Take a Walk

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

While I was doing interviews to promote the book, someone asked me what is your favorite way to experience the city. The answer is walking. I love to walk. If you have nothing to do, take a walk. If you are overwhelmed with things to do, also take a walk. We’ve been working so hard on the book release and min-series that we’re launching in December, that we’re going to take a walk with our friends at Pop-Up Magazine. They are a live magazine show created to be performed on stage in front of a live audience. Pop-up is this really beautiful ground-breaking leap forward in journalism but since there are no theater shows happening right now, they’ve been making stories to enjoy at home and this one was so delightful and so up my alley, I just wanted us all to do it together. So, let me introduce you to my friend, Haley.

Haley Howle:
Hi, this Haley Howle from Pop-Up Magazine. And I’m going to take you on a walk. If you need a second to get ready, press pause. Grab some headphones. Don’t forget your keys and your mask. Then come back and we’ll head out. You good? All right, let’s go.

There are a million ways to walk in this world, so whatever walking means to you, in this moment, do that. It could be going on a walk… in your mind… while lying on the couch. That’s totally fine. It really is. But, if you’re up for it, go outside.

If you’re like me, maybe you’ve found yourself taking more walks recently. I don’t really have anywhere to go… but I really need to get out of the house, so I walk. For today’s walk, you don’t need a destination. And that’s kind of the point. All you need to do is breathe and move forward as you hear stories from some of our friends about what walking means to them.

Okay, here we go.

Anna Sale:
I’m Anna Sale, and I host the podcast Death, Sex & Money. The best solo walks I can remember are like before, when I was single living in New York City. You start at Union Square in Manhattan, and you discover that you don’t have much to do in a day, and you just, like, start walking. And then you, like, look up the movie times. And then you, like, realize you could go to a movie, and you’re gonna walk to Duane Reade ahead of time and get, like, a big liter of club soda and trail mix and maybe a little bit of chocolate and stuff it in your purse (laughs). Man, to spend a day that way, (laughs) right now. As someone with two little kids and a couple of dogs, like, to just walk with no destination seems so luxurious. I also want to give a special shout out to the walking in New York City while crying on a cellphone walk. At a certain point, you’re like, I don’t care. I don’t care who’s seeing me, who’s walking past me, like… I liked having this way of creating my own little personal crying space on the busy streets of Manhattan.


Kelly Mathaw:
(Laughs) I cried my first 90 days, and I wanted to quit (laughs). But, um, you know, seeing the people’s faces when we’re out there walking and the smiles on they face when they see us coming. To me, that made my postal career just fascinating. I’m Kelly Mathaw. I’m a mail carrier in Detroit, Michigan out of Brightmoor Station. I have been a mail carrier for 26 years now. My route, I walk between eight to ten miles a day. I can handle the cold. It’s just when the snow, the first snowfall, it looks so beautiful when you’re first going out there. It’s like, oh, it looks so pretty. Until you get out there and have to start walking. And people don’t shovel. You slip and slide down the street. And I’m not embarrassed to say, there’s been a few times I had to sit on the steps to get down off the porch (laughs). Yeah, because I do not want to fall, and there have been times I have fallen down some steps, and it wasn’t cute (laughs).

The good things about being on a route as long as I’ve been on is knowing everyone’s name. They look out for me. And since the pandemic, one of my customers made a poster sign and, um, he put on there, “Hey Kelly, Americans are awesome and so are you. Thank you.” And I was walking up to the house ’cause I had my head down getting the mail ready when I looked up, it made me cry. And I knocked on his door. He came to the door, and I was like, “That’s so sweet of you to put that out there.” He’s like, “I just want to let you know you’re an awesome carrier. You always look out for us.” Because when he gets his medicine, I walk to the side door, I knock on the door, him and his wife come and get it. I don’t leave it on the front porch. I don’t want anyone to take it. Not under my watch.

Haley Howle:
Lulu Miller is a radio producer and author of the book Why Fish Don’t Exist.

