October 2, 2016

Armchair Hiker

A few years ago I was working in a theatre (not as glamorous as it sounds, I was just teaching an antenatal class there), and I spent some time browsing a photographic exhibition by a mother who had hiked the Camino de Santiago with her two teenage sons. At the time I was intrigued and drawn to the romance of it, but inevitably somewhat put off by the heavy spiritual element; however it has stayed in my mind as, over the last few years, we have started doing more walking as a family.

Last year, we watched Wild, the film of Cheryl Strayed’s memoir of her hike along part of the Pacific Crest Trail, and that poked my dormant intrigue back into an active curiosity. I still can’t put my finger on what it is about long distance walking that appeals to me so much. I’ve racked my brains for practical ways to do it myself despite my diary being booked up 9 months in advance, and Bernard’s tendency to behave as though he is being abused and neglected whenever we drag him out into Nature. It’s not possible, it might never be possible. So I have become addicted to the Hiking Memoir as a genre, and indulge in daydreams of long trails, big skies, and wide views. Here’s my reading so far…

Starting with the fictional account of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, in which our Harold sets off to the post office and accidentally ends up hundreds of miles further north; this was a super story that gave me everything I wanted from a book about a long walk. He was unprepared and had to cope with an almost constant run of adversity; he passed through interesting places and met fascinating people; he changed as he walked. I don’t expect evidence of massive spiritual growth from every writer who ever set out for a stroll, but it does make for a good read. This of course was a novel, so unbound by tedious reality, but that doesn’t mean I don’t want to know about the blisters as well as the beauty.

I first heard about the South West Coast Path on the podcast Marathon Talk, and more recently, presenter Martin Yelling has attempted to run it himself, as discussed in perhaps my two favourite episodes of that show. It’s 630 miles from Minehead to Poole, and you can just imagine what views and terrain it must offer. I have walked many stretches of it without even realising it, and even got a few miles of running in both Weymouth and Lyme Regis this summer, myself. Here at Casa Uborka, we discussed making our own attempt at walking the whole thing, and of course it’s impossible, so again I walked it vicariously alongside Mark Wallington, who wrote 500 Mile Walkies about dragging his poor city-dog around it one wet summer. This book has a good balance of the real walking experience, and the scenery, and although I didn’t always find him quite as amusing as he found himself, I found it very hard to put it down.

Next I picked up the book of Wild, and was delighted to find it even better than the film. Cheryl Strayed writes beautiful prose, and although there are those who believe it to be mostly a work of fiction, I don’t really care (and you know that because the first book I’ve mentioned here actually was a work of fiction). She tells a good story, and since I will never hike the PCT myself, a good story is of far more interest to me than a hiking manual. According to Cheryl, she hiked 1,100 miles from Tehachapi to the Bridge of the Gods, encountering both desert and mountain terrain; and she weaves this into her own story. The hike is a transformative experience for her, and while I don’t necessarily expect that a snatched 12 miles of the Thames Path would grant me spiritual enlightenment, I do love the idea of the mental space granted by knowing there is nothing in the next few hours but road.

I’ve read a few Bill Bryson books, and I can’t decide whether I love him or hate him; but when I discovered A Walk In The Woods on my kindle, that seemed like the obvious next step. Bryson’s mileage is unclear, because he hop-scotched the Appalachian Trail, dipping a toe in here and there, and never letting his claim that he was planning a Thru-Hike get in the way of just giving up for a few months whenever it got too much. Still, there were tents and bears and blisters, all conveyed in Bryson’s slightly self-satisfied Witty Tone, and one of the things I got from it was the immense difference between the AT and the PCT, neither of which are part of my future.

We spent some days in the summer with my entire extended family: mum, dad, brother, sister, various partners and their children. It was ace. Dad brought with him a pile of Paulo Coelho books for Dr Pockless to take back with him to Hungary. One of them was The Pilgrimage. Meanwhile mum started reading it, and I ordered a secondhand copy, and by the end of the summer we had all read it, and hated it to varying degrees. For my part, it was a combination of the dense mystical nonsense, and the utter lack of trail experience, that I found so disappointing. Coelho walked from St John Pied de Port, to Santiago, but the exact mileage is only ever described as “500 miles +.” He spends most of it hallucinating about black dogs and yearning for a sword. Make of that what you will.

