Tuesday, July 24, 2012


Jon Cotner on Walking Through Darkness With Strangers

Jon Cotner, of the Jon Cotner-and-Claire Hamilton slideshows on this site, is also a seasoned walk-artist, and he'll be leading a 12-hour overnight walk on New York's Fire Island — from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. — on both August 25 and September 15. The walk, called Island Night, has eight slots per event and costs $20. Claire is official navigator. Tickets are available. [Ed. – both walks are now sold out.]

Jon, are you insane?

Only jackhammers make me insane. Printer problems used to upset me as well, but now I hardly print. I believe Island Night springs from the depths of sanity.

How and where will people go to the bathroom?

This walk is an extended improvisation. We’ll start at The Pines and travel east, probably ending in Saltaire or Kismet. Eight miles or so. Until 4 we can hit bathrooms in bars; then it’s outdoors.

What kinds of things should people bring with them? Wine camel packs? Trail mix?

Hadn’t thought about camel packs! Poet Matsuo Bashō and friends drank as they walked, after all. Though I’m not sure this reference would persuade New York cops. I recommend vegetables, fruits, a favorite snack or two — plus plenty of water.

Will you stop at any point? What will you do when you stop?

Oh sure. We’ll take breaks for dialogue, silence, and/or picnics. It’s important to me to make sure everyone feels comfortable. At the same time, however, this walk is somewhat rigorous.

Are you aware that it sounds kind of horrible? You are great, so I trust that it will actually be wonderful, but — you know, right, that it sounds like torture?

Each week there are new studies on the dangers of sitting. Sitting gives us cancer, makes us obese, bends our spines, ruins our hearts. So I expect Island Night will be more pleasant than most day jobs. Long nocturnal walks can exhilarate. We’re tossed into new, silver-hued worlds.

Will you see animals or bugs?

Deer love Fire Island. We’ll also see fireflies and crickets. Ducks and owls too, along with sneaky housecats.

Who goes on these things?

Previous interactive walks have mixed young and old. Some participants are extroverts; others are shy. At a Battery Park City event called We’re Floating, one couple celebrated their 55th anniversary. Other members included an architect, a teacher, and a bassist. Island Night is the first all-night walk I’ve done. I’m curious to see who joins.

What will the group do the next day?

If people want to keep going, we’ll find breakfast. I know a place that opens at 7. It has a table outside. Local residents will probably ask about our night together. We’ll seem to have “an edge.”

What will YOU be bringing with you?

Picnic materials (blueberries, nuts, chocolate cake). Mosquito repellents (they always go straight for Claire). Blankets and socks.

What's a particularly good memory you have of another tour you recently led?

An Indian mom named Beauty brought her six-year-old daughter to We’re Floating. The girl, whose name is Debby, had a lot to say on the subject of ceaseless flux. Everyone listened.

On a scale of 1 to 1000, how much should people want to go on this tour with you?

Island Night will be built moment by moment. I encourage people to come along if they crave physical landscapes and human stories. The piece will develop its momentum — its memorableness — through interaction.

This same principle is at work in the Hairpin slideshows, which emerge from spontaneous dialogues. Claire and I can’t predict what people will say when we ask about maternal / paternal anecdotes, amorous nicknames, or holiday wishes. We’re always surprised. We become buoyant.

Participants shouldn’t worry if they feel “ill-prepared” for Island Night. The walk will prepare them. “The road is made by walking,” as Antonio Machado says.

You can find more info on Jon and his walks here.

63 Comments / Post A Comment

sarah girl

Oh god, I just read The Long Walk by Stephen King and this is giving me flashbacks...

Reginal T. Squirge

Yes! The best short story! Frank Darabont needs to make this into a movie.

sarah girl

@Reginal T. Squirge I just read on Wikipedia that he owns the rights to the movie, so maybe someday! Although hopefully with less disembowelment.


Totally amazing!@y


Have you seen the work of Amira Hanafi? Lo! She is my favorite!

Oh, squiggles

That sounds awesome. Wish I was close enough to go to this!


Are you aware that it sounds kind of horrible? You are great, so I trust that it will actually be wonderful, but — you know, right, that it sounds like torture?

This would have been my only question had I conducted this interview.


@Yahtzii Seriously. "I'm sure this whole thing is in truth a magical experience but also it sounds suspiciously like a recurring nightmare that you won't be able to wake up from."


@Yahtzii Firmly in the torture camp. Meandering around in the dark with a bunch of strangers? Was I bad?


@trappedinabay Increasingly exhausted, can't stop but can't go on, who are these people? What did I do to deserve this?


@frigwiggin Don't forget, tickets are still available!

sarah girl

@Yahtzii You all need to read The Long Walk by Stephen King!

