Tag Archives: long-distance

6,000 miles, and counting

March 11, 2014

What’s the best use of nine pairs of shoes? To avoid the expected and uninspired answers about donations to needy children, you may want to ask William Helmreich, professor of sociology at City College and the City University of New York, and, most recently, author of The New York Nobody Knows: Walking 6,000 Miles in the City. While donating footwear is a worthy move, so is Helmreich’s eighteen-shoe effort, what the New York Times called an “unstuffy love letter to the delights of street-smart walking” in a charming interview with the much-pursued perambulist.

Helmreich is very adept at the thing-finding and game-playing that make walking the celebrated pastime and mode of transit that it is, having continued well into adulthood (he’s 68) the practice many abandon as small children. “My philosophy is, everything’s interesting,” he says, in the city he calls “the greatest museum in the world.” As he tells the Atlantic Cities, “Every block can be interesting. It’s not just about covering ground, it’s about how you cover ground.”

Between 2008 and 2012, Helmreich covered a lot of ground — 6,048 miles of New York’s streets, which is 1,512 miles per year, or a little over 4 miles each day. That doesn’t sound like much until you think about torrential rain, illness, vacations, other obligations. Missing a four-mile day means 8 miles the next day, 12.4 by the third, and so on. At a pace one can only imagine was leisurely, ducking into shops and courtyards and conversations, this could take the better part of a morning, an afternoon, or both.

Of course this venture was rewarded with lots of curiosity and good press. Since there’s still no copy available at the library that I can amble over and pick up, my perhaps outdated default for acquiring new reading material, I haven’t yet gotten my hands on the book. It was delightful to find Helmreich condensing some of his experiences into an essay for the always-lovely Aeon Magazine just past the new year. He wrote,

“The question, for a professional sociologist such as me, is: was this the best way to study a city?

Approached correctly, walking forces you to slow down and really look at what you’re seeing. Like the flâneurs of times past, one needs to stroll leisurely and engage people in conversations about how they feel about where they live, what they do, and how they perceive the place is changing. Had I driven through the city, along its highways and thoroughfares, I would have missed 90 per cent of what I found: the teeming life of the city’s backstreets, its parks and playgrounds, its outdoor and indoor eateries — all this would have remained invisible to me. Besides, driving (and for that matter, cycling) tend to mark you as an outsider, even if you live there. When you cover ground quickly, people assume you’re just passing through. But when you walk through a neighbourhood, people assume you’ve got reason to be there.”

What would this feel like in Detroit? According to Helmreich, New York has 120,000 more or less easily enumerable blocks. The chaos of Detroit’s wheel system intersecting with mile roads and all the smaller side streets in various repaved or crumbling repair pave an extra layer of challenge. It’s certainly possible, one step at a time, as individuals like Chris Kort have found, who walked the streets in 2012, inspecting every tree for the U.S. Forest Service’s records.

The city maintains 660 miles of main roads, plus 1880 miles of residential side streets, with an additional 210 looked after by MDOT or the Wayne County Road Commission; together, at least 2750 miles of roads over the city’s 139 square mile area. (Just under half of New York’s size, at 303 square miles, both cities have roughly equivalent street coverage per square mile).

One would probably see a lot of what the workers and volunteers on the Detroit Blight Removal Task Force saw over the past couple of months as they inched through the snowy city, cataloging each parcel of land and possibly setting to rest the last-house-on-the-block question. Projected to take place over just nine weeks, teams surveying the 385,000 – 400,000 of Detroit’s properties set out with tablets or phones, documenting each. (The number varies depending on whether you’re reading Crain’s or Model D — either way, it’s a lot. The phone number provided by the Detroit Blight Removal Task Force for resident questions about the survey instantly forwards to a generic voicemail). Recommendations for demolition of blighted structures will be furnished to the mayor’s office later this month, and the resulting Motor City Mapping project will eventually go public with its informational trove.

Aside from the obvious increase in people needed to complete it within a similar time frame, how might the survey have differed if done on foot? By all accounts, surveyors stayed snug in their cars, snapping pictures out the window before motoring along to the next site, “blexting” — LOVELAND‘s gimmicky portmanteau of ‘blight’ and ‘texting’ — their cursory data back to the headquarters. There was a lot of snow and no engagement with the community or the environment. This knowledge of the city hardly seems intimate. One wonders how surveyors could even adequately assess a snow-covered building’s status from that remove.