[Footsteps in the forest]

Lulu Miller:
So this is a exercise that my wonderful sister, Alexa Rose Miller, told me about. I’m joined here by my co-host (toddler speaking gibberish), my 22-month-old son. We’re going on a walk (toddler speaking gibberish) In the surprisingly beautiful Indiana Dunes (toddler speaking gibberish). And the exercise is this — as you walk, look for one of each of every color of the rainbow. And pick it up. Take it home with you. First thing, got a piece of green grass, and I will keep you posted as we go.

[Footsteps walking through the forest]

Dan Broun:
My name’s Dan Broun. I’m a bushwalker and photographer from Tasmania. Tasmania is an island at the bottom of Australia. Australia, of course, is a continent at the bottom of the world. So, I live under, down under. Tasmania is the most mountainous island on Earth. And so, every walk you go on, you start close to the ocean and then you just walk uphill really quick. But as you go up, you traverse different vegetation layers, and you go through curtains and curtains and curtains. So you might start in coastal scrub with this pungent aroma of the peat soils, and you’ll climb up into a deeper forest along the creek line, and it will be rainforest, a temperate rainforest (sounds of water in the forest with birds in the background). The air is cold on your face. It’s filled with every type of green from the mosses and the lichens to the rainforest trees, the myrtles and the sassafras. And as you go through these various vegetation layers, finally, finally, finally, you’ll just see sky (gentle music). And everything becomes small. Everything becomes intricate and tiny and detailed. And that’s what it is when you’re in the alpine zone of Tasmania.

[Footsteps in the forest]

Jenny Slate:
Hi, I’m Jenny Slate. I’m an actor, comedian, and writer. So when I came back to Massachusetts this year, there just wasn’t anyone around. And people don’t tell you, and you never remember, even if you’re like me and you grew up here, that March is just February. And it’s cold and it’s very dark. But I really, really need to walk every day. And I need, I guess what I need is to be able to greet someone or something (spooky piano music). And so, in the woods by our house is a pet cemetery. And I started to bundle up and go for the short walk out to the pet cemetery to say hello to the buried pets. There’s Cheeky and Boopy (dog barks, growls) and Nedsy. I say their names, and sometimes I just, like, sort of croon at them and say like, “Hello sweethearts.” And I sort of imagine, like, you know, transparent little ghost dogs, like, nipping at my heels (spooky music continues) I felt like I could imagine that they felt found again. What’s happening here, of course, is a projection (laughs). And that I just want to be also found (dogs panting).

John Sterle:
I’m John Sterle. I’m a resident in Southern Valley Westminster-Canterbury Continuing Care Retirement Community, and I’m 81 (military drumming). I do go for walks every day. I’ve gotten to the point that I like to walk 10 miles now, so I have downloaded the United States Airforce Band Souza Marches. And I’ll march instead of walking. And I’ve been known to pick up a stick or two and pretend I’m a drum major, because I have been a drum major in the past. But I only do that after 10 o’clock at night, after all the other residents go to bed. And then if I get bored with the marches, I’ll have polka or accordion music on (polka music). And I’ll start dancing my way around, instead of walking or marching (laughs).

[Polka music continues and fades into the sound of footsteps in the forest]

Lulu Miller:
Oh, my God. Awesome contender for bright orange. Teensy little, like, eraser-sized neon orange mushrooms (toddler coos). Okay, Jude vetoes. I think I’m gonna leave them where they are because they look happy, but I’ll take a picture. Oh, Jude, look! This leaf. Oof, that’s mom’s knee. This leaf has a little of everything. Red on the outside, yellow and green on the inside. If you squint at it, it’s kind of orange. It’s a contender for many colors.

[Footsteps in the forest]

[Sounds of a dog running across a wood floor and panting]

Haben Girma:
I have a German shepherd Seeing Eye dog named Milo. He is my walking buddy, and we’ve walked all over the world (orchestra waltz music). My name is Haben Girma. I’m a disability rights advocate. When I walk with Milo, I’m holding his harness. His harness wraps around his middle and his front. So when he turns to the left, to the right, I can feel it. Most people assume that the guide dog is deciding where we go (laughs). Sometimes he does try to make those decisions. So if he is walking and he sees a squirrel (squirrel sound), his ears perk up. I feel it in his body (dog panting). His attention is distracted. And I make the choice to tell him, “No, keep going. Move past it.” It’s kind of like a ballroom dance. We’re constantly connected. I’m constantly adjusting my movements to mirror his movements so that we can keep moving across the floor (dog barks).

