Escape the Urban Travelogue: Hidden Treasures

3 Apr

I’ve written several times about finding joy in the simple, or the pleasure of unexpected surprises. In light of that continuing theme, consider this recent good fortune (or what the Vikings may call “Running Luck”).

I spent the last week in Columbia, South Carolina . . . though in truth, I never discerned not one localized landmark that would have independently provided this information, besides the words on my airline boarding card. I arrived late Sunday evening to a twin of the Buffalo-Niagara airport – same late ’90’s glass and steel, same empty gates, same Delaware North concessions (key ID feature: The Coffee Beanery). I took a taxi along ubiquitous interstates, past homogenized national restaurants, to a chain hotel that prides itself on providing a predictable, identical experience all over the world. I worked from sun up to evening each day, and flew out Friday afternoon to be back in time for the weekend. Despite my desire to see Congaree National Park’s bottomland swamps or historic sites in downtown Columbia (I assume such a thing exists), my only touring of the city consisted of driving from my suburban mall paradise, where I laid my head, to my suburban work location four exits down the freeway, and then back each day.

But still I found some small pleasure, and again it was my need to run to exhaustion that saved me. Being cooped up in classrooms and a claustrophobic hotel, I asked at the front desk where I could run outside. After looking quizzically at my running shorts and the threatening rainclouds (and imagining the 40 degree temperature outside as well, I’m sure), the woman told me some guests took a nearby side street into a housing subdivision where there was a nature trail. Having never run it, or even driven there, she couldn’t give me any further directions. I had doubts about the quality of any “nature trail” that could be found in a McMansion subdivision immediately next to a major mall and parking lot utopia, but I was desperate, and tried it anyway. And lucky that I did.

Sure enough, after crossing a four lain main artery and running on a road up a hill into cul-de-sac heaven, I was amazed to see a wide, concrete running path pass beneath me through a dedicated tunnel under the street. I hopped down, followed my nose, and before you knew it, I was buried in the woods, passing behind stately brick homes, crossing streams on pedestrian bridges, following creeks and waterfalls, up and down hills til my legs burned. I turned off my iPod and soaked it all in: the smell of damp growth, the cacophony of calls and chatter of unknown and unfamiliar birds. When constructing the subdivision, instead of filling in the low areas, and bumping everyone’s backyards together, the planners left corridors and parts undisturbed. The trees in the swampy bottoms were well over a hundred years old – it would take three men linking arms to meet the circumference. The live oak and long needle pine are lush all year round, but now the Wisteria are in bloom, and heavy clumps of purple blossoms hung throughout the canopy. If all invasive species were as pretty as Wisteria, they wouldn’t be so reviled. I found a lake and ran around it, past fishermen and kids skipping stones. I got lost in a maze of ridges and sandy, red-clay creek bottoms. Still I never found the end, and ran five miles on two different days on new paths. And all within an innocuous subdivision.

How much more livable, inviting, and encouraging of a healthy lifestyle is a place when it is surrounded and intertwined with dedicated walking and running trails. It isn’t hard for a planner to leave ten foot wide corridors between private property when designing new neighborhoods. But to make a cluster of homes a neighborhood, such corridors make all the difference.

One Response to “Escape the Urban Travelogue: Hidden Treasures”

  1. Leo Wilson April 4, 2011 at 11:49 am #

    We have something to that effect around here, called “bike paths”. They’re killer.

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