Sidewalk of the Week: Somewhere near Queens Drive

In a literal sense, walking in Woodbury is slow dancing about bad architecture. Metaphorically, it’s more like ironing your clothes on a tightrope. The pleasure is in the challenge. I can picture a wide-eyed reporter asking me, years from now, “Why do you walk in Woodbury?" I shall pause, rest my hand upon the nearest mailbox and reply, “because it’s there.” I shall turn my head to gaze at the horizon, but I will be thinking something else. "Because Money Magazine named it the #11th Best City in the United States of the USA." And if Money Magazine thinks that Woodbury is a “city”, then I guess I need to walk there.

Walking in Woodbury offers many challenges, like ESPN's X-Games, or riding a tall bike. The landscape tests the limits of the pedestrian, gropes the edges of agility, endurance, and insensate determination. Is it possible to walk in Woodbury and enjoy it? Is there aesthetic pleasure in a land that forsakes the biped? What happens when the sidewalk ends and you continue?

Follow me. A walk in Woodbury, or any modern suburb, typically involves distinct stages. These sidewalks are not uniform. They do not stretch outward unimpeded toward the deep blue sky. These sidewalks are illegible in the traditional language of city feet. They stutter and speak, hem and haw. You will find vast differences in the landscape, each stage of your journey as different as an elephant. This is extreme strolling, friends, and you’ll need your wits if you want to keep your toes.

Stage One: The Meandering Sidewalk-less Idyll

The first stage of any Woodbury walk involves leaving one’s home and car behind, and setting out on foot. This will feel very strange, almost alien, as if you are departing Earth for unknown space. Your garage is an airlock. As the door closes behind you, the silence of the suburban vacuum will be deafening. Be sure to bring some supplies: food, water, some sort of map, a Visa card, and your car keys (for totemic value).

When you reach the end of the driveway, the first thing you'll notice is this simple fact: There are no sidewalks. You walk on the street. This isn’t quite the problem that it seems, because there are few cars (only the occasional SUV, slowly passing) and even fewer people. Walking along the edge of the road will be awkward, but is perfectly pleasant. For the first fish to crawl from the sea, the continental opens wide as a Russian novel. Stroll at your leisure. Pick a direction and head off into the unknown.

But be wary! The curvilinear meander is a remorseless labyrinth. Many a pedestrian has attempted a suburban stroll and hasn’t made it out again. Walkers become impossibly lost. Many have fallen, starved, or gone slowly insane. (My cousin Leonard once tried to amble in Maple Grove. The last anyone saw, he was heading down a dead end cul-de-sac. Somehow he disappeared. It remains a mystery to this day.)

[This cul de sac looks innocent, but conceals great mysteries.]

You see, within the depths of any suburb, the streets curve in unpredictable directions. Their names have little order or sense, and all begin or end with the same words. There will be Foxboro Drive and Foxboro Curve, Oak Street and Oak Circle and Oak Lane. Each street will look exactly the same, curving gently off around a barely perceptible corner. It’s like watching Inception through beige colored glasses. These streets have been carefully engineered to be impenetrable to the outside eye. You'll feel like a homing pigeon surrounded by downtown skyscrapers, everything reflecting the sky. You’ll find yourself slamming into a window, your eyes filled with dreams of freedom as you plummet to your concrete demise. 

The confusion of the streets is belied only the pleasant quietude of the stroll. Endless empty lawns are accompanied only by the sounds of rustling leaves, an occasional barking dog, and the atmospheric whisper of car tires constantly whirring in the distance. Keep the sun on your left, and try to maintain a constant bearing. Bring a good map.

[This pedestrian path meets a tree, and parts like a stream.]
Amidst the suffocating tranquility, you may occasionally happen across another human being. Do not be alarmed! They mean no harm. Front yards are almost entirely symbolic, but from time to time you may catch a person out enjoying them. Be gentle. People in these curving private environs are not unused to interaction. They don’t know what to do. My advice: master some short small talk. “Nice weather” does nicely.  Stare at their shoes and continue to walk slowly, acting as if your car broke down.  Never approach the private property line. Do not broach personal details. Maintain a constant speed. Everything will be OK.

