Having filed grades and extricated myself from the demands of my job, at least temporarily, I have come with my better half and offspring to the stomping grounds of my better half’s youth.
Well, kind of.
The grandparents-who-lurk-but-seldom-comment actually live a couple towns over from where they did when my better half still lived at home. In fact, they only moved from that house a few years ago, so I’m much more familiar with the immediate vicinity of the childhood home than I am with the environs of the current house.
But we do this thing that folks in this part of the country are reputed never to do: we walk. Which means that our familiarity with the area amounts to something like having a good mental map of the place generated by walking around it. The new place and the old place are more or less in the same walking range (although on opposite edges of that range), so lately we’ve been filling in more of the details of this edge of the range.
As we were walking yesterday, it occurred to me that the mental maps I’ve generated on foot seem much more robust and reliable than those I’ve generated by driving a car. I was barely three years out of college when I returned to visit a professor at her home and discovered that the off-campus geography hardly matched my memory at all. Without departing from my planned route at all, I felt hopelessly lost. The sense of place I’d had from driving around the area while still in college just hadn’t stuck to my brain. Those memories just couldn’t be trusted. (Driving around the New Jersey town where I grew up — indeed, where I spent the eleven years before I went off to college — leaves me similarly disoriented.)
Behind the wheel, it’s a similar situation in these parts, but I think the difficulty is enhanced by the breakneck rate at which the area has been developed and redeveloped. The landmarks that you might use to orient yourself while driving from one place to another keep changing. The home you might try to come back to turns into a different place while you’re away.
The view changes for those of us on foot, too. But there are some parts of the terrain that seems pretty stable. You can build different stuff by the ocean, but the ocean’s still there, and the good walking routes near the ocean don’t change all that much.
I wonder whether it’s the slower rate at which you move past the changing landscape, or the physical activity invested in walking past it (rather than being carried past it by an automobile) that etches the mental map more deeply.
Whatever it is, there’s a definite difference I feel between driving around and walking around. In the car, I know that I’m not from here. On foot, at least to a limited extent, I am at home.