The Second Half of the Saga of Edward Payson Weston. For part one: http://tinyurl.com/lf746yz
Edward Payson Weston, the celebrated pedestrian, had not gone comfortably into retirement from the world stage and professional walking competitions. He emerged in the 1880s on a 5000 mile walking tour of Great Britain under the auspices of the Church of England Temperance Society, and gave speeches on the evils of demon rum at each stop. Temperance too played a role in his challenge to his old foe Dan O’Leary; a walking 500 mile battle between the Weston’s philosophy of clean living and O’Leary’s hard drinking. Weston won when O’Leary collapsed after 400 miles.
For the most part, however, Weston stayed quiet on his farm in upstate New York, taking daily long walks into town to collect the mail, and brooding on his past. By 1906, most of the racers of the old days had long since passed on; Weston himself was 68, the ripe age in the fin-de-siècle America when one was expected to look fondly back at one’s youthful exploits with a whimsical smile, and stay out of the way. But not so Weston; he recoiled from the image of strutting youth which confronted him in his memories. Weston had always felt himself the match of any man when it came to walking, and now he challenged his own youthful self to a competition.
At the age of 30, in 1868, Weston walked from Philadelphia’s City Hall to that of New York in 23 hours and 40 minutes. He announced, to anyone who would listen, that he now intended to break his own record by exactly one minute, despite the fact that Philadelphia’s City Hall had been moved four miles further away and he was 38 years older. Break it he did, by arriving in 23 hours and 31 minutes; cheering throngs met him, and once more Weston found himself basking in the warm glow of popular adulation; regaling reporters and admirers with stories of the old days, when Horace Greeley cautioned him to slow down or by the age of 50 he wouldn’t be able to walk 40 miles in two weeks, and the long ago contests for the Astley Belt.
Despite his triumph, his youthful self suggested a rematch; no mere one day walk, but a repeat of the grueling trip of 1869, from Portland, Maine to Chicago, Illinois in thirty days, not counting Sundays. He left in late October 1907. “[I]n the era of the motor car, he sticks to his excellent legs as a means of locomotion, and has started in bravely to demonstrate anew the merit of his carefully preserved gait,” wrote one reporter “the age is more rapid in every way, and athletic sports are more common and varied. Weston’s triumphs however, live in the memory, and he is now walking over his ground like the amiable ghost of a simpler age.”
For an amiable ghost, Weston proved formidable. He outlasted the car which followed him carrying a doctor, and when a carriage replaced it, wore out the horses. The roads were little better than in 1869, dusty in dry weather and sticky mud during the rainstorms which plagued his trip. They were lined, however, with throngs of people, anxious to point out to their children and grandchildren the man they’d watched walk when they were young. Brass bands welcomed him into town, and his reception upon his arrival in Buffalo rivaled that extended to Teddy Roosevelt a few years before.
The people along the route were enthusiastic with friendly overtures, but their generosity came with consequences. When a kindly woman outside of Norwich, Ohio, gave him a bowl of clam chowder, he came down with ptomaine poisoning, spent almost a full day in bed, and left the next morning without breakfast; fortunately folks along the way continued to offer snacks, including a Mrs. Tucker who’d given Weston an apple on the side of the road during his trip in 1869, and repeated her gesture this time accompanied by her grandchildren. By November 24, Weston arrived in South Bend, Indiana and by the 28th; he’d arrived at the front steps of the Chicago Post Office, beating his own record.
Still, this was not enough for the aged pedestrian, he’d only repeated what he’d done before. Now he set out to accomplish what had never been dreamed of before, a walk from New York City to San Francisco in 100 days, as always not including Sundays. He left New York City on March 14, 1909, the day before 71st birthday. Through much of the journey’s first leg the weather was awful. A bitter, freezing wind turned mud filled roads into slick traps for a misplaced foot. The blizzard which hit upstate New York on March 26 turned out to be a benefit, for Weston found it easier to walk over snow than frozen mud. The car following him disappeared somewhere in Pennsylvania, unable to keep up with the indefatigable septuagenarian.
Unfortunately, it carried Weston’s wardrobe, and he wouldn’t have a change of clothes for over a week. Occasionally, folks along the trail would try and walk with him; at Salem, Ohio, 17-year-old Ralph Stewart attempted to keep pace with Weston, vowing to go all the way to California with him. He dropped out an exhausted wreck after 20 miles. There were poignant moments too. While striding through Northern Illinois, a farmer hailed Weston from the front porch of his home. Hard work had made its mark on the man’s physique, and he bore little resemblance to the young man who’d stopped plowing during one spring morning back in the nineteenth century to offer the young Weston a meal. 40 years later, Weston remembered the meal, and the old man’s eyes gleamed in memory of the young women who’d been his wife and who’d served it. Weston asked after her, and the farmer told him with eyes brimming with tears that she’d been dead for 20 years. Weston invited him to walk a ways, shortening his long stride for the slower, shorter steps of the farmer, as they walked and discussed the simple halcyon days of their youth and of the century already fading behind them. Parting a quarter of a mile from the farm, they said their goodbyes. It was with a quieter step that Weston marched onward.
Tired of waiting on his car to keep up, in Chicago Weston changed tactics and determined to walk along railroad tracks. He followed the Chicago and Alton’s line until he reached St. Louis, where a policeman almost arrested him on suspicions of being an escaped lunatic; helpful members of the Missouri Athletic Club came to the rescue. The weather continued cold as he strode across Missouri along the tracks of the Union Pacific Railroad during the first week of May, and the strong wind blew dust directly in his eyes. As he passed the 2,000 mile mark outside of Manhattan, Kansas, the weather turned lovely, and Weston began to make good time, up to seventy miles per day. Farmers telephoned ahead to their neighbors that Weston was en route, so that they could greet him.