Within the deep suburbs, though the streets curve off into solipsistic spirals, there will occasionally be a pedestrian shortcut guiding you through the morass of mystification. If you should find one of these exits, seize the opportunity. They're like the slides in  Chutes and Ladders, backyard escape routes leading through the most strange and wonderful settings, worlds filled with barbeques and trampolines. Soon enough, god willing, you will find yourself at the maze's edge, the end of suburban tranquility. Soon enough, you will spot a busy arterial road, a wide six- or seven-lane beast running before you like a river. You’ve made it!

Stage Two: Endless Cars and Sidepath Frogger

The second stage of a suburban stroll involves the huge collector arterial street. Things shift quite rapidly in these environments. You’re thrown from a bucolic environment devoid of motion, into a world filled with movement. Shiny cars of every possible variety speed past at ever accelerating rates. Signs appear in every direction advertising their Applebeeses and Homes Depot. This is another world altogether.

The good news is that there is typically a sidepath. Almost a sidewalk, sidepaths run along these busy streets, typically along some sort of hedge, noisewall, or grassy buffer. Always the car-laden lanes torrentially flow by, a mere ten feet away. It’s endless constancy lulls you to a stupor like a waterfall or slot machine. Stay alert. Keep to the sidewalk. Do not step off.

[Cling to this like a life preserver.]
This stage of the stroll will be entirely unpleasant. Trees are rare. The stream of cars is loud, smelly, and fills your head with thoughts of death. About every half mile along the road, if you’re lucky, you’ll happen across a traffic light with a small yellow button marked “pedestrian crossing.” These are your best friend. Press the button and wait four or five minutes until the traffic light finally changes.

Now is your chance. You have approximately eleven seconds to cross the 100’ of pavement, before the cars flow again. Go! Go! Go!

I don’t recommend running. You might trip and fall, and then you’ll be lost. Instead, proceed with a slight slow-motion run-walk hybrid. You’re not actually running, so your chances of tripping are greatly reduced. Yet, you’re proceeding at double the normal walking speed, a necessary step because the pedestrian signal timing is so short. Finally, your miming of physical exertion signals to the car drivers revving their engines on all sides that you’re trying, that you’re giving it your best. This will likely reduce the odds of anyone running you over. Go for it, and don’t look back.

Hopefully, you made it across the street. Take a deep breath. Fill your lungs with the slightly smoggy air, and relax.

[Only the strong survive.]

Stage Three: The Parking Lot Fractal

Somehow, it's the final stage of walking in Woodbury that is the most confusing, that makes the least sense. On the other side of the raging automobile rapids lies a bizarre amalgamation of parking lots and one-story buildings, laid out in a way that only makes sense only to the divine.

Sidewalks appear and disappear at random. The stroll's final stage demands the most creativity. In order to reach your destination – say, a coffee shop, pharmacy, or scrapbooking supply store – you will find yourself making all sorts of concessions and previously undreamt compromises. You'll find yourself cutting through the grass. You’ll find yourself navigating the backs of buildings, places marked only by service entrances. You'll find yourself talking to a dumpster, perched on a narrow strip of sidewalk, surrounded by parking lots bigger than Mitt Romney’s bank account. It's OK. Only by letting go can you find yourself again.

[Technically, this is a sidewalk.]

[Technically, this is not a sidewalk. You will walk on it anyway.]

This is the land of parking lots and parking lots within those parking lots. And within the smaller parking lots lie more parking lots, and parking lots inside those. Finally, like the inside of a matroyshka doll, sit stores of every conceivable variety: coffee shops and big stores and little stores and bigger stores and eleven kinds of neighborhood chain restaurants. Each of these places will be surrounded by a tiny bit of sidewalk, just outside the entranceway. They are islands in a great sea of pavement.

Go ahead, have a seat. Enjoy the view. It’s like the beach. The sublime asphalt endlessness reminds you that you are human and mortal and that the massive materiality of the world is larger than the concerns of any individual.

I like to sit and watch the heat rising off the blacktop. A single car traverses the oceanic expanse, far off into the distance. I watch a young woman wearing a fast food uniform enter her car, start its engine, and drive fifty feet to the other side of the parking lot. She re-parks, and gets out again. There is another store. I cling to my island of sidewalk like a barnacle. It keeps me warm. For fun, I walk along the sidewalk, circling round the Starbucks. I find myself back where I started. The parking lot fills my vision. I am alone. I have walked the loneliest road. I am intrepid. I have arrived.

[This, the finest outdoor cafe in Woodbury.]

[A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.]

1 comment:

Mike Hicks said...

So, that tree is completely encircled by the fence except for the sidewalk leading up to it? That's weird.