Lessons from Walking 180 Miles to Philadelphia.
Hello from Iowa!
I started writing this month’s newsletter from the seat of a Greyhound bus as it barreled through the rolling hills surrounding Interstate 80. There was word of a drought, but it’s been nothing but rain for the last week. The land is immensely lush, not too humid, and the corn is beginning to emerge from the ground. Now is the time to be here.
We’re stopping at a Flying J truck stop for a quick break before crossing over the Mississippi River into Illinois. I’ve spoken to a few passengers since getting on this morning in Des Moines. Some have been on the bus for two days and started in California. The man sitting behind me wears a bandana that covers a head full of locks. He’s a fan of the Dead, has been on the road for 12 years, lives out of a tent, and needs to get back to Oshkosh, Wisconsin where his stimulus money is waiting for him. I’m off to Chicago to meet with old friends.
I'll be here in the Midwest for the next month or so before heading back to New York City. I made plans to return home and see my folks after finishing my big Philadelphia walk. They still live in Des Moines, where I spent the first 18 years of my life, and are more than happy to have me. It’s been 16 months since I’ve returned to Iowa – the longest I’ve ever been away. Don’t ask me how long it’s been since I’ve visited during the warm months. I’m looking forward to becoming familiar with my hometown once again. Many long, humid walks are on the horizon.
Hello, I’m Alex Wolfe and this is Pedestrian, a newsletter about walking and our everyday surroundings.
It’s surreal being back in the Midwest and returning to regular life after walking 180 miles in 9 days. I wasn’t gone that long, but something inside of me has changed. I long for the day when I’m on the road once again. I have emerged from Philadelphia with new information and lots of it. Perhaps this newsletter can address some outstanding questions I received from fellow readers, as well as give myself a way to mentally “unpack.”
Before we get started, I’d like to invite you to sign up for the Pedestrian patreon. I sent out a daily newsletter throughout my Philly walk, which provided detailed accounts of each day, and is available to patrons only. I’m incredibly grateful to all the new faces that signed up and it was such a pleasure to write each night. THANK YOU!
The Practice of Walking
What was expected to be a 9 day, 160 mile walk ended up being just over 180 miles total. If my apps serve me correctly, I spent 57 hours and 43.8 minutes walking, which resulted in 360,298 steps.
That is a lot of walking.
On average, I walked 20 miles per day, which exceeded my expectations of 17.75 per day. While I learned this was certainly within my capabilities, I’ll likely shoot to keep days around 13–15 miles per day on the next walk. What I’ve come to realize is that a 20 mile day does not allow much room to “stop and smell the roses” as they say. I’d argue that is the point of walking.
Instead I was spending more energy than I’d like concerned about getting to my Airbnb in a timely fashion. Luckily my hosts were more than accommodating in the event that I was running late (basically every day). 20 mile days will take 8-9 hours to complete if you’re not careful and don’t get me started if there’s rain. Stopping for photographs, a quick chit-chat, or field recordings can quickly add up and before you know it, you’re walking on the shoulder of a busy street without any sunlight.
Airbnb’s were a viable means of lodging through the entire trip. In a sense, it added a whole new layer to this walk. Each night I stayed in a new environment and met new people. I’m happy I didn’t camp, as it would have made this walk really hard to enjoy. I don’t know about you, but ending a long day of walking in a tent pitched in the middle of Newark, New Jersey does not sound enticing. There are better walks for camping.
Each night was basically the same routine. After getting to my Airbnb, I’d make myself comfortable, and begin stretching for 30 minutes or more. After stretching it was time for a shower and then dinner time. Most dinners consisted of copious amounts of pasta, salad, and bread to replenish lost calories throughout the day. Fortunately, New Jersey is not short on decent establishments for good pasta. Other times, the host would graciously cook for me.
I’d finish the night, more often than not, in a delirious haze as I pumped out the night's daily newsletter. What was supposed to be a 300 word dispatch with a photo evolved into a 1000+ word newsletter with multiple images – something I only do once a month. I like to joke, but it took me 180 miles to stop caring if my newsletter was perfectly written. At the end of the trip, I rounded out at 9,750 words.
Walking to Philadelphia was just as grueling as it sounds, however for reasons I did not expect.
It wasn’t necessarily the distance that proved most strenuous, (although my body certainly felt its consequences), but the mental endurance required to walk day after day in the most densely populated region of the United States. The corridor between New York City and Philadelphia was undoubtedly built for the car with little regard for the pedestrian. While I planned out my route in advance, I could not anticipate when sidewalks would start and end. I didn’t have to walk on busy highways, luckily, but plenty of times I had no choice but to walk on grass or large shoulders besides busy strips of road. Rarely was this an issue, but seeing that I didn’t want to get hit by a car, it required some level of alertness that didn’t subside until finally reaching lodging for the night. By the end of the trip, I felt like a machine ready for most scenarios and ready to walk on any kind of surface. It’s amazing how one can develop a sensitivity to all the tropes and patterns of suburban planning when traveling by foot.
Walking from New York City to Philadelphia is to intimately experience violent urban planning done in the name of the automobile. I do not walk because I hate cars, nor do I wish to dismantle the auto industry. However, it’s nearly impossible not to feel some of its effects after walking long hours at a time along busy streets. If the smell of gasoline and exhaust doesn’t get you, then perhaps the amount of trash or relentless hum of traffic will.
