Title: The Last Great Walk: The True Story of a 1909 Walk From New York to San Francisco, and Why It Matters Today
Author: Wayne Curtis
Pages: 236 pages
Publisher/Date: Rodale Inc., c2014.
I first came across a mention of Edward Payson Weston about twenty years ago. […] I happened upon a brief wire service story about a man’s cross-country journey on foot in 1909. I skimmed enough to get the gist — a seventy-year-old man was walking about forty miles a day for a hundred days en route from New York to San Francisco. Good for him, I thought, and then I scrolled ahead in search of the page I needed.
A few minutes later, I had another thought: Wait . . . what? Forty miles a day? A hundred days in a row? At seventy years old? (Introduction, xii)
Wayne Curtis probably describes his book best when he writes his introduction:
Part of my goal in this book is to explore, revive, and expand on the message that Weston was intent on publicizing — advocacy for the long walk, once common and now rare. As such, this book is only in part about a single man and his obsession, and just as much about mobility, about how we choose to get around and how that impacts the health of our bodies and our minds. Above all, it’s about what we lost when humans, starting roughly a century ago, opted to stop using their legs to get from here to there and instead chose to regularly climb into a metal box harnessed to a series of small explosions. Some of what happened in the intervening century you might easily guess, but much of it you might not. Walking is more complexly knitted into our bodies and minds than you might think. How we move can determine our relationship to the land and people around us and even, to some degree, how we understand ourselves.
Not walking, I believe, is one of the most radical things we’ve ever decided to do. Here’s why. (Introduction, xviii)
To say that Curtis has an agenda is an understatement. We seem glimpses of Weston’s walk framed by free-ranging commentary involving the evolution of humans (both physical and mental), urban planning, technology, pedestrian patterns, and societal statistics such as number of hours spent watching television and walkability ratings for neighborhoods. But people who pick up this book are more than likely looking for just this sort of justification for walking and slowing down, assuming an almost existentialist philosophy towards the task. Just as people who dislike witchcraft aren’t going to read Harry Potter, people who dislike walking aren’t going to read this book.
However, it’s also the sort of book that may provoke thoughtful discourse between like-minded individuals, compiling fodder for future conversations. For instance, I’ve had a long personal belief about how long I’m willing to drive to get to a destination. Turns out this may be influenced by prehistoric habits. Curtis presents research by Cesare Marchetti that proposes humans have been willing to spend about an hour in unsheltered transit before retreating from the threat of being exposed to possible threats like enemies and the elements, and that constant has maintained itself, simply expanding as we are able to travel faster and farther in the same amount of time. The 2009 US Census Bureau data supports this philosophy, reporting the mean one-way commute is about 25 minutes (so an hour both ways). A Gallup poll confirms this by reporting the average American spends 190 hours a year (about 30 minutes a day) commuting. Although, Curtis also quotes an unnamed study that hours in delayed in traffic has increased from seven hours annually in 1982 to twenty-six hours in 2001. (131-133, 53)
The book is filled with those type of statistics that you’ll kick yourself for never fully remembering, but always remember the impact that they allude to. A few more to whet your curiosity:
- Melvin Webber “noted that one’s perception of what constitutes a mile varies depending on the speed of travel. So it turns out it’s not just the actual exertion of walking a mile that dissuades many from taking to foot, but that they have also developed the belief that a given trip is far longer than it actually is.” (drivers thought distances were twice as much as what they actually were, whereas walkers and bikers were much more accurate) (109)
- “In 1969, about half of all schoolkids still walked to school; 41 percent of all students lived within a mile of their school, and 89 percent of these students walked. […] Today, only 13 percent of America’s children walk to school.” (54)
- “According to a 2009 Nielsen survey, the average American watches about 151 hours of television a month, or about 5 hours every day.” (52) “after the age of twenty-five, every hour of watching television reduced life expectancy by 21.8 minutes.” (54-55)
- “While different studies arrive at moderately different conclusions via various routes, the recent research of dozens of scientists more often than not converges at a single intersection. And that consistently suggests that if you exercise, your brain will be fitter than if you don’t.” (97)
- The same can also be said towards physical health, as skimming over study results yields benefits by reducing the risk of coronary disease, stroke, hypertension, type 2 diabetes, gallstones prevention, immune dysfunction, adult-onset asthma, arthritis, and osteoporosis, and cancer. (68-69)
For a book covering an actual walk, I was more intrigued by the above mentioned statistics and studies and the historical, psychological, and physical evolution brought about by walking than I was about Weston’s vague (and more than likely biases) reports regarding weather, landscape, reception, and conditions in general. I was somewhat surprised that there were no images. No maps of Weston’s route, which is described with varying degrees of precision and details, no pictures of Weston, and no charts to support the multitude of statistics presented in the pages. For all of that (minus the charts), you’ll have to visit the website. Upon arrival, you receive an interactive Google Map with individual points plotted based on newspaper articles. Sources are broken down by chapter on the website. While I understand he was making the book more approachable for the general public, I wish footnotes and a full source notes had been included in the printed copy, so as to better guide further research into various quoted statistics. There seems to be an influx in interest in walking and voluntary isolation (Wild, Into the Wild, Castaway, to name a few) and this book supplements all those introspective self-reflections with science. It’s a worthwhile, thought-provoking read for meandering minds and bodies.