What I Learned From Walking All Over Town

I used to spend my days strolling the streets of Boston and Cambridge. Then the pandemic struck, and I no longer had anywhere to go. That’s when the journey really began.

Illustration by Jon Reinfurt

I became a walker in part because I didn’t know where Union Square was. When I first moved to the Boston area, my geographical knowledge wasn’t exactly up to snuff, but I knew I wanted to live near Davis Square, the only place where I had spent any time. Now, do you know what is not particularly near Davis Square? Union Square. But a local friend who’d agreed to find us an apartment to share somehow convinced me that the one she’d found near Union was just a short walk away from Davis, so that’s where I wound up living.

I was 23 at the time, trying to figure out life after college. Originally a product of the Chicago suburbs, I had no real experience with public transit and had just moved to a very charming Somerville neighborhood that was nowhere near anything. I soon learned that Union Square is about a 30-minute walk from a whole series of T stations, which is roughly the amount of time you can spend waiting for a bus during rush hour. Not a terribly patient person, I started walking home from whichever Red Line station was most convenient. Soon, I started ditching public transportation on many outings in order to walk the whole way. During the first few years of my time here, rain or shine, I pretty much walked everywhere I needed to go.

Walking, I soon learned, satisfied a number of my needs: It offered me reliable control of what time I would arrive at my destination in a way the T or a cab crawling through traffic simply could not, and it also gave me the opportunity to sort through my thoughts—to invent entire conversations with an annoying coworker, craft a smooth opening line to my T crush, or even rehearse the Academy Award acceptance speech I’ve been fine-tuning in my head since I was 12. But most of all, I learned, it was a fabulous way to get a feel for the new place that I called home. The sights, the sounds, the smells, even the complex (by which I mean rude and loud) web of interaction among pedestrians, bikers, and car and bus drivers all told me something about my adopted hometown.

Cutting across the Common on my way to a movie gave me a glimpse of college students making their way to class, a reminder of the life I’d just left. Walking from my office in Fort Point to the ICA after work, traversing a series of vacant lots sitting shoulder to shoulder with new million-dollar condos, was a window into the ways the city was growing and changing. Racing from restaurants in Chinatown to the Theater District for shows, I felt for the first time in my life like I really lived in a city, bustling and humming and packed with bright lights and exciting things to do.

At the same time that I was learning the city on foot, I was also starting to feel like the place was becoming my home. As though I belonged. Walking not only taught me the profound importance of a good pair of warm socks, it also helped me build a mental map of my new backyard. Eventually, the day arrived when I felt I was just another Bostonian nonchalantly speed-walking down the street with my coat open in 25-degree weather.

Then something happened that threatened to take it all away. In March 2020, I packed up my laptop and walked home from the office for what would end up being the last time for the foreseeable future. Stuck in my apartment, with little reason to go, well, anywhere, I found myself feeling as lost as that first day in Union Square all over again.

There’s no doubt the pandemic and subsequent quarantine gave almost everyone some degree of mental health trouble. But as someone who was used to walking off my anxieties, the sudden loss of my commuting power was especially galling. Just when I needed it, I had no way of burning off all of my excess brain fire. What’s brain fire, you ask? It’s the name of a health condition I made up for a person who has too many thoughts to think throughout any given day. At night, this condition morphs into insomnia, as countless hours of potential sleep are sucked up churning through all of these unattended thoughts. Ideally, it’s possible to shed some of the angst by walking.

The end of my daily walks also forced me to acknowledge how much I’d relied on them to feel connected to the place where I live. It wasn’t just going to concerts at the Sinclair that I missed; it was walking home after the show, feeling alive and electric while the city buzzed. It wasn’t just the movie on Tremont I yearned for, but also weaving past the other walkers on the Common with a friend afterward as we dissected all the plot holes.

Meanwhile, I lost my opportunity to capture little glimpses of the area that held my attention, things I could only notice, and sometimes photograph, when I was out on foot. A brief sampling of things I’ve photographed on walks includes: cool, bronzed star plaques on the side of a building in Cambridge; the skyline across the Charles on an almost impossibly calm day, the water glassy and reflective; a single adorable rabbit outside a huge, flawlessly maintained house in Somerville that the homeowner probably paid $1 million to live in (while the rabbit was freeloading). In a few short weeks of lockdown, my personal Instagram went from 50 percent weird pictures of things I’d seen on walks and 50 percent pictures of my cat, Oskar, to, well, an awful lot of Oskar.

