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.

Sunday, August 14, 2016


Is there any more depressing way of being described than as “Geoff Nicholson, 63”?  (Well yes of course there is, Geoff Nicholson 64, Geoff Nicholson 65, and so on, but you know what I mean).  That’s how I was described by the Sydney Morning Herald in a rather good piece by Peter Monroe about walking.  It can be found below.

Shrewd observers and flaneuses will note that the piece is illustrated with images of the winsome Tara Wells, 39, and I’m sure that will be perceived as a bit dubious in some quarters; male gaze and whatnot.  But personally I’m prepared to accept that most of the world (me included) would rather look at pictures of her than at pictures of a 63 year old geezer.

It’s a funny thing, when I read my own words after an interview.  They always sound like something I would have said, but I can never quite remember having said them that way: something to do with the spoken versus the printed word, I’m sure.  But in general I’m content to do an interview and find that I don’t come out sounding like a complete dick: this one just about passes the test, IMHO. 



Peter Munro

At 8pm on a frosty night in autumn, Leonard Mead goes walking. His route runs down silent streets and empty footpaths, past homes lit from within by television screens. It's quiet out – he wears sneakers so as not to startle the neighbourhood dogs. In 10 years of strolling by night and day, tallying thousands of kilometres on his feet, he has never met another person walking.

This last, lonely walker was imagined by science-fiction writer Ray Bradbury, in a dim future when walking is forbidden and pedestrians are considered criminals. His 1951 short story The Pedestrian depicts a misty evening when Mead is arrested by police for just walking – with no particular purpose or destination in mind. "Walking for air. Walking to see," he says, before being locked inside the sinister-sounding "Psychiatric Centre for Research on Regressive Tendencies".

Bradbury's story was set in 2053 and seems aeons away from our own time. But already, people who walk are relative curiosities. Less than one in five Australians aged 15 and over walked for exercise in 2013-14 – the latest available ABS figures – down from 24 per cent in 2011-12 (even then, it remained our most popular physical recreation activity). The number of walkers dropped by more than 700,000 over that time – from about 4.2 million to 3.5 million.

While we might still walk short distances to the bus stop and train station, the notion of walking for sheer pleasure is emerging as something strange or startling. Committed walkers such as Tara Wells, of Caringbah, in Sydney's south, are increasingly thin on the ground.

    Tara Wells spent her honeymoon walking in Sydney. Photo: Peter Rae

"People have become disconnected to walking for the sake of it, possibly because of laziness and apathy," she says. "These days, it is easy to go your air-conditioned house to your air-conditioned car to your air-conditioned workplace and not even notice what you've been missing because your life is so full otherwise.

"When I take the time to get out there at the pace of the walker,  I feel much more connected to myself, the people around me and the world in which we are living."

Walking is in decline worldwide. The proportion of young Australians who walk, ride or scoot to school dropped 42 per cent between 1971 and 2013, according to Active Healthy Kids Australia. In the United States, there has been a comparative long-term slide of 35 per cent in school children taking "active transport" – it's similarly down 23 per cent in the United Kingdom and 12 per cent in Canada.

Walking has suffered most in countries that are heavily reliant on cars. Passenger vehicle ownership in Australia increased from 153 cars per 1000 people in 1955 to 568 in 2013. Multibillion-dollar road projects such as Sydney's WestConnex and Melbourne's Western Distributor toll road plan, reinforce the sense that cars are the way to go.

Tara Wells walks whenever she can - it clears her mind, relaxes her and helps connect her with the outside world.  Photo: Peter Rae

Witness the queues of cars at school drop-off and pick-up zones, or the traffic jams in suburban streets on Saturday mornings. Walking is regarded as dead or wasted time in an otherwise busy day. Walking is something older people do. Even the word "pedestrian" designates it as dull and uninspired.

When we do walk, it's typically to the bus stop, train station or car parking station, often while staring at mobile phone screens. For many of us, the notion of walking for pure pleasure might as well be sci-fi. 

Dr Lina Engelen, a research fellow at the Sydney Medical School, within the University of Sydney, recalls regularly walking to school and sporting activities as a child. Parents today are less likely to let children roam free, she says. "We are getting busier and we don't really have time to walk kids to school or to different places," she says.

"And that combines with the idea of our society getting less safe, which it isn't. Fear mongering means people don't let their kids walk themselves and will drive them."

