Reflections on an All-Day Walk

By Jeff Venables

Pathologist and occasional provocateur Tom Bassler, MD, once theorized that how far you could walk could determine how long you could live. It turned out that the distance you can cover on foot is an extremely good parameter for life expectancy. In one study, researchers looked at 200 men in Italy, measuring how far they could go on a track in 20 minutes. They then observed how long each person lived. There is a rather linear relationship, it turns out, between how far the men could walk and how long they could live. Terry Kavanagh's work with heart patients in Toronto has produced similar findings. 

The idea of walking long distances has been captivating modern humans for centuries, many of whom are perhaps drawn to it because of its connection to our early-hominid migratory habits. Romanticizing our ancestral roots while getting out there with this simplest of activities feels extremely natural and can occasionally even border on a spiritual experience.

Dr. Bassler was fond of saying that a mile is a mile—that is, the distance you cover is more important than your speed. In many ways Bassler and his friend Jack Scaff, MD, predated the "primitive man" craze made popular by the publication of Daniel Lieberman's 2004 piece in Nature positing that humans—uniquely among mammals—evolved to run and walk long distances. Jack has written, "Our shape had its beginnings in running. Primitive man survived by it, was defined by it." Likewise, Tom compared marathoners to certain hunter-gatherer tribes in South America that have extremely low rates of heart disease. 

Whenever an 80-year-old man decides to walk across the United States he has my attention.

A few months ahead of his 80th birthday, former active duty U.S. Marine and retired minister Don Stevenson will complete his cross-country journey on foot from Auburn, WA to Silver Spring, MD. The effort is far from his first, and is part of Don’s ongoing effort to raise awareness and money for the Pulmonary Hypertension Association (PHA).

The Seattle area resident, known as the Pacing Parson, has been walking 25 to 30 miles per day, six days a week, since June 9. The journey will take about three months.

Stevenson, who takes Sundays off to rest, is following a route along Highway 2 across the northern part of the U.S. At the end of each day, he catches up with his wife, Loretta, who drives ahead and secures overnight accommodations, often donated by hotels when they learn about the Pacing Parson’s long charity walk.

Stevenson will pass through Michigan and then head south across the Straits of Mackinaw, through Detroit and Ohio before finally arriving in Silver Spring, MD, at PHA headquarters by September 16. To meet that goal, he will need to walk about eight hours each day.

This fact so captured my imagination that I decided I’d try it—for one day, that is.

I’m no Don Stevenson, and it is unimaginable to me how someone could repeat that daily routine at his age for three straight months. So I set out to simply spend one day walking about eight hours, not quite sunrise to sunset but something close.

People colonized every continent by walking long before they rode animals, much less drove cars. Roman soldiers, often carrying 70 or more pounds of equipment, considered a 20-mile march a good day. So surely I could set out on a full-day urban hike and return in one piece.

I decided that to walk all day, an equipment list at its simplest would look something like:

  • A backpack
  • 4 liters of water
  • Trail mix
  • Banana
  • Carrot and celery sticks
  • Sunblock
  • Adhesive bandages
  • Sunglasses
  • Cellphone with portable charger
  • Money
  • A small washcloth
  • Hand sanitizer
  • Printed list of route turns

On June 6, I set out from my home to get in touch with my inner early hominid on a preplanned route that I estimated would be 25 miles roundtrip. I used a mapping website designed for creating race courses, which is very accurate and favors footpaths in helping the user calculate turns along the route.

My thinking was that at approximately 18:00-mile pace I should be able to cover that ground with a total of eight hours of walking, resting every two hours for about a 10-hour day total. It worked out fairly close to that plan, though there were some unforeseen aspects to this journey.

Most notably, I wound up on an ill-advised detour walking a stretch down in the concrete barrens of the Los Angeles River in an attempt to right a course error early on that had led to a dead end along the Sepulveda Basin. In the end I walked 27 miles, culminating in a 1,300-foot elevation gain hike in Southern California’s Topanga Canyon State Park.

Here is a snapshot:

  • I was out urban hiking a total of 10 hours, and covered 26.9 miles
  • 8.5 hours of that was spent walking
  • 1.5 hours of that was breaks
  • My pack weighed 12 lbs
  • The walk culminated in a 1,288-foot elevation gain
  • The route was from my home in Van Nuys to the Hub Junction in Topanga Canyon State Park, then back
  • The total Topanga hike portion of the walk was 6.5 miles roundtrip

After such an extraordinary fat burn—out at 8 a.m. and home by 6 p.m.—I put my battered feet up and sipped a beer for a well-earned booster shot of hydration, carbohydrate and analgesic, ready to reflect on the day.

Reflections.

I found this experience so challenging and gratifying that I have since set out on four additional urban/suburban walks in various directions and at various times of day, essentially drawing a circumference with my apartment complex at the center, and using a radius of 10 to 15 miles for out-and-back routes double that.

On this first outing, among the surprising discoveries along the way were the sheer number of people who greeted me—I estimate around 40. I also became keenly aware of changes in flora and fauna as the day progressed. This included humans; the people who were out on a Saturday at 8 a.m. differed significantly from those who were out in the very same neighborhoods on my return at 6 p.m. as dusk began.

I was amused to encounter and greet the same FedEx carrier in the afternoon as I did in the morning, making two different sets of deliveries in the same neighborhood many hours apart. Similarly, I passed what I can only describe as a “crow security checkpoint,” a specific tree on a quiet block from which came the exact same crow call in the afternoon as it did as I passed under it in the morning.

My ankle joints, soles of my feet and heels suffered the most. Much of the hike was either up or down steep hills, and as I proceeded I began to notice by subtly shifting my pelvis that I could at times completely alleviate the stress on my quadriceps as I walked down the sharpest declines with the heavy pack. This became a sort of game that occupied me for several miles, as it took deep concentration to maintain the proper angles, ever changing with the gradients, to achieve the “weightless” feeling for any period.

Walking is different from running, and certainly a world away from cycling. The walking world slows down in the most pleasant and at times surreal ways. I am convinced to walk is human, and recommend a well-planned full day’s journey to anyone with a spirit of adventure and an openness to the sights, sounds, and smells available in even the most mundane suburban settings that can only be experienced on foot.

View from Topanga Canyon:



Zoom in and explore my route here (marked one-way and minus the LA River diversion): http://www.gmap-pedometer.com/?r=6629586

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