A lot of writers drink, a lot of writers walk. Are there many people who walk and write and drink? Some obviously: Guy Debord, Edgar Allan Poe, Harry Crews, Malcolm Lowry and Jack Kerouac maybe: but I’m not sure how many, and it’s an awfully boyish crowd to be sure. And what about the druggy walker/writers? Once you’ve said De Quincey and Will Self, who else is there? And is sensory derangement good for walking? I dunno, but I’m working on it.
In the meantime, a small story about walking and drinking, and of course writing, from the great Sebastian Snow, author of The Rucksack Man, a book which describes his walk from the bottom to the top of South America: Tierra Del Fuego to Panama. It didn’t kill him, but it’s hard to say (per Nietzsche) that it made him much stronger. He experiences a fair amount of derangement in the book, but most of it isn’t of the alcoholic kind.
“Well, I had made it, I’d traversed the continent of South America on foot and crossed the Darien Gap. The end was hazardous, ghastly, a grueling nightmare where Death stalked. Only willpower kept me going. Under weight by about five stone, two sprained ankles, both swollen and discoloured, my feet and ankles covered with gore, blood and bites, a mass of suppurating sores, stung by a hornet on the neck, bitten by a scorpion, nipped by a vampire bat, ticks under the skin. I looked in the mirror and saw what days in the jungle could do.”
Somewhere outside of Pasto, in the south of Columbia, he writes, “I encountered three young Colombian men who told me that they had not a peso between them and had been walking for five days without food. I was very sympathetic.” He gives them money for food, and buys them new shoes. “Although I felt quite quixotic towards their evident plight I could not believe they had been tramping for five long days without a bit to eat. It was just not feasible, I thought, especially as all three looked in very good shape.”
They start walking together but they young men aren’t very good walkers, certainly not by Sebastian Snow’s standard. The youngest of them starts complaining about his feet almost immediately, although of course if you believed his story he’d already been walking for 5 days. Snow puts him on a bus and pays for his ticket to Cali. A day later the second Columbian starts “hobbling badly, in spite of or despite the new shoes I had so stupidly bought him.” I wonder if it’s “because of,” but in any case, he too gets put on a bus.
“The last, Sancho Panza, however, bravely soldiered on but it was not very long before he took to taking buses and meeting me in the evenings at the places I had appointed. In the end I reluctantly had to sack him for taking to the bottle in a big way; all, of course, at my expense.”
And once we start talking about “quixotic” travellers we’re right there with William Wordsworth in The Prelude Book 5, and the dream (had by Wordsworth or by a friend, depending on which the draft of the poem you read) in which the dreamer encounters a man crossing the desert on a dromedary. Was Sebastian Snow familiar with this? I think there’s a reasonable chance.
Some of the relevant lines run as follows:
Full often, taking from the world of sleep
This Arab phantom, which I thus beheld,
This semi-Quixote, I to him have given
A substance, fancied him a living man,
A gentle dweller in the desert, crazed
By love and feeling, and internal thought
Protracted among endless solitudes;
But now hold on there. You and I might think this fellow is just some imaginary Romantic Bedouin, but according to recent scholarship – Kelly Grovier is the scholar in question - this poetic image was a “coded tribute” to a real person, a man named John “Walking” Stewart, an Englishman who in 1765 started walking home back from Madras, where he was working with the East India Company. Supposedly he walked all across Persia, Arabia, Africa and through every European country. It took him the best part of 30 years. He met Wordsworth in Paris, and was befriended by Thomas De Quincey in London, where he eventually settled.
Now, “Walking” Stewart was clearly one helluva guy, and Kelly Grovier is more of a scholar than I am, but all I can say is that if I were writing a poem containing a coded tribute to a great walker I’d have him walking, not riding a camel.
Anyway, Stewart became quite the man about London, and was often seen walking the street. He lived to the age of 75, and right now I have no information about his attitudes toward sensory derangement, but on 20 February 1822, the morning after his 75th birthday, he was found dead in his room with an empty laudanum bottle beside him.
De Quincey wrote an actual, as opposed to a coded, tribute to him in the London Magazine, which I think is very fine. It starts like this:
“There are several kinds of pedestrians, all celebrated and
and interesting in their way. …
The Walkers, indeed, like the lichens, are
a vast genus, with an endless variety of
species; but alas! the best and most singular
of the tribe is gone! … “
Walkers as varied as lichens: there are some 17,000 recognized lichen species: I like that a lot.