The Long Walk

t was a cool morning when I started walking to Madison. It was something that seemed simple, yet also like some kind of feat. Who walks from Verona to Madison? No one, that’s who. Except me.

In my mind, I knew it was around twelve miles. But how far is twelve miles? In a car, that takes about twenty minutes, but you’re sealed off from the world. On a bike, it takes around fifty minutes, but even then you’re just gliding through. I wanted to know the real distance, to feel it. I wanted to experience what French philosopher Guy Debord called the “psychogeography” of it, meaning the interaction of your mind and the place. Because in a time when so much of what we do involves tricking the mind into the illusion of experience, the real thing may be the only kind of adventure we have left.

My head was full of these lofty thoughts as I headed north on the bike path. I could hear birds singing. I could feel the crunch of gravel under my feet. There was a cool wind at my back. Some kids were yelling in Spanish and playing basketball. It all seemed fresh and new. These Frenchmen, I thought to myself, might be on to something!

After an hour or so, I was barely on the other side of Verona. That’s when something occurred to me: twelve miles is a long way. But then I heard a screech, and looked up to see a hawk on a telephone pole. I stopped. It screeched again, looked at me, and then flew across a field with heavy pulls of its wings. Watching it grow smaller, I almost forgot how far I had to go.

There were other unfamiliar sights on the road from Verona to Madison: A forgotten telephone pole lost in the woods; an old farmhouse I’d never even noticed. These were the thousands of things that made me feel like I was seeing the place for the first time, which is, as Proust famously noted, the whole point of travel: not to see new landscapes, but to have new eyes.

I don’t know exactly when I crossed into Madison, but somewhere along Nesbitt Road my feet had started to hurt, and I was getting hungry. So I stopped into Bavaria Sausage, put some dried meat in my bag like it was 1850, and kept going.

I headed up over the hill on a newly paved path behind the SuperTarget. I walked through the sandy fields that will soon house other soulless caverns of commerce. I cut across parking lots and walked on streets not meant for walking on. I bolted across Verona Road, and then finally slipped under the Beltline.

As I headed down Nakoma, I had no doubt I was getting a tactile sense for the distance between Verona and Madison. The most conspicuous part of this sensation was between my legs, where my thighs were chafing in an unpleasant way. Also, my left foot was starting to hurt, and I was limping a little. Already, my sausage was running low, and I was still barely halfway there. But I looked down, noticed the sidewalk was covered in golden beetles that looked like tiny scarabs, and kept going.

When I reached Monroe Street, I couldn’t bear the thought of walking straight up the sidewalk for another hour, so I ducked into the prairie inside the Arboretum, which looked like it hadn’t been visited since the last person walked from Verona to Madison around 1900. But I bushwhacked through and found a little path not even on the map. It ran along the water’s edge where it was cool and peaceful and quiet.

When I emerged on the edge of Lake Wingra, I noticed something had stung my lip, which was hard as a rock and swelling fast. The psychogeography of the place was starting to take on a throbbing quality. When I tried to jump a fence, I pulled a hamstring and landed in a field full of burrs.

After more than four hours, I finally arrived on State Street. I was dripping with sweat, limping like Quasimodo, walking like a saddle-sore cowboy, picking burrs off my pants, and nursing my elephantine lip.

But I was almost there.

I hobbled up those last few blocks to Bascom Hall, the great white marble temple on the hill. Its south wings shone in the sun and opened in a kind of embrace as I made my way through the crowd. I had no idea what these people thought of me. They’d come from all over. Some from close by. Others from much farther away.

But I couldn’t help but wonder if any of them knew how far they’d really come.

Frank Bures had two stories selected for notable travel writing in The Best American Travel Writing 2008.