Back at it!

Last night I was surprised by how simple and sensible it was to walk the 2.5 miles to The Casbah to see some local bands I know and love (see song below), and wondered why I haven’t done that before. This afternoon I  read Ferris Jabr’s recent New Yorker article “Why Walking Helps Us Think”, in which he refers  to psychological studies about the mental benefits of walking and claims, “walking organizes the world around us; writing organizes our thoughts,” and wondered why I’ve taken such a long break from writing anything on here.

During busy times of teaching over 150 adults how to hate reading and writing a little less, my thoughts could use a little more organization. While my time spent on the road has slowed, I know know that by writing more here, I’ll be more motivated to lace up my shoes and go exploring. In turn, I know that by spending more time walking, I’ll be giving myself more reasons for writing.

There were so many ideas I had for this blog that I never got around to. I wanted to include posts about my favorite walking writers and artists. I hoped to include songs about walking (see song below). I also wanted to interview people I know who walk regularly for their own distinct reasons, and others I know who fight for pedestrian rights. I vow now to do these things and more, and share them here with you.

For now, I think I’m going to go take another walk.

The Donkeys “I Like the Way That You Walk”




Because I Can

(I wrote and performed the following story for VAMP, a showcase put on by So Say We All, a San Diego based non-profit arts organization. The performance was held at Whistle Stop Bar, which plays a crucial role in the story, one that I had every intent to tell here first, but for whatever reason never got around to doing so. Until now. I’ve tried my best to simulate the performance by including some of the many pictures that were projected behind me during the reading.)

I don’t know why I thought that walking 130 miles from LA to San Diego would be a good idea, but two years ago now I was convinced by summer’s end it would be done. I’d just wrapped up a stint as a full-time English Lit grad student at San Diego State, and was determined to become a full-time walker. I blame this lack of foresight on my discovery of an avant-garde movement called psychogeography. Coined in 1950s Paris, popularized decades later in London, and spread around the globe, psychogeography calls for a pedestrian exploration of urban landscapes, seeped in a long literary tradition. Under its influence, I started to see how walking could be experimental, self-empowering, and a whole lot of fun.

So, here I am, dumped out of the cloistered world of academia, and taking to the streets of San Diego to start a psychogeographic movement of one, complete with a blog. The further I stretch my limits, the further I set my sights, so why not L.A.? They say nobody walks in L.A., but the idea of walking home from there – while arbitrary and totally absurd – sounds strangely appealing. We all love to complain about the commute, but a relaxing 130-mile stroll could be a source of inspiration, and give me a sense of purpose at a time when I could use one. I set the date for August 2nd, plan a route requiring the fewest steps, finding places to stay along the way, so that after five long days I would end right here at the Whistle Stop, a mere block away from where I’d be moving in with my girlfriend the following week.


The trip starts at 7am in Silver Lake. I set out after a quick stretch on Sunset in front of a mural turned memorial for local legend, Doc Abrams, The Silver Lake Walking Man. I figure I can walk in honor of Doc, who, until his recent passing, could be seen reading the paper along his daily loop through the area. Who knows? Maybe someday I could be known as the South Park Walking Man. I wind my way through Monday morning, relying on directions scribbled out in a mini-moleskine, which would lead me through South Central before ending at a friend’s house in Long Beach.

Downtown streets are a breeze compared to the six-mile gauntlet through the entirely industrial city of Vernon. With towering warehouses, big rig back drifts, and a cement spinal cord of underground railroad tracks splitting up the center, this lifeless zone has me feeling stuck in some lost circle of Dante’s Inferno.

I escape through the more residential cities of Walnut Park, South Gate, and Lynwood. All signs turn to Spanish, and people are spotted using sidewalks, paying no attention to the only white guy around for miles.

Once in Compton it becomes painfully clear this is nothing like those walking tours they have for homes of Hollywood stars. I’m not on a pilgrimage to see where “Fuck tha Police” was penned. I figure I can walk hard, walk fast, and fend off any potential troublemakers with my super-macho Mickey Mouse hat.

