Monday, July 30, 2007

Necessary Steps: A Novelist's Walk Through Summer

July 30, 2007, 6:50 pm

Mean Streets

This walking series isn’t panning out quite as I intended. True, there was my Situationist hop, skip, jump across England and France, and then my liaison with the Orwellian psychic bullet on the Hebridean island of Jura. But last week I got bogged down in Brazil. And while this week I do cover a lot of ground, little of it is á pied.

Tableau of English woodland at the American Museum of Natural History reminds the author of his usual haunts.It all goes to demonstrate that serious walking requires planning; not because it needs accessories or training – unless you happen to be a rampant bore, these are a sideline – but solely due to the time factor. I’m back home in London now, and reading John Hillaby’s “Journey Through Britain,” his classic 1968 account of walking from Land’s End to John o’ Groats. Hillaby, while still taking time out to get drunk with Scots burghers, wax lyrical over Tintern Abbey and do some serious botanizing, nevertheless managed to keep up a steady 4 m.p.h. for the 800-odd-mile walk.

I wonder what he was on. I’m perfectly fit, experienced, and yet for the long haul up hill and down dale can manage no better than 2.5. You can do the math yourself: if I want to walk 25 miles – which I almost always do – I’ve got to allow a full 10 hours.

I’ve had some great walks in the States: bear pursuits (me in the front), in Estes Park, Colo.; promenading with rubber fetishists through the Tenderloin of San Francisco and then up Bunker Hill (you can read that sentence any way you like); and, of course, the obligatory California high-stepping moon-stomp from the Marine Corps’s state-within-a-state at Twentynine Palms to Joshua Tree.

However, my favorite United States walk was – and probably always will be – the one I took with Chip McGrath of The New York Times from Kennedy airport to Manhattan’s Lower East Side, a trek he wrote up for the wood-pulp edition of this organ. For sheer, psychic discombobulation, nothing beats a big airport walk, and J.F.K. is arguably the daddy of them all. (Although I’m planning to walk from LAX to Hollywood next spring, and am already seriously overexcited.) The long essay I wrote on this profound, ambulatory experience will be published in book form in the fall, and I’m in negotiations with a major Hollywood star — or a major Hollywood star’s people — about the movie version.

His people say that since his last action-packed blockbuster, he has been interested in portraying driven obsessives, who yet are uncommonly beautiful, while possessing great brilliance and integrity. The only difficulty they foresee is getting him a convincing body-double for the walking sequences.

I digress. Here are my most recent stateside fiascos:

Walk 1. J.F.K. Immigration. Distance: 350 meters. Time: 3 hours. (Not advised for anyone with medical problems or jihadist convictions.)

I realize that this is a sensitive matter, but I think if the events since 2001 establish anything, it’s that Al Qaeda and its global affiliates, while being murderous, bigoted millenarians, are nonetheless not lacking in imagination or cunning. While having no desire to impugn the sterling work of the Department of Homeland Security, I put it to them that it’s extremely unlikely that Osama is going to pitch up in the line-out at J.F.K., wearing a false non-beard and an Armani suit, then try to dodge the guy on the desk.

Sadly, as a United States citizen, I was unable to take the three-hour walk into the U.S. (a k a “queue for Immigration”) my wife and children had as a result of still more stringent security checks. Three hours after an 11–hour flight from Sao Paulo (and regular readers know what it’s like down there). Three hours with two boys under 10, no water – obviously – and no place to sit down. Interesting that entrance to the Land of the Free has become such a chain-gang experience.

I impressed on Mrs. S. that I would’ve loved to take the walk with her and the kids, if they’d have let me – she didn’t seem convinced. Indeed, she didn’t seem anything, being entirely mute and unable even to rise to the exciting news that having missed our connection to Albany we would be staying the night in a Holiday Inn!
As the shuttle-bus clunked around the airport’s elevated roads I noticed the exciting concrete defiles. I had traversed on my walk to New York last year, and was on the verge of excitedly imparting this to Mrs. S., when I noticed her “phone-your-divorce-lawyer” expression, and thought better of it.

Walk 2. The Springs Motel to the Batcheller Mansion Inn, Saratoga Springs, N.Y. Distance (direct): 550 meters. (My way): 3 kilometers.

To paraphrase Levi-Strauss on abstract painting: airline schedules have now become an expression of how airlines might timetable their services, were they by any chance to actually fly some planes. It took 40 hours by car, plane, shuttle-bus, cab, plane and hire car to get to Saratoga Springs, N.Y., from Paraty in Brazil. We arrived one hour exactly before my nephew, Robin Adams, was due to tie the knot with his charming girlfriend of long standing, Julie Gedalecia, yet nevertheless failed to make the ceremony.

I blame Phred, the babysitter, but then I would, wouldn’t I? I wonder what Phred will call himself when he gets his doctorate? Presumably: Phred Ph.D., or some such. Anyway, he told us to turn right down Broadway and we’d find the charming old Carpenter Gothic Batcheller Inn on the right. He neglected to mention that it was set back from the road, down Circular Street.

In my understandable zombie-like state, we strolled painfully on along Broadway and into the downtown area of Saratoga, before we realized we’d overshot. I say we, but Mrs. S., having long since taken a vow of silence apart from the occasional expletive, wasn’t actively involved in the (dis)orientation. Charming town Saratoga, still possessed of great character — lovely place for a stroll, what with its fine, interwar spa area; impressively solid commercial buildings; and not forgetting the beautiful purlieus of Congress Park. Just not very lovely when you’re on a jet-stream come-down.

We made the Batcheller eventually, and were in time to see Robin and Julie dance an impressive Tango together. A dance inspired by their honeymoon destination: Argentina. Their flight south would carry them through the trail of my rapidly dispersed neurons.

Walk 3. The Chelsea Hotel to the Empire State Building, Manhattan. Distance: 2 kilometers. Time: 35 minutes.

I always walk everywhere in Manhattan – don’t you? It’s such a friendly city (well, borough) to the pedestrian, what with its orderly graticule of streets and its wide sidewalks… Well, yes. And then again: no. Driving in from upstate, only a day after landfall from the distinctly temperate southern continent, and with the Family drogue in tow, Manhattan’s baking streets are no place to tread. The Flatiron building looked as hot as a… flat iron.

When we eventually made it to the Empire State (it was the small boys’ first trip to New York City), Mrs. S. quite reasonably balked at the further walk (or “queue,” as it’s styled). Thank heavens for the Express Pass, which for a nugatory 50 bucks lets you jump up the building as fast as a superhero. If only all walks had express passes, John Hillaby would’ve done his Land’s End to John o’ Groats tramp in a matter of hours.

When we descended, we set off uptown for the American Museum of Natural History by cab, but had to abandon it in midtown. Mrs. S. decided to go into Fendi, or Bendi, or one of those places, purely so the small boys could have a bit of aircon’, you understand. Once inside, she spotted a dear little pair of paisley-patterned knee-boots, a snip at $8,000, and just the thing for taking … necessary steps.


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