Photo by Phil Chang.

Long Walks Were the Antidote to My Fear of Failure

The meditation of walking in a city is not as internal as that of hiking. You do not lose yourself in the silence; rather, you melt into the physical beat of observation.

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May 13 2019, 4:31pm

Photo by Phil Chang.

This Is Fine. is a weekly newsletter about the highly personal tactics people use to make the world feel less harrowing. In this edition, Judnick Mayard writes about how doing the unthinkable—taking long walks around Los Angeles—helped her feel at home in the world. Sign up here to receive a new essay about a dealing-with-life strategy via This Is Fine. each Sunday evening.

I moved to Los Angeles Memorial Day weekend of 2017—the last stop on my “Escape From New York” tour, which had paused in Denver, Colorado for three months prior. I’d visited LA for half a decade, only hesitating to move there because it’s a driving city and I'm an absolute shit driver. In the era of ridesharing, this no longer seemed like a handicap. Still, I didn't expect to be met with as much incredulity when I used my feet as transport: “Nobody walks in LA!” everyone told me, even as I did exactly that.

Thirty years living in New York and years of traveling for work had taught me that the fastest way to orient yourself with any city is to walk it as much as you can. It’s almost impossible to remember street names from a back seat, and a lifetime of walking from Harlem down to SoHo had given me insight to my birthplace that inspired not just my work as a writer, but the very way I presented myself. The streets of New York were where I worked out the 700 zany ideas that fizzed in my brain daily; where I stretched out my depression and anxiety, one footfall at a time. In Los Angeles, I needed to find that space immediately. Long walks are a writer’s best exercise.

My arrival in Los Angeles was abrupt: I moved out of New York because I worked in nightlife and didn’t sleep, so I wasn’t writing at all. Then I was offered a job on the staff of an animated TV show in LA—and given less than a week to sort my relocation. What followed were two years of couch-surfing, AirBnB-ing, and waiting while the show switched studios, got held up in production, and then received a much later release date than expected—like a full year late! I had given away all of my belongings outside of three bags, thinking I’d be a working screenwriter within that same year. But the year passed with no follow-up gig, and I went back to the same nightlife work I was doing in New York. I worried constantly that I would have to move back.

Anxiety over failure left me immobilized in bed most days, but walking became the fastest way to find any energy. I was staying in Los Feliz, and my routine became waking up at 7 AM and going walking in the hills for a couple of hours after a cup of tea. The walks boosted my days, getting me outside and into the sunshine. More important, they gave me something of my own personal space, as I was living with others (thanks to the gracious friends who took me in).

It takes me almost half an hour to walk even a mile in Los Angeles (it's something about elevation, or whatever), but I began with five to seven miles every other day. I spread out in all directions, letting myself wander with nothing but my headphones, a fanny pack, and a bottle of water. I was very used to doing 10-mile hikes in the canyons, but walking the city was different. The meditation of walking is not as internal as that of hiking. You do not lose yourself in the silence; rather, you melt into the physical beat of observation. On my city walks, there were people, cars, tent cities, and dead ends. With my headphones blasting, I have to look at my neighbors' faces a little closer for warning signs, and actually look up when I’m crossing the street. Using my phone becomes practically impossible; walking with my head down gives me motion sickness and the aches from walking always seem to highlight the muscles that are suffering from other poor habits, like slouching or sleeping in the fetal position. Mostly, I just like to see the people and things.

Every block in a city has markers—of neglect; of gentrification and elitism, and everything in between. You can even experience them all in one place, like I did in Downtown LA my first week, when I walked through Skid Row right into the Art District, where warehouses had been renovated for young and well-off buyers. (In 2013, I remember doing a few walkthroughs of that area and thinking of it as a dystopian future.) Every city keeps its pockets of culture, of seediness and extreme wealth. Walking in new cities has highlighted to me how truly alike we are in this garish world. The oppression, the beauty and the lopsidedness of it all is quite clear when you are walking through, step by step.

These walks have informed my own language as a storyteller. I feel the frustrations of a city that is changing in very similar ways to the one where I learned to walk, the home I left behind: letting in the rich; abandoning everyone else. Walking is in and of itself a practice in empathy, which is the only thing I seek to produce in my work. You spend time walking the streets, and you cannot ignore what you see in them. The pain, the joy, the hope are all there in front of you. You see who is riding the bus, and who is walking past those people with blinders, rendering them invisible. It is a practice of self-awareness and a ward against isolation, a routine of belonging. I may not speak to anyone when I am outside, but I see them, absorb their energy, and make something of a model of it in my head. I promise myself to write them into my own world, not just as adornments, but as muscle and flesh to make it full.

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Walking is the simplest way for me to deal with feelings of defeat, or to occupy myself when it feels like work might never come again. It’s the perfect activity for days when making plans would just hold me up. (And more often than not, I'm very late to dinner because I decided to “take a minute” to get some fresh air.) I now average about 10–15 miles a week, and I have come to love this city in a way I'd started to worry wouldn't be possible. Now, I catalogue Los Angeles's landmarks, and I orient places with the stories my friends who grew up here tell me. I feel filled with a sense of wonder at not knowing what was on any street before the year I walked it and having to come up with the story myself. I found new dirt for my writing to play in.

Often, I find myself too far from my starting point to walk back. I begin to agonize over calling a car or finding the closest bus. The answer to my anxiety is, of course, walking itself—getting in just a few more blocks, giving myself just a little more time, a little more space.