The Last Great Walk, by Wayne Curtis -- a review


The Last Great Walk: The True Story of a 1909 Walk from New York to San Francisco, and Why it Matters TodayThe Last Great Walk: The True Story of a 1909 Walk from New York to San Francisco, and Why it Matters Today by Wayne Curtis
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Taking as his point of departure a transcontinental walk by a 70-year-old man over 100 years ago, author Wayne Curtis takes us on a spritely, interdisciplinary walk on the subject of walking itself.

"The Last Great Walk" is only roughly built around the 4,000-mile perambulation of Edward Payson Weston, a competitive walker during a time when such athletes possessed the attention given to NBA stars today. Instead of trying to recreate Weston's walk, Curtis wisely dovetails his chronicle of America's last great walk with essays on the biology, sociology, anthropology, neurology and the psychology of walking.

And a fascinating journey it is. Curtis escorts us from the La-Z-Boy museum in Monroe, Michigan to the great walking cities of the world, and from the present into shadowy prehistory where a group of primates discovered the advantages of bipedalism on the savannahs -- and spread across the world on their own two feet.

Along the way, we meet the archenemy of pedestrianism, the automobile, and survey the century-old struggle between these dichotomous forms of transportation.

Even for those of us who have stepped outside the car door and thrown away the keys, the effects -- primarily deleterious -- of the automobile on our society are surprising. For the most part, Curtis takes great pains to prevent his book from becoming just another pedestrian's screed by maintaining an even tone and allowing the facts, and the scientists and researchers who have uncovered those facts, speak for themselves. But there are times when he cannot hold himself back.

"Automobiles are the Plato's caves of the modern world," he writes. "From them we see only shadows, the rough outlines of our existence. The map of this world is drawn with fat, cartoonish markers rather than finely sharpened pencils. The detailed lines of the etchings around us are lost, replaced with hulking shapes whizzing by at sixty miles per hour, vague and often amorphous forms, save for the haunting and startingly blue Best Buy sign and the inquisitive yellow eyebrows of the McDonald's arches jutting over distant rooftops."

Walking, on the other hand, is not only transportation, but "can also be like the best sort of daydreaming, a way to explore without direction. The art of the long, aimless walk was accorded uncommon respect and attention across the Atlantic in the nineteenth century. The flaneurs -- from the French word for "one who strolls" -- filled a strange ecological and cultural niche."

As we journey on these paths, we discover how walking is fundamental to our health by giving us a sense of place and by challenging not just our muscles but also our minds.

"Being lost is an essential human condition....Abandoning the experience of being lost is like losing our facility for empathy; it's a central part of what made us human, the bedrock upon which both mobility and mind were built," Curtis writes.

I came upon this book only a few months after I rediscovered the joys of bipedalism myself, and it provided me with the rational underpinnings to my subjective experiences. I now understand why time seems to dilate for a walker, and why certain paths, though indirect to my destination, are far more appealing to me.

I also understand why life feels so much richer now that I am a walker, rather than a driver. As anyone who has abandoned their car can tell you, life gradually moves from flat 2D to a fuller three dimensions with the more footsteps you put between you and your car. Curtis explains the neurology and psychology behind this experience, and what we have lost, as individuals and societies, as we have abandoned walking.

Yet Curtis always returns to Weston's great walk across a country burgeoning with prosperity and on the cusp of transitioning to a car culture. In doing so, Curtis makes a solid case for a return to our pedestrian roots, and why it makes sense personally, socially and economically to do so. Which is why Weston's walk still matters today.

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I Am Biped.


walk fieldsInspired in equal parts by laziness, a fondness for offbeat experimentation, and personal growth, I have been walking to work for the past two months. It's not a very long commute by any standard, a pinch less than a mile, although the 8% road grade is relatively indisputable and I can't quite decide if it is in the wrong direction. As things stand now, I have a sprightly downhill jaunt in the mornings, and an uphill slog at the end of the day. And since it's so short, I've been walking home for lunch as well. Sometimes I insist that the directionality, or at least temporality, of the slope be changed, but at other times it seems perfectly fine. I suppose with regard to the kerfuffle that is local geography, the gods in fact do know their business, and I should leave well enough alone. I started foot commuting by fiat one morning, when bike #1 had a flat tire and Bike #2 was on the repair stand for cable replacement. (Of course, I also have bikes #3 and #4, but we really needn't delve too deeply into my transportational quirkiness here). I have a difficult time justifying using an automobile for such a short distance, unless I'm coupling it with other errands. To me, such sloth smacks of an immorality commensurate with unfiltered Chesterfields,  pool halls and Hudepohl beer.  It also hasn't been that long since I finished reading The Old Ways, a book about walking the ancient paths of the U.K., which seeded my mind with the desire to see what a walker sees and experience the world from a walker's perspective. So I slapped on my office clothes and perambulated my way to work.

