A Year of Walks for Two

The goal, when they started, was to hike the Tour du Mont Blanc in France, a challenging trek of about 100 miles around the flanks of Western Europe’s highest peak.

Neither he nor she had fully retired, but they had started the process of cutting back. Three kids were grown and out of the house. There was time to entertain the prospect of an experience far different from day-to-day lives as professionals and parents.

The adventure, a 2012 REI-led outing in the spring, provided a challenge the two could tackle together. They would need to be strong and fit, prepared to hike 5-7 hours a day over sometimes-strenuous terrain. For that, they needed to prepare. In the early hours of winter mornings, they donned headlamps and set out from their Eugene home on walks of an hour or so before workdays began.

As they trained, their bodies grew stronger, as expected. But something unexpected happened—their relationship grew stronger too. Not that they had been struggling, but the rhythm of starting days together, of getting in step with one another, nurtured a closeness they hadn’t anticipated.

“One of the things about walking that’s magical is it brings you into the moment,” says Vern Katz, MD. “Walking brings you into focus like nothing else really does. The sharing of a beautiful experience and the rhythms of life, and both of us appreciating it at the same time, it really enhances the bonds.”

Katz and his wife, Deb Dotters, MD, met as medical students at UCLA. Both pursued careers in gynecology—he in high-risk pregnancies; she in gynecological oncology. They settled in Eugene in 1995.

Five years ago, when they returned from the trek on Mont Blanc, they wondered how they could sustain the connection that blossomed as they walked together day after day through months of preparation and the achievement of a shared hiking goal.

Then Deb proposed a new goal: What if they agreed to walk through a full year, with Vern, an ardent writer, keeping a log of each walk? Just one page in a journal to preserve the arc of a year in sights and contemplations gleaned on an ordinary walk.

And so it began. After each walk, he jotted comments on weather and seasonal changes. He noted surprises, or phrases of conversation, plans for the day.

We were doing it for the magic of it,” he says. “What was so wonderful was that Deb and I were doing this together.”

The magic of walking is something I know well—the alchemy achieved when two people walk together long enough and often enough that footsteps find a companionable stride. The magic summoned in committing to a common goal.

That magic has drawn my spouse and me on many a walk in our years together. What we seem to need most when voices grow sharp is a trail where we can fall into step once again. Daily walks through the neighborhood or long-distance treks on mountain trails and pilgrimage paths chart a route that reorients us and restores direction in the life we share.

So when I read some of the prose poems that Katz later shaped from notes in his year-of-walking journal, I sensed a kindred spirit.

Now fully retired, Vern has memorialized the year of walks with 130 poems that span parts of 2012 and 2013. They capture the small talk of daily patterns and comments on the seasons. They reflect a year of significant events: The marriage of the couple’s daughter. The death of Vern’s father.

Unpretentious and lean, the poems reveal patterns of warm connection. They divulge a passion for kicking fall leaves, a tendency to give some walks a name. “Couch Day” for the sagging sofa with a “free” sign in a yard. “Grandpa Day” for the man who sauntered with kids on each arm.

They pay homage to shared rituals of a seasoned love. Find a penny on a walk, you make a wish and toss it over a shoulder to leave a wish for someone else. Nickels and dimes get picked up and saved until there’s enough change in the pot to buy a pair of hot fudge sundaes. They touch, too, on life and death—on the emotional stress of physicians whose patients often arrive in the grips of a life crisis.

“Because our lives were incredibly stressful, walking was a way of sharing that is different from sitting down with a glass of wine to talk,” he said when I interviewed him about the walks that spawned the writing.

“The structure of a walk allows you to share at your own pace. Walking slows you down. Ordinary moments take on more significance.”

What the two of them had done seemed brilliant to me. By focusing on everyday details of a familiar path, they’d found a way to keep the a energy and connection of a long walk alive through an entire year Then, Vern stretched the momentum even longer. Last year he figured out how to use the Lulu internet program for independent publishing to produce “Walking through the Year: A Volume of Love Poems.” It’s dedicated to Deb. Available at Tzunami Books and on Amazon.com.

“The walking is magic, but the writing synthesized that,” he said. “The poems were to commemorate the walk, to capture the seasons, not to create art.”

Engaging as the poems are, the inspiration that strikes me most in this project arises from the willingness to commit to walking with intention – with mindful awareness of day-to-day fluctuations that mark life’s cycle.

At an earlier point in life, during the years I trained as a competitive race walker, I kept a daily training journal of workouts and fitness routines. I looked at it as motivation and reward—evidence of my dedication to this sport.

Vern has imagined a different training journal. A journal that trains the eye and the spirit as well as the physical body. A journal that slows the swift current of the year with reminders of life’s cycles and seasons.

“Walking is the way to understand time," he says, "and if you understand time, you can understand your human place in the world."

Now, there’s a goal worth walking toward.

Carolyn Scott Kortge of Eugene is a former Register-Guard editor and writer, and author of The Spirited Walker. Contact at spiritedwalker@gmail.com.


Not the Retiring Type

by Carolyn Kortge

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