-rich property, walking, the most basic physical expression of freedom and an activity with a long history as a wellspring of creativity and the ideal exercise was closed to them.
There is this idea that self-help books and guides on creativity and life-hacking often like to promote: that the energy you put into the universe determines what you get back. “The secret,” it’s sometimes called, or “the law of attraction.” Whenever someone mentions it, I get unreasonably angry. I think of a kind vegetarian friend whose house was foreclosed on after she went through several bouts of unemployment, two knee surgeries, and the death of her father. Last year she was diagnosed with breast cancer. I think of my hard-working younger sister, who treats others generously and still strives to achieve her ambitions amid mounting debt contracted through waves of health problems: the gastrointestinal sensitivity that no one has ever been able to explain, but which abates if she avoids all processed foods and any meat that’s been treated with growth hormones; the string of allergies that came on her suddenly after a year of college in California’s Central Valley, where industrial agricultural pollution makes its air some of the worst in the country.
I think of when my son was in preschool, and his asthma inhaler was not the only one tucked into a cubby with a comfort toy, blanket, and nut-free snack.
Invert the word “energy” into something measurable, and my son’s inhaler, prescribed after two terrifying asthma-driven hospital stays, is reflective of exactly that hokey self-help concept. “Energy” encompasses coal plants, mountaintop-removal mining, fracking wastewater, smog-choked cities, all the fossil fuels being burned with almost manic speed and intensity. As we foul the air, our children strain to breathe, reaping what we have sown with the energy we are putting into the universe.
The fact that my son’s lungs struggled when he was born seems almost a footnote. I used to exchange stories with the other parents of sitting upright in bed; our toddlers slumped against our chests all night long while they slept between the coughing that seized their small bodies. The humidifiers, trips to the pulmonologist, shifting dosages of Singulair and Flovent. Trading nebulizer tactics and futile attempts at some magical diet change that removed dairy or gluten or soy.
But we live ten miles from one of New York’s oldest and dirtiest coal-fired power plants (children living near any fuel-powered plant are already 11% more likely to have asthma), and our entire valley, rolling bucolically green along the Hudson River, is the recipient of significant pollution drift from the Midwest. Our county broadcasts regular air quality warning days throughout the summer, when the elderly and kids like my son are warned not to play outside and even I find breathing laborious.
They also can’t walk anywhere. It’s safer to drive, with air filtration on, setting up an ever-tightening spiral of fossil fuel use, of waste and dirtier air, more closed doors, more driving because fear of a child’s asthma attack will always outweigh concerns over contributions to global warming and smog.
My children are becoming two of billions who might never know how to create a life where walking is a pleasure, an inspiration, a way of life, or even a choice.
* * *
After five days in Montana, my son perked up and scorned the stroller. He walked the mile between the hotel and downtown every day, often racing ahead and then back to where my husband and I were ambling, his baby sister sleeping. He complained that we were too slow. He jumped more, learned to swim. The ever-present cast of gray shadows disappeared from under his eyes.
Both the kids whined that car rides were boring, that it made their bottoms tired to sit down and buckle up. I remembered what fractious, intense babies they’d both been, with fierce emotions and easily overloaded senses, and how taking them for a walk on the “nature trail” used to calm them instantly. Now, as we walked through our days, my back pain abated and my neck unfroze and I sympathized with them.
When we came back to New York our first errand was to restock on groceries. It was ninety-six degrees outside. I called the kids to get their shoes on and go to the car. My son sighed before he opened his door. “Can’t we walk there?” After I persuaded him, resisting, into his booster, I folded my spine into my own seat, the position so familiar that the pains inhabiting my body raced out to greet the lumbar support and the head rest like old friends, and I started to cry.
Even growing up under Stalin, assuming they avoided being shot or sent to the gulag, people like my father were free to roam, the mind encouraged in movement by the feet. But my children and I are denied that freedom, like so many Americans living where sidewalks do not exist but busy roads abound.
* * *
My back pain responds to rigidity. Its pinches and twinges and twists are a guide to frustrations and anger, repeated litanies in my head, years-old arguments, rotting and yet solidified. The newest pain in the lumbar region stabs ever more vigorously when my kids are driving me crazy. It makes me feel weak, without a core, like I’m a rag doll only capable of responding to their neverending needs and yelling a lot. One of the older pains, at the very top of the spine where my skull is cradled by the atlas bone, tightens and throbs at the mention of any number of phrases that I categorize as doublethink: clean coal, carbon scrubbing, carbon sequestration, safe nuclear waste disposal, energy sector jobs, grow the economy, containment pools.
There is no release for these pains, or the maddening hamster wheel-like thoughts behind them, except when I travel somewhere or drive to a nearby town where I can walk. If I get to walk for long enough, a couple of hours instead of twenty minutes, I realize how unbending my ideas have become, patterns of thought crystallized into firm immobility.
And I wonder now if the inability to walk exacerbates our inability to solve society-wide problems. Many of us, those who don’t live in a small town or compact city with good public transport, exist in this same cramped life and routine, our bodies constantly folded and still, moving only from house to car to work to car to house, to big box store in between, a kid’s outdoor sport if we’re fortunate (if he doesn’t have asthma or the air is acceptable that day). Living in our widespread homes and transporting ourselves via car, we can choose whom to associate with, what opinions we listen to, whom we say hello to, what we believe, exactly how far we’ll go to meet someone coming from the other direction, or how far we won’t.