Let me note at the outset that I am not unfamiliar with walking, having been an avid hiker and backpacker for most of my life. However, I've never really integrated walking into my daily life to any great degree. So while the physical act was familiar and comfortable, the psychology of walking to places to which I once would only have cycled  proved to be entirely novel.


If you search the term "walking" on DuckDuckGo (that's a search engine like Google only without the massive invasion of privacy), the top ten results are dominated by walking as a health measure. Fitness walking, walking your stress away, walking your weight away, walking your heart to health...those are all well-accounted for and seem to be at the top of most pedestrian's minds. Less sought after is information on commuter walking, or utility walking. or walking #justforthehellofit. I suppose as a doctor focused on wellness and prevention, I should be happy about people's interest in being healthy. And it is true that programmed health measures are necessary to help people recover from chronic illness. However, these days, I am much more interested in the integration of exercise into our activities of daily living, as it makes the exercise more effective. I mean, when was the last time you saw someone stay on the treadmill for an extra 10 minutes just for the fun of it? But if you're walking home from work or the store, you might extend your walk that much just to enjoy a beautiful sunset.

Which brings me to perhaps the best reason for putting walking into your life: It fundamentally changes the way you see your world. Call it the time dilation effect. When you walk on a daily basis, your entire perception of time becomes altered. This is very strange, and could be very uncomfortable, for people brought up in car culture. When you go places by foot, you have to account for the time it takes to get there, something we rarely factor in when we travel by car. "Oh, it's only a 10-minute trip," we say. Two or three 10-minute trips later, and all of a sudden a half-hour is gone and you're rushing to pick the kid up from baseball practice on time and you *still* haven't finished all of your planned chores.

Walking forces you to reformat that process. You are impelled to add travel time to your calculations, as it no longer appears negligible. It isn't negligible. It's now 20 minutes to here, 35 to there. So you plan ahead, leave enough time to get there. And then the magic happens. All of a sudden, you're not in a rush. You check your watch once during the trip, yeah, you'll get there on time. The rest of the time, you are focusing on the journey itself -- the heat, the cold, the sun, the wind, the temperature. Instead of being literally bound and locked into a tiny, plastic, unchanging room with windows, you are engulfed by the endlessly changing panorama that is our world. Rather than rushing through your environment far faster than your senses can process it, you are savouring your surroundings. You are shockingly in touch with your environment in a very intimate, comfortable way, especially on routes you frequently walk. I've identified two medicinal herbs growing in the wild on my way to work that I'm going to harvest for making remedies. In a car, or on a bike, I never would have even known they are there. And the smells -- oh, my, does anybody remember what a summer night smells like? Not just when you're on vacation, but every night. And how the smells of the day and evening change throughout the year as plants bloom and die, and streams rise and fall.

The richness of sensory stimulation that occurs when you're walking makes the average automobile seem like a deprivation tank by comparison. Actually, let's be clear about it: An automobile is a roving sensory deprivation device. No wonder we are so eager to fill our cars with technological auditory and visual stimulants. Every time we get into an automobile, we are starving your senses, and we are replacing the sights, sounds and scents of our richer natural environment with the equivalent of sensory junk food.

Walking restores your intimacy with the world.

Speaking of sound, what most pedestrians and cyclists also learn is that automobiles are extraordinarily loud. Road traffic is regularly measured at 80 dB; hearing damage commences at 90 dB. The intermittent traffic along my pedestrian commute highlights the extreme noise of the average automobile. Within seconds, birdsong and peepers are snuffed out by the roar of a passing car, or three. When you are subjected to those extremes frequently, you begin to realize also how damaging it is, not just physiologically, but psychologically, and it is reflected in our culture.

Even within an automobile, the noise level is typically around 70 dB. And what is the logical result of isolating ourselves from our  environment and then filling it to the brim with artificial sights and sounds? If you can't hear your environment speaking to you, then it becomes unimportant. We have replaced the dialogue between ourselves and the world around us with a constant monologue in the echo chamber of humanity. All other voices have been drowned out to the point where most of us do not know how to listen to them even if we could hear them.

No wonder Mother Nature is screaming. We are unable to hear anything less.

So as we hear and see better when we are walking, so are we able to express ourselves more richly. Road rage is, in part, a result of being effectively gagged when we are in our automobiles. We communicate with others only through our brake lights, turn signals, headlights and horns. These are poor tools, effective only at communicating the coarsest of concepts. We can express only our direction of travel and various levels of concern, from a warning (a short beep-beep) to full-on anger (HONK!). Hand gestures, even friendly ones, are often lost to window glare, and you can forget about eye contact. Even if you are able to achieve it, the significance is almost null. Every cyclist and pedestrian can relate more than one incident of making eye contact with a driver before crossing an intersection, then having the driver almost plow into them because they had no idea that the other person was there. Inside a car, eye contact is as meaningless as a friend's description of a blind date.

