Until very recently, the idea of going for a walk for fun never crossed my mind. I preferred more heart-rate-boosting, woo!-inducing forms of exercise; my idea of a good time included sailing off lippy kickers on my mountain bike or floating through fresh powder on skis. I just didn’t have much use for walking when I didn’t have to. Walking wasn’t going to get me ripped. Walking wasn’t shredding. Walking was good for digestion and something nice I did with my aging parents. Walking too far made my feet swell and my lower back ache. Walking was boring.
But like many of us this spring, I started doing a lot of things that were out of character. I stopped drinking. I started baking bread. I planted flowers and succulents and somehow kept them alive. I played board games. And I started going on long walks.
I could blame the baking, the gardening, the board games, and the teetotalism on the new restrictions caused by the novel coronavirus. I joked that I was playing quarantine bingo, systematically ticking off every trope on my Instagram feed. But the seed for the walking was planted well before the pandemic.
Last July, my fiancé, Andrew, was hit by a driver in a van while riding his bike. He survived the collision, just barely, undergoing ten surgeries in 17 days to piece him back together like a titanium-scaffolded Humpty-Dumpty. But all the operations couldn’t fix the worst of his injuries: his spinal cord had been damaged, and his left leg was paralyzed. After a three-month stint in the hospital—or what we like to call his “extended spa stay”—he came home in October.
Andrew had been a bike racer for half his life. He competed as an elite amateur on the velodrome and the road, lining up against national champions and Olympic hopefuls in professional races while holding down a nine-to-five job in marketing. Now, at 34, he simply hoped to walk again.
Wearing a rigid, full-leg orthotic brace and wielding forearm crutches that extended to his elbows, Andrew first ventured out onto the streets of our neighborhood in Boulder, Colorado, a few days after his homecoming. I walked behind him, my hand grasping a cotton gait belt we tied around his waist, so that I could stop his fall in case he stumbled. Initially, going just ten minutes up and down the block exhausted him. But he built his strength, and our walks got longer. The belt, which he hated, came off by November. By February, he was able to unlock the knee joint of his brace and stabilize his leg on his own. By the time COVID-19 came to Colorado in mid-March, we were walking up to 90 minutes at a time.
On the weekend of March 14—when the ski resorts, breweries, and many other vestiges of normalcy began shutting down around us in rapid, alarming succession—we started noticing something new on our strolls. Suddenly the streets were filled with people who were also just… walking around. Couples sauntered. Families with young children trooped the sidewalks. Our reclusive older neighbor power-walked up and down our block.
I started walking on my own, too. For the first two weeks of quarantine, I didn’t have the energy for much else. I’d wake up so tired, I thought I must have the coronavirus. But I wasn’t sick. I was just sad. (Science tells us that when we’re stressed, we’re less active, and mental fatigue can translate to physical fatigue.) Getting to the end of the workday felt more exhausting than ever. After I closed my laptop each evening, I couldn’t bear the thought of pushing my body hard, too. So instead I’d cross the street, get on a local trail, and tramp briskly into the cool, fading light. I drew deep breaths of the damp, piney air. I gaped at the panoramic views of the Flatirons jutting up over the horizon. One evening, after a spring snowstorm, I stared dopily for minutes at a low-hanging branch of a ponderosa pine, its cones glazed thick with ice. Frozen stalactites melted off the pine needles, forming piles of glassy crystals that tinkled when I kneeled to run my fingers through them.
As I walked, I circumambulated six-foot bubbles containing other people doing variations of the same thing: walking and talking with earbuds in, walking the dog, walking with a friend at arm’s length.
It seemed that Andrew and I had been ahead of at least one trend. Walking was making a major comeback.