Drifting and striding 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.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013


My wife and I have been together long enough that I reckon I’ve heard all her stories, most of them many times.  But over the weekend she told me a walking story I’d never heard before.  Back in the day when she lived in Seattle, she was the owner of a very cool but rapidly expiring 1948 Plymouth that had cost her a hundred dollars.  It looked much like the image up above.

 One time, she and her then boyfriend were driving on the Seattle freeway, having up a young hitchhiker, as was the style at the time.  As the three of them were driving along, the car finally died suddenly and completely, having just enough momentum to make it to the freeway exit and roll down the off ramp, coming to a halt at the bottom of the slope.

My wife really didn’t know what to do.  The car wasn’t worth repairing, and even having it towed away would be a complete waste of time and money.  But then the young hitchhiker said, “OK, I’ll buy the car from you.”

She assumed he was trying to be funny but it became clear he was serious.  He was apparently a well-to-do kid who still lived with his parents, and his plan was to get the car home and park it in the back garden so he could sit in it and contemplate the mysteries of the universe.  He would telephone his dad, who was evidently the doting sort, and dad would come along in his truck and tow the car back to the house.  The kid offered $50 cash for the Plymouth.  My wife took the money, and left before the kid’s dad arrived, just in case he might have had certain objections to the deal, and she set off for home on foot.

It hadn’t been such a bad day.  She had $50 in her pocket and she’d got rid of a car that was probably worth nothing at all.  She was a fair distance from where she lived but there was nevertheless a certain spring in her step as she walked all the way home. 

Sunday, July 21, 2013


Of course there’s nothing funny about walkers being killed by drunk drivers.  And there’s not actually anything very funny about mooning, and yet who can resist an ignoble snigger, followed by a swift twinge of shame, upon reading this headline on the Fox news website in Phoenix:

Pedestrian 'mooning' cars fatally hit by drunk driver

The news items reads:

 “Police say a pedestrian who was walking in the road and flashing his buttocks to drivers was hit and killed by a suspected drunk driver early Saturday morning. 

25-year-old Lee Cole Koontha was allegedly ‘mooning’ drivers and laying down in the roadway near 20th Avenue and Indian School Road. According to police, he was likely drunk or had taken drugs. 

Although his friends tried to get Koontha out of the road, officers say he was eventually struck by 48-year-old Stanley Stafford. 

Police say they believe Stafford was also impaired by alcohol or drugs. 

Koontha was taken to a hospital where he later died. 

Stanley was arrested and booked for aggravated DUI.”

I’m glad that Lee had friends who at least tried to get him out of the road.  He looks like he may not have been a very easy man to befriend.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013


         “Take a walk along any river in any country, and one can see that the machine is almost defunct. God is rusting away leaving a fragile shell. Factories are like the shell of an insect that has metamorphosed into an entirely different creature and flown away.”  From In The Shadow of the American Dream: The Diaries of David Wojnarowicz.

         I’m not one of those people who has any great nostalgia for the bad, bad old days of New York City.  The first couple of times I went there, in the middle and late 1970s, the place was terrifying; abrasive, threatening, teetering on the brink of a bankruptcy that didn’t seem merely financial.  Having prostitutes, drug dealers or muggers on every street corner was undoubtedly very gritty and bracing, but it made walking around a hazardous and daunting prospect; not that I didn’t do it.  I felt as though I’d accomplished something, simply by surviving those streets.  And god knows I didn’t walk through the worst of it,

         There was an occasion when I took a Greyhound bus up to Poughkeepsie where I had some friends of friends, and at this point I’m not sure exactly what route the bus took, but not long after we’d left the bus station we seemed to be travelling through a war zone: burned out cars, derelict buildings, kids playing in rubble, a few desperate, homeless refugees pushing shopping carts.
         I didn’t consider myself a sensitive flower but I was really shocked by all this.  It was a genuinely appalling spectacle even as it was an utterly compelling one.  It was impossible not to stare and wonder.  How could one of the world’s great cities have come to this?  And above all, I was very, very glad that I was on the bus, and not out there on foot trudging through this blasted cityscape.  I had compassion for the poor souls out there, but I was very, very glad not to be of them.  It didn’t look very sexy out there.

The picture above is by Olivier Rebbot, and is titled “116th Street and Seventh Avenue, Harlem, New York City, March 1977, USA,” and I suspect the bus didn’t pass through precisely this zone, but the view is much as I remember it, though the man on the tricycle doesn't look entirely miserable.

These days, however New York, and especially Manhattan, is so prosperous, so pleasant, so spruced up that, while still resisting any nostalgia de la boue, even I find myself wishing it had a bit more patina, a few more rough edges.  Even when you find a rusted sign for a bar or a store you can’t be sure it’s genuine: there’s always a possibility it’s been deliberately antiqued to appeal to the hipsters. 

I did find a couple of places of fascinating ruin when I was in New York earlier this year, though you might argue about how “authentic” they were.  The first was the Irish Hunger Memorial, a half acre site commemorating the Great Irish Famine, of 1845–52.  It’s right down at the bottom end of Manhattan, on Vesey Street, close to the Hudson River, part of Battery Park, which means that it’s right by the World Trade Center.  Incredibly, improbably, as it surely seems, work started on the Hunger Memorial in March 2001, and was completed in July 16, 2002, rising from the ruined landscape all around it, while itself being a kind of ruin.

