»  The Straggler, No. 68

June 30, 2008

   The Road to Wisdom

How far can I walk? The question's been nagging at me for a couple of years. I'm a sedentary type, and walking is the only form of exercise I have ever really indulged in. In my youth I was a great walker. Welsh and Scottish mountains, the country lanes of rural England, the streets of numerous cities: If all our footprints are recorded in a big book somewhere, mine make a pretty good showing. I never reached the very highest standards — the Royal Marines challenge to cover 100 miles in 24 hours, for example (it has actually been done) — but I was always a rather good walker.

Books about walking were naturally favorites. John Hillaby, whose Journey Through Britain (he walked from one end to the other) is still in print after 40 years, was a hero of my youth. Later I discovered Slavomir Rawicz's book The Long Walk, which describes how the author with six companions escaped from a Soviet labor camp in 1941 and walked across Siberia, Mongolia, Tibet, and the Himalayas, down into British India and freedom. Current critical opinion is that Rawicz made most of it up, but it's still a great story.

So now, having for years done nothing much with my body but inhale and exhale, how far could I walk? I resolved to find out. I had noticed that according to my car's odometer, it is exactly 30 miles from my house out here on Long Island to the middle of the Queensboro Bridge joining that island to Manhattan. Could I walk 30 miles? I made preparations.

John Hillaby walked alone, entertaining himself with what he called "the skull cinema" ("What's playing today?"). Alas, my own skull cinema is empty and cobwebbed, the projectionist having disappeared long ago. I felt the need for a companion across the trackless wastes of Long Island, but of course nobody was volunteering. At last I settled for my Discman and a good long Teaching Company course. A completely new topic would be too much to absorb in one day, so I picked one I was half-familiar with, needing only to fill some gaps: Prof. Jeffrey Kasser's 36-lecture Philosophy of Science.

I am proud to record that, yes, I can walk 30 miles, though it took me over 14 hours and the last two miles were a sheer gritted-teeth triumph of the will. Whether I am any wiser, I don't know. In line with Dr. Johnson's remark that men more often need reminding than instructing, most of what I found out on my walk was stuff I'd already known. I re-learned, for example, the fact, which I had somehow mislaid, that I do not have the philosophical temperament. No doubt Professor Kasser is a very worthy scholar, but by the time we got to Goodman's critique of Hume's critique of induction, he was boring me.

I re-learned some basic life lessons too: for example, that despair is the parent of achievement.

Despair arrived shortly after the ten-mile mark. I was passing the campus of C. W. Post University, which has some lovely lawns fronting the highway. Well, I thought, I've done ten miles, it wouldn't hurt to just rest up and air my feet for a few minutes. I climbed up on one of the grassy slopes to the shade of a tree, sat down, took off boots and socks, wiggled my toes, and treated myself to a power bar and some bottled water.

Folly! The first great rule of distance walking is don't stop. If you stop, you will seize up. The experienced walker rests by slowing his pace. I knew all this from the mountain hikes of my youth, but the grass and the shade were too tempting and youth too far behind me. I lay down on the grass and listened to Prof. Kasser discourse on the Method of Concomitant Variations. He had far too much to say about it. I began to doze … then caught myself. This would not do! The mission, the mission! I slapped some petroleum jelly on my blistered feet, put socks and boots back on, and stood up.

Now that first great rule kicked in. My legs would not move! Ankles, knees, hips had all quit on me. By swinging my legs without flexing, and slapping my feet flat on the ground, I lurched down the slope to the roadway. Swing-lurch, swing-lurch. It was no use. I couldn't continue! Ten miles was my limit, my pathetic limit. I had to give up.

But … how, exactly? C. W. Post is in the Empty Quarter of Nassau County. Nobody lives there. There is no public transportation. I own no cellphone. The nearest railroad station is two miles away. I had no choice but to walk somewhere, however much it hurt. Desperately I lurched on down the road, recalling Samuel Beckett: I can't go on, I'll go on. After a couple of hundred yards of swing-lurch, my joints and muscles began to un-seize. By the time I reached Greenvale, a mile further on, despair was banished. I was walking more or less normally, and actually paying attention to Thomas Kuhn's claims about the incommensurability of paradigms. Perhaps the real life lesson here is that necessity is the parent of resolution.

By the 15-mile mark I was positively striding. Around 24 miles a general systemic fatigue developed, but I made it to Manhattan, hailed a cab to Penn Station, and rode the train home.

The next day was, of course, excruciating. Sedentary persons should not impose sudden strenuous tests on themselves. Mrs. Straggler sighed resignedly: "You're crazy. Make yourself lame." The kids mocked in their merciless way, calling me Edgar after the stiff-limbed zombie character in Men in Black. The neighbors no doubt chuckled to each other for the umpteenth time about mad dogs and Englishmen.

I had indeed gotten badly burned by the midday sun, and lost a toenail, and gained some spectacular blisters. My heart was at peace, though. I had set myself a test and passed it. I conquered despair and got acquainted with Supervenience Physicalism. We overcome, we learn, and we make it to the end of the road somehow.