What Walking Can Teach Us About Drinking

While researching his book The Last Great Walk, Wayne Curtis did a lot of walking—and drinking. A nature boy at heart, Curtis explores the connections between hiking through nature and trekking through cities with bars as his trail markers to explain how drinking and walking are two perfectly matched pursuits.

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“Stay calm,” reads the Boy Scout Manual’s advice for someone lost. “You can’t use your brain well if you’re in a panic. Breathe slowly and deeply. Drink some water, eat a little something.”

This is very good advice if you’re in the woods. If you’re lost in a city, however, my advice is to swap out “cocktails” for “water.”

This was among the lessons learned over the past two years of setting out on long urban walks while researching and writing a book called The Last Great Walk: The True Story of a 1909 Walk From New York to San Francisco and Why It Matters Today.

In part, the book is about a long walk one gentleman took in 1909. He averaged 40 miles a day, and he was 70 years old when he did it. As I researched and wrote this, I became more curious about how we’ve lost the habit of regularly walking long distances—of doing ten or 12 miles in one go—which is something people did as a matter of course a century or two ago.

I should confess here that I’m one of those guys who did a fair amount of backpacking in his 20s and 30s. I owned multiple tents and a lightweight Swedish stove made of brass. I ate stroganoff dinners that came from foil packets that involved small brown bits that looked like raisins but the label insisted were beef. For several years I was the editor of American Hiker magazine and was also a contributing editor to Backpacker.

Eventually, I found myself more intrigued by urban life than wildlife, more by historic architecture than tangled forests, more by amari than insect repellents.

Happily, I’ve been able to apply much of what I learned in the backcountry to the frontcountry. For example, when backpacking I learned to think ahead as to where I would next rest and recuperate, such as a ledge with a view, or along a nice brook. In cities, it’s the same, although these shady spots are called “bars.”

On a long walk, the bar I walk into is never the bar I leave. Sitting for a drink not only changes my initial sense of the bar itself, but my perception of the neighborhood. The sounds of the world trickling through in conversations along the bar—I tune in one by one, and may join in now and again. When I leave, the world seems not only inscrutably bright, but also more colorful, as if I’ve just left Kansas for Oz.

Naturally, during the course of my research I spent a lot of time walking and drinking—a combination I came to refer to as the “bar trek,” or a “crawl” without the fraternity brothers and a “hop” without the image of pogo sticks and knickers.

A bar trek is a hybrid of James Joyce’s epic wandering and John Cheever’s pool marathon. I can traverse a city from watering hole to watering hole, from a stale-beer-smelling dive to a marble-and-brass hotel bar, down into valleys and up on to the peaks. At the end of the day, I view the city as more three-dimensional. I know where I am.

Some may harbor the notion that walking and drinking are antithetical. Walking in a straight line is what cops make you do when they think you’ve been drinking too much. If you lose your license for overindulgence, walking is punishment.

Virtue and vice are almost always set up as opposites, as if you must choose between them. The angel on one shoulder, the devil on the other. In fact, life is much more interesting if you choose both, and do so forthrightly.

So it is with walking and drinking. Properly rationed, thirst and effort are perfectly twinned, each supporting the other.

We evolved to walk starting about five million years ago, give or take a millenium. When we walk, we’re attentive. Blood accelerates its flow through our brains as our bodies follow some dim genetic imperative to watch for dangers and opportunities. When walking into a bar after a couple of miles, it always seems as if it’s rendered in high definition, although the HD drinking may be my thirst talking.

I sit, I order, I look around. The typical bar twilight starts to lift after five or ten minutes—my favorite bars have the light of a dense evergreen grove late on an afternoon—and I notice details, the same way I might suddenly notice birds or a tree with blistered bark when resting along a stream bank.

On a long walk, the bar I walk into is never the bar I leave. Sitting for a drink not only changes my initial sense of the bar itself, but my perception of the neighborhood. The sounds of the world trickling through in conversations along the bar—I tune in one by one, and may join in now and again. When I leave, the world seems not only inscrutably bright, but also more colorful, as if I’ve just left Kansas for Oz.

Sometimes I start off with a clear itinerary in mind, like traversing a known range of mountain peaks. I’ll have in my pocket a list of several bars I want to visit, ideally with a couple of miles between each.

This sort of scripted bar trek has much merit, but so too does a random journey, selecting a route based on little more than “this street looks interesting.” Deciding which bar to stop into has the same random quality. This is how I like to learn about a new city when I’m traveling, or make a familiar city seem new. I’ll typically take a bus or subway to the fringes, and then spend a few hours walking back, with stops along the way for drink and sustenance. I’ve done this recently in Vancouver, Louisville, New York and San Francisco.

In San Francisco I took BART to the end of the red line in Richmond, then walked a dozen miles to Oakland. In Berkeley I stopped for barbecue and beer, and in Oakland I had a bourbon and ginger at Heinold’s First and Last Chance Saloon while waiting for the ferry. I then crossed the bay and finished up the day at Rickhouse with a Manhattan variation. To cite Thoreau (by federal mandate all essays on walking must contain one Thoreau quote), “I have traveled a good deal in Concord.”

Generally speaking, my favorite drink is usually my first drink of the day. It’s crisp and tasty and is every bit as inviting as getting into a freshly made bed with newly laundered sheets. The chief problem with the first drink is that you can only have one a day. The next one is, of course, the second drink, which may be just as tasty or even superior, but for me is somehow a let down psychologically.

However, during a bar trek a minor miracle occurs. Metabolism doesn’t speed up with exercise, so walking from one bar to the next doesn’t actually make you more sober. But there’s a psychological sobriety that results. (If Kingsley Amis can distinguish between a physical hangover and a metaphysical one, then I believe that logically a sort of metaphysical sobriety also exists.) And after approximately two miles of walking—maybe a half hour to forty-five minutes on the hoof—I get to have my first drink all over again.

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