On The Trail Again
Anyone who loves to walk knows how it clears the head. As Robert Moor points out in his lovely book On Trails, there’s an almost meditative quality to it – if you walk for a while, whatever knots you are in gradually loosen. That’s my experience, anyway. To quote Saint Jerome: Solvitur ambulando – To solve a problem, walk around.
Here’s a list of books that are devoted to humans and walking. Of course, we could devote other lists to other species’ travels; just think about all the books on animal migration! We’ll save that for another day. Here’s a list of books about walking by upright, two-legged creatures:
A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail by Bill Bryson. One of America’s great comic writers, Bryson published this book in 1998. By turns self-deprecating, funny and informative, it’s the story of Bryson’s walk on the Appalachian trail (a few years before Moor took his hike).
Bryson wasn’t aiming for inner serenity; he was trying to shed the physique of a middle-aged deskbound writer with the general shape of a “cupcake.”
Bryson does have a serious streak – he makes the case that America should pay more attention to its own trail systems, namely the trails in our extensive system of National Forests. But this book is mostly just fun, and part of that fun is Bryson’s hiking companion, a fellow native Iowan and reformed substance abuser who in his wilder days had single-handedly become “in effect, Iowa’s drug culture.”
Moving to the west of the continent and to an entirely different kind of book, I have to mention Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed. This book became a cult classic after it was released in 2012.
Strayed was in bad shape, physically and mentally, when she started her 100-day hike on the Pacific Crest trail, which runs from Mexico through Washington state. She had separated from her husband. Her mother, who she was very close to, had died of cancer at age 45. Strayed had taken to using heroin to kill the pain. She set off on the trail in search of “radical aloneness,” without even a cell phone to bail her out in case of trouble.
Strayed is a fierce and funny writer. This is a book about a woman finding herself through pain, deprivation, natural beauty and a tough inner honesty – one benefit of such extended periods of hiking is that you really have time to think things through. Though it was published 17 years after she actually took the walk, the reader will feel like it was yesterday.
If you’re looking for a more contemplative book about walking, try Rebecca Solnit’s much praised Wanderlust. It’s an extended essay on the relationship between walking and philosophy – when one walks, Solnit writes, the body, the mind and the world work together. She looks at all kinds of walkers, from the Romantic poets to Las Vegas tourists. This is a book about walking that will open up your mind to its larger possibilities.
A book I haven’t read, but have on my to-read list because of its splendid reviews, is Robert Macfarlane’s The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot. Macfarlane writes about all kinds of walks, but he mostly concentrates on two areas of England: Sussex in southern England and the Scottish north, two very different landscapes.
Macfarlane pulls from all kinds of knowledge as he writes about his walks: geology, archaeology, fauna, flora, architecture, art, literature and urban design. He’s fascinated, like Robert Moor is, with “desire lines,” the places where people end up walking, regardless of where city planners or park designers tell them to. He meets all kinds of people; some contemporary, some from the past, including McFarlane’s beloved mountain-climbing grandfather, who was still trying to climb mountains in his 80s. I’m packing this one for my next trip to England.
Finally, I want to mention a book by someone who sometimes behaves like a madman, but he’s a very fine writer. Scottish journalist Rory Stewart decided to walk across Afghanistan – after the Sept. 11 attacks in 2002, in the middle of winter. He did it, and he wrote a book about it, The Places In Between.
This is one of those books that will teach you a lot about a place, because the author had the guts to get beyond the cities and the official spin and get to know the people in a place. Fortunately, he survived (he’s now a member of the UK Parliament), and has a new book coming out about walking the border between England and Scotland. I can’t wait.