Sunday, July 15, 2007

Long Walks Are Good for the Soul

For as long as I can remember, I've had this crazy dream of just taking off one day and walking across the country. When I lived in London I found myself having similar daydreams about doing the same thing in the U.K. and all the hiking that I did in Wales and England never really got that out of my system. In fact, living in England only made my dream seem even more possible because it was so easy to find magazines dedicated to long distance hiking and books written by people who had already lived the dream. Of course, now that a few more years have passed, and now that the roads are more dangerous than they've ever been, I realize that my dream is going to have to be lived through the experiences and words of others.

That got me to looking on my shelves this morning to see how many "long walk" books have managed to survive in my collection. I was surprised to find only three of them because I can clearly remember having read at least another half dozen or so of those in the last few years. I do have other "solo travel" books but those all involve people who made their trips by automobile or who relied on the kindness of strangers for long rides along the way.

Worldwalk is Steven Newman's story of his four-year, 15,000-mile, walk around the world that took him across five continents and through some twenty countries. Newman made that walk completely on his own, no sponsors to help pay his way and no crew to run interference for him so that his safety was guaranteed. He slept under bridges, and in fields or abandoned buildings, only occasionally being taken into the home of someone he met on his walk. He was arrested in several countries and even had to break his way out of jail in one instance. Newman, who ended up being listed in the 1988 Guinness Book of World Records as the first person to walk around the world alone, started his trek as a naive 28-year old and returned as a much wiser 32-year old world traveler. He does a very fine job telling his remarkable story in Worldwalk.

George Meegan took a different approach when it came time to make his own long walk. In The Longest Walk, Meegan describes his journey that begins on the southernmost tip of South America and doesn't end until he reaches the northernmost shores of Alaska, a vertical walk of over 19,000 miles that took him seven years to complete. Meegan, an Englishman, did not walk continuously for seven years but he always returned to the exact point from which he suspended his walk for various personal reasons. In fact, during that seven year period he married his Japanese wife and fathered two children (whose Japanese names translate into "Don't Stop" and "Keep Walking"). His walk was filled with adventure and frustration because between bouts of disease and hunger he found himself shot at, stoned, and threatened with knives. No one ever said a long walk would be easy and I was particularly touched by how dangerous Meegan felt Houston to be as he passed through the city.

The Walk West is the second "long walk" book that I read by Peter Jenkins, the first being A Walk Across America which chronicled Peter's walk from upper New York state to New Orleans. It was in New Orleans that Peter met Barbara Jo Pennell, a young seminarian who stopped him in his tracks. The Walk West picks up their story after they have married and decide to complete Peter's original plan to walk across the United States. All they have to do is walk from New Orleans to Florence, Oregon. How hard can that be?

Looking at these books again this morning has made me remember how much I enjoyed them the first time around. There's something about travel books written by lone travelers that has always appealed to me. I love the sense of adventure that comes from not knowing what's around the next corner and these books have to be the origin of my own love for rambling along all by myself, at my own pace, with a preference for following anything but in interstate highway.

I can't wait to check out a few bookstores to see what similar books I can find. The size of my travel book collection just doesn't cut it. I'm off.

24 comments:

  1. My dream is to bike across the country, but I can certainly see the appeal of walking as well. Maybe you could do it by going from one second hand bookstore to the next, dropping off books as you read them, and picking up others in their place.

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  2. That's not a bad idea, John. :-)

    I have often thought about biking for long distances, too, but I've had THREE friends hit by cars while doing that kind of thing. One was killed, one is in a wheel chair and one suffered through months and months of physical therapy. That pretty much scared me off the idea.

    Of course, walking is not all that much safer than biking because it makes you an easier target for the human vultures out there looking for an easy target.

    Sadly, I've decided that I'm too old to do it now and I'll have to live that adventure vicariously through these books.

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  3. I loved reading this post! I may just have to look into these.

    Not long ago I read THE ONLY ROAD NORTH (Mirandette) and it was about 3 boys (okay, men ... young men) that biked Africa. It does not have a happy ending, but conveys strength, courage and adventure. I really think you'd enjoy it. It does explore faith, but that is not the focus of the book. At least I didn't view it that way.

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  4. I read "A Walk Across America" years ago and absolutely loved it. I had no idea there was a sequel. I am very interested in reading this book as well as the others you have mentioned.

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  5. I can definately recommend Stephen Pern's "The Great Divide: A walk along the continental divide of the United States" I've read it several times, have no desire to walk the route myself but still find it fascinating.