Our final fling of the summer was a weekend in Lyme Regis, in glorious mid-September sunshine. There is a crammed secondhand bookshop at the bottom of the hill, and while Bernard was learning his Kata, Pete and I were spending happy hours browsing without interruption. I picked up a copy of Best Foot Forward, by Susie Kelly, a novelist living in Poitou-Charentes, an area of France I know better than I really want to. Her walk is 500 miles from La Rochelle to Geneva, and the nice thing about a novelist going for a long walk, is that they write well about it afterwards, because frankly that route takes you through some of the most tedious parts of France. Okay, some parts were spectacular, but the main theme was walking along busy roads and drinking a LOT of wine, and generally being a bit miserable, which was all too familiar. I had some issues with her choice of kit (at one point she abandons her cooker, but continues to carry a silk shirt and a pair of jeans), but I admired her amazing tenacity and enjoyed her very entertaining story.

Finally, for now (but there will be sequels to this post), I have just finished Two Feet, Four Paws, by Spud Talbot-Ponsonby. Even if the author’s name and those of her sisters don’t make you want to slap her, the hideousness of her prose would. Spud is not a writer, and her awesome feat of walking 4,500 miles around the coastline of Britain and raising £44,000 for Shelter, do not make her one. Her crimes against literature include over-use of adverbs, frequently changing tense mid-paragraph, and just simply being incomprehensible. Her stilted narrative gives away very little of her personality, and she continually makes reference to small details with no context, which is just bloody annoying. She walks through many places with which I am familiar, including a tantalising mention of spending a night on a clifftop in Armpit, but never, ever does them justice. Like her, I slogged on to the end, but it was a most unsatisfying experience.

I have no doubt that there will be more of these books to come, and maybe – who knows – I’ll find my way into the wilderness myself. But probably not, so for now, it’s armchair hiking all the way for me.


4 thoughts on “Armchair Hiker

  1. I’m glad you hated The Pilgrimage. I now can’t remember what convinced me that Paulo Coelho might be an author I’d like.

    I used to do a lot of walking, hundreds and hundreds of years ago when I was in my twenties, but I never summoned up the logistical powers to do a proper lengthy stretch. I keep promising myself that I’ll take a week off one summer and do the Ridgeway. That’s nice and local, should be easy, right? Never happens. Meanwhile my brother has just got back from Germany having crossed the Alps.

    Gammidgy on October 3, 2016
  2. I quite fancy the Thames Path, parts of which are even closer to home. I’ve even bought the guidebook and broken it into sections, so if you ever want to borrow Bernard for the weekend, Pete and I can dash off and get started!

  3. A Moroccan called Brahim – a lovely man – once told me that The Alchemist summed up for him the Muslim approach to life and general philosophy. So I read it and was appalled at its triteness. I mean this as no reflection on a whole religion, but it has given me a healthy scepticism about the supposed merits of Coelho’s writing, which I have avoided ever since.
    A Canadian friend also told me that Saramago’s “Blindness” was the most profound novel she’d ever read. Perhaps she read it in the original Portuguese, because the English translation I read was laughably shit. Nothing to do with hiking, either of them, but I felt compelled to share.
    I love that you love marathon talk. Kills some time on those really long runs, I find, when I just couldn’t stomach any more of Wolf Hall (and I haven’t listened to it since I stopped doing those in April!)

  4. I found Blindness quite unpleasant to read, although Pete enjoyed it. He has the film lined up for us, I’d better have an extra cider that night.

    I have been listening to MT for nearly as long as I’ve been running (I still feel a bit fraudulent, though, not having run a marathon). I don’t listen to every episode as I think they get a bit samey, and the bit where they describe photographs of people wearing tshirts makes me want to claw my ears off. Upbeat/absorbing podcasts for running: Slate Culture Gabfest, Answer Me This, Criminal, This American Life.

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