Darcy Varney Kitching is a founding member-owner of the Walk2Connect Cooperative. She oversees our programs in the city of Boulder, Colorado, and serves as Walk2Connect’s “Collaborative Storyteller,” capturing stories about how walking has influenced – and saved – others in our community for the Walk2Connect Stories project.
Walking is so fundamental, it’s easy to forget how much I depend on my own two feet every day. I step out of bed and walk to the kitchen. I walk from my front door to my car, or to the bus stop, or down the street. I stand up and walk to the window, holding my mug of coffee, and watch a neighbor tossing a ball to her dog. I pace up and down the hallway as I think.
My feet have always taken me through the mundane, everyday steps most of us take for granted. But I never expected walking to save my life.
In 2009, I returned home from my second trip to Nairobi, Kenya, working as a writer and editor for the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat). I had enjoyed grand adventures, strengthened friendships, developed skills, and successfully skirted the looming deadlines for my doctoral work, which had been dogging me for years. Coming back to Colorado felt a little disappointing, and more than a little anxiety-producing.
My mother, however, was delighted to have me home again. It was December, and the two of us enjoyed a quiet Christmas at her house, with gifts from my travels for her and new books for me. I was single and restless, and mom was a steady point of light in my hectic life.
Early the next year, I tackled my research papers while taking on new editing projects for UN-Habitat and working part-time. My favorite place to write was at my mother’s dining room table. I had my own small apartment in Denver, but going out to mom’s house always felt so comforting, especially because it was easier to think with her cat curled up in my lap. Mom would sit in the armchair across the room, reading, while I typed. Every now and then, she would look up and say how much she enjoyed having me around. Sometimes, we’d take a walk on the open space trails adjacent to her townhouse complex, and mom would listen as I talked about how stressful everything felt.
On June 17, 2010, mom called me in the middle of the day. I was walking down Larimer Street in Denver, looking for a birthday gift for a friend. “Well,” she said. “My luck’s run out. It’s cancer.”
She had found a lump under her arm the week before, and her doctor ordered a biopsy. It wasn’t just cancer – it was stage IV colon cancer that had spread to her lymph nodes. Over the next few weeks, following surgery and endless consultations with specialists, mom decided to decline treatment. She would seek only palliative care. She was 68.
Being her oldest child, and only daughter, I became mom’s primary caregiver for the last three months of her life. I all but moved into her house, took her to appointments, got to know the hospice nurse, and helped mom put her affairs in order. And every, single day, I walked.
As a child, I had walked to think, to connect with myself and my surroundings, and, deep down, to heal, though I didn’t realize it was my greatest coping mechanism. I walked to resolve the internal distress of my parents’ divorce when I was 8, and to deal with the anger and confusion around my father’s remarriage two years later. I would climb the hill in our back yard to the bike path around a manmade reservoir and walk by the shore or wander through the willow forest nearby, making my own leafy dens and fantasizing about all the other places I wished I could be. Walking always took me out and took me in. Throughout my childhood, I often walked circuitous routes home from school, and I relished solo walks and hikes where no one wanted anything from me and where I could imagine I was someone else.
Walking became a powerful habit that helped me relax, clear my mind, imagine new possibilities, and feel grounded in my body. As my mother was dying, it also became my lifeline.
Mom lived on a beautiful suburban greenway with a creek, tall cottonwood trees, and miles and miles of paved and natural paths stretching to the horizon. Every day, I set off to the east, walking as fast as I could at first, letting my stress and grief soften, until I landed on a smooth rhythm. I often listened to podcasts to give my mind something constructive to ruminate on, but sometimes, I just listened to the water flowing in the creek and the soft thud of my footsteps and tried not to think about anything at all. As I put one foot in front of the other, I gained the strength to turn around and go back. Without taking that time for myself, I couldn’t have taken care of my mother.
My need to walk was largely unconscious at that time. Something inside me simply compelled me to move so I didn’t go mad. I’m grateful that my internal coping mechanism is exercise and not food or alcohol or heroin.
