Skipping Steps

Exploring the lost art of the in-depth walk.


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Dumaine Street is one of the narrow, old streets lined with spalled buildings in the French Quarter of New Orleans. It’s rather beautiful. And I absolutely loathe it. Mostly, I loathe it for its obstinate refusal to arrange itself in proper chronological order.

When I walk down Dumaine, I’m often trailed by a half-dozen or so tourists, and I’m trying to tell them the story of the city. I volunteer for a nonprofit group, and once a month or so I lead architectural walking tours of the French Quarter. The tour lasts about two hours. Along the way, I try to offer up some small insights into the French Quarter and how it got that way. That Dumaine Street won’t cooperate with my narrative is an affront each and every time.

First we pass lovely Creole cottages from the 1820s, and then a proud 1788 raised wood-sided structure built in the French colonial style. Next door is a townhouse with an entrance characteristic of the mid-19th century. Just up the block is a house with flat roof that was typical of the 18th century Spanish period, showing up like a friend late for a party. Then next door is a pair of shotgun-style houses with millwork frippery dating to the second half of the 19th century. It’s as if the city had carted out houses for a yard sale, and just left them along the curb without any plot or plan.

I talk a minute or two about each, but I always feel that I’ve failed in my job. We’re all hardwired for a story with beginning, a middle, and an end, and here I’ve just spouted random, unconnected anecdotes about a grab-bag of different styles. For someone who grew up reading novels and book-length non-fiction, I feel like I’ve been reduced to tweeting the history of the French Quarter.

Modern life, of course, keeps getting more chopped, diced and disjointed. Nonfiction seems to be getting shorter and shorter (magazine editors no longer even apologize to writers for assigning “listicles” or “charticles”). And the long walk has gradually become disaggregated into a series of miniature marches, each now with its own purpose. Anything more than 140 characters or a few dozen steps begins to feel burdensome; we grow restless. The walking tour I lead clocks in at just under mile, and for some visitors that qualifies as adventure travel.

How much do Americans typically walk in a day? A study published in 2010 rigged up 1,136 Americans with pedometers, and concluded that we walk an average of 5,117 steps every day. (No surprise: that was significantly less than in other countries studied — both Australians and the Swiss walked around 9,600 steps daily, and the Japanese 7,100.)

It’s also widely assumed that we walk far less than our forebears, but that’s tough to prove — you won’t find much in the way of pedometer studies from the 19th century. But we can draw some conclusions from other information — like how many kids walk to school today versus the past. In the 19th century, of course, everyone walked to school, since buses didn’t exist and districts were designed to accommodate walking. By 1969 more than half of all school kids still walked to school. Today, it’s about 13 percent.

Another: A study of Old Order Amish in southern Canada in 2004 recruited nearly a hundred adults to wear pedometers for a week. This is a little like using pedometers in the 19th century; the Amish don’t have cars or tractors, and still get around in large part by foot and horse-drawn carriage. The average number of steps per day for Amish men, it turned out, came in at 18,425. For women it was 14,196 steps.

America was once the land of the long walk, at least if you didn’t have the means to ride a horse, or, starting around 1900, to drive a car. We walked and walked, and the process both learned and told our own stories and that of the land around us. Walking stitched together our nation with tight, durable seams, not like high-speed highways that render stitching that’s sloppy, loose, and easily undone.
Undertaking a 10- or 15-mile mile walk was once something Americans might do routinely in an afternoon. No special note was made of it. In 1906, just as cars were coming into vogue, the nation was afflicted by a small outbreak of long-distance walking — multi-day walking races and long-distance walkers seemed to be tromping everywhere. A splenetic editorial in American Gymnasia magazine took a dim view of the attention being lavished on the long-distance walks. “It is simply another mark of the degree of physical degeneracy (is that too strong a term?) of the present day that long walks are uncommon enough to excite special attention — not 1,200 mile walks but even 50-mile trips. And for most of us ten miles is a distance to cover which we must use much effort, and having made it are quite sure to indulge in self-praise.”

