Walking the Seasons of COVID

By Andy Doctoroff

Earlier this month marked the one-year anniversary of Michigan’s COVID lockdown, and every day since it began, I have walked at least 20,000 steps through the leafy suburb of Huntington Woods where I live.

For those of us who kneel at the statistical altar that is Fitbit, I’ll put it this way: My inbox now overflows with congratulatory emails bestowing upon me literally every virtual long-distance badge awarded by the smartwatch manufacturer.

Beginning on March 14, 2020, I’ve walked 9,455,543 steps, averaging 25,014 per day, for a total of 4,273 miles, which is about the distance from New York City to Rome, Italy (thanks, Google).

That’s hiking almost a half marathon for 378 straight days.

Okay, okay. I’m no Forrest Gump. He ran back and forth across the continental United States five times, traveling 15,248 miles on foot. A 2010 heart surgery put an end to my running days, and I’ve walked less than a third of that distance during the COVID pandemic.

Rather than traverse America’s fruited plains, I’ve pretty much walked in circles that trace the edges of our hamlet: past the sprawling ranch homes that anchor double lots on Borgman; in front of kids dancing on the primary-colored playground on the corner of Coolidge and Balfour; underneath the canopies of Honey Locust trees that line Rackham Golf Course’s 14th hole.

Maybe I’m not being fair to myself. It took Forrest three years, two months, 14 days, and 16 hours to complete his odyssey. I’m not too far off his pace of 4,740 miles per year.

Reminiscing with his elderly companion at a Savannah bus stop, Forrest reckoned he jogged “for no particular reason,” that he “just felt like running.”

But for me, walking, the most natural human activity, has been quite purposeful. Each morning, usually several times per day, I lace up my shoes and brave any inclement weather. (Sub-zero temperatures? No problem — that’s what Gore-Tex is made for!) Walking has helped me navigate some daunting physical and psychological terrains.

I walk, because I can, because in many ways it’s all I can physically do. My breath grows short when I ascend a gently sloping knoll. Not long ago, my cardiologist said my mitral valve repair has become “unhinged,” just like a rusted gate.

The bragging rights I get from trekking thousands of miles are lonely markers of this 58-year-old’s evanescent physical integrity — a trail of breadcrumbs left in the darkening woods. A small part of me fears that, if I were to stop walking, I would before long find myself back on the operating table and all there that would await my open heart.

Casting sad thoughts aside, what would I be without walking? At least 20 pounds heavier, that’s for sure. Like many of us, the pandemic has required me to work out of our home. I draft emails and attend Zoom meetings in the TV room, sitting within eyeshot of the kitchen where burnt sugar peanuts, Chex mix, and Moose Tracks ice cream ever beckon, like the sirens on the rocks. Walking burns off the calories consumed during mid-afternoon snack drawer raids and allows my resting heart rate to stay in the mid-50s.

Walking also gives me a sense of vitality in these “lather, rinse, repeat” days of COVID — blurred stretches of time largely devoid of social and professional sparkle. Each loop around the neighborhood earns its own rewards: nature’s visual and aural feasts (snow-draped tree boughs, amber sunrises, and birdsong); lungs filled with crisp, fresh air and endorphin highs; socially-distanced howdy-dee-doos with otherwise cloistered neighbors; ideas and clarity of thought that rhythmic footfalls seem to spontaneously generate; and large-print e-books devoured, as I prove to bemused passers-by that, yes, it’s easy to read, walk and walk our dog Kermit at the same time — a perambulatory trifecta!

My wayfaring has been both an antidote to, and an observance of, the COVID era. I am not an essential, front-line worker. I have not had to struggle to keep a business alive or food on my family’s table. A subscriber to eight streaming services, I largely have sat on the sidelines of this epidemiological world war, a privileged descendant of the wealthy swells who hired substitutes to avoid service on Civil War battlefields.

So, I walk. I walk to symbolically contribute and pay tribute to the sacrifices of others, to acknowledge at least to myself that this is no ordinary time, to live in and remember this moment, recording it in my mind’s eye (or on camera — each day I pause to capture on my iPhone landscape images of the seasons of COVID).

And, finally, I walk for needed perspective. My legs carry me to an alcove behind the roar of COVID’s waterfall of emotion and loss. From this safer vantage point, I am more easily able to see our world in its truer light: This too shall pass; Spring arrives, and gardens bloom anew; the stuff that sustains us — our homes, relationships, and ideas — endures.

Forrest Gump suddenly stopped running beneath sandstone buttes in a sunbaked desert. “I’m pretty tired. I think I’ll go home now,” he narrated. “And just like that, my running days was over.”

Unlike Forrest, when I walk, I am at home, a happier, more peaceful home. So, I think I’ll keep going as long as I can. Up at dawn. Under cumulus clouds that scud across the cerulean daytime sky. Around the block just before bedtime.

There’s only one problem: After thousands of miles of walking, my feet really hurt!

Father, Husband, Brother, Friend, Lawyer, Bridge Builder, Question Asker