Cover image for The last great walk : the true story of a 1909 walk from New York to San Francisco, and why it matters today
The last great walk : the true story of a 1909 walk from New York to San Francisco, and why it matters today
Curtis, Wayne.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
Emmaus, Pennsylvania : Rodale, [2014]
Physical Description:
xix, 236 pages ; 23 cm
General Note:
"Distributed to the trade by Macmillan"--Copyright p.
Part 1. Body. Leaving New York -- Upright bearing -- I sit, therefore I am -- Part 2. Mind. Braincases -- Knowing where you are -- Part 3. Land. The geography of walking -- Does my city make me look fat? -- Learning from San Francisco.
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GV1072.W47 C87 2014 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area
GV1072.W47 C87 2014 Adult Non-Fiction Open Shelf
GV1072.W47 C87 2014 Adult Non-Fiction Open Shelf

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In 1909, Edward Payson Weston walked from New York to San Francisco, covering around 40 miles a day and greeted by wildly cheering audiences in every city. The New York Times called it the "first bona-fide walk . . . across the American continent," and eagerly chronicled a journey in which Weston was beset by fatigue, mosquitos, vicious headwinds, and brutal heat. He was 70 years old. In The Last Great Walk, journalist Wayne Curtis uses the framework of Weston's fascinating and surprising story, and investigates exactly what we lost when we turned away from foot travel, and what we could potentially regain with America's new embrace of pedestrianism. From how our brains and legs evolved to accommodate our ancient traveling needs to the way that American cities have been designed to cater to cars and discourage pedestrians, Curtis guides readers through an engaging, intelligent exploration of how something as simple as the way we get from one place to another continues to shape our health, our environment, and even our national identity. Not walking, he argues, may be one of the most radical things humans have ever done.

Author Notes

Wayne Curtis is a contributing editor at The Atlantic magazine. He's also written for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, and This American Life . The author of And a Bottle of Rum, Curtis was named Lowell Thomas Travel Journalist of the Year in 2002. He lives in New Orleans.

Reviews 1

Publisher's Weekly Review

Journalist Curtis (And a Bottle of Rum) uses the story of Edward Payson Weston's trek across America in 1909 at the age of 70 as a jumping off point for musings on the lost art of walking, specifically how we choose to get around and what's lost in service of faster modes of transit. While Weston's 104-day journey is not particularly riveting, it serves as an anchor as the author explores peripheral topics like evolutionary theory on how and why our hominid ancestors first walked upright, the dangers of a sedentary lifestyle, and innovative crosswalk technology. Curtis presents Weston's walk as the end of an era, or rather the beginning of "the big bang of American transportation" and the battle for space in the streets between motorist and pedestrian. He then more optimistically points to recent efforts to increase "walkability" in cities, centered around the community-building aspect of pedestrianism. With a few tangential exceptions, Curtis's meandering approach to his subject matter works out, aided by his sense of humor and Weston's own unique brand of quirky belligerence. Agent: Jennifer Gates, Zachary Shuster Harmsworth. (Sept.) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.



