Getting Comfortable in Public Space

Italian architect Daniela Colafranceschi said, “public space is the theater of the history of mankind.” One of the biggest changes the walk has brought for me is the amount of time I spend living in, and thinking about, public space. So often I move through the world from the private space of my home to the private space of my car, only to pause in public areas.  On the walk it’s the opposite. I spend most of my time moving through, and trying to survive in, public spaces. I walk on city sidewalks, county roads, and state highways. I camp on public land. I eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on park benches. I map out our route in public libraries. I sit on curbs to put mole skin on my blistering feet. I take photos on bridges. I go to the bathroom in soccer field outhouses.

Relying on public space for survival brings joy and challenges. One of the best parts about walking through public spaces is how many interactions I get to have with the people I pass on the street. Sometimes these interactions are brief and it’s just someone saying hello and “how ‘bout that sunshine!” and other times I chat with someone for 20 minutes about the history of the Lincoln highway and the towns built around it. These interactions always make me feel a deeper sense of place and community, even if I am just passing through.   

The biggest challenge of spending this much time in public space is the loss of control.  My diet is dictated by the contents of a gas station. Where I sleep each night is often uncertain. I don’t know whether sidewalks and road shoulders will be shoveled after a snowstorm. I can’t control the weather, the height of the mountain, or if a gas station will have a bathroom. This loss of control has forced me to be a better planner and to have more patience with myself and my surroundings. Some days a snowstorm prevents us from walking at all, and other days my body will tell me it’s best to take a break, and even if that means 2 fewer miles for the day, it’s okay.   

If public space is a theater, then I am enjoying my time in a leading role. As we near Pittsburgh, it feels like act one is coming to a close and I’m looking forward to what plot twists, characters and set changes the remaining acts will bring.