Washington, D.C., walking group helps women connect after two years of loneliness

Washington Post photo by Jenna Portnoy
From left, Madeline Burke, Juliana Ojeda, Julie Park, Rebecca Salido, Abby Smith and Allison Robinson joined City Girls Who Walk DC on Sunday.

WASHINGTON – Juliana Ojeda and Julie Park clasped hands across a group of young women sitting in circles on the grass at the Capitol Reflecting Pool.

“J and J, we lead the group now,” 23-year-old Park joked, recalling how her weeklong friendship with Ojeda, 25, blossomed over fast walking.

City Girls Who Walk DC chose a blustery Sunday afternoon for its third meetup and walk inspired by a similar group in New York City. The D.C. group grew from eight walkers to more than 100, who learned about it on Instagram or TikTok – or, as one person put it, “a screenshot of an Insta on TikTok.”

The young women are united by their experiences of moving to a new city in their early 20s for a first job or internship – and something else. The coronavirus pandemic pressed pause on their ability to make new friendships organically, a deficit City Girls Who Walk tapped into with a simple premise: “a DC group to connect and walk,” according to its Instagram bio.

Abby Smith, 25, a registered nurse and Tennessee native, said she started the D.C. group to make friends and regain a sense of normalcy at this point in the pandemic, when infection rates are low but the threat remains.

Cases are down sharply since the height of the omicron wave in the region on Jan. 10, but health experts say the BA.2 subvariant will probably become dominant in the Washington region over the next few weeks.

Smith moved to the District in June to work for Children’s National Hospital and currently works for the One Medical testing site at Georgetown Law. In the early days of the pandemic, she avoided telling people that she was a nurse treating covid-19 patients. Hamstrung by personal protective equipment and protocols, she said she felt isolated, even from her colleagues.

“Missing that fulfilling human connection,” she said.

She looked up as a few newcomers tentatively approached. “Hey, guys, you can just join any group!” she said, pointing to circles of young women sharing a picnic before a three-mile walk on the National Mall. There are already a dozen subgroups based on geography (H Street, Arlington, Rockville) and interests (cocktails and explorers, Taylor Swift fans).

During the trek, a lone man walking against the wave of women in leggings and sneakers seemed to think there wasn’t enough room for him on the wide Mall.

“That guy told me I need to get out of his way,” Smith said, incredulous.

Allison Robinson, 24, from Rochester, N.Y., advised her to shake it off. “We outnumber him,” she said.

Robinson moved to the District in November and is still working remotely, making the Sunday rambles a welcome diversion.

Ojeda, who wore a Great Smoky Mountains National Park cap, moved to Capitol Hill in October and also found it difficult to meet people while working from home. She was attracted to the group “because walking is easy.”

With Smith and a few others, they formed a group of six who celebrated happy hour on Fridays and ended the night dancing, just like people their age would before the pandemic.

On Sunday, they formed one of many groups at the reflecting pool. Some played dodgeball and others read on blankets while tourists roamed. When it was time to start the walk, all the women stood, and one asked who brought the now half-eaten bag of chips.

“The girl over there with the scrunchie,” one said.

“It’s 2022, everybody’s wearing a scrunchie!” another answered.