[Waltz music ends]

Syd Balou:
Ballroom is a culture of competitive artists, or artistic competitors, that’s how I see it. And it was pioneered by Black and Latina transgender women who basically created a space for LGBTQ youth of color to compete in different categories for cash prizes. So, my name is Sydney Balou, aka Syd Extravaganza.

I remember the first time I walked Realness as a category. Realness actually refers to when somebody of a particular gender identity puts on a performance of an archetype of another. On the flyer, it said Butch Realness. And I was like, oh, what’s that? And so I asked my housemother at the time and she was like, “Syd, this is your category. All you have to do is you have to present as a cis-gendered man, a straight man.” And so, you know, I had the look ready.

The category was coming up. I was so nervous because I had never walked this category before. And I was just like, “Oh, man, oh, man, you know, am I going to pull this off? Oh, gosh.” And then I remember they called out the category. The commentator called it out. “OK. Anybody walking? Ten, nine, eight, seven, six.” Nobody is coming out. “Five, four.” And then finally, I was like, “All right, I’m gonna do it.” And let me tell you. The crowd went bananas for me (crowd applause and cheering). People got out of their seats. Oh, my God. It was like tens, tens, tens, tens, tens across the board. Like, people were just living for me.

And it was, I have to say, it was incredible. I’d never experienced anything like that. And for me, especially, being somebody who was maligned for my masculinity as a woman and for being told that I should look a certain way, sit in a certain way, have my hair a certain way, all this kind of stuff. And then getting to that point in my life where I could be in a room of my peers and completely celebrated for who I was. It was just, like, the greatest feeling in the world.

Alice Sheppard:
I’m Alice Sheppard, dancer and writer (hip-hop beat). So I’m a wheelchair user. I encounter the world from the point of view of wheeling. I use the word “walk” a fair amount. That often makes people uncomfortable. Some of the most important walks that I have ever had are with other wheelchair users. There’s a moment where we sync strokes. There’s something about the rhythm of pushing a chair and the sounds that our wheels make. The fact that we are connected in this way is, is, is, sometimes it’s really sexy. Sometimes it’s really just peace-bringing. Sometimes it’s joyous. This kind of walking, this is community walking.

[Music fades out]

Aaron Reiss:
My name is Aaron Reiss. I’m a journalist, and I live in Mexico City. What’s cool about Mexico City is walking is fascinating all the time. There’s so much happening on the street that it’s hard to be bored when you’re walking (busy street sounds). Whether you’re getting your shoes fixed or you’re getting a piece of clothes mended or you’re buying a taco, it’s all happening, like, on the sidewalk and, oftentimes, in the street. But there’s a certain, like, subset of mobile street vendors that have sounds to alert people as to their presence. And so, if you hear a enormous steam whistle (steam whistle sound), you know that the camote, the, like, the sweet potato salesman is outside and you have ten minutes to catch him before you have to, like, jog and catch him down the block. And as you look around, like, the street is sort of coming alive, like, you see, like, a guy pop his head out the window and yell down like, “Hey, wait for me. I’ll be there in a second.” People pull over. People jog to catch up (pan flute sound).

And then there’s the knife-sharpener guy. And his sound is probably my favorite because it’s like a little musical performance. He has a pan flute, and all the knife sharpeners have pan flutes that play these different chord progressions. But each one has its own little style (pan flute sound]. And you hear it coming, you know, like Doppler-effect style. And you’re like, “Okay, I’m pretty sure he’s coming from the left.” [Pan flute sound] And you’re like, “No, no, he’s coming from the right.” And you, like, have to go, you know, wind your way through the neighborhood following your ear to catch the guy.

[Steam whistles and pan flutes]

Roman Mars:
Our walk continues… even into space. After this.


