Soften your gaze, empty your mind and the loud city will go quiet
Most mornings, I step out my front door and wonder how the world has changed shape from the day before. I feel the wind and listen to the traffic and think about what route I’ll walk to work and what I’ll see along the way. Depending on the time of year, Salt Lake City can feel larger or smaller. It swells in autumn when the leaves fall, and it shrinks in summer when the days are long and quiet.
The map says my office building is three crooked miles from the front door, through the neighborhoods, and across the university campus. At my usual pace it takes 45 minutes to walk there. But if when I leave the house, quail flush from the neighbor’s pine trees, and if the light of the sunrise shimmers on the ridges of the canyon called Emigration, and if the sky is so clear I can make out individual trees on the Wasatch Mountains, I know I’ll be late for work, but not how late.
I’ve designed my route with several things in mind—safety, efficiency, and stuff to see. It heads east a couple blocks before bending north to avoid a dangerous intersection. A pair of hawks lives nearby, and today they break from the crown of a cottonwood tree and scatter a flock of magpies like a feathered firework. I walk past the Catholic high school and say good morning to a student passing by in his clean uniform, the same one I wore for years. There’s an apple tree farther down the block I know about. It’s an heirloom tree, and I pick up a couple of good looking apples in the grass and put them in my backpack for lunch.
The city roars with the white noise of commuter traffic. But if you soften your gaze and look down at the ground passing under your feet like a river, your mind will empty and the loud city will go quiet. Did ancient people cross continents by walking like this? Probably. It has a way of making time and space flatten into each other. Then again, they had cave bears to worry about, not streams of commuter traffic. Although cave bears were probably more exciting. But on the other hand, both are unpredictable and perilous. And so on…
Down the street a ways there’s a toddler, a little girl, following her dad to the car. She has a blue binky in her mouth, a crown of blonde curls, and a green pillowcase for a cape. When a brown dog walking down the street runs up to her, she doesn’t shy away. She smiles and reaches a hand out to the dog, but it bumps into her and knocks her down onto her backside. She sits there, kind of stunned. Then she cries a little. Then she chokes it back, and I watch as she watches the dog with her eyes full of wonder. The dog trots down the sidewalk and disappears around the corner. She picks herself up out of the dewy grass and runs to her father—and I realize I need to get running, too. I’m late for work.
Because the sidewalk is hard on my knees, I sneak across the grass and weave through the trees like a coyote stalking through the forest. I tiptoe on the walls that border my neighbors’ yards, like a mountain lion tightroping across fallen logs. Then I dash the road like a jackrabbit and take the stairs like an elk running up a mountain.
From there, it’s a right at the cliffrose bushes that won’t bloom for several weeks. The smell of the sagebrush reminds me of all the desert beneath the concrete and these buildings. I walk up a set of stone stairs and find myself standing in front of an old house that looks like a Buddhist temple. A woman passing by with a small dog says the place belonged to a Japanese doctor who saw patients in the basement. But that was decades ago, she says.
Another couple blocks, and I’m on campus. It seems like all the students walking to and from class are connected to their phones. They either have earbuds in, or they’re staring at their phones, which is OK I guess—it’s the world today—but the campus is so quiet. It’s kind of disturbing and everyone seems to think so, but nobody wants to say anything about it. So, I look up at the mountains above my office and see three deer walking away into the dry scrub oak near the ridgeline. A breeze sweeps by and I swear a twig snaps beneath my heel. But when I look down there’s no forest floor—just another crack in the sidewalk.
When I make it to work, I’m an hour late. I slip into my office, hoping nobody notices and check my email. It’s not long before I look up past my computer screen, at the city carpeted between the mountains, and wonder how the world will change by the time I walk home.