Slowing to a Walk

By Bryan Shuman / March / April 1999
November 14th, 2007
Alix and I stride down Benevolent Street in the moist March air, dreaming. In a few months, we will leave Brown to hike the length of the Rockies, following the Continental Divide from Canada to Mexico. Walking through high country always makes me feel elated, and so the maps spilling from my kitchen table fill me with anticipation for endless mountains, clattering stones, softly lit pine forests, and wide expanses of pungent sagebrush.


In contrast, the Providence landscape leaves me cold and uninspired. Nothing in the city can prepare Alix and me for the rugged, high-elevation terrain of the Rockies; strolling up the hill between downtown and campus probably does little to increase our endurance. The curves of the landscape are obscured by the straight lines and square shapes of so many walls, streets, and houses. In the view I see only asphalt, concrete, and brick.

When June arrives, though, we step into a world of unfailing grandeur. Following map, compass, and whim, we make our way across Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, and, eventually, New Mexico. Time passes slowly; no two days blur together. Different landmarks and weather make each moment distinct. One day we wade thirty-three creeks, all flowing through a ghostly forest scarred by a recent wildfire. On the first of July, snow falls. Grizzlies haunt the hills around us, and we follow their broad tracks down the trail. The claw marks are as long as my forefinger.

Further south we wander through meadows of crimson Indian paintbrush and violet lupine. Mountain walls wrap around us as we enter a valley that feels like a wide silver bowl; we walk silhou-etted against the glowing colors shifting across the peaks. Exhausted, we sit, eat, and wait for the stars. Camping night after night on the Divide, we cannot help peering up into the sky. When life slows to a walk, distracting thoughts and worries disappear. The world grows more vivid, even in the darkness.

The poet Denise Levertov once wrote: "Sometimes the mountain is hidden from me in veils of cloud; sometimes I am hidden from the mountain in veils of inattention, apathy, fatigue." I realize that at home, in Providence, I live in a cocoon so thick with daily concerns that I fail to appreciate the gifts of the landscape. I forget to visit the thick silver beech trees, as old as the city, that tower over the Seekonk River, or I fail to notice the tiny sandbars that form from rainwater flowing along the streets in early spring. On rainy days, I splash across Brook Street and remember how I forded snowmelt creeks in the Montana wilderness.

The city is, in a way, just another natural ecosystem. Providence rose from events connected by time, place, and coincidence. Weather changes the look of the land, seasons affect the feeling of the place, and living things add pattern. Forests work the same way. But instead of trees or waves of grass, it is people who dominate the view. Perhaps urban geography does not usually inspire us because we view it only through the filter of our clouded minds. We take its small wonders for granted.

Before our trip, Alix and I would walk along College Hill chatting about school, preoccupied with research projects and papers. Something as subtle as the light hanging on a summer thundercloud might escape our notice. Even right after I returned from the Rockies, my familar daily pattern of work and school threatened to absorb me completely. But I still try to remember to look around, to catch a glimpse of buildings dark against a yellow evening sky, to listen to the wind change pitch.

Nothing I see in Providence compares to New Mexico's Chihuahuan desert stretching out endlessly, speckled with yucca and cactus, and no walk I take on College Hill can equal a day spent climbing through brilliant Rocky Mountain peaks. But as I walk home, cutting across campus, I can see the red light of sunset striped across the Sciences Library - a surprising inspiration at the end of the day.

When not hiking, Bryan Shuman is a graduate student in geological sciences.

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March / April 1999