At first during the pandemic, I tried to go for a walk after work, but as the months groaned on it became harder to keep the habit alive. There are, after all, only so many different routes that lead from my own apartment. More than anything, though, it was the loss of a place to be that ruined my beloved walks. Suddenly, the thing I’d done with great purpose no longer had any purpose. It didn’t help that the sun was setting earlier every day, and that the temperature was dropping, too. It got bad enough that I finally purchased a rowing machine, because I knew I couldn’t make myself go walking anymore.

My isolation felt complete. I sunk into a world that encompassed my living room and dining room. The problem wasn’t just the walls of my apartment that I wanted so badly to escape. It was the loss of the feeling that adventure lay ahead: the magnetic pull of a new destination, the energy of people around me, the air in my lungs, the pulse of a city in motion.

Other people were leaving the claustrophobic city in droves, either buying homes in the suburbs thanks to the flexibility of remote work, or staying with family members lucky enough to have expansive backyards. Though I decided to stick around, I spent so much time inside that it felt like my apartment could have been air-dropped into virtually any city anywhere.

On a recent Saturday, chilly but bright, I simply couldn’t bear to continue rowing my little machine on a voyage to nowhere. So I put on my coat to see if I could regain the feeling of possibility that walking had once given me. I still didn’t have anywhere in particular that I needed to be, but I overcame this technicality and started putting one foot in front of the other once again. I kept it simple: I pointed myself toward my former office in the Back Bay, working to retrace the commute I’d once taken every day. From East Cambridge, I passed the Kendall Square movie theater, which I hadn’t visited since a late February 2020 screening of Emma, strolled past the strange mechanical building on Albany Street that’s constantly emitting the sound of rushing air, and then picked up speed and became annoyed at slow walkers the way I always have. I headed past MIT’s campus, breaking a slight sweat before refastening my coat as I hit the banks of the Charles.

The whole world may be upside down at the moment, but the Massachusetts Avenue Bridge, I am pleased to say, is still a damn cold walk in the dead of winter. The river was half frozen over, with a thin layer of snow covering it. Closer to the bridge, the water had turned to slush, and there were periodic holes, which looked like they might have been made by debris sloughed off by passing cars. I found myself pausing, finally, taking out my phone to snap a photo of this odd half-ice, half-water phenomenon. As I did, I thought of how many times I’d crossed the Charles, in good moods and bad, in good weather and bad, in flights of fancy about the future and tortured bouts against the past. Then I wondered, as countless urbanites probably have before me, if cities themselves have memories. Would a slab of concrete that was built to withstand a million and one footsteps start to decay or suffer some sort of loss if those footsteps suddenly ceased? How much could the emotional energy of a place change after more than a year of absence?

When I finally arrived in front of my old office, I felt slightly at loose ends. There were a fair number of people bustling about, shopping along nearby Newbury Street and ducking down onto the T. Despite my relentless solitude, life had, in fact, gone on without me.

I paid a visit to my favorite coffee shop and spotted an employee I recognized who now donned a long pandemic hairdo. I grabbed my latte to go and sat down for a few minutes in the mini park that I used to walk through to get to the South End, and as I sipped it, I felt the way people always feel when they revisit a place that isn’t a part of the fabric of their life anymore. It was that strange mix of comfort, nostalgia, and the tiny, specific pain of knowing something you once knew so well is over. After finishing my drink, I turned and headed back toward my home, with its same four walls and the reality of my strange new life in clear view.

The next weekend, I got a case of what my mother would call shpilkes, and headed out once more to churn through my latest batch of anxiety. This time, I hit the Longfellow Bridge, where the only denizens of the deep were a couple of ducks leaving webbed footprints in the thin layer of snow still coating the Charles. At the halfway point, I paused and stared up at the skyline, noticing the shiny gold dome of the State House and the sharp blue incline of the Millennium Tower. There were cranes here and there, a sign of Boston’s building boom continuing despite the pandemic.

As I walked, I thought about the nature of cities; how with each passing decade they’re at once exactly how they’ve always been but also remade and reformed into new places. On some future date, I thought, some other young woman will cross this same frozen river, and she’ll be mad that the movie she just saw wasn’t better, or she’ll be thrilled that she’s just gone on a first date with the love of her life, or she’ll be thinking about the way even old and stodgy Boston can be transformed into something verdant and new by the coming of spring. And she’ll walk at a pace just short of a run as she forms her own map of her history in Boston.