The group’s trailblazer, Richard Nichols, and his wife Brenda are avid hikers. The couple travels often and has always enjoyed learning about the location through walking its natural environment. Nichols was well aware there wasn’t a guidebook for his own hometown and decided to write one, which is now in it’s third edition and titled Sebastopol Walks.
After the first edition of Nichols’ book, which was funded from the Community Development Agency and was later abolished by Gov. Jerry Brown, he went to the Sebastopol city council to invite the members on an introductory walking tour of town. It was Vice Mayor of the City of Sebastopol Sarah Glade Gurney who decided to start the walks based on Nichols book and introductory walk.
“Richard came to the council and said, ‘Let’s all take a walk,’’ Gurney said. “And after we did, I said, ‘why don’t we take a walk each month?’”
Nichols said the ultimate purpose was to get people out of their cars, walking more and to be healthy. Nichols is an advocate for the medical research behind regular exercise, which supports the decline of stress, the control of weight and the health of the cardiovascular system.
Gurney said there is no doubt that Nichols book and the walks have changed Sebastopol’s community culture. Nichols and Gurney agree that as a town with visiting tourists, many come to Sebastopol and buy the book but also soak in the culture of walking around town.
After the first year of the walks, Gurney invited Sonoma County Librarian Geoffrey Skinner to bring a touch of storytelling and history to the community walking experience. At one of the first walks that Skinner led, called the Watershed Walk, over 90 people attended and Gurney said people in town talked about it for weeks.
“My goal in the watershed walk was to introduce people to our creeks and the idea of how water flows through town,” Skinner said. “I talked about geology, hydrology and the history of how people did, or did not, pay attention to the creeks.”
Skinner said his talks depended on the locations of the walk and mostly were given with cultural and natural history as a focus.
All of the group leaders agree that the walks were also a community engagement project.
“Many people who came to the walks realized they really liked the social company of the walks,” Gurney said.
Kathy Oetinger who has been in charge of the planning publicity for the organization said the walks have always provided an opportunity for those participating to learn something new about the town they live in. Because those walking are not on a familiar route, the trails provided a new experience for them.
“We found that we always went to places and saw things we’ve never seen, or streets we’ve never walked on, right up to these last walks,” Oetinger said. “We all saw those streets in a totally different way and people were always surprised.”
Nichols agreed and said that he was also amazed at some of the new things that he found even after living in Sebastopol for so long.
“Over 30 years of walking around town here, every time I go out, I always see something I haven’t seen before,” Nichols said. “A house, a new tree hanging over a fence where you can pick some of its fruit, dogs. You just never know.”
Skinner said he always felt validated when people expressed that they had learned something new.
“Part of my purpose was to bring obscure things to light for the community in the town they live in,” he said.
The average amount of people participating in the Sebastopol Walks was 30 people, but some walks such as the backyard gardens walk that occurred on May 22, 2010, has over 100 present. The longest walks have been eight miles. Nichols said he would have liked to do 10-mile walks, but the town is too small for that.
Gurney expressed that many people have asked for future dinner walks, which were popular walks in the past, raising money for the printing of future editions of Nichols’ book. Funding for the third edition came from the sales of the book, most of which were the local sales at Copperfields Books. The store recently sold 1,000 copies, which Nichols excitedly said outsold 50 Shades of Grey last year.
Skinner said the monthly program has reached its end, but there will likely be a few other walks here and there. The organizing committee of Sebastopol Walks said it was the community that made every walk worthwhile and that the occasional walk in the future will be posted on Sebastopolwalks.org.
Gurney said if that if anyone would like to plan or lead a group walk, the committee is more than happy to train and offer some assistance. If interested contact any one of them on the website.