The Last Great Walk by Wayne Curtis is the true story of seventy year old Edward Payson Weston who walked from New York to San Francisco. The year was 1909, when walking was a competitive sport and pedestrianism, taking long walks, was becoming less fashionable. That new moving machine called the automobile quickly supplanted the more natural form of travel by foot. The age of travel ease was here to stay, insuring the lost art of walking for the American culture.
Award winning journalist Curtis (contributing editor for The Atlantic magazine) seamlessly blends the remarkable story of Weston’s foot travels with the science, sociology, history, and psychology of walking. While chronicling Weston’s walks and providing substantial background research, Curtis hooked me in with perspectives I hadn’t considered.
“By the early twentieth century American had more or less decided to stop walking. . . a form of mobility that had for millennia defined us as humans.” Weston’s walk across the United States marked the close of an era of long walking. Curtis declared, “The automobile would dominate travel ways with its steely power and its flash and brute sexiness.”
Notably, Weston continued walking past his seventieth birthday and logged 90,000 miles in his lifetime. Somewhat prophetically, Weston “preached the gospel of walking loudly and often. The day he left New York, he told a reporter, ‘I will feel that my life work has been completed if I can prove to the young men of the country that God made them to walk and that if they’ll walk they’ll be healthy.'”
Curtis notes,”By one estimate, the average American adult spends about 70 percent of each day just sitting at home, at work, in a car. In the last few decades, we have become an impressively sedentary people.”
Interestingly, walking and general upright movement is once again touted to be an activity guaranteed to impact the health of a nation prone to physical inactivity. Lack of daily mobility has become a serious concern for the American people.
One of my adult students who specializes in health care for clients struggling with weight issues, recently asked me if I knew about sitting sickness, or sitting disease. Coincidentally, I happened to catch a national public radio broadcast regarding this newly coined medical phrase, but I really didn’t know much about it. According to juststand.org, “sitting disease has been coined by the scientific community and is commonly used when referring to metabolic syndrome and the ill-effects of an overly sedentary lifestyle. However, the medical community does not recognize Sitting Disease as a diagnosable disease at this time.”
Moving, especially in the form of walking, is on my radar ever since my doctor prescribed it as treatment for osteopenia after my last bone density scan. Funny, this medical term was foreign to me until serendipitously my walking partner (on one of our walks at the university track) shared she struggled with this condition. Osteopenia, simply put, is a term used to describe bone density that is somewhat lower than normal. My physician explained that my bone density was not low enough for a diagnosis of osteoporosis. According to webmd., “osteoporosis is a condition in which thinning bones become so fragile that they are prone to fracture easily.” I’m trying to do all I can to prevent that from happening!
My walks are rather short but they do fulfill the “walk five times a week for 30 minutes each time” mandate by my holistic family doctor. Long distance walking is gaining ground when paired with a cause. Curtis wryly notes, “Today distance walking has gained a popular if ironic association with illness- hardly a weekend goes by when a walk isn’t stage to raise money for a cause like Alzheimer’s, leukemia, breast cancer, or multiple sclerosis. Yet the idea that regularly talking a long walk may be a route to one’s own well-being seems curiously ignored.”
Ironic, indeed. Most of us are familiar with at least a few studies touting walking as a health benefit and prevention of disease, rather than a trumped up cry to end whatever disease is being championed. Granted, these staged walking events pull in much needed funds designated to find a cure. I would not discount the importance of these efforts
I do appreciate the author’s research into walking as a means of preventative medicine. Curtis cites walking as a help in maintaining bone density in people’s hips as they age, “meaning they’re less likely to experience crippling falls.” This statement hit me hard.
I became acutely aware of my Mom’s struggle with walking and possible bone issues when Mom was the age I am now, 61. Back then, my kids were about the ages of my grandchildren currently. So the memory is a bit poignant. My husband, kids, Mom, her sister, and brother-in-law were meeting up with my Mom’s oldest sister and her new granddaughter at the Cleveland Zoo. Zoos can be quite hilly and the Cleveland Zoo is no exception. At one point, Mom was certain she could not walk any further and just abruptly stopped on the incline of an upward path. Her back ached terribly and she was out of breath. My kids ran ahead of us while I coaxed Mom to keep trying to make it to the playground where we would meet up with my Aunt and her granddaughter.
I have to confess, I wasn’t very patient with my Mom. I wanted to catch up with everyone else and not miss out on all the fun on the swings with the kids. I wish I would have been more empathic and asked her questions about her back. Could it be that she, too, suffered from osteopenia? But I really didn’t know the right questions to ask. I don’t remember people talking about osteopenia twenty-five years ago. I still wish I could have been more helpful. Sadly, Mom was diagnosed with osteoporosis much later in life, and spent many years hunched over in pain every time she walked.
And then what the medical community predicted could happen, happened. Mom fell and broke her hip when she was eighty-four years old. The doctors assured her hip surgery would give her a new lease on life; she would be able to do physical things she hadn’t done in years! Tragically, that hope died immediately following the operation. What the surgeon could not predict was an anomaly during surgery. It seemed the entire medical staff was in a state of confusion over the outcome. Something (the neurologist could only guess what) that happened on the operating table rendered Mom paralyzed in both legs. Mom would never walk again. Five years later, I still grieve the trauma my Mom experienced at the end of her life. Mom died six months after her hip surgery. Someday I will be able to write about that as well.
At sixty-one years, my reliance on my Suburu to get me where I want to go supersedes a conscious decision to walk. Choosing to live in the country negates a walk to the store, church, work, and friends’ homes. Yet, the activity of walking in my three thirty-something children is in line with Curtis’s research that millennials are choosing to walk to jobs, stores, and for pleasure. Some of my best conversations with my boys occur when they are taking long walks to school, jobs, or friends’ homes. A delightful bonus to these phone call talks are my boys’ descriptions of the landscape surrounding them. Whether the backdrop of the mountains of California, the Puget Sound of the Pacific Northwest, or the terrain of Asia, my boys love imparting the beauty as they walk and we talk.
And I can’t even fathom the amount of miles my daughter of four boys puts on her double stroller. Walks in Christy’s family ranged from the walking bridge in downtown Cincinnati to the hilly paths of the local zoo. One of our grandsons’ first requests when they moved to Minnesota was, “Grandpa, will you take us on a walk to see the Mississippi River?” Indeed millennials are walking and passing it down to their children.
I too, have fond experiences of walking with my children. (Our stroller, with the gaudy colored flowered vinyl seats, were not quite as sleek as today’s models!) But what happened? Could it be as empty nesters we no longer have children clamoring for a walk, so we’ve allowed social media to monopolize our attention away from exercise?
Obviously, Weston could not have predicted what would be pulling us away from our easy chairs in the twenty-first century. As I read his fear regarding the automobile as a substitute for walking, I couldn’t help think how easy it is get on the computer rather than take an evening walk.
At least, that’s my experience. According to research, I’m not alone.