Read Recently — June 2015 — Nonfiction — Great Walkers

The Last Great Walk: the true story of a 1909 walk from New York to San Francisco and why it matters today by Wayne Curtis

In the late 19th century, a trend of watching people walk long distances (either actual long distances, as in the titular case of a cross-US walk, or an “Indy 500” kind of long distance, where the walkers walked around a small area a lot of times), and sometimes betting on them (people in the 19th century would bet on anything, apparently) broke out. One of the great walkers, a man whose walk from Maine to Washington DC for Lincoln’s inauguration led to the trend in the first place, was Edward Payson Weston. On March 15th, 1909, Weston celebrated his 70th birthday by setting out to walk to San Francisco in 100 days. He made it to his destination, though he was five days late.

Curtis pads out an otherwise thin tale with discussions of walking now and how we got to this situation. Some of this stuff is interesting (though the whole thing is so US-centric that Europeans and some Canadians might find some of it incomprehensible), while other parts of (particularly the early chapter where he talks about the health benefits of walking and the “epidemic of obesity” are terrible and made me consider buying a car–and I’m a confirmed walker if anyone is.

Also, the next time someone argues about how TV is destroying society and people’s ability to entertain themselves, blah, blah, I’m going to point out that in the 19th century people went out to watch other people walking. Nuff said.

The book is well-written enough, but I can’t help feeling that there’s nothing really here. You’d have to have a really specific interest to find this worth picking up, and I can’t really figure out what that interest would be. Mildly not recommended.

Fatal Passage: the untold story of John Rae, the Arctic adventurer who discovered the fate of Franklin by Ken McGoogan

Weston would walk 50-mile days for fun (and also because it seemed to be the only way he could make money). John Rae would walk 50-mile days on snowshoes, in a blizzard, in sub-zero arctic conditions, then shoot and butcher a caribou for food, then build an igloo for shelter. And then do it all again the next day, and be the first European to see some feature of the North.

Born in the Orkneys, Rae went to medical school in Edinburgh and in the early 1830s signed on to be a doctor on a Hudson’s Bay Company ship, expecting to be home in a year. But the ship was frozen into the Bay and forced to winter there; Rae so impressed the local Factor that they wrote personally to the President of the company, who made Rae an offer he couldn’t refuse. Before he retired he got caught up in the whole debacle surrounding the sad fate of Sir John Franklin and his lethally failed attempt to find the fabled Northwest Passage.

For a guy from the early 19th century, Rae was pretty liberal; unlike a lot of explorers he respected the First Nations and learned from them and, at a time in his later life when he would have profited from metaphorically throwing some Inuit under a metaphoric bus, refused to do so.

Interesting read, well-written, about a man, time and area of the world not as often remembered as they should be. even in Canada. Recommended.


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