The sun was setting as I left work tonight, and I took this shot from the street looking towards the west. I work in an office park, in a building that faces a decorative pond with a running track around it. For whatever quirk of landscape design, environment factors, and sheer luck, the sunsets are spectacular more often than not. Unfortunately, I am usually in my car and unable to capture images of any of them. Tonight though, the timing of the light and the back up of the traffic gave me enough time to snap a quick shot.
Our town is not pedestrian-friendly; having a car is pretty much a necessity. There are very few areas where you can walk from shop to shop to complete your errands. Almost everywhere, you have to drive to your destination, go to the few stores in that particular shopping center, and then drive to your next stop. The zoning here is very delineated – you are in a retail area, or a business area, or a residential area. There are a few “planned communities” that deliberately mix zones, and they are highly popular (read highly expensive) places to live.
I’ve spent some time in Washington D.C., and I loved it. I loved being able to take the Metro, I loved walking along the streets with all the other people in town, I loved being part of the crowd, I loved passing stores and restaurants mixed together on the way to and from my hotels. I loved staying at one particular hotel that was in the middle of the city, watching the traffic from the window at night, stopping at Starbucks on my way out in the morning, walking along in the crisp dawn air to my meetings. There is a strong sense of community, of being part of the larger collective of humanity.
It is rare that I see another person on my commute to and from work here – each person is in their own car, driving to their own end point, with no contact between them. I am on limited-access roads the whole time and I don’t even come close to areas where people might be walking. Even in my own neighborhood, there are no sidewalks. People walk from their house to their car and then disappear into the stream of traffic. In a city of a quarter million people, I can go hours without directly coming into contact with another human being.
One of my favorite parts of town to visit is the square around the courthouse. It is probably the only “urban” part of the city, mixed business and retail and restaurants and loft apartments and the historical district just behind, the art museum and the children’s museum two blocks over, local-owned coffee shop around the corner, and the city park through an out-of-sight pathway. I always park in the same lot, leave my car and walk the streets. Until a few years ago, it was brick pathways, but when the courthouse was remodeled, the city replaced the brick with stamped concrete. I still don’t like it as much as the brick, but the concrete isn’t nearly as cold as I thought it would be.
On the other hand, we have access to nature here that just is not possible in more developed areas. There is a state park on one side of town, the land trust on another, hiking trails radiating through both of them. There is a designed set of greenways throughout the metropolitan area with running and bike paths that go for miles. Little parks and elementary school playgrounds, ball fields and golf courses dot the town with acres of grass and trees that are accessible by almost anyone. And an (I think) unique feature of our town is that there are still cotton and soybean fields and cow pastures interspersed throughout the business and residential districts. This used to be an agricultural center – now condos and patio homes are being planted instead of crops. But anywhere a farmer has declined to sell, they till and sow and harvest around companies that manufacture parts for the space station. If you drive 30 minutes outside of town, there are strawberry farms and apple orchards and pumpkin fields and hands-on working farms to teach kids where food comes from and what it tastes like when it’s not trucked to the grocery store from halfway around the globe.
I like living here. I like being close to the land; it’s how I grew up, roaming the woods alone and imagining all sorts of adventures. I regularly have dreams that are set in the land around my parents house, my childhood environment permanently etched into my psyche. I long for more connection to people, but I know that moving to a new city would probably not solve that – I see plenty of evidence that more urban dwellers are just as lonely as I am. Like so much else, this is a mix of good and bad, pluses and minuses. And for the life I want to live, right now, it will do just fine.