The first thing I tell locals here in America when I get asked the question, “What do you think of the US?” is that it is HUGE. YUGE. I didn’t say that just to make a Trump joke, but really, it’s massive. They would usually look at me crazy and think I must be from some third world country. But one can’t help but be blown away by the sheer vastness of American infrastructure, especially having experienced a densely packed city like Hong Kong. This feeling is amplified when one’s main mode of traveling is walking. I used to think it was ridiculous to drive just to get McDonalds— I no longer do.
Most people in the US get their driver’s license right after they turn 16, the legal driving age. To them, walking is not something that comes to mind right away. It is more common for them to ask a friend for a ride than to hail a taxi or take public transport. But being an exchange student with no knowledge of operating a car, I have no choice but to relish in bipedalism.
Exploring America on foot
I soon began to indulge in a game of beating the estimated walking time on Google Maps. This little game I played followed me to my solo weekend trip to St Louis, Missouri, where it would seem wise for someone on a student budget to walk instead of commuting by Uber.
When I plan my itinerary, I go by the rule of walking to my destination from the nearest bus / railway stop. Most cities in the US have a public transport system which covers, at minimum, the downtown area. More often than not, the metro and bus system are owned by the same company, which usually means you can get a monthly pass for unlimited rides on both modes of transportation. This also means you can find scheduled AND real-time arrival/departure information on the same website or smartphone app. Even though the design and user experience of the app can be unbearable, you would find how much time (and money!) you can save when you know where the nearest bus stop is or when the next train leaves.
The St Louis MetroLink. (Source: theraillife on YouTube)
Being open minded about traveling on foot to every spot that public transport does not cover helps you connect with the city in a unique way. You don’t only learn about the quality of public services, but perhaps more intriguingly, you engage in a lot of unintentional people watching, which offers insight into a culture and daily life.
For example, in St Louis, there are no gates between the ticket machines and metro platform, so technically you could get on the train without a purchasing ticket. Sometimes there would be staff members standing by the staircase to the platform to check your tickets, but it is more likely that there will be no one there. The way they try to make sure people buy tickets is with a ticket validator, where it will get your ticket stamped with the current time. Still, nobody will know if you haven’t bought a ticket unless there is somebody on the train to check..
I didn’t know where I could validate my ticket the first time I took the metro, so I went down the stairs to the platform and asked a couple about it. I assumed, since they were waiting for the train, that they must have validated their tickets. Turns out they were as clueless as I was. This could be interpreted in two ways: they have only ever used a pass, which they don’t have to validate before a ride; or, they just didn’t know how things work. Nonetheless, it was obvious whether the mass transit system has a place in people’s lives.
I guess my insisting on walking and taking public transport come natural to me. Much like how I would explore Hong Kong on foot, I would wander in different neighborhoods to connect with a new place. As LA-based author and avid walker Geoff Nicholson wrote in his book The Lost Art of Walking: “My walks, perverse and contradictory and laborious as they sometimes were, became a profound source of pleasure and satisfaction. I was making the city my own, asserting my own version, marking territory, beating the bounds, drawing my own map.”
The reason, at least for me, why walking reaps great satisfaction is because it awakens all the senses. Common sightseeing activities only engage half of our senses— your eyes feast on stationary museum exhibits that you already have some expectations of from an informational pamphlet; you stare in fascination, again with your eyes, at a monument because it is nothing like the photos you saw while your were planning the trip.
You would often find yourself coming across empty streets.
In contrast, walking not only engages your body in cardio activity, it also evokes a wide range of sensations and emotions because of the many unknowns one would encounter. It is a feeling of solitude when you go for a stroll on empty streets and parks, and stumbling upon ducks sunbathing on the grass next to a pond. Serendipity when architecturally unique houses come into view one after another on a spontaneous walk from one metro stop to another. It is being curious about the items on display in the storefront. It is a feeling of warmth when you pass by a restaurant with your favorite comfort food. It is disgust when people shout racist remarks at you. Discomfort when you are walking alone in the dark on a street with no lights. It is relief when you see street lights and people mingling outside a bar.
All these at no monetary cost and at your own pace —no admission fees and closing hours. That said, you might not want to stay out when the sun’s down.
Epilogue: The city after dark
Walking takes on a whole other form after dark. Since most shops close by 8, there is little activity on the dimly lit sidewalks. The people you see at night are not the same as those you would encounter during a daytime stroll. It is an adventure that may sometimes mean danger or conquering your own demons.
One time while I was waiting for a bus in St Louis at 10pm, two men came over to the bus stop shelter I was at, stood with their back towards the road, and bent down to place a tiny digital scale on the ground next to my feet. I thought it was a remote for a music player of some sort. It was not until a pungent smell filled the air that I realize what he was doing. He had pulled out some marijuana leaves from a small plastic bag for his friend. The lady who was sitting next to me couldn’t believe her eyes either, “Are you for real? You are just going to do it here?” I guess this is part of the American experience. (Note: Marijuana is entirely illegal in the state of Missouri.)
Natalie Lung is a third-year Journalism and Computer Science student at the University of Hong Kong passionate about the intersection of journalism and technology. She is all in for exploring the quirkest parts of the world and has been to North and South Korea, Myanmar, India, and historical war sites in Germany, Austria, Bosnia, and Croatia. Currently, you can find her in the middle of America, in a small college town doing her exchange semester at the University of Missouri School of Journalism.