Though the motivation to move comes from somewhere deep inside myself, I credit my mother with giving me the great gift of walking to connect and repair. She was an avid hiker and traveler who moved to Colorado from Oklahoma as a young teacher to be near the mountains. She had taken a summer job at The Crags Lodge in Estes Park as a teenager and couldn’t wait to return to the home of her heart. Here, she met my dad, a geologist who had made his own pilgrimage to the Rocky Mountains from California. Together and separately, they raised my brother and me to love camping, hiking, and exploring the natural world. We ventured far beyond Colorado, too, and explored the whole country. Mom made it her goal to see every state. She spent weeks organizing summer vacations for us, collecting heaps of maps from AAA and figuring out the best routes to include national parks, historical landmarks, capitol buildings, and pop culture oddities. She drove our little yellow Toyota Corolla every direction away from home. Often, we flew somewhere farther away and rented a car to follow scenic byways. And we always got out and walked wherever we went.
We walked through Colonial Williamsburg and downtown Boston and along the San Francisco waterfront. We walked through the streets of New York City, along beaches at Corpus Christi, and across boardwalks in Santa Monica. We walked through Yellowstone and Yosemite and Natches Trace. We walked the Gettysburg battlefield and the shores of the Great Salt Lake. We walked through the rainforests of the Pacific Northwest. We walked all over New Orleans. We walked the Grand Canyon, rim to rim.
By the time I graduated from high school, I had set foot in every one of the 48 contiguous states. Mom and I even went on to explore Southeastern Alaska together a few years later. Our travels instilled a wanderlust in me that led to an adventurous young adulthood. I hopped an Amtrak train in my senior year of college and spent winter vacation in Seattle, where I met a group of architecture students from New Zealand who invited me to visit their country. After graduation, I ventured to the South Pacific and explored as much of New Zealand on foot as I possibly could. I’ll never forget the way my soul soared as I looked up at the wispy morning mists in the treetops of the small urban forest I walked through to get to work at a coffee shop in downtown Wellington, or the joy I felt upon reaching a hostel in the woods on the South Island after having waded through a glacial stream where a bridge had washed out. I went on to wander, wonder-filled, through cities and wild lands in England, Turkey, Kenya, South Africa, India, Hungary, Croatia, Canada, and Argentina before life as I knew it ended and my mother died.
My mother’s dying wish for me was to have a family of my own. That chance had seemed more remote with every passing year. By the time I sat by mom’s side and watched her write goodbye letters in her perfect cursive script, I was 37 years old. But someone new had entered my life the same week mom learned she was dying. Somehow, it was as if my luck changed for the better just as hers ran out.
My mother, Sara Yaple Varney, passed away two weeks before my 38th birthday. A year later, I was engaged, and a year after that, I was expecting a baby boy.
All the while, I walked.
I walked to manage the grief that lingered even as my new life began. We bought a house adjacent to open space in Boulder and I hiked all around the area, letting my footfalls on the soil soothe my sadness. I walked with people from the new ventures I embarked on after abandoning my Ph.D. for good. I walked to feel better about myself, to get to know new friends, to reconnect with my brother, and to start over in every way. I married a man who loves to hike and who kept me company on walks throughout my pregnancy and recovery from our son’s birth. I walked holding my newborn close and delighted in his growing interest in the world.
Walking has saved my life again and again. Through routine stresses and devastating life changes, walking has remained my best medicine.
Today, I consider myself lucky beyond measure to be part of the Walk2Connect Cooperative member-owner team, walking for a living and sharing my passion for “[email protected]” with everyone I meet. Whether walking alone or with a group, I treasure the rewards of connecting with myself, with others and with all the places I experience, building a fulfilling life step by step. It’s not always easy, but I’m also learning to slow down and appreciate life at less than 1 mile per hour now and then, walking with a 5-year-old who loves to linger and look at every tiny detail of the landscape. Just being outdoors together, letting life grow and worries ease, makes all the difference. My mother would be proud.
[Watch Darcy’s Ignite Boulder talk, “What I’ve Learned by Walking 26 Miles Around Boulder Six Times,” below.]