Jon Cotner

@Yahtzii Since when did talking with other people on a long walk become "punishment"? I'm missing the irony.


@Jon Cotner About the same time that talking with other people on long walks became "mobile seminars that explore philosophy, poetry, daily life, etc" that cost $20 to do?

Jon Cotner

@fannyekdahl That's just one way to describe these walks. Why the aggression? Seems misplaced. I expect we've all paid for art events that left no impression. Long nocturnal walks can be deeply memorable experiences. I tend to judge the value of something by how memorable it is.


@Jon Cotner You want the truth? This seems like a thing bored silly white people do when they have too much time and money on their hands.

Jon Cotner

@fannyekdahl Guess you didn't read the interview. These walks attract participants from many backgrounds. They're opportunities to talk with new people. Just look at the Hairpin slideshows. You'll see what I mean.


@Jon Cotner Just because a few of us deign not to get the appeal of your walks doesn't mean we didn't read the article, it just means doing so made our eyes roll.

Edith Zimmerman

@Jon Cotner Things are getting exciting down here! I think Jon's walk sounds like a cool (ridiculous/weird/excruciating/lovely?) change of pace, which is why I thought he would make a neat interview. Changing things up, breaking routines, looking at things differently. In whatever ways.

And even if people didn't want to (or otherwise couldn't) actually GO on this walk, it might stir ideas for other kinds of routine-breaking. I don't know. People doing unusual things is always interesting to me. Ditto filling camel packs up with wine.


@Edith Zimmerman I have no doubt that other people would enjoy it! I might even enjoy a smaller-scale version of it on my own with a handful of friends. The full version sounds a little intense to me, though, and it's fun to take that to the humorous extreme by exaggerating how I imagine I would feel after a long, sleepless walk with strangers in the night, and I think that's how some other folks feel too.


@Jon Cotner To each their own, but do you honestly not understand why this might seem ridiculous to people? I feel like if you're going to do stuff like this, you need to be prepared for at least a few people to dismiss it as hipster nonsense, ESPECIALLY after they read the interview.


@Jon Cotner - I can't speak for others, but the 12-hour time commitment is what's making me balk. That's a lot of time to spend with a bunch of people you've just met, and for someone who likes her social activity in small, controlled doses, it's daunting. If you're talking an hour, maybe two hours, the whole thing sounds WAY more palatable. What if you can't stand one of your walk-mates? What if you just get tired and want to go home? Is there a graceful way to exit the situation?

Other objections: I like to sleep during those hours, and I'm also not that into marathon-length walks. 8 miles is a lot, especially in the dark.

Maybe you could offer a mini-version (2 miles?) for people who want the Jon Cotner Lite experience?

simone eastbro

@Edith Zimmerman All-night walks? On MY Hairpin?!? HEAVEN FORFEND.


A deer once licked my mother's hand on Fire Island.

sarah girl

@anachronistique This sounds like a metaphor for something outrageously offensive.


@anachronistique My friend just sent me pictures of him in Fire Island where they actually put a lei on a deer and another of his friend passed out in the grass and deer all around. I've expressed shock at this around my friends, but they're basically like, "Yeah, deer on Fire Island do that." This is not the way deer are supposed to act, people!


@Sarah H. Thank goodness, no.

@meetapossum It's a little ridiculous! They have no natural predators, there's no hunting, and there are no cars to run them over. If it weren't for shooting them full of birth control the island would be completely overrun with deer.


I think I would really love to do this! Going for walks at night is wonderful and peaceful and probably way safer to do in groups rather than like, by yourself or with your sister, even though it's in your super safe neighbourhood, so seriously how did we manage to run into a guy kneeling naked on somebody's (his?) front lawn, with a tshirt over his face, jerking it?!?!


@redheaded&crazie What the what?!


@redheaded&crazie Kneeling naked guys know no boundaries.

all the bacon and eggs

I'm very unclear on how something can be termed a "walk," when it will only cover 8 miles in 12 hours.


@all the bacon and eggs Yeah, that sounds like an extended, pleasant stroll. I bet right around 3am there will be a pleasant shared delusion caused by communal sleepiness. The participants could probably stop for a 4 hour nap around midnight and still have enough time to finish the stroll.


@all the bacon and eggs I think the "bars are open until 4" bit provides a brief hint.


@all the bacon and eggs yeah, I was kind of wondering about that too. I was thinking this was some non-stop thing & kind of tilted my head in confusion when I saw it only covered 8 miles. It sounds sort of...relaxing? (this is coming from somebody who is probably dying of sitting disease, by the way, so I'm probably grossly overestimating my hypothetical abilities if I were to do this walk)

sudden but inevitable betrayal

@all the bacon and eggs And a "rigorous" walk at that. I feel like I could handle it?

