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.

Friday, May 29, 2015


Hollywood, of course, is not merely a geographical location; it’s also a style, an attitude and an industry.  But although the name Hollywood is synonymous with movie-making, it’s never had a monopoly.  Even in its early days, a great many “Hollywood movies” were made in other parts of LA, and today the term seems to refer to a certain set of values and means of production, regardless of where in the world the movie is actually made.

And so, even if you’re walking through, say, Utah, you may still get the feeling that you’re in a Hollywood movie.  A great many have been partly shot in and around the Moab area, the Arches, the Canyonlands: movies such as The Lone Ranger, Transformers: Age of Extinction, Nurse Betty, Rio Grande, Thelma and Louise, 127 Hours and a whole bunch of others. To be fair, not all these movies have (so to speak) foregrounded walking, but the landscape is always a major player.  The viewer (or at least this viewer) often thinks, hey, that looks like a cool place to walk. 

But if you're looking for a more singular place to go walking, why not head along the road a hundred or so miles from Moab, and go for a walk in the Goblin Valley State Park, like I did.

Yep, the rocks looks like goblin hats or mushrooms (and let’s face it, occasionally penises) as well as skulls, robot heads, ancient cities and whatnot.  You will also be walking in one of the locations for Galaxy Quest, a movie that I absolutely love, though again, not for the walking per se.

 You won’t be walking completely and utterly on your own in the Golblin Valley, though the “crowds” are pretty much non-existant once you get a couple of hundred yards away from the picnic area, but you will, in some sense or other, be walking in the footsteps of Sigourney Weaver.  

There are worse footsteps to walk in, for sure.

Monday, May 25, 2015


I’ve been thinking about walking in gardens.  It seems a very tame, Sunday-afternoon kind of thing to do, doesn’t it?  A garden seems like no place for a serious walker.  Gardens are supposedly benign places of order and tranquility, right?

Well, only up to a point.  Think of the gardens of Eden and Gethsemane, think of the Garden of Earthly Delights (above): these are places where some less than tranquil stuff definitely went on, and I expect the walking there wasn’t very tranquil either.

Back in the day, I worked in the Botanic Garden in Cambridge - that's it above though I'm not sure it looked much like that when I was there.  My fellow gardeners were an interesting bunch, and at least a couple of them were recovering from breakdowns, and working as a gardener was supposed to be a  kind of therapy.  It wouldn’t have worked for me.  I was young, and not much in love with peace and tranquility – I found the work hard and immensely tedious and it drove me, though only in the colloquial sense, nuts.   I didn’t last long.

And I’ve been wondering lately whether a garden may in fact be a place of anarchy and chaos rather than order, and whether walking there might be an act of subversion rather than, say, a stroll in the park.

For one reason and another I was in Utah last week and I went to the Gilgal Garden in Salt Lake City.  It’s a kind of public sculpture garden, in the middle of a suburban area where the other houses have perfectly ordinary suburban gardens.  The state declares Gilgal a “visionary art environment,” which I suppose it is.

It was created by a Mormon businessman, a masonry contractor named Thomas Battersby Child, Jr. (1888-1963).  It has a dozen more or less symbolic sculptures and 70 stone slabs engraved with biblical verses, quotations, and lines of poetry.  Many, but by no means all, are Mormon texts.  There are lines by Thomas Carlyle, for instance, and praise for Queen Victoria.

Child began work on Gilgal Garden in 1945, when he was 57, wealthy, a local figure, and a Mormon Bishop.  He, and his crew, kept working on the garden, until the time of his death.

It is, no doubt about it, wholly eccentric and downright comical in places, but the overall effect is not absurd, and if the general intention is spiritual, at the very least it seems to represent Child’s own interpretation of his religion.  There’s perhaps something a bit William Blake about this: “Each man must create his own system or else he is a slave to another man’s.”

Here for example is a Sphinx with the face of Joseph Smith, he of the latter day golden tablets.

You might well interpret it as saying that Mormonism is the answer to the Sphinx’s riddle, but intention isn’t everything.  It looks like a lark.  And is it just me or does that face bear a passing resemblance to Margaret Thatcher?

 And here’s the shattered giant from Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, as described in the Book of Daniel. “This image's head was of fine gold, his breast and his arms of silver, his belly and his thighs of brass.  His legs of iron, his feet part of iron and part of clay.  Thou sawest till that a stone was cut out without hands, which smote the image upon his feet that were of iron and clay, and brake them to pieces.”
But you know there’s always going to be something a bit laughable about a giant foot sitting in a garden.

My favorite sculpture (below) is by Maurice Brooks and titled “Monument to the Trade,” showing Child himself – a stern and solid man it appears, and also one who owned a pair of brick trousers.

The garden is too small to offer a very strenuous walk, and yet as you wander its paths it does feel like you’re on an adventure.  Who wouldn’t want that?  And it must be said, at least when I was there, nobody else was.
About 230 miles south east of Salt Lake City you’ll find the Arches National Park, a stunning, much visited and (let’s face it) severely overcrowded attraction.  In the free brochure and map you get after you’ve paid your entrance fee you can read, “Arches National Park is a great family park where you can walk to many features.  You can see much from a car, but the special aura of time, silence, and scale may elude you.”  I’ll say.