Fortunately, after a few days of walking, a certain rhythm emerged - something akin to a runner's high fueled by the momentum of the previous day's trek. After leaving Elizabeth, NJ, I was able to let my guard down. I went from being overly anxious about the prospect of lugging a 25 pound bag for 20 miles a day, to being overwhelmed by a sense of freedom that can only be described as eating a day’s lunch (which often consisted of beef jerky and trail mix) outside a Wawa gas station or darting for a porta potty inside of a busy construction site without asking for permission.
Generally speaking, I met friendly people along the way who were more than happy to chat, give me free water, or give directions. It was a privilege to have completed this walk without issues and I’m grateful for others' generosity. I often questioned how differently things could have unfolded if I were not a white male. Rarely was I actually in harm’s way, but that’s not to say I felt completely at ease the entire time. I found walking alone in more isolated areas caused my imagination to wander.
For example, I took the Delaware and Raritan Canal Trail outside of Morrisville, PA. It was the most remote stretch of the entire trip, and while I wasn't completely “off the grid,” the prospect of encountering someone on the trail just spooked me out. Sometimes I would go hours without seeing anyone, only to see the silhouette of a figure suddenly approach in the distance. Occasionally, I would meet people who made makeshift homes in the woods or stumble upon a pair of train hoppers along the tracks. A smile and a nod went a long way, but never was it actually an issue.
My imagination may have run wild at moments, but a heightened sense of awareness followed me throughout the trip. I chalk it up to being presented with new information all day long. Each day was a new town with new sights worth seeing. One begins to recognize slight differences in bird species or the subtle differences in people’s lawn ornaments from town to town after some time. Not once did I ever feel the need to listen to the radio or put on music. It would have felt too distracting, (although, occasionally I’d call a friend on those really long days). Instead I kept a field recorder close to track emotions, remember notable snippets for the night’s newsletter, or to talk about some random thought spinning around my head. It felt therapeutic and allowed me to feel a bit more aligned – a feeling that often slips away when consumed by the callings of everyday life.
The most common question I received on the road was, “Why?”
Well, it all started after watching The Sopranos for the first time at 29 years old…
Ok...not really, but there is a mythology around New Jersey that is often portrayed on television or movies which I was curious to explore (and obviously debunk) on this walk. New Jersey notoriously gets a bad reputation, and perhaps because I didn’t grow up on the east coast, cannot begin to understand. I have yet to experience the entire state, but after spending almost 9 days walking the Garden State, I can confidently announce a deep appreciation for Northern New Jersey.
It will take a long time for the true “why” to emerge from this walk. It was just as much about developing a body of work as longing to see the world. Spending the last year inside a tiny apartment during lockdown helped plant the seed. I could not fly home to see my family, but I could physically take myself somewhere with my own two feet. There’s only so many 20+ mile walks you can do inside of New York City. Taking these walks outside of city limits felt like the next step.
I don’t speak on this enough, but there is value in challenging what others deem impossible or foolish. Over the last three years, this project has only continued to evolve, and this walk, in a sense, was a means of leaning deeper into this work. To lean into the work (in whatever sense that may mean to you) is to promote a certain way of being that rejects the superficial, and often shallow culture that has permeated society. To commit to this work is to yearn for a deeper engagement in life and believe there is a world out there that can be more fulfilling.
I’ve got a lot of looking to do now that the walk is over. Slowly but surely, I’m sifting through thousands of photos, listening to all the audio I captured, and combing through the daily newsletters once again.
I have plans to produce a book about his walk later in the year, but for now I’m sitting with the material. My feet could use a long needed break. Last week I walked the entire length of Western Avenue in Chicago (24 miles) and could tell my feet still weren’t back to 100%. All the familiar aches and pains have returned, which perhaps is a sign I need to take it easy.
This project is forever changed and I’m already yearning for the next big walk. It’s just a matter of where and when. Hopefully before the leaves begin to fall.
All and all, I’d do it all again. It was the walk of a lifetime and part of me wishes I could have gone all the way to D.C.. Philadelphia is a wonderful place (as far as I can tell from staying for two days) and I’ll certainly return again.
Thanks for tuning in and following my walk. Don’t hesitate to reach out if you have questions. I’d be glad to hear from you and cannot wait to share the next one.
Thank you, thank you, thank you to those who have joined the Pedestrian patreon in the last month. Your support means the world and helps make planning these long walks a little bit easier. Big thanks to Ruby, Mike, Carol, Bred, Kevin, Bruce, Jake, Joe, Beejoli, Cole, Nate, Mathilde, Keegan, Phyllis, Courtney, Brittany, Kyle, Zoe, Becca, Ashley, Peter, Dasha, Gage, Jackie, Philip, Taylor, Caroline, Suki & Joe, Izzy, Alex, Jason, Emily, Emily H., Ruthanne, Greg, Michelle, Jay, Ryan, Nora, Adam, Laurel, Allie, Hayley, Nice Guy, Kira, Two Hawks, Helmut, Emily B., Brian, Lori-May, Rebecca, Kyle, Katie, Laura, Pat, Con Man, Lucas, Bianca, Paige, Henry, Michael, Carmen, Mom, Ian, Alyssa, Kate, Erin, Elliot, and James for supporting Pedestrian this month!
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