CHAPTER 1 LEAVING NEW YORK If Edward Payson Weston succeeds in reaching California on foot he will have demonstrated one thing at least, and that is that some old gentlemen have stranger notions than others. --CHICAGO DAILY TRIBUNE, April 28, 1909 March 15, 1909. At twenty-five minutes past four on a clear, chilly late winter afternoon in 1909, an elderly man walked out of the main New York post office, opposite City Hall in lower Manhattan, and paused for a moment on the uppermost step. He was wiry and taut and stood about five foot eight and weighed around 125 £ds. He wasn't remarkable physically, but he wasn't the sort to blend in, either. On this March day, he wore a blue frock coat and a large white hat ("a sombrero in all but color," as an observer described it) and what one reporter referred to as "mouse-colored leggings." In one hand he held a small cane, and with the other he fidgeted with his trademark mustache, a large and silvery thing that draped his upper lip, resting a few inches below twinkling eyes, which seemed to find private amusement in public commotion. Edward Payson Weston was planning to take a long walk. He was off to a late start--inside the post office, a crowd of well-wishers had mobbed him, delaying his departure. Edward Morgan, the city's postmaster, had emerged from his office to greet him personally. With a wry smile, Morgan handed Weston an envelope containing a letter, asking that he deliver it to his counterpart in San Francisco. Morgan reminded Weston that he could collect eighty-five cents upon delivery. Everybody laughed. Morgan also wished Weston well on his seventieth birthday. A few hurrahs were offered. And once the small talk and good wishes tapered off, Weston said his farewells and exited the post office through tall doors. Ahead of him was City Hall, with its Corinthian and Ionic pilasters, a neoclassical pile with French trimmings; above him, the mansard-roofed post office stood with the whimsical sternness of a bulldog wearing a derby hat. But people, more than his Beaux Arts surroundings, defined the scene: A minor mob had followed Weston out of the building, and a far larger and more raucous crowd had amassed out front to witness the first steps of his walk. One reporter sent to cover the scene estimated that ten thousand spectators clogged the streets and sidewalks around the post office, cheering and clamoring for a glimpse of the elderly walker. When he emerged, they let loose with a roar and pressed in to get a better look. "For a moment it seemed that the police guard would be swept away," the New York Times reported. Weston later admitted that the commotion "frightened [him] to death," his anxiety no doubt com£ded by his fear that an eager, oafish spectator might step on one of his feet and hobble him before he even began. This had happened on a long walk he had undertaken two years earlier, and the experience left him skittish and wary. Weston at last doffed his hat to the crowd, then plunged down the steps and into the mob. He slowly made his way forward, thanks chiefly to the brawn of two strapping policemen, longtime friends Ben and Dan Rinn. The Rinns were minor celebrities in their own right--a few years earlier, they had been first on the scene when President Teddy Roosevelt's horse-drawn carriage was broadsided by a streetcar in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. The brothers happened to be nearby on vacation; one ran for medical help, and the other held the streetcar motorman captive until local authorities arrived. (The accident earned a small footnote in history: A Secret Service agent died in the crash, becoming the first agent killed in the line of duty.) A posse of New York mounted police officers aided the Rinns in crowd control, riding into the rabble and parting a way for the walker. Veterans of Company B of the Army's Seventh Regiment, led by one Captain James E. Schuyler, also did their best to keep the crowd at bay. Weston had aided the company in a small espionage matter years ago, and some of the regiment had reunited to escort him on the start of his journey. The regiment had also hired the Metropolitan Band to follow him during the first part of his walk, and it was noisily striking up a brassy tune, which attracted even more gawkers and followers. As a path opened in the crowd, Weston started to gather speed and gradually hit a stride of about three and a half to four miles per hour. "He is a marvel of endurance and determination," wrote an admiring reporter in the Times-Leader of Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. "He is more like a tireless machine than a human being." At minimum, Weston would need to be a marvel. His plan was to walk that afternoon and evening to Tarrytown, about thirty miles up the Hudson River. He would follow the Hudson the next day toward Albany, then turn west and go on to Chicago and then on and on, across the windswept plains and over and around the formidable Rockies and High Sierras, eventually arriving in San Francisco after some four thousand miles on foot. He told everyone who would listen that he was confident he would make the trip within a hundred days. This pace would preclude much dawdling, and essentially meant he'd have to walk forty miles every day, not counting Sundays, which he always took as a day of rest. Even if he succeeded, this trek would not be his longest walk--years before, in England, he had once covered five thousand miles in a hundred days--but this would surely be his most challenging. And by any measure, it would require a lot of steps: approximately 8.2 million, or more than eighty thousand each and every day of his walk. A typical American today walks an average of roughly five thousand steps daily, or somewhat less than two and a half miles, doing errands, foraging around in the kitchen, chasing after a football in the backyard, crossing the shopping mall parking lot, walking down a row of cubicles to discuss with a colleague a recent memo. Weston would do that sixteenfold every day. What's more, Weston embarked on his cross-country trek in an era when the nation was not well suited for transcontinental crossings unless you were traveling by rail, in which case you could argue that the cross-country transportation network was at its apogee. While sleeping in a plush, well-tended Pullman car, you could make it from New York to Chicago in sixteen hours. (Today, it takes about twenty hours on Amtrak.) Three years earlier a train had made it from San Francisco to New York in seventy-one and a half hours, and the Harriman Special regularly made the trip in five days. But walking anywhere outside cities could be slow and sloggy. Roadways were primitive at best--outside the cities, hardly any long-distance routes were paved with macadam or brick or cobblestones. Most were composed of loosely compressed dirt liable to turn rutty when wet and dusty when dry. Hotels and inns could be found in the small towns Weston passed through in the East and Upper Midwest, but, like the towns themselves, these became more fugitive and widely scattered as he pushed westward, and he would have to count more on the kindness of strangers. Weston faced another danger: Noisy, belching horseless carriages were taking to the roadways in ever-greater numbers. In 1909, some 126,593 cars had been manufactured--more than half of them touring cars, acquired for recreation rather than commerce. Inexperienced drivers, who