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Walking, Wellness, and a German shepherd named Mimi -- Guest Post by Gary Dunham

Posted Mar 13 2013 11:43am
30 Day Mediterranean Lifestyle Challenge

Gary Dunham is ASHA's Director of Publications. He walks to and from work, so he has that part of Mediterranean lifestyle down pat. We often imagine having to toil away at a gym for hours or start training for a marathon to get "in shape," but studies show that their are huge health benefits to simply moving more.  
When this challenge is complete, I'll seriously look into making some standing and walking desks available around the office. In the meantime, enjoy Gary's story of how walking can transform you. 


Walking transforms a Mediterranean diet into a holistic lifestyle—I should know, having experienced it twice. The first took place in 1980 and 1982, when, as a Bowdoin college student, I helped excavate an Etruscan sanctuary buried on Poggio Civitate, a rolling, olive- and artichoke-studded hill in rural Tuscany, Italy. So unforgettable: We pulled exciting discoveries daily from the ground, all the while surrounded by a breathtaking countryside and immersed in a fascinating way of local life. Seems like everyone celebrated red wine, beginning with a watered down mixture at lunch; the meals from local produce were so fresh and colorful that, for the first time, I developed a keen appreciation for salads; all were expertly fluent in football (soccer) and didn’t care at all for my long hair; and the youngsters hungered for American slang and 80s pop music. (Human League’s Don’t You Want wailed relentlessly from the only jukebox in town, nearly drove me mad, and remains my most loathed tune today.)


Oh, and nearly everyone walked. Everywhere.

Come sunrise, from our crow’s nest residence in the walled hill town of Murlo, we archaeologists would see men and women, many leathered and browned by the intense summer sun, leave their farmyards and citadel homes and head out to the surrounding gardens, vineyards, and flock pastures. Some, often accompanied by children, walked to the larger, nearby town of Vescovado with its produce and craft shops, some two miles away, carrying baskets and cloth sacks. Still others walked to houses to visit, gossip, or help (there were few phones there, then). We would follow in turn, hiking nearly two miles along a dirt road and then two more up ancient terraced slopes to the site. In the evening, tired and in full retreat, we made our ways back to the lit, warm places.

All of us walked nearly everywhere during those months, and it perfectly fit the life we were living. Walking infuses a majestic yet intimate tempo into a Mediterranean lifestyle through the most primal rhythm of all: the bipedal motion of our bodies, moving deliberately across the physical landscape. The rhythm of each journey is encompassing and universal; each cadence our own. For those Tuscan farmers and villagers, walking was the linchpin and underscore of their lifestyle, an inexorable but oh-so-gentle rhythm predictably orchestrating and cohering the way they carved up days and engaged with the land, particular needs, and each other. The motion of individual bodies, the idiosyncratic rhythm of wear and tear on muscles, rather than an array of telecommunications and vehicles at hand, mapped out and knitted together each person’s social and physical worlds. Walking connected the dinner table to the harvesting row, the butcher’s shop to the kitchen, a friend’s portico to the rocking chairs sitting on one’s own porch. Walking also beautifully measured and moored the surrounding space of Tuscany in time, a highly personalized, physiologically-based time established by everyone’s own unique cadence. For some, the lower pasture might have been a 30 minute walk away while the baker remained 45 minutes out; others temporalized those distances and valued the destinations differently. Walking in addition uncompromisingly matched and bound the villagers and us on a completely physical level with objects such as tools and foodstuffs—the question became less what  one wanted for supper or needed at the site and more how much was one capable of carrying for how long?

For me, embracing a walking-based lifestyle in Italy also rekindled a precious moment from yesteryear. As a child growing up in the granite-strewn hills and mountains of western Maine, I would walk on and alongside the gray, lichen-etched stonewalls built long ago by my ancestors, practicing presentations and mentally writing papers for school. Disfluent since the age of six, I struggled then with speaking on a daily basis. The forward-impelling rhythm of walking stonewalls across our hardscrabble farm, pacing and stepping from one cold, carefully stacked stone to another, helped move me beyond the treacherous verbal sticking points and away from an emotionally explosive household. Walking centered me, making me happy, creative, as fluent as an untreated stutterer could possibly be, and emotionally the most whole I ever was as a child. It was thus easy and gratifying in Italy to return to that sense of wellness resonating on so many levels. As I walked to and from the site and into town, I’d fall into the old pasture gait rhythm, with the words inside flowing forth. Lucky me. An astonishing number of field reports, papers, and songs were composed in my head (I have remarkable visual recall) while walking across the fields and groves of Tuscany.