But not long after crossing into city limits, I’m stopped by a man in a rusty red pickup asking in a familiar Spanish for directions to “Atlantic”. I explain that I have no clue where “Atlantic” might be, that I’m merely passing through, and am sorry to be of no help. Convinced I’m lost, he does the unexpected: he offers me a ride. I decline, and he drives off more puzzled than when he pulled up. I don’t know if I should see this man’s decision to ask me for directions as flattery or foolishness, but something about our interaction makes me feel like Compton has accepted me. No matter how much of an outsider I am, by walking in an urban environment where it’s seen as normal, there comes a feeling of intimacy with its inhabitants. Later that afternoon, soaking my blistered feet in my host’s jacuzzi, I look to days ahead, not realizing how lonely they might be.

Day two has me reaching the coast, crossing the Orange County line, and cruising down to Huntington Beach, Surf City USA, where the US Open of Surfing is in full swing. I should feel comfortable here, having come to these in years past. And though the days of frosted tips and puka shells are long behind me, I don’t expect to be seen as such an eyesore as I hobble along the boardwalk south of the pier where suntanned teens chuckle and point at the only person in sight wearing closed-toed shoes. Or is it the hat?

I’m lured into a Starbucks in Newport Beach by the promise of air conditioning, a clean restroom, and a decentish cup of coffee. I overhear two cops bragging to a barista about how busy they’ve been lately, prompting her to say, “Yeah, it’s like we’re in Compton, or something.” While they all have a good chuckle, I resist the urge to speak up in defense of the city that a day earlier let me pass through without sounding a siren.

 I spend the rest of the afternoon cutting through coves before checking in at the cheapest motel for miles. I have difficulty convincing the elderly Asian manager that I have walked there. She insists I fill in the line asking for make and model of my vehicle, and doesn’t seem to appreciate it when I write, “White Nikes, size 10”. Numerous online reviews complain of drug dealers and sexual predators living here as permanent residents. While I have no recollection of being drugged or raped that night, I appreciate their help in keeping the cost low.

I’m trudging through Laguna Beach Wednesday morning, where my morale receives a blow as a teenager passes me up on foot, without even a nod, before disappearing around the corner. Loneliness kicks in; for the rest of the day no eye contact with anyone.

By the time I get to San Juan Capistrano I’m ready to fly as far south as possible. I stop at a storefront in San Clemente with a sign promising foot massages. As tempting as it is to step inside, I figure they’d turn me away at first sight of my festering blisters.

Disappointment kicks in as I reach San Onofre, realizing that the campsite I’d booked is a few miles south of what I’d mapped out. Somewhere down the long stretch of numbered campsites my girlfriend pulls up; demands I get in her car.

“And defeat the whole purpose?! Never! Keep driving!”

I finally come to where she and a few friends sit roasting hot dogs. Most of the night is spent in a tent re-bandaging blisters. I seriously contemplate calling it quits. But I awake the next day determined to press on.

At Camp Pendleton, I’m greeted by the lone sentry: “Can I help you?” After asking if I could pass through to Oceanside, he becomes the first person in four days to ask me why. I hoped he’d be a little more suspicious, use harsher interrogation techniques, maybe even strip search me. Finally, my moment to enlighten and entertain someone with my harrowing tales of the open road, and all I’m able to get out is: “Because I can.” Puzzled, he points down the road: “Just stay to the right.”

For the next ten sidewalk-free miles, I think about what I had said to the sentry. What did I mean by “because I can”? What am I trying to prove? There is no story to find. My thoughts consist of pain and the next resting place. But, if this is going to be a self-imposed rite of passage, I won’t let anything stop me from seeing it through. I make it off the base, and reach my friend’s house in Carlsbad with enough time to recover in preparation for the incredibly long thirty-five-mile last day.

Friday morning I find my stride, largely thanks to distractions that keep my mind occupied. I pick up newspapers and realize that the late Doc Abrams was onto something: that reading is a good remedy for pain.

