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’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.