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.