I listen to an iPod mix I made for the trip. I would walk “500 Miles” with The Proclaimers through La Costa, singing “I’m gonna be the man who comes back home to you.” Leucadia witnesses me “Walk This Way” Run-DMC style, while poor Encinitas hears me “Walking On The Moon” with The Police. Stopping under the Cardiff Kook, Edwin Starr chimes in to remind me that I was “Twenty Five Miles” from home, and while “my feet are hurting mighty bad,” I now have a go-to song to help me through the rest of the day.

Cresting the two mile vertical climb at Torrey Pines, an intense pain in my right achilles reduces me to a pathetic hobble, giving me serious doubts that I could go much further without causing immeasurable damage to my uninsured body. “Come on feet, don’t fail me now,” Starr pleads for me, “I’ve got – 10 more miles to go.” My painkillers kick in as I descend into Mission Valley, where I finally feel that home is just over the hill and around the bend.

I push up Texas with visions of a welcoming party reaching the hundreds. I challenge friends to meet me somewhere along my final stretch through North Park, forgetting that most people can’t imagine walking two whole miles. My sister is the only person to pull through. Together, we press down 30th, over Switzer Canyon into South Park. Home at last!

That whole walk across the street at Juniper went by faster than the slow-motion finish I’d been fantasizing about. There was a small welcoming party, complete with a red-ribbon finish line, American-flag banners, and balloons. A friend made me a T-shirt reading “#1 Walker” that I still wear with pride.

But not much else came of it.

There’s no San Diego Psychogeographic Society, and I don’t expect to be depicted on murals anytime soon. The blog never really took off. Yet, I’m still walking as much as possible. I’ve even picked up some work teaching writing classes at City College, a mere two mile stroll away. I give accurate directions to lost drivers, get my coffee from anywhere but that one place, and every once in awhile I’m able to convince people to join me.

Oh, and now when I hear someone bitch about how they can’t stand driving here from LA, I can say, “Oh yeah? Try walking it…because I can.”



The Day We Walked To Mexico

A busy workweek and new projects have kept me from pursuing longer walks, so much so that when most people ask me if I have any big walks coming up I usually say no.  That was until Spring Break sprang upon me with nothing much to do.

After a Monday afternoon bike ride to Chula Vista’s Bayside Park with longtime friend Brent (who found me my first and only road bike 6 years ago), I suggested we head south again, but this time on foot.  I thought if I could walk home from L.A., there’s no reason why I couldn’t walk from home to Mexico, only 16 miles away.

So I packed my passport and an extra pair of socks (just in case Brent was crazy enough to go without any, which he was), and headed out the door Wednesday morning.

Our route was straightforward, heading south and hugging the harbor until reaching historic National City Blvd, which was known by Spanish explorers as  “El Real para de Frontera,” but since 1920 has been known to San Diegans as “The Miracle Mile of Cars”.  Considering the history of this successful stretch, it was hard not to notice the recently vacated parking lots of a more “Mournful Mile” than anything.

Things were more lively once we crossed the 54 into Chula Vista.  It was 9:30 by then, stores were opening, we witnessed and old woman chase down a bus, and a chihuahua escape a trailer park.  But perhaps the coolest site was from the memorial at Montgomery-Waller Community Park, where it became clear how Chula Vista (“beautiful view”) got its name.  Love it as we may, and despite all the buzz about their Little League sluggers, or the national attention gained by the Otay Ranch Apple Store shooting just two days earlier, Forbes magazine still dubbed Chula Vista one of America’s Most Boring Cities.

Our last leg through San Ysidro proved to be a cryptic mélange of Mexican villages and American outlet malls, with consumers stockpiling on goods for their trips back south.  Brent almost liked the bad joke I made as we were following a family of 3 with a young girl sitting on tops of a shopping cart piled high with bags of dog food, remarking, “It’s a shame they have to feed that kid dog food.”

Bad jokes aside, we entered Mexico hassle free, but it didn’t take long once we hit the streets to figure out that the local news outlets have been doing a great job lately of keeping us gringos out of our neighboring city.  We were singled out by vendors and restaurant hagglers all along our walk to our luncheon destination, and it was clear why: there were no other anglos around.  This did not stop us, however, from enjoying a hearty meal before getting back in time for a 3:30 trolley ride back to downtown San Diego.