The rightness and deep satisfaction of that magnificently natural, gentle rhythm stayed with me long after I returned from overseas. After entering graduate school at the University of Virginia, I continued walking daily and weekly routines when I could—to the grocery store, classes, theater, record store (yeah, so sue me, I was one of the last to convert to CDs), and so forth. I became a field survey archaeologist, trekking across hill and dale to help pay the bills, and didn’t buy a car for nearly a decade. When that clunker broke down, I waited five more years before getting another. Walking had settled deep.

Sadly, the magic gradually dulled. A fast track publishing career swept me up from position to position, company to company, car to car; over time, I walked less and less and lost my cadence, the special connection to the bipedal tempo of my own body. That is, until 2012, a hellish year of loss, aching loneliness, and a determined fight to make it all right again.

In January of that year, my wife and I learned that our oldest daughter living in Omaha, Nebraska had been diagnosed with an advanced case of Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Our response was immediate and unanimous: My wife, a nurse, quit her new job and relocated to Omaha to assist and care while our daughter endured the horrors of chemotherapy. Taillights fading one biting late January morning, I was left alone with one mandate, one overarching purpose: keep an income coming in for the family at all cost. And I would have to keep the home fires burning without a car, as the one vehicle we could afford was needed in Omaha.

So, out of necessity, I began walking, again. A lot. To and from the neighborhood post office, barbershop, and grocery and department stores, experiencing and appreciating more fully the planned community where we lived by relearning how to measure and map the surrounding social and physical landscapes through the tempo of my own body in motion. An invisible part of the neighborhood—handy pedestrian shortcuts, crosswalks, stairs, restaurant seating spilling onto sidewalks and thus becoming potential hazards to foot traffic—leapt into the foreground. I also came to acquire once more an intimate physiological relationship to the produce I ate and supplies I used by becoming acutely aware of just how much I could carry for how long. For example: OK, dude, it’s fine that you’re hankering for a pork roast on a mighty fine Saturday afternoon and ready to heft and shoulder it, but you better make damn sure it’s worth the extra weight and occupied bag space by stretching the leftovers out over more meals.

More demanding and stressful were the 4.5 miles hiked each way to work every day, a distance walked in half the estimated time that public transportation would take to get me there (don’t ask). I remember vividly the first walk to work, the morning after my wife had left—surreal and adrift, small and powerless, vulnerable and alone, despising what our lives were becoming. Head down and jacket turned up against the raw winter wind and being seen, I trudged down a series of seemingly interminable sidewalks lined with trash and carcasses alongside a highway while cars and trucks thundered and buffeted past, leaving me farther and farther behind. I felt that everyone had a place to be and the freedom of choice in where they could go, except me, condemned to this necessary back-and-forth for who knew how long. Reaching work while it was still dark, I slipped into the building through the parking garage, an enter-and-exit strategy I used for months to avoid pity and calling attention to our predicament.

Boy oh boy, I so much hated that walk to work during that long, bitter winter of 2012, the same daily steps that seemed to lead only backwards in my life to nowhere. Nonetheless, every morning, determination and obligation outweighed despair, and I hit the road. That unending walk signified so much loss and lack of control—steadily eroding finances, the overwhelming sadness and jagged frustration of a couple separated by half a continent, and the horrific joke that God was playing on our daughter. One Friday night slogging my way back, soul-weary and legs-sore, discouraged and dreading the onslaught of another empty, shatteringly still weekend, I began sobbing at a busy intersection and missed two walk lights.

I may have felt unmoored, but my body didn’t. One very bright Thursday morning in late March, the stonewalls returned, leading the long way back to the center.

While walking to and from work the previous week, the trek seemed gradually less burdensome and weirdly also took a bit longer. Add that change to the fact that increasingly while walking to work, I was mentally reviewing the day’s itinerary and noticing less the traffic and litter. The same in reverse: In the evenings, I started thinking about a new recipe to tackle or current home project while following that busy highway back.

Come that Thursday morning, I recall crossing the highway to the sidewalk, and then…well…I thought of a report I needed to write by noon and began composing it in my head. Finished, still walking, and strangely content, I looked up and realized that I had traveled over a mile while mentally creating the report; glancing back down, I suddenly, shockingly understood that my slower-than-usual gait was rhythmically matching the end-on-end placement of concrete blocks on the sidewalk.