Lulu Miller:
Come on, forest, show me blue and purple. Oh, man, I just got my purple. I got my purple, I got my purple. It’s a little leaf. It’s a gorgeous true freaking purple. Okay, all I have to do now is blue. (Whispering) And suddenly, I feel the weight of a large head on one of my neck vertebrae, which is the feeling of my son falling asleep in this hiking backpack, sick of my musings upon the colors of the forest, fair.

[Old-school hip-hop beat]

Sam Jay:
My name is Sam Jay. I’m a comedian and a writer for Saturday Night Live. When I was younger, I used to hang out with my older cousin. His name is Gerald. And he lived in this place in Boston called the South End, or the Back Bay. They had built this, like, housing development in the Back Bay, but the rest of the Back Bay was full of, like, rich people. And it’s where all the rich shops were. You could really just go out and walk around and cause mischief, for lack of a better word. We used to buy all these joke gag things from the joke shop downtown. So like, a dollar snatcher and, like, stink bombs and, like, things that made fart noises and all this, like, goofy stuff. And we would take it down Newbury Street and, like, trick people. We’d put the dollar snatcher down and watch people try to pick it up and snatch the dollar and laugh. Or while someone was sitting outside a restaurant, we’d, you know, hit the fart thing and make it sound like they farted and then run off. And just like goofy little silly kid stuff. You’re so aware when you, when you’re growing up in poverty that like, all this stuff around you is not for you. And like, they’re not considering you in any of this. And so, it was a way for us to kind of push back against the thing by just going and being like, “Well, we could be in here, too,” you know.

Antwan Williams:
My name is Antwan Williams, and I am the co-creator and a sound designer for the hit podcast Ear Hustle. I grew up in prison. I spent my late teens and all of my 20s inside of California’s prisons. And the way that we protest on the inside is completely opposite from how people protest on the outside. The way that we protest on the inside is to sit down. So, upon my release, I was able to join Black Lives Matter protests and rallies and marches for the equality and the equity of disenfranchised people. (Protesters chanting “No justice, no peace, no racist police.”] And the entire march, I was silent. And just, every step that I took, I felt… I felt good. I was stepping with intention. Like I can walk for however long the people want to walk. [Crowd cheering]

[Gentle music fades]

Julian Torres:
I climbed Mount Kilimanjaro on Veterans Day 2015.

My name is Julian Torres. I’m a former sergeant, United States Marine Corps. Um, got hurt in 2013. I’m a left-below-the-knee amputation, right-above-the-knee amputation.

The idea of Kilimanjaro really came from, I wanted to see what kind of capabilities I had post, like, missing half my body. I needed to know where I landed on the spectrum of, like, liability and an asset.

But it was my first time walking through mud that was, like, ankle-deep. Walking through that was like walking on a slip and slide. You know what I mean? It’s just like, “Woah!” (laughs).

When I would fall, one or two things happened. Like, nothing. Nothing happened. You know, I just fell, I met the ground, gave it a hug, and then I got back up. Or a part of my legs would break. And they did break. And so, like, on day two, I guess, you would say where my ankle was, my right ankle. Right? Bolts had broken off. So, like every three or four steps, I would have to stop. And then turn my foot because it would pivot, and my toes would be facing, like, my back. But I’m gonna make it to the moon if I have to crawl. I don’t think I walked away from Kilimanjaro knowing anything except that I can endure.

[Gentle music continues and slowly fades]

[Footsteps in the forest]

Lulu Miller:
Oh, my God. I just audibly gasped that I wasn’t recording, and I’m not going to fake it. Perfect. Blue. Bluer than blue-blue-blue-blue-blue-blueberries! Not the blueberries we eat, but these comically cartoon, freaking fantasy-esque blueberries. Right before the end. Child still asleep. I’m gonna grab a couple of these. We have completed the rainbow.

[Footsteps fade out]

Caroline Shaw:
I’m Caroline Shaw. I’m a musician, and I like to walk (Symphony No. 6 by Ludwig van Beethoven). I grew up with all these cassette tapes of the lives of the great composers which my mom had a box of and she kept in our minivan and, and, you know, pick one out and put it in. And that was how I learned about music. And one of those tapes was called Mr. Beethoven Lives Upstairs. They would talk about him walking through the woods and hearing the birds and writing the Sixth Symphony. And that was kind of how I, for a long time, pictured what being a composer was.