Active Healthy Kids Australia, a collaboration among researchers in physical activity and health, says children used to enjoy a much larger "roaming radius". The group's 2015 report card on active transport – which gave Australia a middling mark of "C" – cited a UK study that children were failing to venture much further than their front yard. The typical distance that an eight-year-old navigates on their own by foot or bike has declined dramatically: from more than 9.5 kilometres in 1919, to 1.6km in 1950, 800 metres in 1979 and 270m in 2007.

The report's authors attributed the growing reliance on cars, in part, to an increase in the distances children travel to school – due to urban sprawl and the preference for private schools over local public schools. But they questioned parents' concerns about stranger danger and road safety – noting that children are more likely to be harmed by someone they know and that rates of pedestrian accidents are low and getting lower.

The slow demise of walking goes beyond the schoolyard. Driving is the dominant mode of transport to work or full-time study for the vast majority of Australian adults. The percentage of adults who instead walked fell from 4.4 per cent in 2000 to 3.8 per cent in 2012, according to the ABS.

Engelen says while the trend of wearing activity trackers, such as Fitbits, may have increased rates of recreational walking, overall "discretionary" walking has been falling for decades – particularly those incidental, short trips to the supermarket, bank or soccer practice.

Many people simply prefer not to walk, she says. "It is seen as just easier and more comfortable to get in the car, especially if it's a rainy or cold day.

"And perhaps walking is not considered as cool as other forms of physical activity. People are more keen to say that they do scuba diving or are training for a triathlon – something that would impress people a bit more than saying 'I walk'. Anyone can do it, so you are not so special."

'It shouldn't be a big deal that you have gone for a walk'

The winter sun is high above Cronulla Beach, in Sydney's south, where even the dogs are blonde. Young mums in bikinis drag double prams across the sand. Leathery men stick mobile phones down their budgie smugglers.

Tara Wells walks by in jeans and pink Converse shoes. She's no Leonard Mead – there are plenty of people out walking today but they're mostly dressed in active wear, intent on working up a sweat.

Wells, 39, has three children under four and finds scant time to exercise. She prefers "incidental walking" – to train stations, the shops or the library. She spent her honeymoon with husband Ian, who runs Sydney Coast Walks tours, walking most of the way from Manly to Bondi.

That's an unusual honeymoon, I say. "Yes," she says.

In 2010, after suffering sudden onset rheumatoid arthritis, she could barely walk and recalls standing at the bottom of a busy train station escalator in anger. "All these people had two perfectly good legs and I couldn't understand why they weren't using them," she says. "I think it's laziness and apathy. I knew that once I got my health under control, which it is now, I would never take my legs for granted."

She says that walking "recharges" her body and mind. "It gets the blood flowing and I feel more connected to myself and to the world. When I walk I can feel the ground under my feet, I can feel the blood pumping through my veins, I can feel the wind through my hair. And all of that helps me remember who I am, rather than just my role as a mum."

Conversations flow better when you're walking, she says. And so we stroll along the foreshore, talking about walking and children and walking with children. We're overtaken by people hurrying by with small dogs – including one in a hi-vis dog jacket.

"What's been lost along the way is just walking for the hell of it," Wells says, watching them go. "It shouldn't be a big deal that you have gone for a walk. I think we have forgotten how easy it is and what your legs are there to do, if only we would use them."

'A way of sharpening up the senses'

Walking is an instinctive process that enhances the body and mind. A Stanford University report in 2014 found walking increases creativity – even when it's on a treadmill. Other studies associate regular walking with a reduced risk of dementia, depression and low self-esteem. 

History suggests that an aimless kind of rambling, with no destination or Fitbit tally in mind, seems best for agitating the mind. Poet William Wordsworth is estimated to have walked almost 290,000 kilometres in his life, much of it about England's Lake District. Virginia Woolf sought inspiration while strolling through London's parks. Charles Dickens walked the streets all night, coming home at sunrise.

British writer Geoff Nicholson, author of The Lost Art of Walking, says there's something about the pace of walking and the pace of thinking that go together. Wandering about near his home in the Hollywood Hills helps him to compose novels or solve plot twists. "For me and for a lot of people it is a way of sharpening up the senses," he says. "If you drive down the street, you see things running by the windscreen – they're here, they're gone. But walking helps you see what's there with greater clarity."