In sparsely settled Colorado, he walked for hours without seeing any living thing except an occasional rabbit, and the long distances between settlements worsened after he had a triumphal entry into Denver, and continued north to Wyoming. He suffered from drinking alkali water and food was difficult to come by. The railroad workers in the area were mostly Japanese and the language barrier prevented Weston from making his needs known. Weston wrote home that “The lack of proper nourishment and at the time when I need it most, does not help matters. This can’t be helped, because it cannot be had for love or money.”
As Weston made his way through the Aspen Tunnel underneath the Rocky Mountains and on into Utah, it seemed to him as if he’d entered Paradise. The route was flat, the weather perfect, and the Southern Pacific Railway, along whose tracks he strolled, had arranged for a special pushcart to follow him, carrying food, water, ice and clothing. He luxuriated in a red flannel robe in a hotel in Ogden, thankful for the opportunity to take a bath and eat solid food at a real table, and strode across the Great Salt Lake on a railroad trestle, the Southern Pacific holding all trains until he’d made it.
Then, as he crossed into Nevada, Nature herself intervened to stymie him. The weather grew broiling; so hot that even the inhabitants complained. He resolved to walk in the chill night air, but because he could get no sleep during daylight when the hotel rooms averaged 95 degrees, his stamina declined precipitously, and his daily toll of miles fell from 60 outside of Tecoma to 10 by the time Weston arrived in Battle Mountain. Even walking in the evening hours left Weston prey to flying mosquitoes; “fancy one being on a broad, almost uninhabitable prairie, not a tree to be seen,” wrote Weston, “nothing but sage brush and black clouds of mosquitoes, whose activities would shame the New Jersey variety.”
By July 6, Weston was four days behind schedule, and he still wasn’t out of the Nevada wasteland. By the time he arrived in Reno a few days later, Weston knew he was defeated in his quest to make it to San Francisco in 100 days; he could not make it across all of California in the limited time left. He rested for two days, and valiantly soldiered on, grateful to be seeing trees, grass, and rivers once more. Walking on elevated trestles down the Sierra Nevada Mountains proved nerve racking, every step had to be chosen with care to avoid falling to his death.
Finally he made it, arriving on the doorstep of the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco at 11:15 p.m. on July 14, 1909. He’d taken the ferry from Oakland, but had refused to sit down; it was the only portion of the 2,577 mile trip where he’d used something other than his feet to propel him forward. During the 105-day jaunt, he’d grown white mustachios, which contrasted with skin tanned a butternut brown from his harrowing Nevada experience.
105 days, 5 hours, and 41 minutes was not 100 days, and Weston was not satisfied, so he turned around. Not willing to brave the Nevada desert again, he headed south to Santa Monica, California and began walking back, carrying with him a letter from the mayor of Los Angeles to the Mayor of New York City. This time, there was little fanfare, he avoided almost all detours, such as those which had taken him to Chicago during his trip West, only allowing himself a 20 mile side trip to the Grand Canyon.
Mile after mile he strode, there were no injuries and no mishaps short of an attack by a vicious canine in Kansas. For Weston, it was as if God had smiled on him after his wandering in the Nevada wilderness. He didn’t make it in 100 days; he made it in 77, entering New York City down Broadway to a colossal reception and a ticker tape parade. Mayor William Gaynor greeted Weston on the steps of City Hall. Gaynor himself was a passionate walker, often strolling from Brooklyn to his office, and Weston tendered an invitation for a stroll at a time of the Mayor’s choosing; unfortunately, an assassination attempt wounded Gaynor in the throat a few weeks later, and the jaunt never took place.
Weston once more entered into a quiet life on his farm, stirring occasionally to go on a long-distance walk. In 1922, at the age of 84, he travelled from Buffalo to New York City on foot, a total of 440 miles. His walking career came to an end in 1924, when his home was robbed. His daughter and an adopted young boy, whose parents had died in the Spanish Influenza pandemic in 1919, lived with him. Coming to their defense, Weston fought back, coming at the robbers with a walking stick. They shot him in the leg, and another daughter took him to reside in her home in Philadelphia while he convalesced. He recovered enough by 1924 that he proposed to the Republican National Committee that they hire him to walk across the country once more, making speeches in support of President Coolidge. The Committee politely declined.
Weston’s mind went before his body. He disappeared from Philadelphia in 1926, and was found wandering senseless in Brooklyn a few days later; taken to Bellevue Hospital, the police identified him through newspaper clippings he carried telling of his achievements. When his daughter relocated to New York City, he came with her; poverty stricken, they shared a tiny flat at 238 West 13th Street. When the newspapers reported that they were about to be evicted, help arrived; one Civil War veteran who’d been present all those years ago when Weston had met Lincoln, paid his rent, and provided $35 besides. With his 88th birthday approaching, the Press Club got involved, remembering Weston’s services as a newspaperman. Arranged as a birthday gift by Miss Anna Nichols, a playwright and theater manager who’d never met Weston, $30,000 was set aside by the club for Weston’s upkeep and maintenance. They threw him a birthday party too. Mayor Walker attended, and Weston invited him to a game at newly built Yankee Stadium. Tragically, while walking with his adopted son a week later, Weston stepped off the curb at 14th Street and 8th Avenue and was struck by a car, the machine he’d defeated so many times before. He still survived for two more years, unable to walk far and bedridden for his last few months, dying shortly after his 90th birthday.