I’m walking more than I used to. It’s become a thing.
I’ve been a car-driver, suburban-dweller and commuter for over 25 years, but my current job has led to a significant decline in the amount of simple movement in my daily life, and now I’m remedying that. Good.
This means that most days I take a walk. Most days that walk takes place at the end of the day; before or after our evening meal, depending on who’s cooking and what time I get home from work. I walk for between 30 and 90 minutes factoring in how sedentary my day has been. I’ve been doing it for long enough that I know a number of circular routes round my neighbourhood, which take predictable lengths of time to complete.
Now, as the evenings draw in, I’m more and more often walking in the dark and this has prompted a surprising discovery; I’m afraid when I walk in the dark. More surprising still was how I made this discovery. I only noticed the fear had existed when I realised it wasn’t there.
I’m not afraid of the dark itself. I can sit in a garden as darkness falls enjoying the bats, or rummage round the house in darkness so as not to waken my sleeping family. Nor am I generally afraid in my neighbourhood. We’ve lived here for over 20 years, occasionally leaving the garage open or the back door unlocked with no ill outcome. The crime rate here is lower than the city where I grew up. But still, when I take the cloak of darkness and my pleasant neighbourhood together, I feel fear when I’m out walking.
I’m not so afraid that it stops me walking. That’s why I didn’t notice I was afraid at first. I would strike out each evening, determined – perhaps a little grimly determined – to complete my walk and I’d come home flushed and thirsty and declare my steps done. Then my 16yo son got a new longboard and offered to skate along with me as I walked. This is how I came to notice the fear was gone.
When 16yo skates the road that I’m walking, my pace slows down a fraction. I’m still brisk, but no longer rushing headlong. (This is not an illusion, my walk-mapping app tracks this.) The tension in my throat and the little tickly cough disappears. My arms relax as they swing, hands no longer clenched into fists. I arrive home without a sour taste in my mouth.
My 16yo is taller than me, but he’s a long skinny thing. I doubt he’s any heavier than I am. I’ve no idea if he’s handy in a fight. But he’s a male person alongside me and it makes a difference; a difference I would almost certainly have denied could be possible, until I actually experienced the physical relief of walking without my stomach tied in knots with fear.
When I’m walking alone, I’m constantly, unconsciously, assessing the level of risk around me, the single men that come up behind me silent and swift, the cars that pull alongside and then pass, the groups of walkers that loom towards me in the darkness (are they a mixed group, or all men?), the parked vans I have to pass, the vehicles that pass me and then pull up next to where I’ll be walking in a moment or two (do they want something, do they just live there?)
Since the first time I experienced a walk in the dark without fear, I’ve chosen to make a more conscious assessment of my surroundings. I’ve been doing this for about a fortnight now and in that time I’ve not come across any other woman just walking alone, at least, not without a dog in tow.
The fear may not be rational; by objective measures, my neighbourhood is safe, and I’m walking at a time which isn’t “late” (in high summer, it would still be light) but the fear is real. I feel it viscerally when I stop to notice, but it’s so very built in and ingrained that most of the time if I’m walking in the dark alone it’s just my normal state of being.
My 14yo daughter walks with me sometimes instead. Does this bring the same relief? No. Of course, no. In fact my nerves are taughtened. I’m fearful and protective both of her and me. Is this justified? I don’t know. What I do know is that walking in the dark with her, vehicles that approach us from behind honk us and rev their engines at us. “Who is that?” asks my daughter, “What do they want?” And I honestly have no idea. I’ve never been honked or revved at when out walking with 16yo.
“Maybe,” I say, “they just want to make us afraid.”