Today, Nicholson, 63, has walked up a hill and down again – taking him about 55 minutes in total. He also likes walking in big cities and discovering "strange little corners and alleyways and detours". "Being alone and not needing a car or bus or any other form of transport other than yourself, makes you self-reliant," he says.

Plodding along has some philosophical good, he says. At some point along the long, lonely road, the walker might become the walk – inseparable from the act of putting one foot in front of the other. It's a "zen kind of thing", he says.

"Not wishing to sound too spiritual, there is that sense of belonging, of oneness," he says. "Sometimes I am just a guy trudging along and wishing I was home. But at its best, the body, mind, soul and landscape all come together and raise you up in some way."

Here's the link to the Sydney Morning Herald: 

Thursday, August 4, 2016


Life’s like that: A couple of posts back I was writing about the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and now, by serendipity, I discover there’s such a thing as the Snow Chi Minh Trail.

It’s not much of a place to go walking, as far as I can see.  It’s a mountainous section of Interstate 80, in Wyoming, between Walcott Junction and Laramie, 72 miles of bad road, site of some appalling winter driving conditions and subsequent highway crashes.

It was opened in the fall of 1970, and although it was lined with the best kind of snow fences then available, they weren’t good enough to deal with the severity of the snow that affected the area. And so the Wyoming Highway Department had to become experts on snow fence technology, which led to the development of the Wyoming Snow Fence.

CLUI photo

“These porous rows of tall wooden fence, rolling across the hills, are not made to block the snow, but to cut the wind, causing wind-borne snow to drop rather than to accumulate in places where it may pile on roads or cause white-out conditions or stream across the road surface forming a persistent layer of ice.”

I’m quoting there from The Lay of the Land (that’s where I discovered the Snow Chi Minh Trail), it’s the newsletter of the Center for Land Use Interpretation, one of LA’s more wonderfully eccentric yet utterly serious enterprises, that (I think it would be fair to say) is concerned with nature and culture, with the ways in which people live on the earth and what they do to it.  I picked up the newsletter because I went to an exhibition at the center, titled “Middles of Nowhere: Dry Lakes of the Mojave.”

 It’s a fabulously austere exhibition, in a not very well illuminated, windowless space.  There are small black and white maps on the walls showing dry lakes, with brief informative notes on each lake; no bells or whistles, nothing for the kids.  I thought it was just wonderful.

The founder of the CLUI is Matthew Coolidge, and I’ve read interviews in which he’s talked about the meanings of “somewhere” and “nowhere,” and how there’s really no such thing as nowhere.  When you’re in the middle of nowhere you’re always somewhere, possibly in the middle of a dry lake.

Even so, a dry lake is a special category of somewhere, a contradiction in terms maybe, and a place defined by an absence.  A lake is a place with water, a dry lake is a place without.  Of course some dry lakes do have water at certain times of the year, but then they shrink and disappear.  Their boundaries aren’t fixed and eventually they have no boundaries at all.  Go pick the symbolism out of that one.

And I realized I’ve done a fair amount of walking on or around Californian dry lakes, not as part of any great project, just because I like to wander through the desert in a more or less haphazard way.  Here are a few of them. 

This is Searles Lake, seen from the town of Trona:

This is Owens Lake, about ten miles south of Lone Pine, generally regarded as the largest single source of dust pollution in the United States.  You definitely don’t want to be there on a windy day:

And this is Racetrack Playa in Death Valley: I’m not really sure that I understand the difference between a dry lake and a playa, or even if there is one:

As you can see (I hope), plenty of other people enjoy walking on the Racetrack – which is certainly one of the problems of visiting Death Valley.  It has been reduced to a number of sights and attractions, to a series of “somewheres” where people congregate.  If you’re looking for peace and isolation in Death Valley you have to find a spot between named places.  Oh yeah, and do bear in mind that Death Valley is not a valley, it’s a graben, or perhaps a half-graben.  (How long have you got?)

These thoughts of dry lakes reminded me that the first dry lake I ever encountered was Lake Ballard, in Australia.  I only went there because of the name – because I was a fan of JG Ballard, but it was truly startling, the emptiest, loneliest place I’d ever been.  I’ve just had a dig in the archive and I’m pretty sure this photograph was taken at Lake Ballard, though it was a long time ago, and my archive is a mess, so I could be wrong.

