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Happy Feet

The joys of walking, in theory and practice

Sep 29, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 03 • By LAWRENCE KLEPP
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The Lost Art of Walking

The History, Science, and Literature of Pedestrianism

by Geoff Nicholson

Riverhead, 288 pp., $24.95

Human beings have been going for walks for about four million years, ever since the first hominid got down out of a tree on an African savannah and caused a sensation by staggering around on two legs. They walked through millions of years of prehistory as nomads, reaching the ends of the earth and getting there most often the usual way. Tierra del Fuego? No, that's okay, it's only 11,000 miles; we can walk there from here.

And for the first 5,000 years of history walking, for peasants, peddlers, pilgrims, vagabonds, wandering scholars, streetwalkers, etc., was a doleful necessity that was often dangerous as well, since country and city walkers alike were fair game for brigands. But in the 18th century walking suddenly turned into a virtue, even a philosophy of life.

First Rousseau, in the last book he wrote, Reveries of a Solitary Walker, then the Romantic movement that followed, often literally, in his Alp-oriented footsteps, found equal measures of redemption in reverie and solitude and walking. Just as the world was consulting its watch and deciding it had better hurry, multiplying urgent objectives and inventing faster ways of getting to them, walking became a way of escaping this new tyranny of ironclad efficiency. It was a meandering end in itself. And as such it was a form of protest and rebellion.

The Romantic walker was free to follow whims, stray from the path, indulge curiosity, find the longest distance between two points, get lost in the woods or the city or the reverie. Random walking seemed to promise the recovery of spontaneous or contemplative experience from the newly regimented time and space of the industrial era.

There was, of course, a large slice of sentimental illusion in this. For Rousseau and Wordsworth and Thoreau and their descendents among nature mystics, New Agers, and Gaia-worshipping deep ecologists, walking is good because nature is good-in fact, sacred-and it faithfully rewards devout simplicity. They never noticed that an elaborately developed and organized society was needed to produce the kind of sensitive, self-conscious individual who would want to go out into the woods (lately made safer by the proximity of civilization) to escape society and search for authenticity and his true self.

For the flâneurs and night walkers of Paris like Baudelaire and the Symbolists and the Surrealists, on the other hand, walking became a way of discovering the labyrinthine modern city and registering the bizarre juxtapositions and opportunities for mystery and delirium that it contained. Their walking was random, too, but obsessive and deviant, not serene and pure.

Meanwhile, modern philosophy was being thought up during walks by Rousseau, by Kant, so punctual in his daily Königsberg walk that people set their watches by him, by Nietzsche, who paced the Alps and the Italian Riviera and said he distrusted any conclusions reached by sedentary writers.

So walking, in this self-conscious, rarefied sense, is a modern invention. And it's left a richly ambiguous literary and cultural legacy that has been explored in detail in several books, the outstanding one being Rebecca Solnit's appropriately meandering study Wanderlust: A History of Walking (2000).

Geoff Nicholson's The Lost Art of Walking can be read as a kind of down-to-earth, affable, and reluctant Sancho Panza companion to Solnit's questing, pensive, sad-countenanced book (which he evidently doesn't like). Nicholson, an Englishman who lives most of the time in Los Angeles and defiantly walks in a city built to discourage the heresy, promises a "History, Science, Philosophy, and Literature of Pedestrianism." But what he mostly offers is the tabloid journalism of pedestrianism.

He does pause to consider some cultural and psychological echoes of walking, examining the words for "walk" in a number of languages, speculating about walking as a cure for depression (including his own) and circumambulating the equation between walking and writing. And he manages to get some thoughtful mileage out of the hard fall he took, breaking his arm, while walking in the Hollywood Hills.

But he's most excited by walks as tabloid-worthy feats and stunts, method-in-their-madness walks, record-breaking walks, bet-you-can't walks, you're-not-gonna-believe-this walks. He talks to Kim Jones, or Mudman, an "artist" who has been periodically taking conspicuous walks around Los Angeles and international art festivals since the 1970s with his body coated in mud, a nylon stocking over his head, and a large agglomerative structure of debris on his back. He ponders Steve Vaught, a 400-pound ex-Marine who walked from San Diego to New York in 2005 and lost 100 pounds along the way. And Steve Gough, who has twice walked naked from Land's End in Cornwall, the southwest extremity of England, to the northern tip of Scotland, the second time accompanied by a naked girlfriend named Melanie Roberts.

Nicholson makes it clear that this sort of thing is nothing new. There was Old Leatherman, a mysterious tramp who, from 1858 to 1889, walked in a 300-mile circuit through parts of Connecticut and New York, taking precisely 34 days for each trip, clad head to foot in leather. There was the Scotsman known as Captain Barclay, who became a celebrity for his long bet-
winning walks completed with improbable speed or endurance, the most famous being one in 1809 in which he was to cover a thousand miles in a thousand consecutive hours, one mile, no more or less, completed within each hour. (He won a thousand guineas and attracted vast crowds.)

Nicholson tries his own, much shorter, version of this, finding it extraordinarily difficult. He also walks around Los Angeles, retracing with limited success fictional walks by Raymond Chandler's detective hero Philip Marlowe; tries forming letters with his walks in Manhattan's grid like a character in Paul Auster's New York Trilogy; and walks the entire length of Madison Avenue, slicing through diverse social strata-though not as many as the walkers he discusses who have systematically covered every street in Manhattan or London.

There are also amusing accounts of movie actor styles of walking (Charlie Chaplin, John Wayne), Death Valley walks, peace walks, Buddhist walks, drunken walks, and fraudulent walks like those of the British travel writer Ffyona Campbell who admitted she had cheated a bit while walking 16,000 miles across America, Australia, Europe, and Africa in the 1980s, and Mao Zedong, who rode a horse or was carried on a litter by four Communist bearers throughout the Long March of 1934-35, which in any case wasn't as long as advertised.

Nicholson notes that walking is the preferred mode of transportation for eccentrics. In much of the United States the act of walking itself-through sidewalkless suburban streets intended for cars alone, and across relentless six-lane roads-is proof of nonconformity bordering on madness, and often gets the attention of police. His book is worth reading as a celebration of tangential and obsessive eccentricity. His curiosity, standard equipment for walkers, is contagious and brings him to unexpected places as well as unexpected oddballs.

But he doesn't get very far in terms of original and arresting reflections on the cultural history and the philosophy of walking. For that, walk to your local bookstore and, with a little luck, you'll find Wanderlust, by the "the oblivious and irony-free Rebecca Solnit," as he says, inaccurately, while walking into a lamppost.

Lawrence Klepp is a writer in New York.