Communications on foot is a different story entirely, and this was perhaps the first thing that I noticed as I began my bipedal commute. In a hurry, I thrust my body forward and step purposefully; when at ease, when enjoying my trip, I saunter. Between those extremes are shades of mood and attitude. I swagger, I hesitate, I plod through weariness and I walk with pride and strength, each step resounding through the earth. My gate changes with my mood, and with my entire body I can communicate my emotions to the world about me. And, yes, I have even danced from time to time. I had forgotten just how expressive the simple act of walking can be, and it is a joyful relief to be able to communicate so richly and so honestly with the world. Even on a bicycle, my thoughts could not be expressed so clearly as they can when on my feet.

Sometimes I think we have a world turned upside down on its head, where safety is in a speeding machine that kills 30,000 people per year, and danger is being on your own two feet.

It is truly a shame that walking should be such a forgotten activity. To the world at large, walking any distance for purpose rather than pleasure, has been delegated to the realm of the poor and the chastised. Why would anyone walk instead of drive, unless they couldn't afford a car or had their license confiscated for driving once too often after one too many? I'm sure that has been the assumption of more than one person who has driven by me over the past couple of months. I have even been stopped by the police, on the presumption that someone on foot must be engaged in some nefarious activity -- or at least have a couple of priors.

It was late, and dark, and I was slogging my way home. I saw the squad car pass and suddenly whip around in front of me, spotlight full on and blinding me. I heard a car door open and shut. A silhouette approached me.

"Good evening," the officer said. "Where are you going?"

"Home," I said.

"Where's that?"

"The top of the hill," I said.

He blinked.

"Where are you coming from?"

"Work," I said.

"Where's that?"

"Bottom of the hill," I said.

He looked at me. I looked at him. I smiled. He didn't.

"You have some ID?" he asked. I handed him my driver's license.

After fruitlessly checking my record on the computer, he returned from the cruiser and returned my license.

"Be careful," he said.

"I'll be ok," I said. "Just going to the top of the hill."

He shook his head and left.

As encounters with police tend to go, this wasn't unpleasant. But it did shake me loose from my personal point of view and realize how odd, and perhaps how dangerous, what I have been doing on a daily basis must seem.

I truly wish it wasn't that way. Sometimes I think we have a world turned upside down on its head, where safety is in a speeding machine that kills 30,000 people per year, and danger is being on your own two feet. Where comfort is defined by your insulation from your environment rather than your enjoyment of it, where noise is silence and the faster you go the more you have to rush.

Walking has its health benefits, and perhaps as a doctor, I should have written about that. How frequent walks strengthen your heart, clear your arteries, improve your digestion. All true. But the more important benefits of walking cannot be measured by cholesterol values or blood pressure. Walking is exercise for your body, but rest for your psyche. It brings you in touch with the Earth and lets your mind soar with the birds. Being bipedal is one of the most complex tasks we undertake as human beings, and when we cease to walk, we begin to lose our humanity.

The Old Ways: A Review


The Old Ways: A Journey On FootThe Old Ways: A Journey On Foot by Robert Macfarlane My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book has taken its place in the top five of my pantheon of books. Macfarlane's lyrical prose allows us to see the mundane footpath placed in a greater cosmos, integrating the geographic passage of the path with its passage through time and community. For all paths are a statement of community, of the close passage of people to work, to home, to sea and to places unknown.

Read, from one of his closing paragraphs: "Images arise, gleaned from the miles on foot. White stones, white horses, flying islands, glowing eyes, mirages, drowned lands, dreams of flying, reversals and doubling, rights of way and rites of way, falcons and maps: the images move as brass spheres in an orrery, orbiting and converging in unlikely encounter. There is a flickering to order; gathered details are sealed by the stamp of the anterior. The land itself, filled with letters, words, texts, songs, signs and stories. And always, everywhere, the paths, spreading across counties and countries, recalled as pattern rather than as plot, bringing alignments and discrepancies elective affinities, shifts from familiar dispositions."

As excellent writing is wont to do, Mafarlane inspired in me a torrent of composition, some of which I have published and some of which remains to be seen.

I have been involved in trails, trail construction and hiking for most of my life, but Macfarlane's British perspective on paths and walking them was novel to me. Like most other things American, our trails are functional, utilitarian, planned. Starting with the name, they are "trails," not "paths." They have been designed for most efficient ascent, most pleasant passage with eye to overlook and flora and fauna, and engineered to handle literal parades of people (while working on the Appalachian Trail in the Franconia range, above treeline just past Greenleaf Hut, I once observed 145 people walk by me in a single day). Macfarlane's Old Ways are different entirely. These are paths that are organic to the land and the people living in them, winding, wandering and loosely arriving at a destination, or destinations that may or may not have been their original intent. One ambles along them, not to achieve a summit or capture an overlook in pictures, but to experience their passage through landscape and time.

I hope someday to walk a path like Macfarlane has. Reading this book has instilled in me a new way of thinking, a new way of experience the woods to which my life has been so closely tied.

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