On March 4th, 1861, Abraham Lincoln shook hands at his inaugural ball with a man who had bet against him winning the office of the presidency. Edward Payson Weston had made the bet, agreeing that should he be the loser, he would walk from Boston to Washington DC for the presidential inauguration. He started out on February 22 and walked 478 miles in ten days and ten hours. He didn’t make it in time for the inauguration itself, but because of the press attention he got along the journey, he received an invitation to the ball.
Now, I’m a walker. I have one of those fitness trackers and I try to get to at least 13,000 steps a day, though of course I’m not successful every day. Some are definitely easier than others. I’ve also participated in challenges to walk the year, for example 2018 miles walked in 2018. I’ve completed lengthy day hikes, including the twenty-six-mile trek around Lake Geneva in Southern Wisconsin. Because it’s fun, and good for me, and it’s better than running, which is stupid.
But I am truly amazed by the accomplishments of Edward Payson Watson, whose inauguration walk kicked off not only a presidency, but also a pedestrian career. By that, I don’t mean that his career was boring. I mean that he was a professional pedestrian, once walking 2,600 miles from Portland, Maine to Chicago, Illinois in twenty-six days, winning a prize of $10,000 for the effort.
Payson would go on to complete a number of long-distance walks throughout his life, including a 51-day, 1546- mile from New York to Minneapolis when he was seventy-four years old. It was a feat that broke his previous record for the same walk by more than a day—a record set when he was a mere sixty-eight years old.
Both walks were impressive, but his most famous was in 1909 when he set off to cross the North American continent from New York to San Francisco in one hundred days, excepting Sundays. He experienced a number of delays and complications on this journey and wound up completing the challenge in 104 days and five hours.
Personally, I find that pretty amazing, but Payson was disappointed enough to try a transcontinental journey again the next year, this time leaving from Los Angeles and hoofing it to New York. He accomplished the trip in just seventy-eight walking days, a record that fell shortly after as a man by the name of Paul Lange soon completed the same trek in a little under 77 days.
Because the world of competitive long-distance walking is brutal. Apparently.
I know I have recently found that to be true. At the beginning of this summer vacation, I gave each of my teenage sons fitness trackers of their own, the same kind I have, with the goal of making them more aware of their activity, or lack thereof through the summer months.
The idea was that they would need to at least record a set number of steps before sitting down to play video games, which aren’t limited as much in the summer months as they are during the school year. I was pretty proud of this arrangement. What I hadn’t counted on, though, was the fact that my fourteen-year-old, who this spring took up distance running for his school track team, is incredibly competitive.
So now I can’t sit down to say, write a blog post, without my son asking me how many steps I have and bragging about his own total. Turns out, he may get his competitive streak from his mother, and now each night sees us pacing through the house, trying to outdo one another by at least a few steps.
I guess that’s a good thing. Edward Payson Weston claimed he engaged in competitive distance walking for his health and to encourage others to resist the evils of the automobile, which made them lazy and sedentary. I don’t know about that, but with the current price of gas, I certainly don’t mind walking a little more and driving a little less. And if I can encourage my children to walk more and play less Mario Kart, then it’s well worth the effort.