Drifting and striding, in Hollywood and elsewhere, with Geoff Nicholson - author of The Lost Art of Walking, and Walking in Ruins withcholson, author of Toff Nidrifting and stomping withcholson, author of The Lost Art of Walking, considers the narrower and wider shores of obsessive pedestrianism.

Monday, July 29, 2013


It’s happened before (more or less) so I wasn’t completely surprised when it happened again over the weekend.  I was walking along the San Clemente Pedestrian Beach Trail, about 60 miles south of Los Angeles.  I would have preferred to walk on the beach, but the tide was in, and there wasn’t much beach to walk along, and in certain places there was none at all. 

San Clemente Pedestrian Beach Trail is quite narrow, pressed in against the railroad track, and I encountered a certain number of other pedestrians along the way.  And one of them stopped and looked at me searchingly and said, “You’re a famous Hollywood actor, right?”
         “No,” I said, “but I get that a lot,” which I understand is what actual famous Hollywood actors say when they want to deflect attention.  However, I was, and still am, left wondering which particular famous Hollywood actor this man thought I looked like.

There was an occasion some years back when I was walking down the main street of Beacon, in upstate New York, (I don't remember it being quite ruined as it looks in the picture above but it was certainly the same era) and a man stopped me and said, “Has anybody ever told you, you look just like Dave Stewart of Eurythmics?” Of course, in this case he evidently didn’t think I actually was Dave Stewart of Eurythmics, but I said no, nobody ever had told me that, and the simple truth is that I don’t think I look anything like Dave Stewart of Eurythmics, nor would I wish to.  I mean, I have a beard, but that’s about it.  Still, the man in Beacon didn’t intend it as an insult.

I was in San Clemente because I’d just come down from visiting the Mission San Juan Capistrano, founded by the Spanish in 1776 (a year when things were getting a bit lively over on the other coast), and the mission is the place the swallows return to every year.  I had gone there to walk among the ruins and the cacti, two of my current obsessions.

 These days the mission, though certainly ruined in places, is also thoroughly preserved, perhaps too much so.  There were long periods when it looked more like this:

 I think I’d have been more impressed back then, though of course the cactus gardens wouldn’t have been in place.

The railroad line cuts right through San Juan Capistrano and I suppose there’s a right and a wrong side of the tracks, though San Juan Capistrano is such a wealthy little enclave, that even on the wrong side there’s a tea house and a petting zoo. But if you’re looking for cacti, there’s this utterly amazing specimen which I’ve now visited a couple of times.   (Actually, now that I agonize about it, I wonder if it’s actually a euphorbia).

It’s  inside the boundaries of the Ito Nursery, which doesn’t seem to do a lot of business in cacti, which I think is a shame.  I’d happily pay good money for a cutting from this monster.  Was the cactus a ruin?  No, far from it, despite being in a neglected and unwatered section of the nursery: I guess that’s why I like cacti, and indeed euphorbia.

In the motel that night I found myself reading The Tao of Travel by Paul Theroux, a quirky and excellent book, partly an anthology of extracts by other authors, partly a collection of “amazing facts” and mini-essays by Theroux himself.  Inevitably there’s a section about traveling pedestrians, titled “It is Solved By Walking.”  The usual subjects are present – Rousseau and Wordsworth, Muir and Thoreau, Chatwin and Herzog.  But there was one name that I wasn’t familiar with: Xuanzang (my ignorance knows few bounds).

 Xuanzang (I now know) was the 7th century Chinese monk and scholar, who thought that the Buddhist texts available to him in China were badly translated, so he traveled to India and beyond to get closer to the source, and to bring back  some texts in the original language for more accurate translation.  He traveled 10,000 miles in seventeen years, much, though not all, of it on foot.

He visited the ruins of Gandhara (now in Pakistan), “there were more than a thousand monasteries but they are now dilapidated and deserted and in delicate condition.”  And he visited Taxila, which currently looks like this:

He also visited, and was awed by, the giant Buddha statues in Bamiyan, now in Afghanistan, one of which once looked like this:

They were dynamited and destroyed in March 2001 after the Taliban declared that they were idols.  As Theroux puts it “to the cries of ‘Allah is great.’”  The current Afghanistan government has pledged to restore the statues, but I can’t help thinking they may find themselves with other, more pressing priorities.

Inevitably I didn’t see any Taliban equivalents in Southern California, however, while walked along the San Clemente Pedestrian Beach Trail I did see some signs of ruin, or at least a house that may be just a couple of winters away from becoming one.  Some of the houses in San Clemente are built on the cliff top, and the cliff is eroding, with this result:

I like those big, serious industrial supporting columns and they’re obviously doing their job, but you see the area to the left, where a giant slab of rock has fallen away like a collapsing sandcastle.  Look on my works, ye mighty, and move inland.

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