ratpag’s Book Club: The Last Great Walk by Wayne Curtis

last great walk

On Sunday ratpag previewed a new feature, ratpag’s Book Club, and announced that the first masterpiece that we’d delve into would be The Last Great Walk by Wayne Curtis.  Did you go out and read it?  We gave you three days notice!

Don’t fret, dear reader, if you haven’t had the chance to finish your work – ratpag is here to discuss our favorite points in what we’ll call a terrific anti-car, anti-sitting, anti-being lazy book (also a pro-walking book).

The story follows the trail of competitive pedestrian Edward Payson Weston along his coast-to-coast, New York City to San Francisco, walk in 100 days.  Didn’t know there were competitive, professional pedestrians?  Neither did ratpag!  Apparently there just weren’t that many exciting sports in the late 19th century.



Weston gained fame from his many long-distance endeavors, including his first great walk from Boston to Washington, DC – 478 miles – in 10 days and 10 hours (he’d lost a bet on who would win the 1860 presidential election.  He bet against Lincoln.  He had to walk to see his inauguration).  He’d later criss-cross New England, walk to Chicago, take a competitive tour of Europe and having a competitive walking career of over 40 years.  He’d even have another coast-to-coast walk a year after the one illustrated in this story but this 1909 one, from east to west, was the last to garner great attention.  Automobiles were exploding and people cared less for walking.

So why does ratpag like this book so much?  It isn’t simply about an old man walking across the continent.  Wayne Curtis fades in and out of the walking story with wonderful knowledge about, well, everything there is to know about walking.  How did humans come to walk?  Just how efficient is walking?  The psychology of walking.  How pedestrians lost the streets and how healthy walking really is.

So to whet your appetite, here are a few interesting walking facts from The Last Great Walk [with our opinions in brackets]:

  • Not walking, I believe, is one of the most radical things we’re ever decided to do.”  [Hell yeah!  ratpag agrees.  From page xviii]
  • “A typical American today walks an average of roughly five thousand steps daily, or somewhat less than two and a half miles…”  [This is including just bullshitting around the office and walking to and from your car.  From page 5]
  • “According to a 1992 study, a hominid walking on two legs can travel eleven kilometers on the same expenditure of calories as a chimpanzee traveling four kilometers.”  [From page 41]
  • “The engineering of immobility and comfort is essentially a modern advance.  Furniture pieces like chairs have long occupied a place in the world of elites, but were all but unknown to the common people until the Renaissance in Europe.”  [From page 47]
  • “‘What is more likely is that many people sit in chairs all day, get no exercise, and thus have weak backs [and, thus, back pain causing one to sit more and further weaken back muscles],’ he told the New York Times.  ‘We did not evolve to sit in chairs all day.'”  [From page 48]
  • “…by one estimate, the average American adult spends about 70 percent of each day just sitting…”  [From page 51]
  • “The average American spends about 190 hours a year commuting, according to Gallup.  That’s to say, the average American now spends more time in his or her car traveling between work and home each year than than same average American gets in vacation time.”
    • “…we spend, on average, one full day out of every year stalled in traffic.”  [ratpag thinks these two quotes are the most startling, and depressing, from the entire book – particularly the one comparing commuting time to vacation time.  Unless you get nearly 5 weeks’ – 4.75 weeks, to be exact – vacation time every year you’re spending more time commuting than on vacation.  From page 53]
  • “If you walk more and sit less, you live longer.  A study of more than four hundred thousand residents in Taiwan, published in The Lancet, showed that those who engaged in an hour and a half of moderate exercise weekly (walking, jogging, bicycling) increased their life spans by three years.”  [From page 69]
  • “…moderate exercise (walking briskly or jogging for thirty minutes three times a week) was just as effective at reducing the symptoms of depression as sertraline (Zoloft).”  [From page 88]
  • “[In the early 20th century, and all of time before, streets were a place of complete mixing of pedestrians, carts, wagons, everything.  But] within a decade, streets and sidewalks – venues of myriad public activities as late as 1920 – had largely been redefined as exclusive transportation ways, subject to regulation in the name of efficiency…”  [From page 145]
  • “‘We have effectively engineered physical activity out of our daily lives.'”  [Can’t argue with that.  From page 151]

We’ve probably quoted enough pro-walking propaganda for one post but, rest assured, there is much more in this very interesting book.  It’s a quick read, too, weighing in at 236 pages.  So there!  ratpag suggests that you read this book.  We give it 5 out of 5 rats (which is a good thing).

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