Walking in the news

Announcement! Very important. Unfortunately, the Sunday, April 6 ramble must be cancelled. We apologize for the inconvenience and trust that you’ll find other ways to enjoy the wonderful weather. Check back soon or join our mailing list to be advised of a rescheduled ramble.

“Why do you walk?” asked the guy helpfully navigating me through the intimidating realm of athletic shoes. I can’t even remember the last time I had shoes with laces, but, after a couple hundred miles on crappy shoes from the internet, it’s time to reconsider.
“Are you walking for exercise, or…?”
“No,” I said, hemming, “I don’t really believe much in walking as exercise. I just like it. For all sorts of reasons,” was the only lukewarm, inaccurate response I could come up with.

Every time I go out for a walk, I’m reminded of better answers to his question, but external affirmations are welcome, too. Reviewing a book about the daily routines of geniuses, Sarah Green came up with a list of the most common traits. Like every list about the attributes that make writers and artists writers and artists, a daily walk was prominent. Green wrote,

Charles Dickens famously took three-hour walks every afternoon — and what he observed on them fed directly into his writing. Tchaikovsky made do with a two-hour walk, but wouldn’t return a moment early, convinced that cheating himself of the full 120 minutes would make him ill. Beethoven took lengthy strolls after lunch, carrying a pencil and paper with him in case inspiration struck. Erik Satie did the same on his long strolls from Paris to the working class suburb where he lived, stopping under streetlamps to jot down notions that arose on his journey; it’s rumored that when those lamps were turned off during the war years, his productivity declined too.

She forgot to mention one of the more endearing parts of Satie’s walks — that, on this potentially dangerous twelve mile trip, he carried a hammer for protection.

Green’s summary of the great walks of the greats reminded me of a 1988 Sports Illustrated article titled “Frisky as the Dickens.” It’s a lengthy look at Charles Dickens’ lengthy walks.

Dickens’s walks served him in two ways. On one level, they were fact-finding missions during which he recorded with his keen eye the teeming urban landscapes whose descriptions were his stock-in-trade. A letter from Paris to a family friend, the Reverend Edward Tagart, begins innocently enough, “I have been seeing Paris.” But what follows is a foot tour of the city that is characteristically Dickensian: “Wandering into Hospitals, Prisons, Dead-houses, Operas, Theatres, Concert-rooms, Burial-grounds, Palaces and Wine Shops. In my unoccupied fortnight of each month, every description of gaudy and ghastly sight has been passing before me in rapid Panorama.”

But Dickens’s walks played another, more important role in his life. They were, in a sense, acts of self-preservation. “If I could not walk far and fast,” he once confessed, “I think I should just explode and perish.” Unlike his contemporary, Anthony Trollope, who claimed he reeled off 3,000 words each morning before breakfast, Dickens found composition to be hard, painful work. The hours he spent at his desk agitated him tremendously, and walking served as a kind of safety valve.

Then again, walking was, in Dickens’ time, pretty pedestrian. Everybody walked. Why did they walk? Who knows. All sorts of reasons. They didn’t have the attentive staff of a specialty shoe store asking these sorts of questions. They didn’t even have specialty shoes. The bicycle hadn’t really been invented yet. People moved to cities and wandered around. Apparently having little else to do with their leisure time, they became keenly fixated on competitive walking matches, which now, in the days of motorcycle racing, demolition derbies, and monster truck rallies, seems ineffably quaint. During these races, walkers would circle a track for six days, clocking as many as 600 miles, by some measures more tame than the outdoor treks in freezing weather that Dickens put his trainees through, on bad roads and through snowbanks. They make the perfectly admirable customers of the running store, doing 70 mile weeks in exquisite footwear and moisture-wicking tights, look like wimps.

While pulling off this incredible insomniac feat, walkers would wear festive ruffled shirts, deal with crowd control, play the coronet, and occasionally nap on little cots stationed next to the track, according to author Matthew Algeo in an NPR interview about his new book Pedestrianism. What’s more, the sports drink of these guys were guzzling in the 1870s was not Gatorade or other carefully engineered electrolyte-balancing beverage but champagne. Says Algeo,

Champagne was considered a stimulant. And a lot of trainers – these guys had trainers – advised their pedestrians to drink a lot of champagne during the race. They thought that this would give them some kind of advantage. The problem was that a lot of these guys would drink it by the bottle. That definitely was not a stimulant, to say the least.

They might have done better to go with bottomless mimosas. Here’s some very light reading (and/or listening) to go with the equally light weather this weekend.

review of Daily Rituals: How Artists Work
“Frisky as the Dickens”
NPR interview and book excerpt from Matthew Algeo’s Pedestrianism

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