The Magazine

Happy Feet

The joys of walking, in theory and practice

Sep 29, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 03 • By LAWRENCE KLEPP
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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.