“It just didn’t seem like Penn was that far from where I wanted to go.”
By Linda Willing | When I arrived at Penn as a freshman in 1972, I had the good fortune to get a class schedule that left Thursdays wide open after 10:15 a.m. The rest of my week was packed: classes, an on-campus job, time at the gym, compulsory marathons in the Rosengarten Reserve Library. But these unfettered Thursdays seemed like an incredible gift, and I decided to use it to explore the city that was my new home.
I knew there was much to see and do in Philadelphia—history, arts, food, culture. When I asked around about the best way to get downtown, I was told about bus schedules and given the usual warnings about venturing too far afield in a strange city.
I took the bus the first time I went but I didn’t like it. I hated the waiting, the starting and the stopping, the crush of people avoiding one another’s gaze. And it just didn’t seem like Penn was that far from where I wanted to go, so I thought if I set out on foot from Hill Hall I could actually get downtown more quickly.
So that’s what I did. The next Thursday, I headed east over the bridge and made it as far as Rittenhouse Square. There I was stopped in my tracks by the sound of an opera student practicing scales at the Curtis Institute. I forgot about time as I listened to the voice trilling up and down, echoing from a nearby building. Then I sat alone over a coffee in a smoky, low-ceilinged café, suddenly feeling more at home than I had since I had arrived at college.
It got to be where Thursdays were the highlight of my week. I felt like I was learning as much on these walks as I was in school. I loved my classes at Penn—lectures, readings, and discussion opened my eyes in new ways. But I wanted to turn them upon the living world around me.
I always went alone. You hear and see different things when you’re alone. As a 17-year-old who looked younger, I was nearly invisible, and easily faded into my surroundings. I could eavesdrop on conversations, watch children’s games up close, sit quietly across from an elderly man apparently praying in the park, all without even being noticed. The anonymity was unexpectedly empowering.
I rarely had a plan. As Robert Louis Stevenson said, “I travel not to go anywhere, but to go.” After falling in love on my first visit, I made regular trips to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which became a cathedral to me. I spent hours there among pre-Renaissance triptychs and Calder mobiles and brooding portraits. I joined uniformed school kids as they climbed through the giant heart at the Franklin Institute, and I cringed but could not stop looking at the malformed organs and fetuses suspended in formaldehyde at the Mutter Museum. I listened to Christmas carolers while sitting in the shadow of the eagle at Wanamaker’s, and I followed the aroma of roast lamb to my first encounter with souvlaki at a shop along South Street. I sat in silence at the site where William Penn’s first colonists buried their dead, and was surprised one day when I looked up and saw a small street bearing my family’s name.
At first my friends were fearful for me and felt compelled to warn me about the danger of what I was doing. Why didn’t I at least ride the bus? And going alone, that was just crazy. But I never once felt in danger on these sojourns. In fact, as I developed an increasingly keen sense of situational awareness as a result of these solo walks, I felt stronger and more capable of making good decisions and taking care of myself. In four years, I did not have one bad experience.
My Thursday ambles were not just about sightseeing. I wrote most of my class papers when I was on foot. I carried the things I had read and heard during the week with me on these walks, but did not obsess over ideas as I might have while sitting at my desk in my dorm room. Instead, things simmered, they percolated, and without even consciously trying, I might have a fully formed paper in my head by the time I got back to campus for dinner. The new context fostered new conclusions. Walking and writing is a habit I carry with me to this day.
In time, some of my friends replaced their initial horror over my adventures with curiosity, and one of them insisted on accompanying me. It didn’t work out. I wasn’t used to conversation when I walked. My senses were divided between the large world around me and my own quiet self in it; there was no room for talkative companions in this world.
My friend wanted an itinerary. He insisted on having lunch at a place he had been to and liked, instead of taking his chances on the unknown. Toward the end of the afternoon, he looked at his watch and told me we had to get back to campus because he had work to do. You go on, I told him, and he waved as he made his way to the bus stop across the street. I would be back eventually. But first, something had caught my eye, just a short walk ahead.
Linda Willing C’76 is a former urban firefighter, National Park Service backcountry ranger, and the author of On the Line: Women Firefighters Tell Their Stories.