Driving the park’s roads can be like edging along a traffic jam, and I’ve walked down streets in London and New York that aren’t much more crowded than some of the designated trails.  Even so, you’d have to be made of stone not to see the beauty and grandeur of the place, and if you go there you just have to accept that in some circumstances beauty and grandeur have to be experienced in the presence of others. 

And so it was, as these photographs prove, taken at the Devil’s Garden.  I admit I was chiefly attracted by the name.  There’s not much peace and tranquility there and not much room for subversion either, though this Japanese woman’s pink trousers do seem satisfyingly out of place.

The Arches visitor center does however have an information board with a quotation from that famous subversive, Edward Abbey (1927 -1989):

Abbey is one of those narrowly known but passionately appreciated writers, a novelist best known for The Monkey Wrench Gang, essayist, journal keeper, lover of wilderness and solitude, denouncer of “Industrial Tourism,” and by some accounts one of the fathers of the modern conservation movement, not least for his book Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness.  The local bookshop named Back of Beyond, in Moab, the town nearest the Arches has two sections devoted just to Abbey, one for new books, and another, considerably bigger, for used and rare.

Abbey was a park ranger at Arches in 1956 and 1957, but didn’t come back for a third year because he was already finding it over developed even then.   He believed that adversity was good for the walker and the explorer of the desert.  He was in favor of dirt roads and difficult trails.  One can only guess just how much venom he’d spew over the present arrangements, but I dare say he wouldn’t be very surprised.

There are various other Abbey quotations that might have might have been put on that board at the visitors center, for instance, “walk, better yet crawl, on hands and knees, over the sandstone and through the thorn bush and cactus. When traces of blood begin to mark your trail you’ll begin to see something, maybe. Probably not.”

Nor was Abbey much of a believer in the consolations of the garden, “Paradise is not a garden of bliss and changeless perfection where the lions lie down like lambs (what would they eat?) and the angels and cherubim and seraphim rotate in endless idiotic circles … the paradise of which I write and wish to praise is with us yet, the here and now, the actual, tangible, dogmatically real earth on which we stand.”  And, of course, walk.

Monday, May 11, 2015


Photo by Victor Cabelero, via Twitter

Having been a talking head last weekend, I was an “expert” panelist this weekend, at LitFest Pasadena.  The title of the panel was simply “LA On Foot” something I do feel reasonably able to talk about, although in many ways sitting on a panel feels like the opposite  of walking.  Since I live 15 miles from Pasadena some driving was required, and of course I thought about walking there and back, but it seemed a bit much for a Saturday afternoon.

Chairing the panel was Stephen Reich who is, among other things,  one of the producers of a show titled City Walk “the only television series that journeys by foot across the country for a ground's eye view of urban America. Experience the vibrant streets and sidewalks of Los Angeles, New York, Boston, Atlanta, San Francisco, Portland, Las Vegas, Denver, and Washington D.C. while discovering stunning architecture, magnificent monuments, serene parks, and communities transformed by a new breed of pedestrians who march to the beat of a different drummer.”  Well yes.

On the panel were James T. Rojas, an urban planner, who made the fascinating point that Latino immigrants are accustomed to having large public squares to walk in back home, and so when they arrive in LA many of them turn their front gardens into a miniature version of the public square complete with benches and a fountain, though I suppose the opportunities for walking are considerably reduced.

Also on the panel was Lynell George, a fine journalist who among many other things runs a photoblog titled wanderingfoot (which I must admit I first read as wandering fool) with some pretty fab pictures, such as these:

In a piece for “Which Way LA” she wrote “So first with just a notebook, later with a camera, I began to walk Los Angeles—its grittier neighborhoods, cul-de-sacs and alleyways—in the early less-cluttered hours to see what I might find. Often, hiding in plain sight, I’ve found souvenirs of the last century—backyard incinerators, rusting hulks of past industry, hand-painted ghost signs hawking nickel movies or the promise of ‘Nice Rooms.’”
Sounds like psychogeography, right?  Though that deadly word wasn’t mentioned in the course of the session in Pasadena.   I have learned this is a word that makes 99 percent of people in the world glaze over with mystification (at best).

It being a literary panel, Steve asked us whether we had a favorite literary piece about walking, and I mentioned Jim Harrison’s “Westward Ho” – a novella about a man who walks across LA, from Cucamonga to Westwood.  Harrison writes that this is a 47 mile walk. 
A few people in the crowd thought this sounded like an impossible walk, and also that the distance was more that 47 miles.  I was in no position to argue, but when I got home it checked it on MapQuest, and they (or at least their algorithm) reckon it’s a doable walk, if a few miles longer than described by Jim Harrison.  

I know that Harrison is at least something of a walker – that’s him below with Gary Snyder.

Of course when you're on these panels you usually come away wishing you’d said something other than what you did say, but I had a strangely different experience this time.   At one point I found myself saying, “We all want to be safe when we walk and the more people walk the safer we’re all likely to be.”  It sounded true, and a perfectly reasonable thing to have said, but you know, it just didn’t sound like the kind of thing I’d usually say.

Some links right here: