Spring blooms late in Nebraska, but this year, as if to make amends, it brought some surprises: 80° weather and Art Garfunkel. The singer was in something of an outward-bound—as opposed to "Homeward Bound"—mode, being five years and 2,200 miles into a 5,000-mile east-west walk across North America. A national tour, if you will, designed to please an audience of one—himself.
The Walk (it has assumed uppercase importance in Garfunkel's life) is conducted in pick-up-where-you-left-off spurts of approximately one week and 100 miles. Garfunkel flies from his home in New York City every four months or so, map in hand, and hits the back roads of America. Walking season roughly coincides with the April-to-October baseball calendar, but there is no schedule for its completion—The Walk recommences whenever Garfunkel's schedule and inclination permit it.
"The main thing I'm recording is the topography of the United States, the third dimension, the up and down of everything," he said one afternoon just before leaving his apartment on Manhattan's East Side to wander the knobby prairie that fills the gaps between Omaha and the Wyoming border. "I have a memory of every wrinkle in the American landscape now. I really know the East Coast and how the Appalachians began and how they come down ultimately into the Mississippi. It's a sequence of about 40 topographical changes."
Garfunkel's cumulative footsteps—which were supposed to adhere to a strict latitudinal line connecting New York and Oregon, but have evolved into a free-form squiggle—are plotted on a Rand McNally map that (ills a wall of his third-floor study. Twenty-six orange-headed pins are stuck precisely in place. If they were tracking the path of an advancing army, we would be talking about a bottom-of-the-barrel battalion assigned to mopping up small-town resistance: Fort Lee, N.J.; Lebanon, Pa. ("Amish country," says Garfunkel. "The landscape starts getting very beautiful, sort of quilted and lumpy"); Romney, W. Va.; Pomeroy, Ohio ("I got a sense that this is Mall America" ); Frankfort, Ky.; Vincennes, Ind.; Alton, Ill.; Hannibal, Mo. (alas, the Big River was "wide, shapeless, kind of disappointing, actually"); Coin, Iowa; Huskersville, Neb.
Underneath that jumbo map, 11 gold albums arc propped against the wall, sequentially, left to right, from 1965 (Wednesday Morning, 3 a.m.) to 1982 (The Concert in Central Park). They exude an air of casual neglect, like forgotten tombstones of some family that improbably died in chronological order. Although Garfunkel appears guilty of procrastination in hanging mementos, he plunged headfirst into The Walk. It was, he says, a "modified spur-of-the-moment" decision, meaning that within 24 hours of hitting upon the notion in 1985, he had laced on a pair of running shoes and was out the door. Through Central Park, north to 110th Street, across the campus of Columbia University, his alma mater, over the George Washington Bridge—follow the sun to the Pacific Ocean.
Gayle Simon, a friend from Los Angeles and no relation to Garfunkel's former partner Paul Simon, accompanied him on the inaugural leg, eight days through New Jersey—a true test of his resolve as he tramped past seemingly endless malls, parking lots and fast food outlets. In 1989 Garfunkel's wife, Kim, and his younger brother, Jerome, hiked with him through portions of West Virginia. But 90% of the distance he has logged alone, walking purposefully—mile after mile, state after state—on the shoulders of roads.
Early on, Garfunkel would either hitchhike or double back on foot to the nearest motel every night. However, somewhere in West Virginia it occurred to him that all those wasted hours might add up to an extra decade on the road. Now, he says, he travels "rich-man style," with an assistant to drive him to the day's starting point, scout lunch and room accommodations, run errands and retrieve him at the end of the day.
Thus it is that on this hot spring Saturday, Garfunkel's assistant, Alan Lipson—who bears a striking resemblance to a short, guitar-playing fellow with whom Garfunkel used to hang out—is behind the wheel of a rental car, negotiating the curves on Route 281,130 miles west of Omaha. Garfunkel is in the passenger's seat, a soft leather L.L. Bean cap on his woolly head. Most Nebraskans would take him for a duck hunter in search of a blind, not a vagabond tenor.
"Well, I'm going for a record today," Garfunkel announces. "That means I'll be going until nightfall. That means no break can be longer than an hour."
His single-day walking record at this point is 24.7 miles. Despite the uncooperative thermometer, omens favor a personal best. Garfunkel and Lipson have spent the night at a motel on the fringe of St. Paul, a Nebraska town of 2,094 people. Several hundred yards down the road is a state historical marker honoring Grover Cleveland Alexander, a native of nearby Elba who died in St. Paul. Alexander was an early member of the Baseball Hall of Fame; Garfunkel is a recent inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Cleveland pitched for the Philadelphia Phillies; Garfunkel, born in Manhattan and raised in Queens, N.Y., is a lifelong Phillie fan who frequently ventures onto the streets of New York in a traitorous maroon Phillie cap. Walking karma doesn't get any better than this.
During the 20-mile drive to the stretch of road where he stopped the previous afternoon, Garfunkel discusses strategy. He knows that his combined left-right strides measure five feet. That's exactly 2,112 steps per mile. He knows (his master's degree in mathematics is being put to use on The Walk) that 46 left-right paces a minute translate into 2.6 mph.
Lipson pulls onto a secondary road and stops the car. At 8:45 a.m., Garfunkel lopes off in the direction of Scotia (pop. 318), which lies 11 miles closer to Oregon. He is weighed down by only a road map, a pair of reading glasses, a watch, which he frequently pulls out of his pocket to check, a Walkman and an eclectic selection of tapes, including Peter Gabriel, Ravel's Piano Concerto for the Left Hand and poems of John Donne, read by Richard Burton.
A slight hill crests ahead. Garfunkel has no idea what is on the far side. Cornstalks may give way to fields of huge refrigeration tanks. The Grange could be dabbling in satanism. No matter. He is a prisoner of Walk Rule No. 1: No peeking. No exceptions! Whenever Lipson must drive him over a section of as-yet-un-walked road to get to their motel, Garfunkel rides with his eyes shut. Likewise, he will not fly in or out of an airport situated in untrod territory.
The rules are a reflection of Garfunkel's perfectionism. He is rock 'n' roll's Felix Unger. This is a man who keeps the 1,664-page Random House Dictionary of the English Language on his kitchen table to read (albeit from Z to A). He has a Rolodex filled with words and their definitions, hand-printed and cataloged by number. For instance, word No. 5,107 is crepuscule. For those who keep only salt and pepper on the kitchen table, it means "twilight."
Garfunkel says his journey through the dictionary is "a very similar thing to The Walk." Both are comprehensive in scope, dead serious in intent. Consequently, he has formulated Walk Rule No. 2: Keep moving. There is logic to that. Constant starting and stopping is a waste of energy. Garfunkel prefers locking into metabolic cruise control, letting gravity determine his speed—a notch slower going uphill, a notch faster coming down. In addition, The Walk was never envisioned as an opportunity to mingle with the masses. It isn't about socializing. It's about being the perfect stranger. "I'm just Mr. Question Mark," says Garfunkel with a shrug.
Left-right, left-right, left-right. Scotia draws closer.
Most folks would consider such a journey an exercise in marathon boredom. Garfunkel, however, has a supple mind and a self-described "lonerish" streak. Mr. Question Mark studies cloud formations and watches how the wind riffles through trees. He tries to imagine what shape the wind would be if it were visible. (Probably round and formidable, sort of Raymond Burrish.) He will pass a diner and take note of how long the smell of a bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich lingers (.2 of a mile).
In New Jersey, Garfunkel spent an inordinate amount of time staring at his feet, all for the cause of self-improvement. He had stuck flash cards filled with Russian phrases into the laces of his sneakers. He still sings in English, though, and the sound of silence on the Great Plains is broken when the urge strikes to belt out, say, an a cappella rendition of the Everly Brothers' "So Sad (to Watch Good Love Go Bad)."
"Herds of cows are mesmerized by me," says Garfunkel, marching on. Left-right, left-right, left-right. "I feel like Jesus, walking through a field. I try to do things that read in the cow world. One of them is this." He flaps his arms slowly, as if imitating a majestic bird on Quaaludes. "I work them like a politician," he says of his cow constituency. "If I look sincere, they look very sincere back to me."
Twenty million years before explorers, farmers and singers showed up, this region teemed with different forms of life. It boasted camels, saber-toothed tigers, dogs the size of bears, horned gophers and six-foot-tall pigs with similarly outsized tusks. The previous day's edition of The Grand Island Independent reported that as many as 10 mammoths per square mile may lie beneath Nebraska's fertile topsoil. The green terrain undulates unexpectedly, as if someone had tried to hide an elephant under a living-room carpet.
"This is the steepest incline of the last 200 miles," says Garfunkel, four miles into his day and 21 miles short of his goal. He is chugging uphill in first gear, arms swinging at his side, hat in hand. This marks the 500th day since he quit smoking. (Apparently, singing mathematicians count everything.) In the interim, a few compensatory pounds have crept onto his frame. That spindly build of his playground youth is disappearing. The legs no longer get enthused about three-on-three basketball. (Pity. Garfunkel's greatest sports moment came on the court: He claims to have once sunk 102 consecutive foul shots.) The choirboy face has matured. It would not look out of place in a pulpit. Appropriately, Garfunkel soon launches into a Saturday morning homily about the "human community."
"I like the fact that it's 9:30 now, for me, for everyone here," he says. Left-right, left-right, left-right. "Everybody around here, whatever else they're feeling, they're also feeling 9:30-hood." Left-right, left-right, left-right. "We're all feeling 9:30-hood, which is a very different thing from four o'clock. Saturday morning, if you've been up for a couple of hours, is one of the happiest times of the week. Do farmers feel it's a day off? I wonder if there are farmers right now not doing anything back-breaking but fixing something in the barn that they enjoy doing with their hands."
By 11 a.m. it is Garfunkel who needs fixing. The car is waiting for him on the outskirts of Scotia. He pauses to slather on sunblock and to slip into a pair of new size-9 sneakers that Lipson has picked up. Scotia reverberates with small-town racket: the whine of a power saw, the putt-putt of a distant tractor. An owl hoots. Birds chirp. In contrast to the many languishing communities Garfunkel has paraded through—tiny hamlets that looked "sadly departed from"—Scotia has a palpable vigor.
He resumes walking and passes by a sign that identifies Arthur Street. "James Joyce would have loved that," he says. "Joyce loved coincidence."
At 11:17, Garfunkel makes a second pit stop in Scotia, this time because of cramped toes. Two toddlers on a front-lawn swing set watch this strange man change from spotless sneakers into dirty ones. Adults must be weird people. "Where are you going?" one youngster yells.
"West," replies Garfunkel. Left-right, left-right, left-right.
"What is west?" the kid calls after him.
Ah, a cosmic question. Rousseau, one of Garfunkel's favorite philosophers, would have loved it. The American West has traditionally symbolized renewal and regeneration, the hope of a simpler tomorrow. There is an element of that in The Walk, although it would be metaphorical overstatement to say that Garfunkel's life is at a crossroads. He has already negotiated truly hazardous intersections—the dissolution of one marriage and one musical partnership, the suicide 11 years ago of a girlfriend—and is happily remarried, to Kim, and expecting a child. Still, to paraphrase a Paul Simon lyric, "How terribly strange to be 48."
"To get off the main track of your life so as to look at that life, to sort out some things," says Garfunkel, explaining one lure of The Walk. Left-right, left-right, left-right. He is on a dusty straightaway, bound for North Loup (pop. 441). Railroad tracks flank him on the right, a steel zipper holding hunks of Nebraska together. Cars and pickups whiz by. Everyone waves, Nebraska-style: a flick of the index finger resting on the steering wheel, an easy-does-it gesture.
