Backyard Traveler

January 4, 2011

By Claire Sykes

You take the same route to the grocery store, pass by that park or art gallery you keep meaning to go into, and don’t even think about entire parts of your own city because there’s “no reason” to go there. Well, all that’s about to change—thanks to Kathy across the street from me.

She recently got back from three weeks in Ireland, Scotland, Kosovo and Turkey, most of that for her job at Mercy Corps. Tonight she stopped by with an article for me that she tore out of the latest issue of Lufthansa’s in-flight magazine. In it, Strasbourg-born journalist Jöel Henry suggests these ways to explore your own city with a fresh perspective. I add a few of my own.

Henry says:

On your city map, make a mark on a street that starts with the letter A, and another with the letter Z. Draw a straight line between the two and follow it.

Locate on a street map the neighborhood inside the K2 coordinates. Visit the bars, restaurants and clubs there, as though you were writing a guidebook.

Buy your city’s edition of Monopoly, throw the die and visit those places.

Spend 24 or 48 hours at the nearest airport, and watch people come and go. Visit the shops and restaurants there.

Get on the very next city bus, or subway train, and ride to the end of the line. Once there, book a hotel for the night and explore the area.

Leave your house and walk down the street, taking the first right, then the first left, then the first right, and so on.

And here are ones from me:

Choose one chapter from your city’s best guidebook, close your eyes and point, then go do that.

Have someone blindfold you and lead you around the city. Take in all the sounds and smells, without being concerned about where you are at any given moment. Notice what happens.

Time yourself walking anywhere for 15 minutes before sitting down on the nearest bench or brick wall, and really listen. Write down what you hear. Get up and do it again, somewhere else.

Leave your house and walk around the block ten times in a row without stopping. Each time, look at and listen for something different—just trees, then just cars, then just fences, then just birds, etc.

Choose several buildings downtown that you especially like. Close your eyes and put your hand to them, and feel the textures of all their surfaces.

Find out all the places you can have access to at the tops of buildings—from restaurants to corporate offices—and make an excursion to take in the views.

Visit a part of town populated with an ethnicity that is not yours. Try the strangely named foods and go up and talk to people, as if you were traveling in a foreign country.

Map out a dozen independent bookstores all over town and visit them, stopping for coffee at nearby cafes.

On 12 separate index cards, write down 12 places in the city you’ve never visited, but have always wanted to go. Every month, close your eyes and pick a card, then go there.

If your city is blessed with bridges (like Portland), vow to cross them all this year–but not by car, truck, motorcycle or public transportation.

Every week or two, go to a different city park, big or small.

Venture into some kind of peopled environment where you might not feel all that comfortable. A country western tavern? A swanky nightclub? A karaoke bar? A hospital? A church? A big-box store? The mall? Spend at least an hour there interacting with others.

Attend a public courtroom session or a rural auction, as if they were performances. Enjoy the show.

Instead of ignoring those outdoor, downtown chess players, challenge one of them to a duel.

Shoot baskets with total strangers in a park not in your neighborhood.

Give the next homeless person you see on the street a 10-dollar bill—no explanation, no strings attached.

With no destination or route in mind, and no map in your hands, just wander. Follow your gut with each turn you make and place you go into.

What about you? What do you suggest?

© 2011 by Claire Sykes. All rights reserved.

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Published in: on January 5, 2011 at 12:25 am  Comments (8)  

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8 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. This was lovely, Claire. Makes me want to go out and explore. I find that leaving a place helps me return to it with fresh eyes and fresh interest, but that renewal never lasts as long as I hope it will. These are fantastic ideas!

  2. Thanks, Shanna! It’d be fun to try these in unfamiliar cities, too. Who needs to travel across the world to “go somewhere?” Well, on second thought . . .

  3. These are wonderful ideas. Here are a couple more that are great for busy urban areas:

    “Follow the Light” – In an area like downtown Portland where there are traffic signals on every corner, let the lights lead you by turning and crossing every time you encounter a red. It’ll take you to surprising places, maybe even back to where you started.

    “The Lazy Susan or Sam” – Intersections are great places to travel without taking a step. Find an active one and back up to a corner of a building. You’ll be surprised how you disappear to the rest of the world as it goes its occupied way. Open your ears and you’ll hear sound bites from hundreds of lives. Soften your eyes and you’ll see a panorama of color and movement. Calm your mind and you’ll feel the exhilaration of witnessing unfiltered life.

    • I love these ideas, Ed! Thank you.

  4. Absolutely terrific ideas! Portland is my hometown, and whenever I visit I’m newly amazed by the beautiful trees there- a green treasure for the city. As a young woman there I developed a game I called, “tree-scaping.” As a passsenger in a car or bus, I would focus only on the trees along the route, blanking out traffic, buildings and people. After a while of doing this, I noticed that certain trees were definite characters. Of course, I had to name some of them! To this day, I fondly acknowledge certain trees when I’m in Portland.

    • Trees do have names here, true. What a wonderful way to be with this city–or any city.

  5. Full of some wonderful ideas – some friends and I did a similar thing, “take a wrong turn,” where we would turn down street(s) we’d never been before, then take a photo and post it on our TaWT facebook page. Great fun. Started seeing my hometown with fresh eyes.

    • I like the part about taking a photo. What a fun thing to do while “getting lost.”


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