Jon Cotner

@all the bacon and eggs Fire Island has a variety of terrains. Some stretches will be deep sand (through which movement is tough). Claire and I walked from The Pines to Saltaire in 8 hours for a Believer slideshow --


I'm expecting the same route, with a group, will take 12 hours. We didn't stop much along the way.


@Jon Cotner It's probably easy to tell who's never actually been to Fire Island (ie, me). I've always imagined it was one long boardwalk.

Jon Cotner

@wharrgarbl Not planning to go to any bars. The point is to be outside.

all the bacon and eggs

@muddgirl Same here...one long boardwalk populated entirely by very attractive men with waxed chests. Let's go there!


@all the bacon and eggs I was confused by that too.

Reginal T. Squirge

I'm looking forward to the found-footage horror film that comes out of this night.


This is so cool. Seven years ago, just for the hell of it, I tagged along two days of a month-long Catholic pilgrimage-- walking through the German countryside, saying rosaries, eating and sleeping in the homes of hospitable strangers. We walked about 50 miles. I have Problems With Catholicism these days, but except for the praying, I'd do it again in a heartbeat.

Tricia Cannon@facebook

I'm confused by this. I mean, can't you just go walk with your friends and not pay $20? Or even find a group of people online if you want the interaction strangers? I guess I just don't really understand this.

Jon Cotner

@Tricia Cannon@facebook The same argument could apply to anything. People pay for art to support organizations (in this case Elastic City) and to have new experiences.

I'm Right on Top of that, Rose

So...you just, walk? With strangers? And people pay for this? I think my living-in-the-West bias is showing, because I don't really get this. I suppose people are afraid of walking at night in urban areas, or don't have easy access to nature? If this is it, I'm all for it. People need the Outside.

Jon Cotner

@I'm Right on Top of that, Rose My interactive walks are mobile seminars that explore philosophy, poetry, daily life, etc. We aren't just walking. A lot of preparation goes into what appears totally spontaneous. Plus, as I mention above, ticket sales support the non-profit art organization Elastic City.


I keep rereading both the article and the comments and I just can't get past "...okay? So?" Maybe it's my fault for living in an area where there's nature everywhere. This sounds a like cool thing some friends did together a few times that started to be taken way too seriously. And cost money.


@fannyekdahl When was the last time you walked in nature all night? I confess I've always lived close to nature and I've never done it.


@fannyekdahl Let's do a magickal night stroll where we frolic among the trees to the sounds of Enya and Loreena McKennit. Each ticket will include a dress rental from the Pyramid Catalog Collection.

I'll give you a discount.


@muddgirl To be honest? Never. Mostly because I grew up in the hood and have learned that indoors is the safest place to be at night. Self preservation is my favorite way to be mindful of my surroundings.


@Tricia Cannon@facebook Every time I've bought mushrooms it's come to about $20 a hit AND I usually end up wondering around outside in a group for around 8 hours. Maybe there's a subtext or offer we're not picking up on?


@fannyekdahl Nature is where you get beaten up by a sea turtle for no reason and get your food stolen by giant birds and then have to pick things that look like spiders but people are insisting are crabs out of your hair. There's a reason people don't spend every weekend availing themselves of its wondrous-yet-itchy embrace. Nature is a sometimes-thing.


Fire Island is pretty magical. My aunt, mom and I did a similar walk last year during the day. As Jon mentioned, the terrain varies and gets wildernessy, plus each little town has its own culture. People pay loads for safaris and outback treks. This is a neat little take on that!


@deanasobel Yeah, my sister and I (and sometimes my brother) would usually take a night walk down the beach from Kismet towards the lighthouse. It's really lovely.


@anachronistique Those traditions are the best! Haven't been to the lighthouse at night but it must be so pretty. I wonder if you can go through the Sunken Forest in the dark? Spooky...


Huh. Sounds like an ultramarathon. Only with less hallucinating and vomiting.


I'm going to go on record in the minority as saying this is something I would Totally Do. It seems like at worst, you'd get a great story and the excuse to eat poutine guilt-free afterward.

acid burn

@staircases Wait, why does poutine make you feel guilty? Is it like... blood poutine? DID CHILDREN DIE FOR MY GRAVY CONSUMPTION?


@acid burn All poutine makes me feel is glorious. I'm so sad for anyone who feels otherwise.


I have never heard of Fire Island before and I am still sort of completely fucking confused about it and it's existence. Whaaaat is that place. Are you... allowed to walk there by yourself? Still confused. I find walking at night fun, as do I find walking long distances. Nature is great!


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