Reading and Walking

Walking, Reading, and Reading about Walking

Month: June, 2014

David Sedaris Got a Fitbit

David Sedaris got a Fitbit–a gizmo you wear on your wrist that tracks your physical activity–and soon he was obsessed. The device vibrates when you reach 10,000 steps in a day. For Sedaris, 10,000 steps worked out to be a little more than four miles, a distance, he says that he could cover without even trying over the course of an average day. Soon he was at 12,000 steps per day. Then 15,000. Eventually he was walking all over the English countryside collecting trash (“You can tell where my territory ends and the rest of England begins,” he writes; “It’s like going from the rose arbour in Sissinghurst to Fukushima after the tsunami”), covering 60,000 steps, or 25 miles, every day. “I look back on the days I averaged only thirty thousand steps,” he writes, “and think, Honestly, how lazy can you get?”

I’m not sure how serious Sedaris is being–I mean, 25 miles is a long walk, particularly if you are carrying a heavy plastic garbage bag along with you–but his piece in the current issue of The New Yorker is pretty funny, as Sedaris’s writing usually is.


Last night, Christine and I walked to a nearby movie theatre, where we saw The Railway Man. It’s a good film about revenge and forgiveness, which is almost unbelievably based on a true story. The walk wasn’t a long one–maybe 6 kilometres there and back–but I was wearing new shoes that threw off my stride just enough that I woke up this morning with a strained hamstring in my left leg. That made our training walk today rather painful for the first couple of hours, and I was careful to stretch whenever I paused to let Christine catch up with me since, for some reason, we weren’t walking at the same speed, as we usually are. Eventually the problem resolved itself. Today’s walk was a little over 18 kilometres, which isn’t all that long–I’ve walked twice that far in a day. I was carrying a full pack for the first time, though, and it’s been unusually humid here, so I’m ready for a cold beer now.

There were a lot of people on the creekside path: cycling, running, and inline skating. There weren’t many walkers, though, and we were the only people who looked like they were out for a hike. A young woman stopped us and asked what we were training for. “The Cotswold Way, in England,” I said. We explained that it’s a 100 mile walk and we’re doing it over nine days at the beginning of August. “That’s really interesting,” she answered. “I love hiking but all my friends here think I’m crazy.” That’s the response I got from a lot of people when they learned that I had walked the Camino Francés. “Are you crazy?” I think it’s something about this city, about the flat topography and the fact that, for most people, hiking is something that you do in the mountains, which are a long way from here.

My friend Geoff, who lives in Victoria, British Columbia, has had very different responses from people who have learned that he’s walked the Camino. In fact, a store that sells hiking equipment asked him to come and give a couple of talks about his experiences. Hiking is part of the culture in Victoria, in a way it isn’t here. That’s one of the reasons I’ve been quietly suggesting that when we retire, we should be moving to the west coat instead of back to Ontario. Geoff has sent me pictures from the hikes he took while training for his second Camino (he just finished walking the Via de la Plata route from Seville to Santiago), and it’s beautiful there. Moreover, while the rest of the country is still experiencing snow and frigid temperatures, they’re enjoying spring flowers and warm weather. There’s no question which I’m going to prefer 15 years from now. (By the way, Geoff’s blog about his experiences walking both Caminos is available here.)

Speaking of flowers, I was surprised by the number of native plants I saw beside the creek today: Canada anemones and milk vetches and wild roses. There are, unfortunately, almost no native plants left on “Prairie Island,” where a prairie restoration project has turned into a patch of weeds. Only the wild roses and the wild blue flax are left. As I’ve learned, it’s almost impossible to restore land to prairie, particularly in a city: the weeds are just too aggressive. It makes protecting the remnant grasslands in this province even more important.

There’s an interview with naturalist Trevor Herriot about his new book, The Road Is How, here, in today’s Globe and Mail. I read The Road Is How this spring and it’s one of the books I wanted to talk about in this blog. Trevor has been an advocate for continued public ownership of community pastures in this province, since they represent one of the most important areas of unplowed prairie left here. I hope that campaign is successful; it would be a tremendous shame if they are lost.

Walking Across America

Andrew Forsthoefel was 23 years old. He’d just graduated from college and wasn’t sure what to do with his life. So he decided to walk across the United States, from his home near Philadelphia to San Francisco, through the southern states and the deserts of Nevada. He had a simple quest: to ask the people he met what advice they would have for their own 23-year-old selves. Andrew used an audio recorder to make a documentary about his experiences. I first heard excerpts from Andrews’s story on National Public Radio’s This American Life. The entire documentary is available here, at

This man walked 4,500 km across China

This is not a book. Instead, it’s a pretty amazing time-lapse video that captures the adventures of a man who walked for an entire year, covering some 4,500 km from Beijing to Urumqi in China.

First post: The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

Last fall, I walked the Camino Francés from Saint Jean Pied de Port, France, to Santiago de Compostela, Spain, and then on to Finisterre (the “End of the Earth” to the Romans, who believed it was the farthest west you could go in Europe) and the fishing village of Muxía on the Atlantic coast. Since I returned home, I’ve been thinking and reading about walking–something that almost everyone can do but that, aside from walking across parking lots to our cars, something that most of us don’t bother to do–and the way something so simple can, at least potentially, transform us.

Christine and I are planning to walk the Cotswold Way in August–that’s a 100-mile path through the Cotswold Hills between Oxford and Bristol in England, beginning in a village called Chipping Campden and ending in the city of Bath–and, inspired by my friend Geoff Travers’s blogs of his walks on two Spanish Caminos (the Camino Francés in September and October of 2013, where we met, and the Via de la Plata from Seville to Santiago de Compostela in May and June of this year)–I was thinking of writing a small blog about our trip. Nothing fancy, just what we did and where we went and maybe even what we ate, with a few photographs. I might as well make use of the iPad I got for Christmas. But yesterday I read–devoured, really–Rachel Joyce’s The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry and decided to start blogging now, instead of waiting until August.

Harold Fry is a retired Englishman living in a seaside town in Dorset. He’s very shy and his life is quite dull. There’s little comfort in his 45-year marriage to Maureen, which has become an icy stalemate. One morning he receives a letter from someone he worked with 20 years before. She has terminal cancer, she writes, and wants to say goodbye. Harold drafts a short reply and decides to take it to the mail box. He’s wearing his usual clothing–trousers, a shirt and tie, and a pair of “yachting shoes,” which appear to be something like Sperry Topsiders–and carrying a rain jacket (it is England, after all). When he gets to the nearest mail box, he hesitates. He decides to walk on to the next mail box. And then the one after that. And by the end of the day he’s decided to walk to his friend, who is in a hospice in Berwick-upon-Tweed on the border with Scotland, some 500 miles away. He telephones the hospice and passes on a message: “All she has to do is wait. Because I am going to save her, you see. I will keep walking and she must keep living.” Despite his lack preparation and equipment, like proper footwear or a backpack, Harold keeps walking, even when people he meets tell him that the idea is crazy. It is crazy, and it gets even crazier when Harold decides to send the contents of his wallet–his debit and credit cards–back to Maureen, and depend on the kindness of strangers instead of staying in B&Bs and eating in pubs. “I am going to walk without so many things,” he writes to Maureen. “If I keep it simple, I know I can get there.”

Harold Fry cover

Harold’s pilgrimage reminded me of the story about the German film director Werner Herzog walking from Munich to Paris after he learned that his friend, film historian Lotte Eisner, was gravely ill. If he walked, he apparently thought, she wouldn’t die until after he arrived. (Herzog’s journal of the walk was published as Of Walking in Ice in 1978; it’s one of the books about walking that I’d like to read and possibly write about in this blog. A review, published in the Canadian art magazine Border Crossings, of the English translation is available here.) The difference, I suppose, is that Harold’s friend Queenie really is dying, while Herzog discovered that while Eisner was ill, she wasn’t at death’s door.

Some people will find The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry somewhat sentimental, and there’s no doubt that it’s a “feel good” book with a predictably happy ending, but I enjoyed reading about Harold’s adventures. What I particularly liked was the way that Joyce understands how such a walk can change you. At the end of the book Harold is fit and tanned (and exhausted and filthy), but walking isn’t just about exercise or burning calories or spending time in fresh air. Walking gives you time to think about your life, about your past and your future, and there’s something about its rhythm helps you come up with solutions–potential ones, anyway–for problems. I experienced that on the Camino, and Harold experiences something similar on his pilgrimage. His life changes in a much more fundamental way than mine did, but this is fiction, after all. Harold’s pilgrimage gives him a chance to confront the traumas he’s experienced in the past. Compared to the emotionally withdrawn and, frankly, haunted man who starts walking that summer day, by the end of his walk Harold has become someone completely different. But Harold’s walk doesn’t only affect him. His pilgrimage also has an effect on Maureen, and as a result it brings their marriage back to life.

I don’t want to say anything more about The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry because I don’t want to spoil it for anyone. If you haven’t read it, you’re in for a treat.