Sands of an Hourglass: On Geoff Nicholson’s “Walking on Thin Air”

MEMOIRS ABOUT the walking life are, by definition, all over the map. But they tend to fall into one of two general categories.

There’s the directed hunt, in which the author has pointed themselves at a specific target: the end of a long trail, a shrine, a lost geography, a bit of treasure—books like Cheryl Strayed’s Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail (2012), Valeria Luiselli’s Sidewalks (2010), or any number of accounts of trekking the Santiago de Compostela.

Then there’s the musings of the ambler not going anywhere in particular but writing about the multiple joys of simply traveling around on foot, usually in cities, musing at the unfolding scenery—books like Alfred Kazin and David Finn’s Our New York (1989) or Thinking on My Feet: The Small Joy of Putting One Foot in Front of Another (2018).

Geoff Nicholson’s new book Walking on Thin Air: A Life’s Journey in 99 Steps is firmly in the second group, a well-established genre that lends itself to episodic structure and ample philosophizing. Nicholson’s unenviable twist, though, is that he’s walking on the sands of an hourglass. He has a diagnosis of a rare bone marrow cancer—“not rare enough, obviously.” But this writer from the industrial English Midlands has been walking all his life and intends to “continue as long as [he] can.”

Nicholson is a marvelously direct writer of indirect subjects who doesn’t have a lot of truck with pretense or a sense of misgiving about his subjects. He treads where he likes and doesn’t seem to care about commercialism when describing his enthusiasms. His 1996 novel, Footsucker, was an apologia for shoe fetishism wrapped in a murder mystery. And his further tributes to the parts of us that meet the ground include two previous works on the ambulatory life: Walking in Ruins (2013) and The Lost Art of Walking: The History, Science, Philosophy, and Literature of Pedestrianism (2008).

The artistry embedded in this basic act can be reduced to a simple apothegm. “I go to places,” writes Nicholson, a contributing editor of this publication. “I walk when I’m there, I look around, I write about what I see and feel. It’s not the only thing I do with my life, but it’s probably the best part.”

Turns out that Southern California is one of Nicholson’s prime turfs: “When people used to ask me why I’d moved to Los Angeles I always said, ‘Oh, I came for the walking.’ That was met with varying degrees of hilarity.” But he gets the last laugh. His favorite hiking desert is the Mojave, where the myriad dangers led him to embrace the traveler’s counsel of “creative cowardice” favored by Reyner Banham, another Englishman in California. It was also the place where an unnatural fatigue one hot day prompted him to make a doctor’s appointment, which led to his cancer discovery. (He did not blame the desert.)

Nicholson also crafts an ode to Franklin Avenue, “one of the less glamorous and less celebrated streets of Los Angeles” with none of the name recognition of its neighbors, and which locals think of primarily as a glorified on-ramp to the 101. Through some detective work, he locates the house where Joan Didion reported on the moral chaos of the 1960s and posed in front of a Corvette. It’s now a spiritual retreat called Shumei America Hollywood Center.

But this is a rare example of chasing an image, or its afterimage. Nicholson does not go for oft-trodden paths that project a certain civic or cultural iconography. What would be the point of that? “You can’t really walk in Raymond Chandler’s Los Angeles or on the banks of Thomas Cole’s Hudson River—though I’ve tried to do both—because essentially these places are inventions, artistic creations,” he writes. “They exist sure enough, but they exist on the page or on canvas and, of course, in the mind and imagination of the reader or viewer.”

As long walks can take meandering patterns, Nicholson bounces among subjects in numbered sections, not always connected. The reader quickly becomes aware that Nicholson is less concerned with subject than motion. As he puts it: “Admittedly I would in general prefer to walk in the Peak District than through the nearby industrial estate, but I’m not averse to walking through industrial estates, and true enlightenment might not even recognise the difference.”

In the days before GPS could be slid into a pants pocket, Nicholson often shunned the conspicuous and deliberate act of carrying a paper map, especially in London, where “a general sense of direction, a sense of how neighborhoods related to each other,” was often good enough.

Do the “neighborhoods” of this book relate to one another? Not always. Part of the appeal of discursive narratives sorted into number-headed chapters is the thematic puzzle of how things that shouldn’t fit into other things somehow do, or are made to, through the sleight of the writing. That assemblage isn’t always apparent here—the neighborhood is a jumble of architecture, and the promise of the subtitle, “a life’s journey,” resembles more of a stroll through a bric-a-brac emporium.

Then there’s the “thin air,” which provides the dominant key of the book. Nicholson keeps finding ways to drift away from seriously contemplating his cancer diagnosis. Perhaps, it could be credibly argued, this is a mimetic device. Such medical knowledge may indeed foster a constant desire to think about other things—to find alternative paths. Who can live their life for very long in constant dread? Come look at this discarded magazine on the sidewalk. And this colorful rock.

Herein lies a matter that some readers may consider a deficiency. Nicholson spends no time on the spiritual aspects of living and dying, not even to dismiss them. Does he think there’s a survival of the soul—a hidden path soon to become visible? We don’t get to know. The mysteries of dying are perfectly replicated by his authorial silence on this point.

Instead, when contemplating his own mortality, Nicholson turns to some of the imagery he likes best: “If a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, then every journey, of whatever length, must also end with a single step. I wonder exactly where and when that step will be in my own case. I can’t say I’m ready for it, but I think I’m as ready as I’ll ever be.”

Nicholson’s writing career has been varied, admirable, and courageous. He stops to notice uncommercial and even bizarre subjects, shunning well-traveled roads. He goes where he likes. He gets out often. Nobody can imitate him.

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