Anyway, I hear that the bed of Lake Ballard is now decked out with 51 sculptures by Antony Gormley which seem attractive enough, but I suppose they also makes it more of a somewhere, possibly even a tourist destination.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016


A long time ago in London in the very early 1990s, my girlfriend and I were waiting for a bus, in the Strand, at about 10.30 in the evening, and who should come walking along but Dennis Thatcher, heading more or less in the direction of the Houses of Parliament.  Margaret Thatcher was still an MP at that time, though no longer Prime Minister.

Even so it was a surprise to see Dennis walking all by himself, no bodyguard or security detail in sight.   My girlfriend and I sort of looked at him, and he sort of looked at us, but we really didn't acknowledge each other’s existence, although the moment he’d gone my girlfriend and I simultaneously said, “That really was Dennis Thatcher, wasn’t it?”  And there was no doubt whatsoever that it was.

Largely thanks to Private Eye’s portrayal of him as a gin-drinking, golf-playing, saloon bar bore, Dennis Thatcher was largely a figure of fun in Britain during the Thatcher years, but there are much worse things to be.  He was wise enough to keep his mouth shut and stay out of trouble, which seems to me as much as we can or should demand of the spouse of a political leader.

In the United States however things run a little differently.  If you want to be president you have to drag out your spouse at the party convention to make a speech saying what a good egg you are.  When your spouse just happens to be Bill Clinton, well, it’s no surprise than he turns up the rhetoric pretty effectively.  

The home life of the Clintons remains inscrutable, in fact downright unimaginable, to most of us.  And needless to say Bill Clinton’s speech made no mention of jetting around on Air Force One, of hobnobbing with dubious international dignitaries. nor how he and Hillary enjoy the many billions contributed to the Clinton Foundation.  No, folksiness was the order of the day, and what’s more folksy than WALKING? 

First there was the cute meet:

“I saw the girl again, standing at the opposite end of that long room. Finally, she was staring back at me. So I watched her. She closed her book, put it down, and started walking toward me. She walked the whole length of the library, came up to me, and said, "Look, if you are going to keep staring at me, we at least ought to know each other's name. I'm Hillary Rodham, who are you?"

Obviously things went pretty well:

“I asked her to take a walk down to the art museum. We have been walking, and talking, and laughing together ever since.”

Yes walking is apparently one of their things, and yes, judging by the pictures a dog is 

usually involved.   He went on:

“I can tell you this — if you were sitting where I am sitting and you heard what I have heard and at every dinner conversation, every lunch conversation, on every long walk, you would say, "This woman has never been satisfied with the status quo in anything.’”

Some might think that a series of long walks with somebody who’s constantly expressing dissatisfaction with the status quo might be a little wearisome, but Bill’s obviously made of sterner stuff.  And of course he insisted that walking isn’t just the province of rich white folks:

“If you are a young African-American disillusioned and afraid, we saw in Dallas how great our police officers can be. Help us build a future where nobody is afraid to walk outside, including the people who wear blue to protect our future.”

Who could disagree?  And I’m not saying it isn’t a damn good speech, and if it helps put Hillary (and him) in the White House, then that’s OK by me.  I’m just not wholly convinced that the two of them really do a whole lot of walking together, unless there’s a photographer nearby.  And I suppose any number of bodyguards.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016


If you felt like going for a walk in Los Angeles last Saturday afternoon you would have been well advised not to.  The air quality was (as we say) “unacceptable.” There are so many things about life that are unacceptable but air quality is one of the few that gets an official designation.  Above is how it looked from where I was.  It looked way more dramatic elsewhere.

The sky was that color because of the “Sand Fire” which sounds a little more “end of the world” than it actually was.  It was plenty serious enough – 37,000 acres of forest fire in the Sand Valley, about 30 miles north of the city, up near Santa Clarita, 10,000 people evacuated, 18 homes destroyed (all these figures provisional, of course), but the name invokes something even more extreme: dunes bursting into flame, sand particles turning into molten glass, something like Herzog’s Lessons of Darkness.

The LA Times helpfully ran an article under the headline “Air quality around Sand fire is 'like being around second-hand smoke,' expert says.” Some might have thought it was rather like being around first-hand smoke, but then we’re not all experts.

