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.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014


Well, the desert is getting a little cooler and so the Loved One and I went off  for a not especially adventurous weekend in Yucca Valley.  I had no great walking project in mind, but I had simple plan to drive along Skyline Ranch Road (not the worst name for a road) until I found a likely looking place to pull over and park, and then we’d walk for a while.

And that’s exactly what we did.  On the maps Skyline Ranch Road looks pretty much like a real road - and it is at first, but on the ground it rapidly turns into a dirt road, then a dirt road with deep gouges, and then it becomes no road at all.  I liked that very much obviously.

It was late Friday afternoon, the sun was going down, the sky was full of interesting patterns, though with nothing resembling a “sunset” and it was one of those walks, the best sort really, that didn’t have to be some intense cosmic experience: it was just a walk.

We did however come across this very appealing rock formation, which I’m sure is well known to locals, with a tree growing in its midst, with holes and gaps running through it so that the wind howled and moaned.  If you were the kind of kind of person who worshipped landforms you could do much worse than worship this one.

Yucca Valley still has one of my favorite used bookstores, the Sagebrush Press Bookstore, a place ever more crammed with stock, some of it decidedly pricey, some of it not, and I can never go in there without buying a book or three.  This time, among others, I bought a copy of Peter Jenkins’ A Walk Across America published in 1979, a book that I’ve been aware of for years, but have never really settled down with and read.  That night in the motel in Yucca Valley I could do exactly that.

In fact the title is a bit of a misnomer.  The books tell the story of Jenkins’ walk from Alfred, a town in New York State, to New Orleans, an impressive feat for sure (1,273 miles according to Google maps) but not “across” America in the ordinary sense of the word.  Jenkins wrote a second book, with his wife Barbara, titled The Walk West (1981) which covered the journey from New Orleans to Florence, Oregon: which is rather more of a crossing it seems to me. Arthur to Florence – it has a certain understated majesty to it, no?

Reading Jenkins today, he seems in some ways, to be ahead of his time, fretting about what is being done to America by corporate interests, but at the same time he’s part of that long tradition of writers who go off in search of America and themselves, and find them both pretty much wherever they look.

One of the fascinations of the book as far as I’m concerned is that Jenkins' journey took place at very much the same time that I was making my first trans-America trip, from Toronto, Canada (long story) to Santa Barbara, California, and although I was hitchhiking I inevitably did plenty of walking.  Like Jenkins, I experienced much warmth and much generosity from the people I met, such as the boys above, and only the smallest amount of occasional terror, also from the boys above.  This was pretty much the end of the hippie era, but hippie ideals and down home all-American values are by no means entirely at odds.

         In his book, Jenkins does from time to time have a tendency to drift into a kind of all-purpose Zen/National Geographic spiritual wisdom : “My main purpose was to be where I was,” for example, but heck, it was the times.  

          This is what Peter Jenkins looks like these days:

Monday, October 6, 2014


And speaking of black dogs, I’ve been rereading Robert Walser’s short story, sometimes referred to as a novella, “The Walk,” in which, at one point, the narrator encounters a hound:
“To a good honest jet-black dog who lay in the road I delivered the following facetious address: ‘Does it not enter your mind, you apparently quite unschooled and uncultivated fellow, to stand up and offer me your coal-black paw, though you must see from my gait and entire conduct that I am a person who has lived a full seven years at least in the capital of this country and of the world, and who during this time has not one minute, let alone one hour, or one month, or one week, been out of touch or out of pleasant intercourse with exclusively cultured people? Where, ragamuffin, were you brought up? And you do not answer me a word? You lie where you are, look at me calmly, move not a finger, and remain as motionless as a monument? You should be ashamed of yourself!’”
He then adds, “Yet actually I liked the dog.”

Robert Walser (1878 – 1956), was a German speaking Swiss who published quite  widely as a young man, but he was increasingly beset with mental and emotional problems that eventually stopped him writing altogether.  
And although he wrote four novels (or which only three survive), he’s generally regarded, and cherished, as a writer whose creativity came in fragments, sometimes in the form of "microscripts."  He might have been a great blogger.
  He was also a walker, no doubt a flaneur (he certainly wrote like one), and walking features regularly in his work, but it’s “The Walk” that pulls it all together, and is an excellent point of access to his writing, not least because the very idea of a (or the) walk creates a structure, and the story does have something resembling a narrative at least to the extent that things happen one after another.

A man goes for a walk, wearing his “yellow English suit.” He goes to a bookshop, a bank, the tax office, has more or less unsatisfactory encounters; with neighbors, his tailor, a beautiful woman, and indeed a dog.  Parts of it are very funny (I’m reminded of George and Weedon Grossmith’s Diary of a Nobody as well as Kafka), but the ultimate effect  is a soft, deep and eventually all-enveloping melancholy.

 “The Walk” was first published in German, as Der Spaziergang  in 1917, and I discover there’s a later, apparently quite different version, though the one I know is the early one as it appears in the nyrb edition of Selected Stories, translated by “Christopher Middleton and others.” 

