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Schmich: The uplifting, unsettling pleasure of taking a walk

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We’re living in an eerie moment filled with words many of us have never used before. Social distancing. Self-isolation. Sheltering in place.

This eerie moment has presented us with new questions, one of them being: Can I go out for a walk?

This has been a pressing thought for the ardent walkers among us, and the happy news is that we can. Health experts say it’s fine to go outside to walk — or bike or run — as long as we stay 6 feet away from people who aren’t in our “home unit.”

So every day this week, I’ve untethered myself from the panicky, diseased world displayed on my little laptop screen and stepped instead into the fresh air. The moment I step outside, the world feels bigger, brighter, more hopeful.

But walking is different now. I walk down nearly empty streets, past shops and restaurants that are locked in the middle of the day. A lot of other walkers are out, many with dogs, but an unusual number are otherwise alone.

I sometimes trade a distant wave or smile with someone I know, or someone I don’t.

“You OK?” we call to each other. “Stay safe! Stay sane! Stay sanitized!”

On one walk, I spotted my neighbor Tom and we both extended our hands like shields, him on the sidewalk, me in the street.

“Don’t burst my bubble,” Tom called and we laughed.

He looked around at the absent cars and absent people.

“I love it!” he called. “It’s quiet! Clean.”

From our safe distance — was this 6 feet? how far is 6 feet? — we chatted about the damage humans do to the environment. We pondered whether this terrible thing that’s happening to people might wind up being good for the planet.

But who knows? Who knows anything for sure right now?

Out on my walks, I’m glad to to see that most of the solitary walkers are as vigilant as I am, veering away when someone approaches, stepping aside to create a safe zone. Once, from down the sidewalk, a young guy halted to let me pass, and when I’d hurried by, I turned around and shouted, “Thanks for keeping the social distance!” He smiled.

I’ve also muttered curse words at a couple of joggers who huffed by way too close.

When you’re out walking, you can see who’s still working. The clerk at a 7-Eleven. The bread delivery guy who hops out of his truck to go into the 7-Eleven. A couple of construction crews. The mail carriers.

I called to one of the carriers the other day, something I wouldn’t ordinarily do, but walking with social distancing can be surprisingly social.

“Are you worried about staying safe?” I asked.

She nodded.

“Yeah,” she said. “But I wash my hands a lot.”

We waved goodbye, but as I walked off I worried about her and all the people obligated to be out and about on what we call “essential business.”

On one walk, I texted my friend Nancy, another ardent walker and my frequent walking companion, though I haven’t seen her since she returned from Spain last week and put herself into a 14-day quarantine she interrupts only for solo walks.

“I am on a walk right now,” she texted back. “Overly excited to see the first flowers coming out of the ground.”

Being inside, she noted in her text, keeps your eyes focused on what’s near. Being out, she could look into the far distance, out where a great lake meets a vast sky.

On another walk, I called a friend in Berkeley. He’s sheltering in place.

“Does that mean you can’t go for a walk?” I asked, imagining the day such a law would go into effect in Chicago. He said it didn’t.

Because I believe we should all double-check everything we hear about the coronavirus, I checked the law. He was right, and it echoes the shelter-in-place order scheduled that went into effect Friday in the Chicago suburb of Oak Park:

“Spending time outside improves mood and well-being, and is particularly beneficial to children. You can go for walks, go to the park, and engage in other similar activities, but should maintain social distance (i.e. be more than six feet away from persons who are not part of your household) when on walks and in parks to avoid spread of the virus.

“Spending time outside does improve your mood and well-being, and in this eerie moment we need that medicine wherever we can find it.”

So go outside, if you can. Take a walk. A run. A bike ride. From a safe distance, witness the wide world, the one with far horizons, where crocuses are pushing out of the dirt, impervious to the madness.

Mary Schmich is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.

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