Whitman and Wilmington

By Barefoot Ken

Surprise.  On the way to (yet) another race, I’ve pulled off the New Jersey Turnpike — desperate for coffee, water, a break from unpredictable traffic (speeds of up to 95 MPH) — and here I find myself, suddenly, in the Walt Whitman Service Area.  Whitman being, to some, the greatest artist America has produced.  The singer of the open road.  The poet of Democracy.  I did not know there was a Service Area named for him.  After the race I’m planning to visit his gravesite, which lies a few miles distant.  First, though, I must complete the Delaware Running Festival Marathon in nearby Wilmington, my 100th event of marathon distance or longer.  Which begs the question — what next?

For now a rest stop is in order.  I haven’t had anything to drink since early morning, while looming to the front is a construction zone and 17-minute delay, according to the measured voice of Google Maps.  But a short break only — ETA to the expo is 4:15 pm, and it closes at 5:00 pm.  If I miss the deadline, I won’t be able to pick up my bib, won’t be able to participate in the race officially — which means six hours of difficult driving will go to waste, plus an expensive hotel room.  I picture myself storming through halls and empty conference rooms, searching for someone who can help me — surely that box of bibs is still on site somewhere.  Then I snap back to the present.  There’s a better strategy, now that I’m on the final stretch to Wilmington — pay attention.  Don’t drift off.  Don’t miss a turn.  Don’t make a mistake.

Sign at the entrance of Walt Whitman Service Area, off of the New Jersey Turnpike

Song of the Open Road

Whitman’s my favorite poet.  He’s been an inspiration for me ever since I set out to thru-run New York’s signature long-distance trail, The Long Path, nearly ten years ago.  Somewhere along the way, I discovered the name of the trail (it was originally called the Long Brown Path) was inspired by his poetry.

Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road,
Healthy, free, the world before me,
The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose.

— Walt Whitman, Song of the Open Road

The Walt Whitman Service Area is graced by a Starbucks, Cinnabon, and Auntie Anne’s pretzels.  There are two rows of gas pumps, and a long line of 18-wheelers parked alongside the entrance road.  Across the way stands an oak tree, with leaflets and flower strings unfurling from the buds.  I stare at green luminescent cloud enveloping black branches and wonder — how many people passing through this service area know who Walt Whitman was, or register the name, or even notice the sign?

Whitman’s enthusiasm was catching.  And not only for my Long Path thru-run.  I interpreted his lyrics as symbolizing the wave of optimism which rolled through America in the 19th century, when the Frontier was still open, when horizons seemed unlimited.  Back then the spirit of the country was so different from the grim legacy of the Old World, where kings and clergy held sway, freedom was a novel concept, tradition ruled with an iron fist.  European critics of the time embraced Walt Whitman, saw him as a “teacher of energy” — exclaimed, “We have had enough of depressing pessimists!”

Healthy Body, Healthy Mind

Whitman sang of the open road — and he sang of the body, too, for those traveling the long brown path would need “the best blood, thews, endurance.”  Earlier, Whitman had published a series of articles on “Manly Health and Training,” writing under the pen name Moses Velsor.  The idea of strong body and physical beauty evoked in him a sense of “charm” and “fascinating magic.”  In these articles he advocated for athletism, simple diet, healthy lifestyle.  Promoted the idea of “perfect body, perfect blood” — marked by “herculean strength” and “suppleness” — a disposition that was “strong, alert, vigorous,” all running over with “animation and ardor.”  Physical strength, he thought, was the foundation for beauty of body and mind.  Man should be “a fine animal.”  Whitman believed that mental and physical development went together.  He cautioned students, clerks, and those in sedentary or mental employments, that “all study, and no developed physique, is death.”  Whereas a man who is rightly toned “partakes of the universal strength and joy.  The path to this ideal was through “reason, knowledge, and exercise — in short, through training.”  Here he invoked the athletic traditions of the Ancient Greeks (who held running in the highest estimation).  And as the Greeks did, he drew a link between physical well-being and “moral uprightness.”  Training, he thought, should be a “regular and systematic thing through life” — for the young, the middle-aged, and with appropriate modifications for those of advanced age, the latter being the category that I, personally, spend more and more time these days contemplating.

This advice was published in 1858.  To certain modern ears his words might sound “ablist.”  But that wasn’t how he related to people.  He seemed to love everyone.  Consider that he spent the Civil War years caring for wounded soldiers.

