Saturday, February 04, 2012

Just Walkin'

Walking is what my wife asks me to do on a Sunday afternoon. If it's a quiet day AND if all the things we have to do have been done AND if it's reasonably nice out, we'll go for a walk. An hour or two later we're back home and on to our next activity.

Matt Green is a bit more focused. At the moment he's about a month or so into his current walking project. I say "project" because Matt's walks are to our Sunday's jaunts as an aircraft carrier is to a dingy. There was his first big one, a 150-mile tour of New York City in five days in 2007. Then there was his coast-to-coast stroll from Rockaway Beach, New York to Rockaway Beach, Oregon in 2010. And then there's this one

Matt's currently embarked on a quest to walk every public street in New York City, excluding expressways and highways. With something north of 6000 miles of roadway, he figures that when you add in bridges, pathways and doublebacks, he'll log somewhere around 7500 miles. "Walking five or six days a week, while also allotting myself a nice stingy American number of vacation and sick days," he expects it will take him about two years to complete his journey.

He accepts donations to support his project, and is staying with friends "old and new." Should he run out of money, he's ready to shelve his journey, work to make some cash, and then pick up where he left off. His routing is somewhat random: "Each day I will simply walk somewhere I haven't yet been. As my map begins to fill in, my options will become narrower and narrower until, finally, there are no streets left unwalked. At that point I will probably drink some beer and sit down for a while."

While Matt has always liked to walk, he didn't always do it full time. He had a real job as an NYC civil engineer, restricting his walking to off hours. "Moving through the world at three miles an hour, you can fully take in your surroundings. There's nothing separating you from your environment." He assumed others might feel the same way, and so he began to organize walking tours, like "The Bridges of New York County" or "The Solstice Walk." And then something clicked, and he came up with his idea to amble across the country.

He views his New York City exploration as a nice counterpoint to his USA journey: "Instead of seeing a million places for just a minute each, I'm going to spend a million minutes exploring just one place." I asked him what he does in those minutes. "When I walk, I just walk. The idea of trying to come up with something else to do seems silly to me. If walking isn't engaging enough by itself, then why bother doing it for thousands of miles? I try to stay focused on the present moment, which means keeping not just my eyes open, but my ears (and nose, I suppose) as well."

And the why? "Articulating the goal of this walk is a work in progress. I'm careful not to try to sum it up in something neat and tidy, because I don't think human motivations are ever that simple." He says that, sure, he wants to get to know the city better, and learn it on a level that no tour can give you. Beyond that, "it gives you a sense of ownership, and makes you an active participant, when you start learning about things because you've discovered them, and not just because someone told you about them."

But the part of his explanation I like best involves an experience he had in Moorhead, Minnesota. There he came across a museum that had a handmade replica of a twelfth-century Norwegian church. The guy who built it happened to be there, and someone asked him why he did it. His response? "I don't know." Said Matt, "It was really inspiring to me to hear that. Instead of coming up with some story that fits the human desire for a moving narrative, he just told the truth: there's something deep and hidden in these pursuits that drives you in an intense way, but can't be easily converted into words."

And so Matt walks. Today it's Brooklyn, or maybe Queens. All he knows is that tomorrow he'll pick another street, and as he says, "eventually walk by the home of every person who lives in the city." No real reason needed, none given. Or as the title of his blog so succinctly sums it up, "I'm Just Walkin'."


Marc Wollin of Bedford promised to join Matt on his journey for a day. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at

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