The entire 10 hour journey can be seen here, in this 7 minute video taken with my Canon PowerShot SX130, which was graciously gifted to me from Lily (whose elegant head appears at the end of the video):

El Cajon Boulevard

Few streets in San Diego have the same historical and visual appeal as does El Cajon Boulevard. What was once a wagon road connecting San Diego to its rural east county, later became the western terminus of Highway 80, making it a major thoroughfare for the increasingly accessible automobile, and warranting it Boulevard status (upgraded from Avenue) by 1937.

Understanding and accepting the street’s history and relationship with the automobile helps anyone crazy enough to try to cruise it alone on foot.  It helps make sense of all the motels, car dealerships, repair shops, and drive-thru restaurants. It was also home to Jack in the Box precursor Oscar’s Drive-In.

But much of its currents condition and disuse as a major route for commerce came after the construction of the new Interstate 80 running through Mission Valley in the late 50’s and early 60’s, eventually becoming Interstate 8, and the influx of shopping malls in Mission Valley, Grossmont, and College Grove.

Today fewer people use El Cajon Blvd as a way of driving between San Diego and its eastern communities, and even fewer walk. It’s not surprising that City Heights, the most densely populated and ethnically diverse area along the corridor, remains the most pedestrian area.

My involvement and interest with the Boulevard can be said to have started since birth, as my first home was just blocks away in what is germanely named the College Area when my father was attending SDSU.  On the western end in University Heights sits the San Diego Unified Schools District headquarters, situated in the buildings once housing San Diego State Normal, the birthplace of SDSU. Since this school district has been my main employer for the last six years, and I answer to no boss but the district’s automated calling system, I often refer to this site as my Big Brother. I also spent a few years renting a studio a few block away.

Picking up after the few mile stretch of Interstate 8 that once was a part El Cajon Blvd, the eastern portion ends in El Cajon Valley at Main Street, a continually refabricated downtown district ideal for classic car enthusiasts.

The church my family has attended since my childhood is only blocks away, and I spent my youth attending Mother Goose Parade’s and raiding area thrift stores. And everywhere in between sit restaurants I frequent, venues at which I’ve played, and schools at which I’ve taught, as well as my alma mater, Grossmont High School.

With all of these historical and personal ley lines along this route, it’s no wonder I would want to walk it. So I decided to set out on foot, starting at the Boulevard’s most western point and taking at least one photo on every block as I walked along the north side of the street. This meant that I would not allow myself to cross the next block until I’d taken a photo of something on that block that caught my eye.

I started off around 10am on the lawn of the Teacher’s Training Annex of the old Normal School. I tried to take as many candid shots of fellow pedestrians as possible, which wasn’t always easy, considering the general lack of pedestrians on a weekday in the summer.

But signs stuck out, either old or ironic, as did derelict and abandoned buildings.  I didn’t speak to many people along the way, but wound up having a lengthy conversation with one man, Ron Moya, art teacher at Hoover High, who, along with his A.P. art class, was out restoring paintings that they had previously put up on area electrical boxes.

Unfortunately, I had to abort my mission about midway through due to a dead camera battery and no access to the charger. So after catching lunch at Living Room Cafe, I walked down to SDSU and hitched a ride home with friend and mentor, Bill Nericcio.

To maintain some sense on continuity in the photos, I picked up where I left off at the same time the following day. Relative to the more thriving and diverse areas from the day before, I found the areas of Rolando and La Mesa far more drab and desolate.

When I got to Baltimore Dr. I took a detour through La Mesa’s industrial center and Grossmont Center rather than walking on the freeway, and experienced the uncanny effects of walking around once familiar territory when I got to Grossmont High.

I met up with the Boulevard where it starts back up in the valley, and continued on to downtown El Cajon where I rested next to ducks on the lawn next to the courthouse and jail where my sister came to pick me up.

(Visit the photos page to see all 150 photos from my 12.6 mile journey down El Cajon Blvd.)

I made it!

