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THE LAST WALK
Are cars turning human beings into quadrupeds? Or is there room for walking after all?

By Wayne Curtis

Here’s a question: Are we evolving to become quadrupedal, needing four limbs to get around as we once did on the African savanna?

After all, we now need two limbs to control foot pedals, and two to aim a wheel in the direction we’re headed. (Well, at least one to aim, one to text while driving). For nearly five million years we were fine getting around with two feet when we had to cover a distance. Then, in the last century, we’ve more or less abandoned our feet to become car monkeys.

OK, yes, it’s a facetious question. Of course natural selection isn’t likely to favor paunchy men with short arms held permanently at the 10 and 2 o’clock positions. This will never be attractive to highly fertile women.

Yet, I wonder what our cultural evolution away from the long walk means. We still get around on two feet, at least in intervals — from the cubicle to the rest room, from the parking lot to the big box store. Yet the long, purposeful walk seems to have fallen into severe disfavor. In the typical city, according to one study I came across, about forty percent of all walking episodes among adults consists of twelve steps or fewer. As I pointed out in  my first Walking Tour column, we now essentially tweet with our feet, executing the equivalent of a series of 140-character walks. Long-form walking has disappeared.

I explore this trend at (perhaps obsessive) length in a new book, which came out last week. It’s called The Last Great Walk: The True Story of a 1909 Walk from New York to San Francisco, and Why it Matters Today. It’s constructed around a journey taken by a man named Edward Payson Weston, who walked from Atlantic to Pacific at age 70, averaging around 40 miles per day. (Pause to think about that).

Accounts of his walk — which was widely lauded and his route clotted with spectators when he went by — make this feel a bit like a John Henry tale, a story of noble but futile exercise to prove that the car was a superfluous interloper, and that real Americans got about with heel and toe. 


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