Although for many reasons I decided against walking a different section of Detroit every day in 2014, eventually covering it all, Helmreich’s project nonetheless inspired some movement. Deliberately undershooting numbers or patterns that seemed in any way grandiose, I set a goal of 1,000 miles this year. This is a modest three miles a day, mostly in Detroit, and an aim with which I’ve been shocked to find only mixed success. Three miles is barely anything, I thought — well below the 10,000 steps recommended by medical professionals, a mere hour of strolling at Google Maps speed. It’s not even quite a 5k.

I would love to undertake a Helmreich-style survey of the city, but a large share of my reluctance comes from a factor that often goes unaddressed in the context of this blogging — safety, a point Helmreich eloquently, if only briefly, addresses in his essay for Aeon. (He tells the New York Times that he avoids wearing blue or red shirts for their association with gangs). It would be great if Detroit really were a safe place to ramble, but numbers and instinct say otherwise. To counter the fear-mongering of many news outlets, the subject is rather deliberately avoided here, perhaps irresponsibly. The aim of the rambling network is to encourage people to walk, to feel safe walking — the more people who walk and feel safe walking, the more conducive to safe walking the city becomes. It’s just not quite there yet. At all. So, like everything else in Detroit, we rely on community. We band together and walk.

Maybe between all these walks, alone and collectively, we’re channelling a bit of Helmreich in the Midwest. Have you undertaken this kind of committed programmatic exploration? Would you? As Helmreich says, everything’s interesting. Especially here, in a city where time so palpably passes, the landscape is almost too literally a great (if haphazardly archived) museum. Let me know if you want to go for a walk in it.

Rambling alert! Sunday, January 5

December 30, 2013

This Sunday, January 5, the Detroit Area Rambling Network invites you to take a darn hike! We’ll be meeting at the Guardian Building at 3:00 to make some intriguing loops through downtown during off hours.

Walking is free and open to the public. In case of unsavory weather, the outing will be postponed until the following week, so check back for updates.

If you miss this adventure you can keep pace online with the rambling report, or catch up with us February 16 on Belle Isle, where we’ll take a long walk on the beach for Valentine’s weekend. Have a look at our 2014 schedule and mark your calendar accordingly.


In distantly related awesomeness, voting for National Geographic Adventurer of the Year is going on until the end of January. One candidate is Sarah Marquis, a solo female explorer who’s walked thousands of miles across several continents. “For me, walking is more than walking. I’m like a little bridge between humans and nature,” she explains. Certainly her career highlights make for more inspiring reading than the average LinkedIn profile.

While no one is going to win this prestigious title on our ramble, we also won’t have to contend with -22 degree temperatures, six months on the Gobi desert staying alive by collecting drops of condensation in a plastic bag, unruly Mongolian horsemen, or surviving a bout of dengue fever. That said, you should definitely come ramble with us!

Vehicular prosthetics and ghost limbs

November 27, 2013

Paul Salopek, previously mentioned in January at the beginning of his seven-year trek around the world, recently wrote an essay for the New York Times. He’s tracing humanity’s footsteps as they migrated ages ago from Africa to the southernmost tip of Chile. He’s currently crossing the Middle East, just 1,700 miles into the 21,000-mile trip, eleven months into the walk, and he’s getting a little lonely.

“Why did you leave the road?” one Saudi friend asked me, puzzled, when I improvised an obvious shortcut across a mountain range. “The highway is always straighter.”

To him, the earth’s surface beyond the pavement was simply a moving tableau — a gauzy, unreal backdrop for his high-speed travel. He was spatially crippled. The writer Rebecca Solnit nails this mind-set perfectly in her book “Wanderlust: A History of Walking”: “In a sense the car has become a prosthetic, and though prosthetics are usually for injured or missing limbs, the auto-prosthetic is for a conceptually impaired body or a body impaired by the creation of a world that is no longer human in scale.”

I just call it Car Brain.

What his term lacks in subtlety, it makes up in truth. Navigating through territories overrun with this mentality, Salopek is made to feel like an outsider, caught up in a strange fringe activity. In 700 miles, he says, only one person was curious enough to be inconvenienced by walking along for a few paces. Reassuring others (and perhaps himself) that what he is doing is not extreme, he notes, “Sitting down is what’s radical.” The people he meets ask if he is sick or crazy. He continues, with his little crew — at this point in the trek, he’s travelling with camel herders, a guide, and a translator.

Image by Paul Salopek from the Out of Eden Instagram.

Image by Paul Salopek

His invisibility to the Car Brain and the culture that promotes it is something very familiar to us, to pedestrians everywhere, as we take our chances on the streets. “Sometimes, out walking, I feel like a ghost,” he writes. Perhaps ironically, this seems to be exactly on point with his original aims in the project — to recreate the pathways wandered by ancient humans in their dispersion across the globe. By walking their walk, he’s become one of them, has merged with another society at odds with his own. It’s challenging to be part of two worlds when the overlap is sloppy. Here, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration announces cheerfully that at some point “everyone is a pedestrian,” but it’s a truth easily forgotten in the ruts of the Car Brain.

Image by Paul Salopek

Image by Paul Salopek: “First anthropocene border. Ethiopia-Djibouti”

Salopek will be featured in National Geographic magazine’s December issue, commemorating his first year on the road. He’s at about 8% of his goal, a humble portion of the total mileage, despite days clocking as many as twenty-five miles on poor rations. One wonders whether the trip will stretch longer than he expects, considering that no small number of those miles slipped past in a few days as he took a camel boat across the Red Sea before arriving in the Middle East. In a blog post for National Geographic, he writes,

Walking is like language. It is like most ideology, theology, and cosmology: a locally conceived idea. Countless inflections, dialects, and variations of walking will appear and disappear along my route. How many such taxonomies must I navigate across the world? And will my own walk survive?

His piece in the New York Times is brief but beautiful, as Salopek puts forth one word after another attempting to account for the wonders he sees. Referring to the three-mile-per-hour speed at which the human body evolved to travel, he says, “There is something mesmerizing about this pace that I still can’t adequately describe.” Fortunately, he keeps at it. He has a book about the adventure due out in 2016, so despite never being far from civilization and its roads and airports, quitting is unlikely. And, as he writes, fatigued from another day’s sun, sand, and wind, he’s happy — the kind of happiness that rarely rides in the passenger seat.

Keep track of what Salopek is doing through the Out of Eden website, National Geographic’s page, updated weekly with fascinating cultural observations, and the walk’s Instagram, populated with photos depicting the “slow pleasures” the Car Brain misses.

A 100-mile conversation

September 17, 2013

As summer bleeds into fall, the note of death is already in the air among the fading leaves and crisp breezes.

Sometimes literally so:


So many words to pin on such a fleeting instant. For scale, imagine the duration of a 100-mile conversation. What would you talk about all that while? It turns out that death is just the subject of a 100-mile conversation. Two gentlemen in funny yellow pants talking about death in British accents for a hundred miles — almost comic.

It is and it isn’t. The 100-Mile Conversation is a project organized by two artists, Nathan Burr and Louis Buckley, to use the landscape as a tool to shift perspectives on the difficulties of discussing death with openness and honesty (and, we hope, humor). “Understanding the true definition of landscape to be an inner emotional state that we project onto our surroundings,” said Nathan Burr, the walk was intended to overcome cultural and conceptual obstaces as well as the usual hills, roots, and rocks. The walk took place over several days, beginning in Winchester, moving along the South Downs Way National Trail, and ending in Beachy Head, a notorious and perhaps ironically-named hotspot for suicide jumps, where chalky cliffs project over the sea.


Photo credit Nathan Burr

Death-talk enthusiast Clare Davies joined them for half of the walk. Other than walking and talking about death with anyone who had the temerity to come along, they occupied themselves camping, making little videos, and looking at lichen, which certainly seem less mortal than soft humanity. Their guests included Virginia Woolf’s biographer, psychologists, archeologists, musicans, a paranormal investigator, and of course more artists. Coming up on the end of it, Davies saw a table, and “as I got closer, blue and yellow balloons tied by strings to its legs, dancing, hysterical, in the wind.” As a Death Cafe host, she said,

“The purpose? To discuss suicide. Bringing the cake had been my idea. How apt, I’d thought, how crazy even, to celebrate the project’s end by drinking tea on a cliff edge; how right, somehow, to celebrate life with an abundance of cake at a beauty spot marred by the sadness of suicide jumpers.”

cake cliiff

Photo credit Clare Davies

Itineraries and transcriptions from conversations can be found on the project blog, along with other depressing but potentially enlightening words.

