Rediscovering my city by walking every street

View of the North River in Salem, MA. Photo by author in 2022.

Not long ago, a friend sent me a story about people who had decided to walk every street in their town. Needless to say, I immediately added “walk every street in Salem MA” to my list of goals. 2022 miles in 2022, at least 50K in all 50 states by the time I’m 50, and walk all the streets in my city before we move.

We move a lot. Like, a lot a lot. I’ve lived in the Boston metro area for 12 years now and have lived in 7 different apartments (maybe 8? I lose track) and 4 different cities. We lived in Salem, moved away, moved back. I walked nearly daily in all of the places we lived, but I get stuck in a rut really easily and would quickly get bored, even in downtown Boston. When we moved back to Salem, it wasn’t long before I shifted from “oh how I’ve missed you!” to “this town is too small and I’m bored with walking here.”

Adulthood is boring. Staying in one place is boring.

You might have gathered that I’m a pretty restless soul. I get bored really easily, but stable adult life is all about boring and repetitive things, like marriage and gainful employment and paying bills and waiting around to die while urgently hoping not to. In between there’s lots of other stuff…that gets boring too.

I happened to marry someone who is brilliant and whose brain works in a completely different manner to mine, so even mundane conversations can surprise me after two decades together and it’s never boring. And while it took me many years and a lot of thrashing, I think I have figured out how not to be bored with my gainful employment so I can keep paying the bills.

But my physical location? The thing I look at and live in and get groceries from and walk through day after day after day after day after day after day after…

Well that’s just SO UNFIXABLY BORING.

The iconic Salem Diner in Salem, MA. It’s seen better days but is much loved, and definitely not boring. Photo by author in 2022.

Learning to see

My spouse is never bored, because she sees the world through the eyes of a photographer and an artist. She can literally photograph the same tree for months on end to get what she wants out of the shot. Every day, every shift of light, every small change is new and interesting.

She has been trying to teach me to really see what’s around me for a long time. I think all those lessons are finally sinking in, and it isn’t about trying to frame up a good photo. It’s about slowing down to notice in whatever way is meaningful to me. To take something in, in whatever way I can. I won’t see the visual details she will see, but I will notice a lot of other things when I am actually paying attention, present, and aware.

I’ve always been a story teller and a story consumer. I learn from stories, I weave new information into stories. When I walk in a place, I am telling myself the story of that town, based on the impressions that I get as I walk through. New towns and new walks are inherently interesting because they offer an opportunity to discover something, no matter how mundane. All new stories are discoveries, even if it’s just a novel way to look at something you know really well.

So for me to really see a place I think it has to have some kind of newness. I have to be looking with new eyes, not eyes clouded by things I think I’ve seen a million times before. It has to hold an opportunity for discovery. I wish I were the kind of person to be able to see the new details in a familiar place, but without some outside prompting, I’m just not.

A walking tour in the pedestrian mall in Salem, MA, as seen from the periphery. Photo by author in 2015.

Falling back in love with my town

My beautiful, historic town had become so boring to me because I thought there were no more stories to learn, no more real discoveries to be made. I now know Salem only through the repetitive story of where we get food and drinks, where we get our teeth cleaned, where we walk when a visitor comes to town, that the best donut shop on the planet is Coffee Time Bake Shop (fight me) and every walk near it will test my willpower against the incredible bakery+coffee smells wafting out. The same old story that the streets are clogged with tourists that I simultaneously despise for walking so bloody slowly and love for their joy and wonder at a town that I also love. Everything blurs into sameness for me.

“I live here,” I tell myself. “ I love this place. I know this place.” But none of my stories are really about Salem anymore, they are all about me doing things in Salem. I’d stopped bearing witness to my own town, and had replaced its reality with the convenient heuristics necessary for daily life. I began to believe that the full story of Salem was contained entirely in the narrow little set of stories I experienced repeatedly, instead of acknowledging that my set of stories is a tiny subset of the entire potential in the town.

The author’s progress in walking all streets in Salem, as of this April 2022, via screenshot from Citystrides.com

When I look at the map of streets I have never touched — on foot or in a car — in a city I claim to love, I am shocked. And more than a little humbled. I really don’t know this town at all. I had no idea it extended so far south. I had no idea it contained grocery stores I’d never heard of that are not very far from my house. I had no idea there was an entire stretch of neighborhoods on another part of shoreline…or even how much shoreline we have that I’ve never seen. That is just shameful for someone whose cardinal rule is “if there’s water, walk by it.” I didn’t know we had a bike path!

Challenging myself to walk every street started out as something to shake up my routine. The traveling necessary to visit all 50 states will certainly take up a lot of time, but home base for now is Salem and at least 80% of my time is spent here, and most of my mileage is completed here. Why not put a little variety into walks that I was starting to dread because I thought I’d seen all there was to see?

Several weeks in to this challenge, I have started to see my city again. Not the reruns of my experiences here, but the city as it is. Neighborhoods I have heard about but wouldn’t have any reason to go to. Neighborhoods I didn’t know existed. The people who live in those neighborhoods, who sit on their porches or cook delicious smelling food on a spring day with their windows open, laughing or fighting with each other, talking on their phones to people near and far, their kids playing on the sidewalk or in the park, living their lives in the town we share.

I don’t know their stories, but I know they have stories as rich as anyone else’s and I know those stories are worth witnessing, even if it’s fleetingly and in passing. I hope someone cherishes their stories the way I cherish my explorations — slowly, with purpose, without expectation, and with the delight in discovery.

Bearing witness to something as it is, without the haze of countless past experiences that all merge together into things that blind us to what’s in front of our eyes, is a type of love. When we sit with someone and just let them be. When we listen, and hear, someone’s story. When we delight in the discovery of something new, no matter how small. These are acts of love. It is so easy to love a place that you visit, so hard to love a place you live. And so much more important to see the familiar with eyes that know how to truly see.

This is my love letter to my current town and every soul in it (even the tourists). I will move again because it’s what I do and who I am. But I will never not love this place, and I will always be proud to have been a small, insignificant part of it, wandering around and cherishing the glimpses it has given me of its soul.

I have set myself a goal of completing at least 50Km in all 50 states by the time I’m 50. To acknowledge that I’m traveling on land that was stolen from others, I am donating $500 to the First Nations Development Institute for each state I complete.

Thank you for reading and supporting me on this journey. If you’re able to chip in — for your state, or for all 50 states — you’ll help me double the impact I’m able to make on my own.

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J Taylor

J Taylor

Freewalker with a goal of walking at least 50Km in all 50 states by the end of my 50th year.