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  6. I read Walk Across America when I was twelve and would day dream about walking and spending the night with all types of Americans. I read an advance copy of A Walk in the Woods while training for a marathon in the 90s which rekindled my dream.

    BUT, I dream that for all modes of transportation not just feet. I know for a fact when I retire the hubster and I will fly cross-country in a little two-seat tail dragger just like the brothers in Flight of Passage.

    AND, don't get me started on sailing! :D

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  7. Joy, the book sounds intriguing. Is it fiction or non-fiction?

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  8. Amy, I picked up another one by Jenkins today. It was published about 1994 but I never saw it go by. It's called Along the Edge of America and in this one Jenkins uses a small boat to explore America's Gulf Coast. Again, that's a region I'm very familiar with, so I'm looking forward to seeing what he experienced and what he has to say.

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  9. Thanks for that recommendation, Julie. I didn't see your response before I made my run to the bookstore, so I'll see if my library system can find that one for me instead. It sounds interesting.

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  10. I share your dreams, Maggie. I know that I won't be walking or biking for distance but I thoroughly enjoy road trips that let me wander around aimlessly in one general direction at whatever pace I choose for myself. I've only done a couple of road trips in the last 12 months but I'm looking forward to many more of them now that I have the time.

    I sometimes take baseball trips, sometimes Civil War battlefield trips and sometimes music trips. I suppose I need to start combining them but it seems easier to concentrate on one thing at a time. :-)

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  11. Those books sound great! I've always wanted to do a really long walk, too. I've read Bill Bryson's book about walking around England, called Notes from a Small Island, and I liked that. He also wrote one about walking the Appalachian Trail, called A Walk in the Woods, but I haven't read that.

    One of the things I always wanted to do when I was younger was to walk/hike the John Muir Trail, which follows the crest of the Sierras, but it is supposed to be pretty grueling, and I'm pretty sure I'm too wimpy to do it, now that I'm not a spring chicken any more :)

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  12. I really like those two Bryson books, too, Gentle Reader. Bryson had to give up his dream of finishing that Appalachian Trail walk all in one setting but that just made him seem more human...it's more like something I would have to settle for, I'm sure.

    I've got the bug to do some reading of travel books again. That's given me some new enthusiasm for book searching, just what I needed to get me off center again. :-)

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  13. Oh my goodness...we have a club of walkers right here! Let's go! :)

    Sam, THE ONLY ROAD NORTH is non-fiction.

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  14. John Steinbeck drove across America in his modified truck when he was no longer a young man. Maybe it is unlikely you'll trek across England or Wales, but you can still manage to make a trek/journey if you choose.

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  15. Joy, I think that we do have the makings of a nice hiking club...on an international basis, of course. Where should we meet?

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  16. Travels with Charley might have been the book that planted the seed for my wanderlust, Jill. As I recall, Steinbeck mentioned Beaumont, Texas in the book and I was living about six miles from there when I read the thing so it stuck with me.

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  17. I've never wanted to go on an extended hiking trip (I like to run but, oddly, I get tired of walking very soon) but I have wanted to go on a cross-country road trip. Sadly, none of my friends seem very interested in such a trip, and my family is likely to tie me up and stash me in the basement before they'd let me do it alone.

    But, one day, one day...I'm sure all those Best American Travel Writing series that I read don't help matters much either. I highly recommend those.

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  18. Thanks for the series recommendation, J.S. Don't give up your dream...a time will come when it will happen for you. Road trips are the best. :-)

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  19. Okay, well next road trip you will have to stop at our house, and we will walk down to the steak house for some beef! That's Como, Mississippi. Forty-five minutes south of nothing! :D

    Afterwards, I will get my house put on the ntl registry of historic homes; Sam Houston had dessert here. :D

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  20. Ooh, I think I would love these! I hike every day for 1 1/2 to 2 hours. I live on a huge network of canyons, and if I wanted, could probably hike for weeks, but I hate camping, so I just get out in the evenings after dinner.

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  21. You know, Maggie, I've driven through Mississippi, both east-west and north-south, at least a dozen times and I've never noticed Como, MS. I'll have to keep my eyes open next time through...thanks for the invitation. :-)

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  22. Lucky you, Dewey! I'd love to have something like that so close to my home turf. Walking in a big city bears little resemblance to hiking, unfortunately.

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  23. That may be why it missed it the first 12 times, Maggie. :-)

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