The Irish Hunger Memorial is like a chunk of old Ireland, magically transported to the New World, though in fact it’s a man-made slab of hillside, with paths, stone walls, and Irish grasses and wild flowers, and there are 32 large stones scattered about the land, one from each Irish county.
There’s also a ruined a fieldstone cottage, brought over from Carradoogan in County Mayo.  It seems to have been in use until the 1960s, and was owned by the Slack family who donated it to the memorial in memory of their relatives who emigrated to America and thrived.  So it is, in some sense, a genuine ruin; ancient stone, a rustic fireplace, no windows, no roof, and the last of these features meant that when I was there it was possible to stand inside the ruined cottage, and look up and see the almost completed World Trade Center rising above it.  If the symbolism seemed all too obvious it was none the less moving for that.

         A few miles to the north, a longish walk but a good one, still on the west side of Manhattan, by Riverside Park, on the banks of the Hudson River, in some sense actually standing IN the Hudson River, are the remains of the 69th Street Transfer Bridge, a black, decaying, deeply impressive industrial ruin, that looks like a misplaced signal gantry, possibly a kind of crane, or an elaborate scaffolding structure, its actual function unguessable unless you happen to know that it was built in 1911 as part of the New York Central Railroad. It enabled railway rolling stock to be transferred from the rails and onto boats, then floated across the river to the freight marshaling yards in Weehawken, New Jersey.

         It fell into disuse in the 1970s, and nobody seems to have thought too much about it at the time, since the city had other, more pressing concerns, which meant that a form of benign neglect took over, and the bridge survived, decaying gently but remaining essentially intact until 2003, when conservationists took notice and it appeared on the National Register of Historic Places.  It’s right there on the list along with the Brooklyn Bridge and the Chrysler Building.

         I’ve found some contradictory information about the future of the bridge.  One source suggests there are plans to turn it into “a waterfront amenity for ferry/water taxi access,” which sounds unlikely to me.  A more intriguing source has it that the 69th Street Transfer Bridge is going to be allowed to decay still further, to fall into absolute ruin, which I suppose means that it will eventually disappear completely.  I like the sound of that.  It seems like a very special kind of ruin, philosophical as well as physical, and it moves me even more than the Irish Hunger Memorial.

 That walk from the Hunger Memorial to the 69th Street Transfer Bridge will most likely take you past the Chelsea piers, now more or less safe, family-friendly leisure facilities, but not very so long ago, in the 1970s, they were the site of all manner of (chiefly male, gay) sexual subversion.   I certainly didn’t go down to the piers on my visits to New York in those days, and I’m not sure I even knew they existed, but I didn’t doubt there was plenty of sexual subversion going on all over the city.  The picture below is by Alvin Baltrop.

And now, life being the way it is, I’ve just discovered an essay by Fiona Anderson titled ‘Soon all this will be picturesque ruins’: Cruising Manhattan’s derelict waterfront,  which was presented at The Courtauld Institute, in 2011, as part of a conference titled Intersections: Architecture and Poetry.  Anderson quotes David Wojnarowicz extensively, having examined his archive - those words in quotation marks are the subtitle of a Wojnarowicz essay – and she concludes that “For Wojnarowicz, the waterfront was a space that facilitated not only functional and geographical appropriation and overlap; in doing so, it permitted temporal palimpsestuality too.”  Well you’ve said a mouthful there Fiona: palimpsestuality indeed!

She also quotes the novelist Andrew Holleran, one of whose characters, in a work titled Nostalgia For The Mud,  asks  “Why do gays love ruins? … The Lower West Side, the docks. Why do we love slums so much? [...] Why do I feel a strange sense of freedom the moment I enter a decaying neighborhood?”  And I suppose obvious answer might be that slums and ruins are places where, historically, gay men have gone to have furtive and anonymous sex.  Wojnarowicz did too, but he liked to imagine the guys he picked up bore some relation to great literary figures such as Genet and Mayakovsky.  To be fair he also made art there too.

A website titled backinthegays.com reports that "Greenwich Village in New York City was a homosexual’s dream come true in the 1970′s and early 80′s.  You could literally walk down Christopher Street and have sex as much as you wanted, anytime that you wanted to. Men fucked on the pier, in the trucks, in alleys and doorways and in bookstores, and bars backrooms.”

I don’t claim to know much about male homosexual desire, though I think I have some insights into the heterosexual variety.  To be able to literally walk down the street (as opposed to metaphorically walking down the street, I suppose) and having as much sex as you want, sounds like the kind of thing most heterosexual men would be very enthusiastic about.  And it would of course be crass to imply that having all the sex you wanted might lead to a different kind of ruin.

I’m sure it’s just as easy to ruin yourself in New York today as it always has been, but now the architecture and infrastructure no longer quite support the conflation of ruined body with ruined environment.  The ruins are stabilized, tidied up, appreciated. Many sexual subversives now want to walk down the aisle rather than among the piers.  I have a certain amount of trouble knowing whether that’s a good or a bad thing.