Rules of the Road Revisited

Illustration: Renee Graef

For nearly a decade, I have lived in downtown Milwaukee. By lived, I mean resided, worked, played, and shopped.

I have relied on my feet to accomplish these things. It was my destiny, I suppose, to become a pedestrian after the self-inflicted marathon training I practiced on the Madison campus. Climbing Bascom Hill and hurrying from one end of campus to another — in all kinds of weather — is not only the stuff of great memories, but also was preparation for my lifestyle today.

Because I pound the pavement for a minimum of thirty minutes each day, I come in contact with a lot of traffic, and a lot of other adventures, too. I have been flipped off, honked at, hit on, threatened, and nearly run over. Instead of becoming discouraged, I view these experiences as a challenge, a game, or a learning tool, depending on the day. Here are some lessons I have learned on the sidewalks of life.

Think before you act. One snowy morning, I angrily smacked a car with the heel of my hand because the driver stopped on the sidewalk directly in front of me after exiting a driveway. I was forced to walk into the street to avoid being hit. Needless to say, the driver did not appreciate my reaction. She followed me for a block and a half until I reached my destination and we traded strong language. It was not a pleasant way to start the day, and I regretted letting my emotions take over. Sometimes people will not allow you the right of way because of distraction, self-involvement, or some other reason. Don’t harbor ill feelings that will affect your blood pressure and spoil your day. Be the bigger walker (and the bigger person).

Be observant. Drivers have so many other things to focus on — cell phones, kids, and lunch from the drive-through — that they sometimes do not pay attention to the people using the crosswalk in front of them. Be on guard and use your instinct to protect yourself.

Pleasant surprises can make your day. When a careful driver gives me the right of way, even when it isn’t my turn, I feel great. That driver usually gets a big smile. Nice, unexpected little things get you through the bad days more easily, and give you some hope for tomorrow.

Defend yourself. But do so in a respectful way, and always keep your personal safety in mind. Advocate for pedestrian rights by reminding drivers to watch their speed and make complete stops. Even if your request is ignored, at least you made the effort to stand up for yourself.

Dress for success. Wear a hat when it is cold. Layer clothes so that you can add or remove them according to your comfort level. Be prepared for changing weather conditions. Following these guidelines can mean the difference between a bearable fifteen minutes and regretting climbing out of bed.

Choose your battles. If you are aware of a blind corner, cross to the other side of the street. Or, take another route to avoid it altogether. Let the little things go. You’ll stay in one piece and be happier.

Notice the scenery. A pretty patio garden, a cute dog, and a rainbow are all art exhibits to which you don’t have to pay admission. Even the urban jungle contains natural beauty. Step outside of your thoughts to appreciate your surroundings and make discoveries. Just watch out for bees, and wear sunscreen.

Keep moving. We all know that exercise, even simple walking, is good for us. It is better for the environment, saves gas, and helps us break in our shoes. Why not use the sidewalks instead of the car? Your body, your pocketbook, and your planet will thank you.

Adults need recess, too. Shuffle through crackly autumn leaves. Sing. Run. Use your commute to reconnect with your inner child. Who cares if other people are around? You may inspire them to play. The road to happiness is sometimes a sidewalk.

My last lesson isn’t mine. Ralph Waldo Emerson said this about walking: “Few people know how to take a walk. The qualifications are endurance, plain clothes, old shoes, an eye for nature, good humor, vast curiosity, good speech, good silence, and nothing too much.”

I’d say Ralph was right. Lace up your shoes, everyone. Walk proudly and without fear. Establish your own pedestrian commandments during your journey through life.

Tina Merwin ’92 resides in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where she works as a technical writer for an insurance company.

If you’re a UW-Madison alumna or alumnus and you’d like the editors to consider an essay of this length for publication in On Wisconsin, please send it to

Published in the Spring 2010 issue


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