And recently, I wrote a string quartet called “The Evergreen” after this very particular walk in the woods on an island off the west coast of Canada called Galiano Island. I just found myself kind of slowing down completely. I wasn’t trying to, like, oh, get to that turn point so you could go over here and then you see the vista and you see the view, and that’s the goal. I was like, I don’t really care about the goal anymore. I just want to be here and listening and looking. And I ended up seeing this beautiful evergreen tree that I wouldn’t have seen if I had just been going towards what I wanted to go to. And I just wrote a piece as like a little gift to this tree. I guess that makes me just like Beethoven. So, you know…. (laughs).

[The Evergreen by Caroline Shaw plays]

Drew Feustel:
Our walks are a little different than what most people think about as walks. The reality is we don’t actually walk in space. We float and we climb around with our fingertips mostly and, and just use our hands for mobility. This is NASA astronaut Drew Feustel, and I’m here to talk to you about my very first spacewalk. What you see is the Earth below you. That’s it. You look between your feet, and you see the tips of your toes and the blue planet. In our case, over 300 miles beneath us. And then the darkness, the blackness of space is set against that contrast. And one of the things that I always remember thinking to myself is, “There’s nothing out there. Earth is its own spaceship, and we’re all here alone.” And, and it’s really a vulnerable place. And I don’t think you really, truly get the sense of that until you’re staring at it from 300 miles up watching it just, just float in nothing. It’s incredible.

[Gentle music swells and then slowly fades]

[Upbeat music]

Haley Howle:
This story was brought to you by Pop-Up Magazine Productions. Written and produced by me, Haley Howle, with Anna Martin, Charley Locke, Marin Cogan, and Maureen Towey. Our managing editor is Elise Craig. Our executive editor is Anita Badejo. Our editor-in-chief is Doug McGray. Music and sound design by Alex Overington. Annie Jen is our art director, and Lauren Smith is director of operations. Research by Chida Chaemchaeng. We had production help from Al Schatz and Andy Spillman. Ben Hickey did the episode art. Special thanks to Third Angle Music in Portland, Oregon for letting us share their world-premiere performance of Caroline Shaw’s string quartet “The Evergreen.” Special thanks also to Alexa Rose Miller at Arts Practica, Oscar Molina Palestina, and all the fantastic folks we interviewed about walking but weren’t able to fit in this episode. This story was part of our Fall Issue. If you want to take a longer walk with us, an extended version of this episode is available for Pop-Up Magazine members. Learn more and join us at popupmagazine.com.

Roman Mars:
We will have an original in-house episode of 99% Invisible for you next week. If you need more 99pi stories before then, we have a whole book about them. It’s called The 99% Invisible City. It’s a beautiful physical object but if you want me to read it to you, we have an audiobook available too. It’s all at 99pi.org/book.

  1. Pedro

    Damnnnnnnnn! The sound design on this one is something else. Siiiii immersive. Roman, you guys have a goal to reach.

    1. Brook

      Funny that I was *walking* when this episode came up into the earbuds. I loved hearing about the Mexico City knife sharpeners and sweet potato seller!

  2. Duncan Cowie

    Hi. This is only tangentially related to this episode (sorry, I only just heard the episode now, a few months late), but the story made me think of two of my favourite NFB films that are walking related.

    The first is the 1968 animated short “Walking” by Ryan Larkin. It was nominated for the Best Animated Short Film at the 42nd Academy Awards.

    The second is “Ryan”, which is an animated documentary/non-documentary about Ryan Larkin and the film maker Chris Landreth. It won the Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film in 2005. It is also a strange film to watch for me since I used to volunteer at the homeless shelter in Montreal where it is set, and while a fantastic/strange animated space in the film, it is very familiar.

    Thanks! Love the show… and Beautiful, Downtown, Oakland sounds so lovely and warm right now.

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