Anyone who has children or owns a dog knows the monotony that can come with walking the same familiar streets for years on end. When my kids attended grade school there were times when I walked the same four blocks back and forth four times a day. The same houses. The same trees. The same cars. Sure, sometimes these walks led to a little mind-wandering that was good for the soul, but often I viewed the strolls merely as chores to do, not unlike tackling another load of laundry. If you live in the mountains you may be spared this plight, but residing in the Chicago suburbs doesn’t lend itself to particularly interesting landscapes – people don’t call Illinoisans flatlanders for nothing.
But there’s an old adage I once read somewhere that went something like this: if you want to discover something new, walk down a familiar path. A year ago I took this tidbit to heart and decided to change my mindset by doing something very simple: looking up. I began to notice the trees of the neighborhood, and I recognized that with a few exceptions I couldn’t name them beyond the most rudimentary level, like asking a three-year-old what those large green things are in the front yard. “Those are trees.” Aside from obvious maples and oaks, there’s little I could tell you.
I purchased a copy of Peterson Field Guides Eastern Trees, watched a few videos on YouTube, and began to challenge myself by learning how to identify the multitude of trees lining the parkways and front yards of Elmhurst, Illinois, attempting to add a few varieties every week or two. I’m not very good at it – it’s incredible how many species of trees there are and how darn similar they can be to each other – but little by little I’m expanding my knowledge base, and my walks have been enriched greatly as a result. Now when I walk familiar streets, my mind is focused on something other than whether my dog has peed or pooed.
Trees are varied enough and intricate enough that I could probably spend the next decade on this endeavor alone, but there are other ways to open up your world when taking walks if trees aren’t your thing. A friend of mine who walks far more than I do has a background in architecture, and for her the suburban streets are the source of endless variations of home styles. When engaged in conversation with her, she’ll sometimes say something like, “You know that red tudor on the corner of Grace Street?”
No. No I don’t.
It reminds me of something my buddy Don said to me back in grad school when he purchased flowers for his girlfriend. I asked him what kind, and he answered, “Purple ones.”
The point is that the world around you is much bigger and interesting than you might realize, and all it takes is a little initiative to tap into your surroundings in new, profound ways. If trees ever lose their luster, you could start identifying house styles, or makes and models of cars, or types of flowers or birds or the names of colors. I’m terrible at describing the color of objects, and I’d love to add shades like mauve, chartreuse, azure and fuchsia to my immediate lexicon. There’s no shortage of ways to mentally challenge yourself as you do your daily strolls.
But for my next challenge, I’m focused on getting our dog to pee on command so that four walks a day aren’t a necessity come wintertime. Here’s hoping.