As our freedom to walk becomes ever more constrained, as air quality and housing developments and busy roads force us to spend more time in our homes and cars, we might lose even the words of movement that reflect every land-tethered animal’s most basic motion. Ramble, meander, rove, roam, wander, deviate, digress—will they slip into disuse, become arcane ideas? As we forget that they ever applied to our physical bodies, to our ability to get from here to there or from here to nowhere in particular, will our minds lose the ability to do the same? What happens to our ideas and bodies when neither can wander aimlessly, get stuck in the mud, backtrack, reconsider, keep moving until we find ourselves in a place beyond our knowledge?
What happens in the mind of a developing child whose feet and brain have never worked in conjunction to traverse uneven ground, or unfamiliar soil?
A chiropractor I used to see mentioned that the problem areas of my back and neck reminded him of wringing a dishrag, and I laughed because I’d used the same description before when complaining of the pains. My back, with its frozen patterns of numbness and pain, feels like a river that’s been straightened and reinforced with concrete, exploding every now and then in an anger of floodwaters but never again allowed to meander. My mind has begun to feel the same.
* * *
“Where are you going tomorrow?” asks my Aunt Galya over dinner, before I head back to the city center for a poetry reading followed by vodka or sweet wine at the bar that had become the writing conference’s unofficial hangout.
“Krestovsky Islands.” I’ve been scouring the edges of my Lonely Planet guide to St. Petersburg for more places to walk. The Krestovsky Islands, farther than I’d gone before, are a cluster of three leisure islands tucked behind the Petrograd district and connected to St. Petersburg by footbridges and the metro.
My Uncle Tolya comes with me. We stroll by the statue of Pushkin, erected in the woodland where, supposedly, the poet’s fatal duel took place. After three hours on foot we are looking out toward the Gulf of Finland. Tolya shows me where he and my father used to ice skate and attend soccer matches, and tells stories of teenage escapades with his friends. They, too, used to walk for hours.
Tolya’s pace is brisk and picks up as we near home. Already well into his seventies, he’s spent a lifetime with his feet on these paths, snapping branches on the well-worn route from their apartment building to the metro. We take the route back, past late-blooming Japanese lilacs, busy streets, trash-strewn courtyards, to the tall jasmine bush that’s always grown by the front door of their building. Up six flights of cement stairs, the stairwell smelling—as it seems to in all these Soviet-era apartment blocks—of freshly sliced cucumber.
Galya has prepared bowls of clear bullion, a plate of sliced tomatoes from her garden, and a pot of waxy potatoes with dill. She’s nearly eighty years old and still goes to work every day as an electrical engineer. So does Tolya, a control systems engineer. They both retired once, didn’t see much point in it, and when their offices asked them back they went, walking every day to the metro and off to work at the other end, then past the market in the evening, hoping that day’s potatoes were decent. Usually they cook dinner together and I don’t know where they get all this energy. I’m thirty-one and want a nap; my calf muscles jump around like a nervous cat. Galya ladles small scoops of preserved mushrooms out of a jar and my mouth waters. She knows how much I love them, how my sisters and I would, if our manners allowed us, eat every tiny mushroom in her kitchen like ravening hobbits.
I tell her I wish I could come with them, one summer, when they go up to the forest near the northern sea for a month to fish and garden, eat berries and gather mushrooms.
“Mushrooms?” she says. Gribi? I love how “mushroom” in Russian sounds so earthy.
My cousin Anna, their daughter the mathematician, is there. She tells me they hike for eleven hours to collect these mushrooms. Galya looks at me doubtfully.
“I don’t think you can walk that far,” she says.
* * *
On our most recent trip to Montana, I noticed a new bumper sticker everywhere. The popular one when I was in high school and Montana was just being discovered by wealthier Californians looking for vacation homes said, “Welcome to Montana. Now go home.” It was an improvement over my mother’s idea, only half a joke: “Gut shoot ’em at the border.”
This one is shaped like the state, all in forest green, the color evoking pleasantly the sense of space and wilderness, the physical freedom found in places like the million-plus-acre Bob Marshall Wilderness, preserved far away from cars, where you can tramp trails for days or weeks moved by nothing but your own two feet and an erect spine. I wish my kids could grow up knowing that life, but would settle for them knowing they could walk to the library, to the farmers market, to play with a friend, to anywhere at all, that the roads were designed for their roaming bodies and the air always clean enough to safely breathe. Every year I take them from our house where they slump tired in car seats, and watch them perk up like thirsty plants among the hills and paths that my feet know as home. The truth, like all clichés, sounds silly when spoken aloud: we are kinder with one another, more patient, sleep better, hug more, laugh more. My back twitches in unfamiliar ways, but the pain, for the most part, sleeps dormant.
“Get Lost,” says the new bumper sticker. I wish I could. I wish we all could.
Antonia Malchik has written about education, parenting, identity, environment, and travel for STIR Journal, Creative Nonfiction, Brain, Child, and the Jabberwock Review, among many other publications, and has essays forthcoming from Orion and The Washington Post. A former IT journalist, she is a regular essay contributor to Full Grown People.