On the morning of August 2nd I started walking home from Silver Lake, and 5 days, 128 miles, 20 cities, 53 walking hours, and 4 boxes of blister band-aids later, I made it home by the projected time.

There was even a finish line to break when I arrived at the Whistle Stop to rehydrate with friends and family. It was a challenge to do alone, and admittedly I had moments where I doubted it could be done, but after over a day of rest, I’m feeling great, healing fast, and anxious to reflect on the experience.

I’ll do my best to post more detailed day-to-day accounts of my journey throughout this next week. But I am in the process of moving into a new home, and as everyone knows, this takes time, even without sore feet.

But before I do, I would like to thank everyone who helped make it happen: to Joel & Katie, Blake & Jenna, and Joanie for feeding me and letting me stay in your homes along the way; to Tyson, Diana and Spencer for coming up to camp (Tyson especially for the amazing foot massage and pb&j sandwiches); to Lori for lending me your camera, and walking the last 2 miles with me; to Jaime for the celebratory decorations; to my parents for being there; and to everyone else who offered words of encouragement along the way; but most especially to Lily for, on top of everything, providing me the strength to pursue my wild whims.

Walking Home from Silver Lake

In a week from today I will be underway on a 5 day 128 mile solo walk from
Silver Lake (Los Angeles) to South Park (San Diego). Planning for this trip began a few month ago when I got it in my head that I could do a long walk spanning these two main cities of Southern California’s megalopolis. I’ve traveled between Los Angeles and San Diego countless times by car, about a dozen times by train, taken a handful of commuter flights, and I’ve covered the southern half a few times by bike. So, why not do it by foot.

I’ve chosen to walk south in order to give the semblance of a journey home, but in the meantime I’ve managed to sign a lease to move into an apartment in South Park the day after I return, making the “journey home” more of a reality.

I have no real reason as to why I’ve chosen to start in Silver Lake except that I have friends living there whom I’ve been needing an excuse to visit. Yesterday these friends were among an estimated 500 who gathered for a 5 mile memorial walk around Silver Lake in honor of 58 year old Marc “Doc” Abrams who passed away on Wednesday.

Affectionately known as the Silver Lake Walking Man, Abrams would walk roughly 15 miles a day on a fairly fixed route, often while reading, and always shirtless. The recurring sight of this enigmatic figure made Abrams nothing short of a icon in the community, as the turnout for Sunday’s walk and the coverage from the press (nytimes, e.g.) have proved. While the investigation into the cause of his tragic death (now reported a suicide) will surely turn into a media frenzy, I find it far more compelling how this man was able to become such a fixture of the community principally by walking. Not having lived in Silver Lake, or even knowingly sighted Abrams, I can’t come close to understanding just how much of an impact he must have on the people in that area since he moved there 30 years ago.

Nicky Gagliarducci, an artist who included Abrams on a mural of Silver Lake on Sunset Boulevard is reported to have said yesterday before the walk, “Thanks Marc, you made our city a neighborhood.” If what Gagliarducci says is remotely true, it speaks for the unifying influence that something as simple as a daily walk can have on a community.

I enjoy living in South Park largely because it feels like a neighborhood, one where I enjoy walking and seeing familiar faces on the street. It may not compare to Silver Lake in many respects, but as I begin my walk here from Silver Lake next week, I’d like to think of it as a way of joining these two communities. And, even as a stranger, I’ll walk in honor of Abrams.

Why I Walk

“What have you been up to lately?”
“Well, I’ve been doing a lot of walking.”

This is how many of my casual conversations have started this summer. I answer differently depending on how well we know each other, or how much we’ve had to drink. But the fact remains: I don’t have a simple answer to this simple question. It might be more obvious if I were living in a more pedestrian-friendly city, or if I didn’t have a working car or bike. But that idea that in the last few months I’ve been doing more and more walking in San Diego, the city I was born in and lived around for the majority of my life, has proved a bit odd for some. After all, it’s not as if I’ve been trying to acquaint myself to a new city, which in the past I’ve preferred to do on foot. Nor am I looking for a good form of exercise. I respect the fact that some people find walking to be their ideal fitness solution, but it isn’t exactly the most time-efficient workout plan.