Oh my goodness—I was walking stonewalls again. My body and mind had slipped back into the decades old rhythm of the Maine pasture gait, coming together finally again as a creative, centering process of composition. 

After that morning, everything changed. The walk to work became more and more mine, an opportunity to write, express, and observe, a daily bridge of creativity binding office and home, and helping to center myself within this particular transitional point in life.

Flash forward nearly one year, and our daughter is in remission, our family is putting together the pieces, and I still walk to work. Why?

I walk because I appreciate differently and more deeply now the world around me. Gaze no longer lowered and moving slower and rhythmically across 4.5 miles, by the spring of last year, I started naturalizing and personalizing what could be considered a seemingly interchangeable and reducible stretch of suburban Maryland by really seeing and listening to what was going on beyond the litter-rim.

As the months rolled forth, a different, more natural Maryland began to emerge on my walks, a flipside Land of Mary made up of leaf-lined hollows, fern-swallowed swales, soft-lit glens and vales, tumbling creeks, and pooling backwaters nestling between the dangerously urgent, hard places; a green, teeming Land of Mary where creatures largely keep to themselves in plain sight. I know where a mother woodchuck raises a family on a highway bank; I have seen the brown hawks circling overhead and know where they roost and swoop down on field mice living on highway trash; I have knelt behind a fallen log, drenched and cradling the shredded membranes of an umbrella, while watching a doe nuzzling her fawn as lightning crackled and danced around us; I have been greeted by dozens of turtle heads synchronously breaking the surface of a side pond on a searing July afternoon, mouths opening in delight; and I know now absolutely, certainly, without a doubt to never, ever come between a hungry turkey vulture and its gray squirrel breakfast.

I still walk because for over a year I have personalized and rooted this 4.5 miles with experience and memory, and am eager to learn more. It’s come alive. There’s the intersection where an antique tractor barrel-assed through one foggy morning; there’s the cross-walk where I was nearly hit by a Doritos truck (obituary headline: Middle-aged Man Cashes in Chips); and another intersection where I responded to a bullying, revved up truck with the most appropriate non-verbal gesture. There’s the drain hole cover where I picked up a smelly, goobly-encrusted black glove, thinking it was the missing mate for one of mine, and then lugged the stinking thing for four miles back home only to discover it was for the wrong hand. Gorgeous live piano music drifts down regularly from one apartment complex; an extremely yippity and miniscule French-something-or-another canine races a white wooden fence back and forth in front of another. There’s the bus stop midway where kind-hearted bus drivers would see me approach and wait—they now recognize me and wave. And, I see the pitted knoll where, on late afternoons an overly enthusiastic condo owner attempts to get Mimi his German shepherd to do her business by pointing his finger right next to her arse, hopping up and down, and urging her in a falsetto voice to “Poop! Poop! Poop!” Soon, I had no choice but to share through writing the wackiness and wonder experienced during those walks across the Land of Mary.

I walk because the rhythm of uninterrupted cadence returns my best writing, my creativity to me. And write I have, developing articles and tackling my memoirs with renewed flourish. As I used to do with homework, the morning walk to work prepares me for daily presentations, meetings, and reports at the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. The return walks home last year became something charged and special as memories and the ways to tell those stories began gathering, glistening, and cascading; my afternoon journey alongside the highway often becoming a veritable aboriginal walkabout tracing and bringing back the songlines of before. So many times I rush into the apartment brimming with tales by the end of the home walk. Invariably sitting immediately at the computer, donned jacket and hat ignored (and sometimes really needing to pee), I begin typing, urgently.

I walk because I have been on autopilot and shut down for too long and this slower, deliberate walk is my path, exactly where I want and need to be, today. I no longer climb corporate rungs or flee from the long before but have chosen to stop, lay it all on the line, and work hard for a greater cause and less money. Head held high, I walk exposed, patiently making my way to the next stoplight in front of hundreds of boxy, exchangeable, faceless vehicles, the only real, visible person on this highway we share daily.

And so, dear reader, we’ve reached the end of our little chat. You’ve just sped past, perhaps wondering who the hell is walking in the rain, carrying a tattered umbrella in right hand, worn sack in left, and a hint of a smile. Well, that’s just me—you guessed it—writing these final lines in my head as I make my long way home.

No worries. For the first time in years, I know exactly where my next steps take me. 
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