As I reread “The Walk” I thought it was just great; funny, awkward, profound, gently tragic, and yet I was struck by how little of it I actually remembered from my previous reading.  Of course I’m happy enough to accept that this is because of the failings of my own memory, and yet, I’m relieved to find that W.G. Sebald had some of the same problems.

         Sebald writes about Walser in a chapter of the book A Place In the Country, and describes him as a writer, “whose prose has the tendency to dissolve upon reading, so that only a few hours later one can barely remember the ephemeral figures, events, and things of which it spoke. Was it a lady named Wanda or a wandering apprentice, Fräulein Elsa or Fräulein Edith, a steward, a servant, or Dostoyevsky’s Idiot, a conflagration in the theater or an ovation, the Battle of Sempach, a slap in the face or the return of the Prodigal, a stone urn, a suitcase, a pocketwatch or a pebble? Everything written in these incomparable books has—as their author might himself have said—a tendency to vanish into thin air. The very passage which a moment before seemed so significant can suddenly appear quite unremarkable.”

         Yes and yes.  And now there’s a new collection of Walser fragments titled A Schoolboy’s Diary and Other Stories, translated by Damion Searls, introduction by Ben Lerner.  In it there’s a piece, hardly a story, titled “Two Things” consisting of just two discreet paragraphs, which perfectly demonstrate the way Walser’s prose can evaporate before your mind’s eye.  The second paragraph, in its entirety, runs as follows:
       “I was walking just so and while making my way along just so I ran into a dog, and I paid careful attention to the good animal, by which I mean to say that I looked at it for rather a long time. What a fool I am, am I not? For is there not something foolish about stopping on the street due to a dog and losing valuable time? But in making my way along just so I absolutely did not have the sense that time was valuable, and so, after some time, I continued on my leisurely way. I thought, ‘How hot it is today!’ and indeed it was really very warm.” 
There’s just no getting away from those dogs.

The date of Robert Walser’s death is generally given as Christmas Day, 1956, but I think he must have died earlier than that, for reasons I’ll explain.  He was an inmate at the sanatorium (some describe it as a mental hospital) in Herisau: long country walks were one of his few pleasures.  He evidently died of a heart attack while walking across a snowy field, and his frozen body was found by children who were themselves out for a walk on Christmas Day. But it seems to me, assuming Walser didn’t set off before  first light, and assuming the kids weren’t walking after dark (reasonable though I agree not cast-iron assumptions), and I know it gets chilly in those parts, but still, it seems there wasn’t enough time for a body to go from alive and warm to frozen solid.  In other words didn’t he probably die at least the day before? Not the very biggest deal, but something worth considering.
Either way, it must have been quite a Christmas to remember for the kids. 


Wednesday, October 1, 2014


The Black Dog has been upon me lately.  Of course there are always reasons to be less than cheerful, but it’s the nature of the Dog that these things get blown up out of all proportion.  Walking has always been a reasonable way for me to keep the Dog at bay and it’s true that recently I haven’t been pounding the pavement as much as I’d like to.  The LA summer has been long and hot, and it’s not over yet – it’s going to be 100 degrees again at the weekend, so I thought I should get some walking done while I can.

Monday being a cooler day, and since I had a dentist’s appointment (no big deal this time, just a check up on last year’s root canal work) and my dentist being within walking distance, I decided to walk there and back, probably an hour in each direction, itself no big deal by serious walking standards.

The route offered the opportunity to walk by the newly-completed Emerson College building, properly referred to as a campus, and just as often referred to as a “futuristic outpost.”  It’s on a slightly bleak stretch of Sunset Boulevard, and it’s designed by local architect (starchitect in some accounts) Thom Mayne and his firm Morphosis.  It’s a fine and eye-catching building and if it doesn’t as yet look totally at home in the neighborhood it does at least seem thoroughly, excitingly LA.  And right around the corner from it work was going on to refurbish this rather wonderful building, which in many ways seems even more LA.

On the way to the dentist I happened to notice other dentists’ offices, something I suppose I wouldn't have done in other circumstances – one with this sign:

I personally wouldn’t have spelled esthetic that way, but that’s just me, and then there was this one with it’s own roadside library out front, Richard Ford, the Simpsons, a guide to the best places to kiss, a book on astrology.  Well I guess everything starts to seem very LA after a while.

And of course there are those curious little LA ironies, that you always see when you walk, some of which seem a little too obvious like this Gideon’s bible on top of a trash can:

And these goofy stick on eyes on a fire hydrant:

And finally as I was getting to the end of the return journey, as the temperature was getting above 80 degrees, I saw that classic Batman had returned to the streets in this very fine depiction, front:

And rear:

And was the Black Dog slain?  No, but he was tamed a little, and by the end of the walk he, and I, were a little too hot and sweaty to get into much of a dog fight.  Sometimes I’ll settle for that.