The man they’d got to pontificate was Mark Morocco, a clinical professor of emergency medicine at UCLA. “The danger posed by the Sand fire depends on how close people are to the flames,” he said.  And did he have advice for walkers?  Well not specifically.  “For everyone, it is best to ‘throttle down on your exercise’ and get to places with better air quality, Morocco said.” 
There was a psychological element too. “'People feel anxious about it when the sky looks like a zombie apocalypse, when the sky is red and these smoke plumes are on the horizon,' Morocco said. ‘If you have anxiety, you’re going to feel worse, or if you have depression, you could actually get depressed.’"  You don’t say, Mr. Morocco.

Fact is, I’ve been watching the skies more closely than usual as I continue to read Gavin Pretor-Pinney’s The Cloudspotters Guide.  Of course those weekend air conditions above LA weren’t clouds, which I suppose meant they couldn’t be spotted and named and classified.  But the most interesting section I came across in Pretor-Pinney’s book was about cloud seeding by the Americans during the Vietnam War, “Project Popeye” as it was known, designed specifically to mess up the Ho Chi Minh Trail.  This came as news to me though I’m sure not to many.

--> General Vo Nguyen Giap looking pretty cheerful on the Ho Chi Minh Trail

As I understand it, the Ho Chi Minh Trail was the supply route for men and equipment that ran from North to South Vietnam via Laos and Cambodia.  This was a monsoon region, and when the rains came down. the trail became impassable.  The American military boffins reasoned that the longer the rains went on, the more disruption there’d be.  This was revealed to the American public in an article by Seymour Hersh in the New York Times, July 3, 1973.  For years apparently the American military had been spraying chemicals (silver iodine seems to have been the active ingredient) into the clouds above Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia in order to make rain. 

Frankly, the Ho Chi Minh trail doesn’t look like it was a walk in the park even at the best of times, although you could evidently get an elephant or two along at least part of it on a good day.

Project Popeye seems to have worked pretty well in itself, not that the US won the war or anything.  And then there was also "Project Commando Lava," created by some guys at Dow Chemical.  Aircraft dropped paper sacks filled with a mixture of Trisodium Nitrilo-triacedic acid and Sodium Tripolyphosphate.  When mixed with rainwater this substance destabilized the soil and created “artificial” mud.  In some quarters It gave rise to the slogan "make mud, not war.”

And that is something that the folks around Sand Valley (and elsewhere) will in due course have to worry about.  It’s much the same every year around these parts.  There’s a fire, scorched earth, destabilized soil, then the rain comes and creates mud slides (real, not artificial) even without chemicals.   Anybody might think California was a war zone.

Friday, July 22, 2016


A few days before the 4th of July 1932 a fifteen-year-old boy named Louis Thomas Harden was walking along beside the railroad tracks near Hurley, Missouri.  The local mill pond had recently flooded, and pieces of inscrutable debris were left beside the tracks when the water receded.

Louis was a tinkerer, the kind of kid who made wooden models and built projects out of Popular Mechanics magazine.  So when he found an especially intriguing piece of debris there where he was walking, he picked it up and took it home with him.  The object may have have looked something like this:

Or I suppose this:

On July 4th itself he examined his new find more closely.  It proved to be a detonation cap left behind by a construction crew some distance away, and transported trackside by the flood.  As Louis looked more closely at the object it exploded in his face, and despite some desperate and painful surgery he was left permanently blind.

In due course Louis Thomas Hardin (1916–1999) became Moondog; an all-American original, a composer, musician, and poet, who between the late 40s and the early 1970s could be seen in various locations around Manhattan.  At one point he was a fixture in Times Square, but more often he could be found on 6th Avenue between 52nd and 55th Street.  He looked like this:

Sometimes he played music, just like any busker, sometimes he tried to sell merch, and other times he just stood there looking like a Viking.  I’m sure he was photographed many thousands of times, by gawking tourists as well as by serious photographers.   The classic image shows him as the still point, as the other walkers of New York swirl around him.

I’m always slightly surprised by how many blind people there are walking the streets of Manhattan, especially when you consider how many sighted people claim to be terrified at the prospect. 

I’m sure Moondog had friends and helpers but he obviously did get around the streets under his own steam.  Philip Glass, in his essay “Remembering Moondog” (which is the preface to Robert Scotto’s authorized biography Moondog, The Viking of 6th Avenue) writes, “he was so confident in his walk you wouldn’t think he was blind.  I wondered how, as a blind man, he managed to cross the street without an instant of hesitation until he showed me how he listened to the traffic lights; I had never heard them before in this way.” 

   I don’t suppose Moondog ever had much use for a printed map of New York, but he had a sound map in his head.