Author Wayne Curtis takes a seat, facing me with his back to the tall windows of his Uptown home. I can see outside, where I note a steady stream of walkers on the street.
Curtis has returned a few days earlier from his annual trip to Maine, where he spends four months “at the edge of nowhere” while the rest of us are sweltering in New Orleans’ subtropical heat.
While Curtis was away, Rodale released his second book, “The Last Great Walk: The True Story of a 1909 Walk from New York to San Francisco and Why It Matters Today.” The book chronicles the 4000-mile journey of Edward Payson Weston, who set out on foot on his 70th birthday to prove he could walk cross-country in just 100 days.
“You know how I celebrated the book’s release?” Curtis asks me. “Camping alone on a remote island.” Considering the book’s subject matter, Curtis’ solitary celebration fit the occasion.
A contributing editor with The Atlantic, Curtis has lived in New Orleans since 2006, when he moved here from Maine with Louise Klaila, his wife. Since 2008, he has penned a bimonthly magazine column about the world of craft cocktails. Curtis has also contributed stories to additional well-respected publications including the New York Times. His first book, “And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in Ten Cocktails,” was published in July, 2006.
“Rum is a social topic and so the release of that book involved large events with lots of people and plenty to drink,” Curtis said. “Weston’s story, on the other hand, is about a solitary man who goes on a pilgrimage of sorts, partly to prove a point about the health benefits of walking and partly to earn money.”
Weston was what was known as a “celebrity walker” who had made a name for himself in 1861 by walking from Boston to Washington, D.C. for Lincoln’s inauguration.
“After the war, during Reconstruction, gambling was big and people were willing to bet on almost anything,” Curtis explains to me. “Plenty of people made bets on competitive walkers and whether or not they could do what they said they could.”
There were also commercial interests who would back walkers simply for the public relations value, or by having walkers — including Weston — hand out their promotional materials en route. For 50 years, Weston earned a living — one with many financial ups and downs — simply by walking.
As incredible as Weston’s feats were, Curtis said they are not the reason the 1909 walk captured his imagination.
“I was researching something else 22 years ago and I didn’t think much of it at the time. But it stuck with me and much later I wondered what I might find if I did a search on Weston in a newspaper archives database,” Curtis explains. “Dozens and dozens of old newspaper articles came up.”
What surprised Curtis was not that a septuagenarian could make a living by walking long distances, but the enormity of the public interest in what he was doing.
“Ten thousand people were there in New York at his send off and thousands would come out to see and greet him when he made it to their towns or cities,” Curtis says. “There was an audience for it. Weston averaged about 40 miles a day — a distance that sounds astonishing to us now — but it’s what human beings evolved to do. I started wondering, ‘Why, in the space of 100 years, had we had abandoned what had taken millions of years to develop?’ ”
As Curtis discovered, the year that Weston began his walk was pivotal in the automotive industry. Reviewing newspaper archives from that era, Curtis found a perceptible uptick in stories about collisions of pedestrians and cars. Before long, he noted the invention of new vocabulary; whereas walkers and drivers had shared the road previously, pedestrian practices such as walking across the street in the middle of the block became a crime and a term was coined to describe it — “jaywalking.”
As the domain of the automobile expanded, it brought with it the proliferation of suburbs and shopping malls. By the 1960s, the notion of a suburban neighborhood’s “walkability” had become irrelevant and sidewalks had disappeared.
“I have never lived anywhere that I couldn’t walk to get what I needed,” Curtis said. “Even when I am in Maine, I am three-quarters of a mile from the center of town, where I can walk to buy groceries or go to the post office and use the Wi-Fi.”
“Walkability” as a neighborhood asset has regained a good bit of the luster it lost after the car took over. Practicing what Weston preached, Curtis regularly walks a few blocks to Prytania or Magazine, where a small grocery store, several restaurants, and a neighborhood bar serve his needs. Occasionally, he and Klaila embark on longer walks, deciding at each intersection whether to continue straight, turn right, or turn left.
So what was it that made it possible for Weston to excel at what he did? Was it his shoes, his diet, some special anatomical idiosyncrasy (picture swimmer Michael Phelps and his highly-analyzed physique) that made the difference? Not the shoes, Curtis assures me: They were handmade leather lace-up boots, nothing special for the era. Diet was neither low-fat nor low-carb; Weston ate what he wanted when he made it to a town and subsisted during the day on raw eggs whipped with water and sugar.
But Weston may have been able to walk farther, comfortably, than many men because of a minor anatomical difference.
“His hips were especially wide-set, and it meant that he didn’t chafe,” Curtis says. “I can tell you from experience that chafing can end a walk pretty fast.”
R. Stephanie Bruno can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org