I enjoy visiting Orange County. I see why people like to live there. It's comfortable, projecting the sense that there is no hardship in life. It's also designed around the car -- the built environment encourages everyone to drive from Point A to Point B.
On my last trip, I tried something that locals would not. I walked everywhere. On each of two days, I logged over five miles as a pedestrian. Here is my report.
When I asked directions at the hotel front desk, the clerk started off by explaining a u-turn, and when I said I did not have a car she could not help but show her surprise. She corrected herself, however, and pointed me toward the road. Although she wasn't sure I could make it where I wanted to go, I was determined to try.
On that first saunter down the street, I was the only person I saw walking. Over the course of about 2.5 miles, there was not a single soul on the sidewalk on my side of the street; I am not sure, since the street was several lanes wide, but I do not believe I spotted anyone else on the sidewalk on the other side of the street either. This was on a weekday morning, after rush hour.
There was more than one juncture where, even though the sidewalk appeared as if it continued through an intersection, there was no crosswalk, no light, and no means of making it across the street without just dashing through traffic. There also were several places where, as soon as I started to cross, the walk light changed from solid white to flashing orange; it would be impossible, even sprinting, to make it during the allotted time of the solid white signal.
Drivers were not looking for anyone outside of a motor vehicle. I realized early on, after a near miss, that drivers exiting strip malls were focused on only the traffic coming toward them; they did not bother to glance the other way. They likely were making a safe bet -- at least safe for them, that there would be no reason not to pull out into the first opening they saw. A defensive mode on my part was required, skirting around the back of any car in such a position.
When I arrived at my lunch destination, I mentioned to my hosts that I had just walked to meet them. They were astonished. One remarked that, as a runner who regularly trained for marathons, he would never have considered the journey I had undertaken. They usually drove across the street for lunch.
The area is not without attractions accessible only on foot. At the conclusion of one jaunt, I found myself at an artistic landmark. Isamu Noguchi was commissioned by Henry Segerstrom to design a sculpture garden. Located among office buildings in Costa Mesa, "the California Scenario" depicts archetypes: forest, desert, water, and an "energy fountain." A contemplative space distinct from the surrounding suburban development, it features a centerpiece made of giant granite rocks. While the office workers scurrying to begin their day cut through this plaza without giving it a glance, it is worth stopping by if you have any interest in public art or Noguchi (most famous for his tables and lamps, icons of mid-century modernism).
The Orange County landscape, home to more than three million, is so different to me. I happen to live someplace, San Francisco, with high population density and cultural expectations of walking further than would be true elsewhere. In New York City, and perhaps Chicago, among American metropolitan areas, it would be normal behavior to walk blocks at a time, but not in Detroit, my hometown, also defined by the car. On another business trip, to Honolulu, the residents were no less taken aback by my walking, because they would not hike from the Waikiki resorts to Bishop Street businesses, as I did, anymore than folks in the OC would saunter to the South Coast Plaza for luxury shopping.
I have become a fiend for walking. I value the contemplative value of a solitary stroll (accompanied sometimes by our little dog, Bebe), as much as I enjoy the social exercise of joining someone else on the commute to the office by what has become an unconventional means. Perhaps the gadgets that allow us to track every step will inspire more of us. In other parts of the world, and earlier in our own society, we all were walkers.
My Southern California experiment was enjoyable. I discovered that, contrary to assumptions, it is possible to walk there. Nearby Los Angeles has been discovered as a walking city, championed by a new generation; Orange County cannot be far behind. The next time there, I will be prepared to go greater distances.