had to be wealthy enough to splurge on what was still a novelty, would weave pell- mell down rough, potholed streets. Walkers, once kings of the road, now found that they had to scuttle to the margins to avoid being hit, and almost every day some metropolitan newspaper ran an account or two of a pedestrian run over by an automobile. A 1905 book titled Automobilia was filled with poems, anecdotes, and jokes involving these new conveyances. Among them: "Have you made a record with your automobile yet?" someone asks a driver. "Oh, yes" is the cheerful reply. "Two dogs, a chicken, three small boys, and a street cleaner, all run over in less than an hour." The day Weston left New York, a man named Arthur Subers was crossing a street in downtown Chicago on foot. He was run over by not one, not two, but by three automobiles in succession. Subers miraculously escaped without serious injury. It was, perhaps, the first triple pedestrian-automobile accident in history. Subers had gotten in the way of progress, and progress would not be stopped. Three weeks before Weston set off from the front steps of the New York post office, an essay appeared on the front page of the influential Parisian newspaper Le Figaro. It was titled "The Founding and Manifesto of Futurism." The essay was by and large an obituary for anything that moved at a pedestrian's pace, and a celebration of anything that zipped along speedily. It was written by a lavishly mustachioed Italian writer and theorist named Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, who recounted a recent episode in which he was driving an automobile and encountered two oncoming cyclists-- "their stupid swaying got in my way," as he put it. He avoided them, but his car ended up in a muddy gully. He emerged from the "maternal ditch" as if being born anew into a world where speed was now sacred--it ennobled man, and those who did not embrace swiftness (like those on their stupid bikes) would be left behind and one day awaken to find themselves on the refuse heap of civilization. The decaying past was slow moving, embraced only by nostalgists who longed for a static landscape and lowing cows. "We declare that the splendor of the world has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed," Marinetti wrote. "A racing automobile with its bonnet adorned with great tubes like serpents with explosive breath . . . a roaring motor car which seems to run on machine-gun fire, is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace." Marinetti and his followers saw in speed not just dispatch and expediency and inevitability, but also an aesthetic and moral good, and something that would improve the lot of all mankind. Unknowingly, he was laying the theoretical foundations for streamlined designs in cars and trains and for ever-widening road networks. In his other writings he noted that "slowness is naturally foul," and he heralded "a new good: speed, and a new evil: slowness." Marinetti and his followers called for a great public works project in Venice to fill in "the small, stinking canals with the rubble from the old, collapsing and leprous palaces." To the north, he wanted to straighten the Danube, allowing it to flow unhindered and expeditiously. The future was sleek, the future was fast. For a time, Marinetti was influential among the emerging fascist movement, and he pushed (unsuccessfully) for futurism to be made the official state art of Italy. It was into this world that Weston, the walker, walked. "Walking with elasticity of step and freedom of action that was the absolute contradiction of age," Weston pushed on through lower Manhattan with "a springy step and a generally jaunty air," according to the New York Times. Another correspondent wrote that he looked "as blithe and as vigorous as most men half his age." The Atlanta Constitution marveled at the huge crowd that had turned out to "cheer the plucky old trudger." The Boston Globe's headline: "Weston Off on His Long Walk; . . . Elderly Athlete Cheered by Thousands at Start." Behind the public tumult and outward pep, Weston's nerves were undoubtedly running high. While publicly confident, he was privately worried about whether he'd actually make even the first thirty miles to Tarrytown. He'd started preparing for this walk months earlier by walking twenty-five or thirty miles daily. At the outset of his walk he was on his home turf, having lived in New York for many years. But his warm-up walks hadn't gone terrifically well. One of his feet came up sore, and his doctor advised him to ease up on his training regimen. So Weston walked just five miles daily immediately prior to his departure, and five miles was barely a warm-up for a walker of his stamina and habits. The afternoon he departed, he later said, he was still "suffering from great pain," although he was confident he could work through it; he always did, he said, insisting that a good walk was the best tonic known to mankind and could cure just about any malady, including that of the foot. Surrounded by the jostling crowd, Weston turned north up Lafayette Street past City Hall and continued onward to Fourth Avenue. Those on the fringe would surge ahead and jockey for the best viewing positions along the curb to watch as Weston passed by. He soldiered on through the teeming assemblage, glancing upward at the buildings from time to time to ensure he was still headed in the right direction. All the commotion no doubt provoked some nostalgia. Decades earlier, from the 1860s through the 1880s, a much-younger Weston had drawn crowds even larger than these--along with similarly fawning newspaper coverage--for his astounding feats of pedestrianism. The Walking Man, as Weston was known, possibly the most indefatigable long- distance walker ever to stride across our planet's surface, was born on March 15, 1839, in Providence, Rhode Island. His father, Silas Weston, was a descendent of Mayflower passengers and worked mostly as a school principal and teacher, but sometimes as a shopkeeper. He stood six foot four and liked to play the bass viol. Edward's mother, Maria, wrote children's books. They had two girls and two boys, with Edward being the older of their sons. He weighed four and a half £ds at birth and was so frail he wasn't expected to survive. As a child, Weston was considered a sweet and obedient boy, though weak of constitution and often somewhat sickly. Still, he was perpetually restless. ("There was no keeping him still," his Sunday school teacher once recalled, adding that he "was the most uneasy bright boy I ever saw.") His father left New England in pursuit of adventure and California gold in 1849 and remained in the West for three years. When he returned (largely gold-less), Weston was captivated by his father's tales and wrote up several of his accounts. He had these printed in pamphlet form, which he then sold along with the newspapers he was hawking as a newsboy on the passenger rail lines to New York and Boston. When Weston was fifteen, his mother recruited a friend who was also a coach in an effort to improve her son's health. The coach first instructed Edward to abandon coffee, then put him on a regimen of milk and vegetables. He also instructed him to undertake short, vigorous walks every day. Excerpted from The Last Great Walk: The True Story of a 1909 Walk from New York to San Francisco, and Why It Matters Today by Wayne Curtis All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.