Wobbling Wally Watts
Text and photographs by Robert C. Morgan
The scene is a small, winding street in Agra, India, a steady, slow-motion collage of people, animals and vehicles, the sound an endless cacophonic din. Suddenly, there is excitement and shouting. Heads turn, eyebrows are raised. Arms waving, legs pumping, head and shoulders above the curious crowds, a man comes barreling down the street. The Lone Ranger on Tonto? No … it’s `Wobbling’ Wally Watts on his unicycle! And what is this twenty-nine-year-old Canadian doing with his unicycle in Agra? Why, he’s riding it around the world!
Wallace Watts of Edmonton, Canada, may be news to Agra, but he is no stranger to public recognition. Any recent visitor to New York’s Empire State Building would have had an opportunity to see an exhibition on Wally among a display dealing with holders of current Guinness World Records. In 1973, by undertaking a grueling journey of seven thousand three hundred and sixty-six kilometers across Canada from Vancouver to Halifax, Wally clearly established a new distance record for the unicycle (though, to Wally’s frustration, Guinness have contradicted their Empire State exhibition and, in their current edition, list Walter Nisson as the holder of the current unicycle distance record – a record established in 1934 but re-set twice since then). Wally’s trans-Canada trip took ninety-three days, and tolerating bitter cold in eastern Canada and in the Rocky Mountains, he averaged seventy-nine kilometers per day.
Partly through Wally’s efforts the unicycle, long viewed simply as a one-wheeled maverick cousin of the bicycle, has enjoyed a recent kindling of public interest. The unicycle, generally associated with eccentricity, juggling, circuses, tight-ropes and clowns, clearly presents a more physically demanding experience for the rider than a bicycle, and has inspired an international non-profit unicycle club and an international quarterly magazine.
Wobbling’ was added as a prefix to Wally’s name on his trans-Canada trip by an Edmonton newspaper reporter; unicyclists seem to enjoy such names. Prior to setting the current record, Wally traveled to Las Vegas, to exchange greetings and tips with the previous record holder. His name is Steve “Unique” McPeek,’ Wally told me. `He cycled from Chicago to Las Vegas in six weeks back in 1968. But, you see, “Unique” had backing from Circus Circus’ Casino – a large promotion company – which included five hundred dollars a week plus expenses and a back-up truck following him. I have no financial backing, and never have had, though the mayor of Edmonton gave me a letter of introduction for me to present to the mayors of some of the cities I pass through. For “Unique”, cycling is an occupation. For me, it’s a sport.’
While Wally doesn’t cycle with a formal entourage, he is certainly never at a loss for company. It has always been common for travelers to experience the close scrutiny of the locals in a new country. When the native residents of what is now called Mexico first laid eyes on a Spanish explorer dismounting from his horse – an animal they had never seen before – they were mystified by the phenomenon of a two-headed, six-legged, two-armed being that could separate itself, and they started in awe as one half walked about and the other half remained stationary. Wally has been similarly viewed. Whether the accosting of a stranger is done out of a commercial motive or simple curiosity, travelers often find themselves in the center of attention. It’s not always to the liking of one who enjoys privacy.
You can quadruple that crowd-gathering business for me,’ he says wearily. I create a crowd wherever I go. People sometimes want me to ride the wheel just after they’ve watched me ride the last half kilometer right up to where they’re standing. Often, when I come to a town and need some rest or food, I just stay out of sight. Then there are the guys who want to try to ride the wheel themselves. They really look funny, dressed in their business suits, weaving round on the seat with their friends holding them up.’
If the average local citizen is slightly mystified by this wheeled wonder, the various law enforcement agents whom Wally wobbles by appear to be in a similar quandary. Laws for unicycles don’t seem to exist in the vehicle codes of most countries, and when he waves and strokes his way past a policeman or policewoman the ensuing encounter is occasionally punitive, often hilarious and usually totally confusing. After starting his world tour in 1976 with a flight from New York to Prestwick, Scotland, Wally was cruising leisurely down the highway to Glasgow when he was pulled over by a Scottish policewoman who looked him up and down and decided, `Ye must be doing something illegal, laddie!’
In the months to come, Wally and `the wheel’ (as he refers to his cycle) would play roadside hosts to many constables gendarmes and carabinieri. Between Edinburgh and London he was temporarily charged with having no brakes and no tread on his tyres – but a unicyclist stops his machine by reversing the normal leg action, and the type of tyre used on a unicycle doesn’t require tread for safe riding. In France, Wally was erroneously informed by a policeman that unicycling in France was strictly prohibited. The official, with crisp decorum, then proceeded to radio in to the police station, only forty meters from where he and Wally stood, for a passport check. Wally was picked up minutes later – not by the gendarmes, but by a French motorist who’d watched the bizarre encounter, and who invited Wally into his home for two weeks. Two Italian motorcycle policemen once confronted Wally on the road and ended up giving him an escort with sirens, and several cold beers while stalling him until a reporter friend and a photographer arrived for an interview.
The hospitable people make me forget the grabbing, loud crowds. All those who showed me kindness, who invited me to stay with them, they really smoothed out the trip,’ he says. I’ll never forget any of them.’ He will also never forget the policeman who followed him some distance and finally told him, `Waving your arms like that as you ride along might give a driver a heart attack …’
Coronary arrests are more likely to happen to the rider of a unicycle than to the driver of an automobile or the rider of a bicycle. The unicycle (unless it is equipped with a drive chain – Wally’s is not) offers the operator the Spartan proposition of half a revolution of the wheel for every stroke on the pedal, as opposed to nearly a full revolution per stroke on a bicycle. Multi-geared bicycles allow the rider to
level out’ a hill by changing the bicycle’s gear ratio, thus making pedaling relatively easy. Both unicycles and bicycles have enjoyed a recent upsurge of interest in the West, a result of the new attention and importance placed on sport-oriented recreation. Wally, who exudes an explosive vitality and robustness, is a mobile advertisement for good healthy, very fast walking – try matching him stride for stride some time when he decides to walk across town to pick up new spokes for his wheel’.