That 5,000 steps we take each day translates into about two and a half miles every day, or 900 miles per year. That’s not insubstantial. But I’m pretty sure the quality of our walks has also changed — when we move by foot today — at least in my experience and what I hear from others — it always seem to involve brief, intense tromps motivated by a single purpose. We walk to the garage to get to the car. We walk from the mall parking lot to Best Buy. We walk from Gate 4 to Gate 22 in Terminal B.

Essentially, we tweet with our feet.

What do we lose by walking less, and breaking up our walks into Halloween-candy sized missions? We lose that opportunity to tightly stitch together our world. A long walk — it takes about three hours to walk 10 miles, and without breaking a sweat — gives us time with our thoughts, and establishes the right speed to appreciate the complexity of the world around us. It gives us time to plait the warp of random observations and the woof of random thought. We create a narrative and a place.
Americans drive an average of 13,400 miles each year, or about 36 miles a day. The one time people spend long periods alone with their thoughts tends to be in a car — on long drives or stuck in traffic. But it’s not the same. In a car, we’re cocooned, isolated from a complex environment that can engage us.

And as traffic historian Tom Vanderbilt has noted, our highway system today essentially mimics “a toddler’s view of the world, a landscape of outsized, brightly colored objects and flashing lights” as we speed along “smooth, wide roads marked by enormous signs.” Heading down an on-ramp to merge onto a highway, it’s as if we’re entering a day care center for adults. We push on pedals and turn a big wheel. We communicate with others by blaring a horn that plays a single note, or by employing a hand signal that involves a single finger.

“‘The pedestrian mind doesn’t get very far in a day, but it has the opportunity to see where it is going,” noted a writer in the Saturday Review of Books. That was written in 1928, and even then — when the gulf between walking and driving was scarcely a gully — he could see the outlines of two differing ways of thinking: The walking mind and the driving mind. (“Vehicular minds move under some other power than themselves and hence grow flabby and become crowd minds, standardized and imitative.”)

On our tweet-length, mission-driven walks we remain cloistered in the sanctuary of our minds, focused on our immediate goal. I don’t think I’m alone in saying that I’ve never an interesting thought walking from the outer edge of a parking lot to the entrance of a big box store. I’m too wrapped up in plotting my mission, figuring out how to get in and out as efficiently as possible.

Nicholas Carr in his 2010 book, The Shallows, suggested, essentially, that Google was making us stupid. He cited one researcher who noted, “the digital environment tends to encourage people to explore many topics extensively, but at a more superficial level.” Carr went on to add, “skimming is becoming our predominant mode of reading,” and we are adept at “non-linear reading.” We lose our capacity for “in-depth reading.”

We also seem to be losing our capacity for in-depth walking. Walking is now short-term scanning. Thoreau liked to spend four hours every day rambling, free of tasks and immediate goals. He lamented that his fellow townsmen would recall pleasant walks they’d taken a decade ago, but had “confined themselves to the highway ever since.” “The length of his walk uniformly made the length of his writing,” Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote of his friend. “If shut up in the house, he did not write at all.”

On the French Quarter walking tours, I always hope to build connections to a complex, fascinating past, sometimes ennobling, often troubling. I tell visitors on my walking tours to make sure they look down so they don’t stumble on the notoriously uneven walks, and look up so they don’t miss the notoriously elaborate ironwork, which is essentially 19th century architectural bling.

But I also urge them to linger at hidden, gated walkways that run between or beneath many French Quarter homes. These often lead to courtyards that are alive with banana trees and bougainvillea and traces of lives once lived. These are worlds invisible by car, and just as invisible to those on a project-driven mission.

“Walking… validates the reality of the past in the present,” wrote Allice Legat, a Canadian anthropologist, “and in doing so, continually re-establishes the relations between place, story and all the beings who use the locale.”

I’m gradually coming to terms with the chronological chaos of Dumaine Street. I’m letting go of the narrative I want to impose on the city. I’m now just hoping to slow things down, and let those walking with me build their own narrative and chronology from the small details along the way. 21 December 2012