- Walk of Ages: Edward Payson Weston’s Extraordinary 1909 Trek across America by Jim Reisler
Jim Reisler’s fine little book bares to the reader an age-old truth: the feats of great athletes yellow over time. In Walk of Ages, Reisler describes the New York City to San Francisco walking feat of Edward Payson Weston, rightly claiming that it was one of the truly great but forgotten sports feats.
On his seventieth birthday in March 1909, Weston left Park Row in Manhattan on foot, heading west. He arrived in San Francisco 104 days and 3,895 miles later, thereby restoring a once-tarnished reputation. In his hey-day (1860–80), Weston had been one of the best of the postbellum pedestrians or “peds,” ultradistance runners and walkers who performed extraordinary feats of endurance. He was certainly the most famous.
The public connected with Weston because everyone, to some degree, was a walker. But there was nothing pedestrian about his life. At the time, he was an energetic and clever medical marvel with almost superhuman endurance and grit. Yet we also learn that he was a self-absorbed, shameless self-promoter. For example, in one eastern stretch, Weston sold $15,000 (at a quarter apiece) worth of photos of himself. And he changed routes frequently to accommodate income-producing speaking engagements. His 1909 trek was as much theater as sport. But Reisler is convincing that this was a true sporting accomplishment, and the author showers much praise on Weston for his perseverance.
For the 1909 transcontinental walk, Reisler relies on the daily dispatches the walkist filed with the New York Times and local newspaper reports. Weston was always good copy. His walking visits to towns across America, large and small, drew admiring crowds and were media events accompanied by extensive local newspaper accounts and interviews. They provided vast material for Reisler, the way Bil Gilbert’s Westering Man (1983) relied on local reports of Joe Walker, who covered much of the same terrain on horseback seventy years earlier.
The book is not without its faults. For example, a glaring error claims that Weston garnered more New York Times footage on April 10, 1909, than The Boston Marathon. Yet, as any Boston veteran (including the reviewer) will tell you, The Boston Marathon is always run on the nineteenth of April (later Patriot’s Day), and Reisler gushes at the comparison of coverage when he has actually identified a three-man event among Weston’s professional cousins. Not The Boston Marathon.
Reisler intersperses his account of the transcontinental trek with chapters on Weston’s earlier career but ignores standard biographies and narratives of the sporting papers of the nineteenth century (notably the New York Clipper, Spirit of the Times, and National Police Gazette), which were, more often than not, highly critical of the pedestrian for his avoidance of head-to-head competitions, his many losses, his failures to complete numerous races, and his inability to achieve predetermined distances or times. It was once suggested Weston do his walking on a gang plank. [End Page 444]
What comes through is the story of a rediscovered septuagenarian with enormous physical talents, a body metabolism skewed to endurance, and iron-will determination. We also learn that Weston was a man who enjoyed publicity and was unencumbered by modesty. Weston’s trek was a blend of athleticism mixed with theatrical touches all duly recorded and published daily in the New York Times, a convenient research source.
Reisler is able to convey the hazards (terrain, mud, weather, diet, injuries, mud, more mud) of a long-distance trek. Walking fifty miles a day for three months creates an appetite. Weston consumed as many as six meals a day. So there are plenty of modern-day diet-and-health suggestions, including frequent naps, exercise, rubdowns, sweating out colds, extreme moderation in the use of drink and tobacco, and the avoidance of mustard. Weston may have even invented carbo-loading.
Reisler deserves credit for threshing out the...