Birdseye view of Keene in 1877

These days I’ve been doing something unusual during my weekday dog-walks in Keene: I’ve been walking without a purse or camera. Now that Reggie is old and needs to go out frequently, we walk three times a day: once around 6:00 am, once around noon, and again around 6:00 pm. In the height of winter, all but the midday walk are cold and dark, with the two of us venturing around the block but not much farther: just far enough for Reggie to relieve himself and sniff the snow, both of us moving carefully down frozen sidewalks. There’s not much new to see on these dark, around-the-block walks, so I’ve been leaving my camera at home, freeing my eyes to view the neighborhood directly.

Landscape scroll (detail)

I’m so accustomed to walking with a pocket-sized digital camera, it felt strange at first to leave both camera and purse behind on these frigid predawn and after-sunset walks. But quickly enough, in the inevitable way that the body itself becomes inured to cold, I’ve fallen into the rhythm of purely pedestrian days, carrying nothing but my keys, a handful of doggy clean-up bags, and a flashlight in the pockets of my heavy down coat. When you walk with a digicam, you notice the details of the world around you; when you walk without a digicam, you give your mind the freedom to wander the imaginary streets of memory: not this town now but that town then. Without the tether of a viewfinder to keep you rooted in the here and now, your sleepy self is free to meander across time and space, remembering the landscape as it used to be.

I’ve lived in Keene long enough that I can’t help but see it as a ghost town: a place filled with memories of what used to be. I’ve blogged before my own litany of the lost: the once-abandoned, now demolished factory that now has public housing sprouting from its frozen soil; the string of businesses that have come and gone downtown. Walking Reggie toward town this morning, we passed the shiny new hotel that used to be a lovely stretch of bike path, and our passing triggered the lobby’s motion-sensitive doors, which glided open as if to welcome us. “Leave it,” I said, tightening Reggie’s leash as he turned to go through the opened doors as if he belonged there. We might no longer be full-time residents in Keene, but neither are we hotel-dwelling visitors; instead, we’re the lurkers on the fringe, walking down predawn sidewalks while most of our neighbors are still asleep.

Landscape scroll (detail)

Walking has always been the way I’ve known any place I’ve lived or visited, and walking has become the way I keep my own personal sense of time, the rhythmic tread of footsteps being as meditative as my own breath. Within the first few pages of Teju Cole’s peripatetic novel, Open City, I’ve already settled into its familiar-seeming stride, the prose of a restless walker’s thoughts sounding as steady to me as any poet’s iambs. Julius, the protagonist of Open City, pulses with the Zugunruhe of migrating birds, his meandering walks filled with the stories of outsiders, immigrants, and others: all sorts of walkers along the fringe. It’s a path I’ve walked down before, whether tracing the footsteps of Mrs. Dalloway, Leopold Bloom, or my own sleepy, shivering self.

New York is a city where Julius seems in search of both self and place, walking with a pair of coupled conundrums: “who am I” on his left foot, “where do I belong” on his right. Or perhaps I read too much of myself in the novel, which I’ve only begun. Keene, after all, is a question I’ve not yet solved, and I’m long accustomed to walking here, my regular paths carved into the topography of memory. When I first moved to Keene, I was curious to discover who I was and where I belonged; these days, recalling the changes both the town and I have undergone, I find myself wondering who I was then and why I thought I’d ever belong anywhere. The places we visit leave an impress, the places we live mold us to their shape, and the places we remember hold us forever in their spell: not just this place, this time, but that place, eternally.

I wrote much of today’s post in my head while I walked the dog this morning, and I illustrated it with photos snapped in my Keene apartment, where remembered landscapes both real and imaginary decorate my walls.