In 1873 at age 56 Whitman suffered a stroke.  He was left partially paralyzed. He retreated to his brother’s farm outside Camden, New Jersey, across the Delaware River from Philadelphia.  He’d hobble along outdoors, lounge by a creek, sometimes wrestle with a sapling as a form of simple exercise, listen to the birds, watch the sky.  One day he took stock of his situation, in an “unusually matter-of-fact spirit.”  When I was around the same age as Whitman, an injured tendon interrupted my running career and put an end to my most ambitious goals, if not my health.  I emulated Whitman’s spirit and tried to assess my situation with a similar matter-of-fact attitude, as I too adapted to change.

Strength and Freedom

I thought of Whitman the other day, while walking in New York’s upper west side — I thought of how he viewed physical strength and democracy as connected.  “Our American superiority and vitality are in the bulk of our people,” he observed, “not in a gentry like the old world.”  Walking through the streets of Manhattan, he saw a strong and heroic quality in the crowd:  “alertness, generally fine physique, clear eyes that look straight at you, a singular combination of reticence and self-possession, with good nature and friendliness” — the same qualities he admired in the wounded soldiers he tended during the Civil War.  These were qualities he attributed to a natural lifestyle with people working in “regular contact with out-door light and air and growths, farm-scenes, animals, fields, trees, birds, sun-warmth and free skies.”  And he linked this lifestyle to politics, writing in his memoirs that “democracy most of all affiliates with the open air, is sunny and hardy and sane only with Nature — just as much as Art is.”  This connection with Nature was necessary, in his eyes, to prevent an inherent tendency towards morbidity.

As I walked down the sidewalks of 21st-century Manhattan, taking note of empty shopfronts boarded up, I wasn’t so sure.  I saw people shuffling along the sidewalk, wearing masks.  Some old and frail, some obese.  They looked unhealthy, and fearful.  The fact is that today, people spend most of their time indoors.  And they are not as fit as prior generations.  I wondered if America was losing its sense of optimism, along with its health and vitality.  Or maybe I was just projecting my fears on others.

Walt Whitman, poet of democracy, singer of the open road, staring pensively, chin resting on hand

100th Marathon

Google Maps is accurate — I make it to the expo before it closes and obtain my bib.  Plus 4 safety pins and an undistinguished shirt, which gets tossed.  Passing through the city, my initial impressions of Wilmington are not especially positive.  There’s a feeling, reminiscent of New York City, of decrepitude.  Just on a smaller scale.  On the outskirts of town, I see industrial lots, vacant, encroached by marshland.  Potholes in the road.  A stout tall serious-looking fence surrounds a parking lot — it looks like it will keep out those to whom the cars do not belong.  For a lovely warm Saturday afternoon, the downtown area seems pretty vacant.

I pull in front of what might be the town’s fanciest hotel (I’d remembered it from a business trip) and hand over the keys to my dirty Jeep (it has never been washed).  An aged woman is standing by the door, leaning on a walker.  I walk inside the lobby, see an ancient man leaning on a walker, too.  That evening I lay out my running clothes, check the weather a final time (forecast now showing temperatures warmer by 2-3 degrees), review the course (lots of turns), check the route to the starting point (0.8 miles away), set an early alarm on phone and watch as the race will start at 7 am.

Race Start
Start of the Delaware Running Festival Marathon

The next morning at the start — a riverfront park — the sun breaking through the clouds, while runners mill around in anticipation — I jog a mile for warm-up, before taking off my shoes — and then we’re off along a smooth concrete path flanked with bricks and onto downtown streets and into a parking lot, where the rough broken surface brings me to a walk, but after that it’s smooth sailing.  Up a hill, over a bridge, onto a road that winds along the Brandywine Creek, where the trees are in bloom, flowers billowing in clouds of green and white.  Up another hill into a residential neighborhood with stately homes in stone and brick – porches flanked with columns and draped with flags – ornamental cherry trees with bright purple petals –  I pass a row of blood-red tulips sprouting beneath a wrought-iron fence.  There’s a colonial look to this neighborhood and the feel of old money.  And then we’re running through a park with manicured lawns.  A white-haired gentlemen neatly coifed steps out of a BMW — I overhear sharp words with a black policeman – something about road closures.  The runners are polite, thanking the officers for directing traffic, and I do so too and am rewarded with a fist-bump from a cop who sees me running barefoot and is surprised.  And soon I’m back at the start, which is the half-way point for the race.