In Detroit, what would a 100-mile walk around issues of mortality look like? Quite different from the kinds of death that live in the lonely hills of England, or the infamous bridges of San Francisco. In a city, death is all over the streets, in the houses and apartments, piling up in hospitals and cemeteries. If we walked a mile for each homicide this year, where would we be? A 100-mile conversation starts to seem as short as life itself.

However little by little

February 17, 2013

‘I am looking back at my little pigeon which is sitting on the roof, and wants to say goodbye to me,’ answered Hansel.
‘Fool!’ said the woman, ‘that is not your little pigeon, that is the morning sun that is shining on the chimney.’

Hansel, however little by little, threw all the crumbs on the path.


When the moon came they set out, but they found no crumbs, for the many thousands of birds which fly about in the woods and fields had picked them all up. Hansel said to Gretel: ‘We shall soon find the way,’ but they did not find it. They walked the whole night and all the next day too from morning till evening, but they did not get out of the forest, and were very hungry, for they had nothing to eat but two or three berries, which grew on the ground.

In a land of such plenty, Hansel might throw an entire loaf of cheap bread to the ground to guide him and Gretel back home, enough to share with many more thousands of birds.

Then, at the freeway overpass, a man holds a battered sign the color of crusts: “Homeless and Hungry Please Help God Bless”.

Hansel and Gretel from the Brothers Grimm on Project Gutenberg.

“Slow journalism” and a seven-year walk

January 13, 2013

Like most individuals meriting news coverage, Paul Salopek is on a mission. And his, like many news-worthy missions, is admirable in scope, stretched vast over time and space. He is embarking on a seven-year walk across the continents, following humankind’s dispersal around the globe. Robin Banerji talks with Salopek as he plans his trip.

“I shall be retracing the pathways of the first human diaspora out of Africa, which occurred about 50 to 70,000 years ago, as authentically as possible, on foot,” he says.

“I’ll hop a boat across the Bering Straits and then ramble down the New World to Tierra del Fuego, the place where our ancestors arrived about 12,000 years ago, the last continental corner of the world to be colonised by our forebears.”

Salopek has many motivations for undertaking this long journey of such epic proportions it sounds more fairy tale than reality. He argues that this “slow journalism” will provide more accurate reporting, full of the missing colors, flavors, and textures that characterize the bleak “fast food journalism” he aims to avoid. Most of Salopek’s motivations are very grounded, however.

A biologist by training, Salopek argues that human beings evolved to understand the world at walking pace, after they developed the ability to walk on two feet three million years ago.

“There is an actual neurological basis to what I am talking about,” Salopek says.

“You can make a pretty good evolutionary argument that this was how we were designed to absorb information at about 5km an hour (3mph),” he says. That is an average walking speed.

But he also admits that the idea of a long-distance walk strikes him as fun.

Fun sidenote: “For 95% of human history, people walked on average 5,200km (3,200 miles) per year: “Like walking from Boston to Portland on the West Coast every single year of your adult life,” says Salopek.”

Read more at “Paul Salopek: Going for a seven-year walk” by Robin Banerji for BBC News.

Far afield “along the field of stars”

November 28, 2012

Photo by Amelia Borofsky

In this thoughtful piece about walking El Camino de Santiago de Compostella pilgrimage in Spain, Amelia Borofsky tells her story and those of the many other intrepid pilgrims she meets, from former beggars, construction workers, and stock brokers to a blind woman. Borofsky spent 44 days on this 497-mile walk, a route travelled since the 8th century. Along the dirt path networked by yellow arrows pointing the way forward, Borofsky writes,

“I come expecting silence, but find people instead. I discover that over 180,000 of us walk every year.

I learn that we literally will follow the Milky Way to Finnistere, known in medieval times as the end of the earth. I always wondered Where the Sidewalk Ends. In Spain, it turns out.”

Read Unemployed, I Went to Spain, to Walk at The Atlantic.