"I think about what needs to be done," Garfunkel says. "Sometimes it takes the form of those clear fields—singing and acting. Sometimes it takes in a wider range of choices. I'm forced to be a constant philosopher in order to keep defining the meaning of my life."
There is a flip side to 11 gold albums' worth of success: the benign curse of too much choice. Garfunkel doesn't have to do anything, so he agonizes over everything. Although his father was a traveling salesman, Garfunkel claims to have no talent for self-promotion, which more and more is a prerequisite in the music business. His last album, Lefty, was released in 1988. It got fine reviews but, he admits, "didn't really do much."
Garfunkel has resisted offers to cash in on the lucrative Atlantic City-Las Vegas circuit. It's just not the same singing "Bridge over Troubled Water" with a 14-piece orchestra behind you and Corbett Monica as an opener. As for acting, it is a love but not an addiction. Before flying to Nebraska, Garfunkel passed on a chance to costar in a TV sitcom.
He devoted most of the '80s to writing verse. A book of poetry, Still Water, was published in September '89. The poems were culled from notebook jottings made at home and on the road. Some entries are Dear Diary fare: "Marvin Gaye was shot yesterday. I'm following the Mason-Dixon line to Gettysburg." Some have been polished: "It's the not exactly knowing of the way—the map thrown away, no thruway near—that makes the setting sun the guide and makes the setting come alive."
By this day's sunset, with central Nebraska bathed in crepuscular colors, Garfunkel has conquered North Loup and is shuffling down a neat, shady street in Ord. He has ditched his hat and picked up "incipient blisters." He has new, half-size-larger sneakers, as well as a revised itinerary. He has decided to take a country lane leading to the town of Sargent. Mild delirium has struck now that he is within shouting distance of 24.7 miles.
"What will the history books want to record?" says Garfunkel, conversing with himself. "In grade school readers you'll have the Dred Scott case and The Walk. People will go, 'What other walk was there?' 'Oh, Lewis and Clark!'—[who made a similar trek] 'Well, that's an exploratory thing. The Walk is the famous Garfunkel walk of the 1980s and '90s.' " Left-right, left-right, left-right. Stop!
He calls it quits for the day after 24.9 miles. The decimal-point precision appeals to him. It has, he notes, "a polevault feeling." He has improved his personal best by .2 of a mile. There is a snippet of Garfunkel verse (notebook entry No. 644: yes, he numbers his notes, too) that applies to such moments of solitary joy: "I am a sneaker in the schoolyard, white on white, a Keds/I am a high school on the twentieth of June."
Lipson is parked by the roadside. Garfunkel drops into the front seat of the car. Motel-bound, they drive by the local Elks lodge, a golf course and a neighborhood of cozy houses. "All right, it's not France," says Garfunkel. "But it's a nice country."
On Sunday, Garfunkel is up early, feeling surprisingly spry. Before resuming The Walk, he pays his respects at the Grover Cleveland Alexander historical marker. The monument makes mention of the 373 career wins, the 90 shutouts and the 1952 biographical film in which "the baseball immortal was played by Ronald Reagan." Garfunkel is more impressed by a reference to Alexander's "pinpoint control." It connotes a finicky presence on the mound, a kindred spirit.
Sadly, Alexander never gained such masterly control of his private life. After the limelight had dimmed and his glorious baseball days were over, he suffered from epilepsy and became St. Paul's best-known drunk, and died at 63. Take heed: Fame can be a steamroller, so the wise keep moving. Which may be why Mr. Question Mark is back on virgin road within the hour—eyes open, back to the sun—walking into the future. Left-right, left-right, left-right.
Tom Dunkel is a staff writer for "Insight," a newsmagazine based in Washington, D.C.