‘One day in New York, wishing to explore that great city in a truly haphazard way, I hit on the following device – a zigzag walk. The first turning to the left is the way of the heart. Take it at random and you are sure to find something pleasant and diverting. Take the left again and the piquancy may be repeated. But reason must come to the rescue, and you must turn to the right in order to save yourself from a mere uninteresting circle. To make a zigzag walk you take the first turning to the left, the first to the right, then the first to the left and so on.’ Stephen Graham, The Gentle Art of Tramping (1926)
‘You can zig, you can zag‘ Van Vliet & Berman (1967)
On a city laid on a grid like New York, I would expect that Stephen Graham’s method would take you zig-zagging around city blocks, but with an overall trajectory from start to finish that was more or less in one direction. But I wondered how this would work in the meandering mercury maze of streets and pedestrian short-cuts in Wellington’s hill suburbs.
I set out from my home in Karori on a hot summer morning, with the intention of zig-zagging using Stephen Graham’s method for a couple of hours to see where I ended up. I decided that every vaguely public-looking path would count. I had a map with me, but I would not look at it until my two hours were up.
I was prepared to cheat, I admit, just to avoid spending my whole walk in Karori, but it turned out that I didn’t need to. After about 20 minutes of walking, I found myself turning up Raroa Road from Chaytor Street and heading towards the suburb of Northland. I passed a little white cross, surrounded by faded flowers, at the side of the road, a memorial to a 21 year old, killed in a car accident.
Just before Northland tunnel, I turned up Putnam Street. A row of garages teetered above me on the edge of the hill. I turned into Thorby Street, a ‘no exit’ road, but at the end, a path zig-zagged steeply down past cute weatherboard cottages. I kept on going, hoping it would lead somewhere. I passed a woman pruning her hedge in a bikini, who assured me that it did. Turning left onto Northland Road at the bottom, I walked uphill and came out just on the other side of the Northland tunnel, only metres from where I’d turned off up Putnam Street. Already, I’d almost made a ‘mere uninteresting circle’ – the very thing that Stephen Graham was seeking to avoid by using this method.
I was at the Creswick shops now and there was a café just around the corner. My next turn was up another zig-zag path leading to Creswick Terrace, but I detoured from my zigzag in search of coffee, only to find the cafe was closed. I made do with a packet of crisps from the dairy instead.
It always feels to me as if there should be more to the shops here in Northland than just a cluster of takeaways, a church, and a dog-grooming salon. Rather than being the centre of Northland, it feels more like its edge – the land on one side drops steeply away and you find yourself eyeballing Kelburn on the other side of the valley.
Northland’s former fire station clings to the side of the hill opposite the line of takeaways. Viewed from the back, it dominates the buildings around it and I’d often wondered what it was. The original building included flats for firefighters and their families in a time when suburban house fires were very common and a serious threat to this city of wooden buildings, which explains its size.
I headed back to the zig-zag path. Part-way up was another path to the right, which I should have taken, but I was pretty sure it would lead back down to the shops past a patch of grass where a man was sitting eating a takeaway pizza. I’d just walked past him seconds before, and I wasn’t prepared to suddenly reappear and walk past him again from a different direction. I was starting to feel a little self-conscious. No doubt you can wander randomly around New York and no one would take any notice, but suburban Wellington on a beautiful day, when people are sitting around enjoying the lunchtime sun is not the same. I’d already been asked if I was lost – maybe I looked like a tourist who’d taken a wrong turn on the way to Zealandia.
I was starting to confuse myself a little too. When you’re following meandering roads and paths, it can be difficult to work out what is a right or left turn and what is going straight on. I was holding my camera, swopping it from one hand to the other as I made my turns to help me keep track of which way I needed to turn next.
In any case, I eventually ended up on Randwick Road, heading right back towards the shops. I suppose roads tend to converge on centres – whereas with a grid system, you can completely miss the heart of things, even if they are only a block away.
I took a sharp left up a path, past a converted chapel and St Anne’s schoolroom. A sign told me I was heading up Te Ahumairangi hill, but before I had time to get excited about that, I had turned off onto Harbour View Road, another ‘no exit’ road. Not far along, I spotted a path on the left that might just lead to a couple of houses or might go further. I ventured down it and found it led to a little crossroads – or maybe ‘crosspaths’. I turned right and followed a concrete path down a steep gully. I realised that I was on the Military Track, which formed part of an early settlers’ route from Wellington to Karori, and which I wrote about here.
The path came out on Garden Road, and then I was heading downhill again, towards the bottom section of Orangi Kaupapa road and Glenmore Street. I wasn’t feeling too happy about this. Not only did I now seem to be following a route I had already walked rather than somewhere new and interesting, I wanted to stay in Northland, and I certainly didn’t want to end up in the CBD. I even started to fret that I might end up walking past my workplace on my day off. Stephen Graham contrasts taking paths with your heart and with your head. I’m not sure that zig-zag walking is really walking with your head, but it goes against the grain to turn away from paths that look interesting. I was finding it hard to give up my walk to a set of self-imposed rules, and to accept wherever it happened to take me.
Interestingly, Harold Gatty in his fascinating book ‘Finding your way without map or compass’ (which I also wrote about here), talks about people’s natural tendency to walk in circles when they are lost and suggests this is due to body asymmetries such as having one leg longer than the other, as well as a psychological tendency to turn to the right. So a zig-zag wander might also go against an inbuilt physical and sub-conscious grain.
But all was not lost when I realised that my route took me into the Botanic Gardens. I took a path up that led up to the Magpie Lawn. There were no magpies in sight. I ate some lunch on a bench dedicated to the memory of another young person, and his dog. I’d read that the Magpie Lawn was built by unemployed labourers during the 1930s depression, along with much of Wellington’s infrastructure. I wondered why they had been set to work on a lawn in an out of the way part of the gardens, when their fellow unemployed labourers were building tunnels and widening roads.
From Magpie Lawn, I followed a disorientating maze of meandering paths. At one point, I went past the back of houses and it looked as if I was going to pop out in Kelburn, but then I spotted a path that took me back into the gardens along a little stream. I admired pukatea trees, walked through a vireya collection (whatever those are), and along the ‘quarry path’. I passed a gaggle of cruise ship tourists, reached the childrens’ play area, and then did a loop round, to arrive back at the play area again. Whenever I thought I was getting somewhere, a path would appear, taking me off in a completely different direction.
Eventually, I ended up in the formal part of the gardens, back near Glenmore Road. I meandered through the flower beds, past the fountain with the weird boy statue in it…and then ended back where I had started. My next turn would be to take a left on the very path that had taken me up to the Magpie Lawn.
When Stephen Graham asserted that his zig-zag method would prevent you going in circles, he clearly had not tested this premise in Wellington, and certainly not in the Botanic gardens.
A small part of me wanted to take the path back up to the lawn, and do it all again, to see if I would still come out in the same place. But a larger part of me knew that things could turn vicious, or at least ever-decreasing, and so I broke out and headed home.