Yet I have my reasons for walking, and as varied as they may be, I’ll try to list them here, followed by a brief explanation for each.

It’s simple.There’s nothing more simple or easy than getting around by putting one foot in front of the other repeatedly, so it’s almost absurd to think that we’ve structured our lives in such a way as to avoid having to walk at all. But there will always be those among us who do the littlest things to counter this reliance on “convenience” – those who take the stairs, or park in the back of the parking lot. In her book Wanderlust, Rebecca Solnit addresses the desire to walk today, saying, “You must be complex to want simplicity, settled to desire this kind of mobility.” My choice to walk comes from a desire for simplicity and a restlessness that comes from a fear of settling. If time, flexibility and good health are all requirements of extensive walking, then, as Solnit suggests, this lifestyle implies a certain kind of class privilege. Admittedly, I wouldn’t be doing as much walking if I was working more, but my choice to spend my summer walking instead of working comes with other sacrifices. Having no income means I must have few expenses, which brings me to my next reason for walking…

It’s cheap. So far my investment in my hobby has consisted in a pair of walking shoes that the foot specialist (shoe salesman) fit my foot and stride. My options were limited when I asked for the less-flashy pair, but I like what I wound up with and have already been getting good mileage out of them. The only other investment came by way of a Camelbak graciously gifted by my girlfriend who is slowly growing more tolerant of my walking habits. Of all the perks that come with this walking pack, I’m getting to love the fact that it allows for easy access to 3 liters of bottle-free water-sipping. This gear has made getting around a city with privatized parking and little priority on providing public transportation for its residents drastically cheaper.

I don’t have to. It’s a political act in itself insofar as it defies convention. Whatever privilege or power I may possess is drastically reduced in the act of walking. Even without cars, few people would choose to walk longer distances when bikes and public transportation are an option. So choosing to walk miles on end through urban and suburban areas when I can afford not to verges on the absurd. The simple act of walking gets more complicated in cities built for cars and in a culture of fear that keeps pedestrians indoors. The only people I’ve come across on the same routes and putting in the same mileage have typically been pushing shopping carts toward the nearest recycling center or chosen place of rest. Few recreational walkers I pass bother giving me the obligatory hello, most likely because with my backpack, sweat and scruff I must look somewhere between a transient and a lost tourist. My presence on the streets makes little sense and turns few heads, making me even more invisible.

It offers distractions and challenges. Akin to Debord’s theory of the Dérive, some of my best walks are those where I allow myself to drift, or be “drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters [I] find there.” It comes with an acceptance of the limited role of chance in determining where my walks will take me. On the other side of this, I started some of my walks with predetermined restrictions in time and distance, in the quota of photos I insist on collecting. Walks of these sort I will do my best to announce here with the hope that others may want to amble or trek along with me.

It satisfies the historian in me. There’s no better way of unearthing the historical layers of a city than by navigating it by foot. Sometimes my walks start with a urge to see an old building or district, or to travel an old route. Walking through these boundaries gives one a better sense of how these places are connected by space and spirit and time. Obviously, the older a city, the more clear apparent this becomes, which gives cause to many people asking why I’m so fascinated by young San Diego’s urban landscape. But I’m drawn to the neglected and banal as much as the restored and original. There is an element of radical nostalgia ingrained in anyone today who chooses to walk their hometown as a way of retaining some sense of their roots.

It gives me the solitude I need in order to think. I don’t always walk alone, and have had some of my most memorable walks with others, but there is no denying the value in a solitary walk. The sense of freedom that comes from walking alone can seldom be found elsewhere. I often use my walks to give my head a rest from a day of studying, and to generate ideas for writing. Hey, it seemed to work wonders for so many others (Rousseau, Wordsworth, Woolf, et al), so why shouldn’t it work in some remote way for me.

So I will walk at my own pace. And here I will document the simple, cheap, unpredictable, and challenging experiences I hope to gain from the roads I happen to follow.