My plan — for after the race — is first to get some food and coffee (as I’m racing in a fasted state with no food since dinner the night before) and then to go visit Whitman’s grave.  Something I’ve long meant to do.   There’s a story about his grave.  In his later years, Whitman was living in Camden in a run-down house, practically in squalor.  Friends raised money to help him buy a nicer place.  He took the money graciously.  But used it instead to build a mausoleum.  Always the self-promoter, he must have thought that an enduring image would sustain his work after death.  For what’s the point of writing poetry if no-one reads it?

There was still that perplexing question — what would Whitman, lover of the body and nature and democracy, think of our modern indoors lifestyle and diminished vigor?  One day I went back and paged through his memoirs, until I found an answer — “I conceive of no flourishing and heroic elements of Democracy in the United States, or of Democracy maintaining itself at all, without the Nature-element forming a main part — to be its health-element and beauty-element — to really underlie the whole politics, sanity, religion and art of the New World.”

In other words, if he were around today, he might not be so optimistic about America.

From the half-way point the race heads south along the Christina River.  Once again I’m padding along a smooth paved path flanked with brickwork, but then the surface changes — it becomes a wooden boardwalk with slats set at an angle to the direction of travel, which requires some concentration on my part, since the smooth wood surface is slippery in bare feet.  And since the screwheads are mostly flush, but not entirely so (in some places they protrude).  It’s a little bit disorienting to have to navigate and dodge these obstacles.  The boardwalk enters a nature preserve, extends along a straight-away for a mile or more, crosses an expansive marshland full of reeds.  Robins chatter, blackbirds buzz, while the sun is rising overhead in clear sky.  The slats here are set at right angles, which makes aiming where to step somewhat easier. The boardwalk ends and I’m back on pavement and feel the asphalt warming underfoot.

I’m running steadily in most places, slowing on rough surfaces, feeling energetic, but also mindful of old injuries and not inclined to press my luck.  Hills and heat take their toll.  For the last mile I put in some extra effort and cross the finish with a burst of (modest) speed, a smile, and two thumbs up, receive a medal and fist-bump from a young volunteer.  Well, I’ve run 100 marathons, and now I walk a short distance, find a bench.  Relax, finally.  And feel so content merely to lounge in the sunshine, listen to a band, see crowds of happy people.  A young black man asks about my barefoot practice, and I give my standard speech (“it’s more fun, mostly”) and somewhere along the way advise him to keep running for the rest of his life.  To which he replies with big eyes — “I run for life.”  I respond, “me, too,” and this earns me a smile and today’s fist-bump number three.  I use a large spreadsheet to keep count of completed races.  Maybe instead I should track fist-bumps.  Or add a column and count both.

Whitman’s Grave

From Wilmington it takes forty minutes to find Whitman’s grave.  Crossing the Delaware River over the Walt Whitman Bridge, I wonder how many motorists recognize the name.

The stout granite mausoleum is built into the side of a hill.  It sits next to a pond, overlooks a pair of tall pine trees and an oak which is leafing out.  I settle upon a flat rock, which feels wonderful to sit upon, after hours of running.  Next to the rock is an inscription.  “I bequeath my body to the dirt to grow from the grass I so love. If you want me again, look under your soles.”

Walt Whitman's gravesite, a mausoleum built of granite, in Harleigh Cemetary, Camden, NJ
Author sitting besides Walt Whitman’s gravesite in Camden, NJ

The site is sheltered from the sound of traffic.  I listen to bird calls.  Admire the trees.  Take in the clear, free sky.

Without making a conscious decision, I am back on my feet and walking to the Jeep.

The world changes.  Maybe it is the fate of humanity to trade strength for safety.  Effort for comfort. Intensity for predictability.  Freedom for guidance.  Maybe that is what Nature intends for us.

Or maybe it is the case that life/health are always mixed together with death/decrepitude.  Just like in the local grasslands which I often visit, where, at this time of year, fresh green shoots are sprouting amidst the tawny stubble of last year’s stalks, now bent and falling over and matted upon the ground.

I toy with the idea of taking on another 50 marathons.  Decide for now to merely focus on number 101.  I’ve concluded that life consists of one basic choice, repeated endlessly — take one step forward, or one step back.  I suppose the act of choosing is itself illusory.  Which is fine with me.  I’m happy to keep on moving as long as I’m able.

Allons! to that which is endless as it was beginningless,
To undergo much, tramps of days, rests of nights,
To merge all in the travel they tend to, and the days and nights they tend to,
Again to merge them in the start of superior journeys,
To see nothing anywhere but what you may reach it and pass it,
To conceive no time, however distant, but what you may reach it and pass it
— Song of the Open Road
Whitman and Wilmington

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