Two More Books About Walking

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There was a list of books by the same publisher in the back of Morris Marple’s Shanks’s Pony. On that list was Hans Gunther’s I’m Wearing My Ninth Pair of Shoes. I thought it looked like a book about walking–with that title, how could it be anything else?–and although it’s long out of print, I found a copy (recently deaccessioned by the National Library of Scotland) through Abebooks. (Is there any book that can’t be found through Abebooks?) My guess was right: it is a book about walking, at least in part.

Back in 1955, Hans Gunther was working as a clerk at a wool-trading company in Bremen Germany. He wanted to see the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, Australia. And so, that March, he walked out of Bremen with 1,600 marks in his pocket and a backpack. A year and a half later, he arrived in Melbourne. He didn’t walk all the way. A beautiful woman he met in Athens gave him a lift to Istanbul. He hitched rides in trucks and buses and with a caravan of camels across the deserts of Syria and Iraq and Iran. He took trains partway across Pakistan and in Australia. And he took a series of boats and ships and aircraft from Calcutta to Darwin, with stops in Burma, Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia. But, by his own estimation, he walked more than half of the way. He writes,

Why did I take this long and dangerous journey across countries torn by racial hatred and political intrigue?

Because I wanted to come to Australia to see the Olympic Games.

And now?

I had covered 21,000 miles in seventeen months, and of that about 10,000 miles on foot.

I was now wearing my ninth pair of shoes. I had rubbed shoulders with peoples of seventeen countries, in Europe, the Middle East, Asia, and Australia. I had spoken and eaten with people of every colour, white, brown, yellow, and black.

I had beaten the tiredness of my limbs, the hunger and the thirst, the heat, the dust. There was no time to be sick. I had only a one-track mind: the Olympic Games.

Gunther’s journey was indeed long and dangerous: he was arrested twice, in Turkey and Indonesia, and in the latter country, torn by civil war, he was certain that the police intended to kill him. Still, a similar trip would be unimaginable today, and I found myself wondering if the middle of the 20th century represented a strange period of calm in global affairs. It would be impossible to travel across Syria and Iraq today, and getting into and, more importantly, out of Iran would be difficult. And would it be possible for someone on foot to cross the border between Pakistan and India today? I don’t know. Reading this book is like looking back on a lost world of relative tranquility, when a young man in good health could travel across the world without even losing his camera to thieves. Perhaps Gunther was lucky, or perhaps he was protected by his cheerful optimism.

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Jan Zwicky’s The Long Walk is a very different kind of book. It’s a short volume of poetry and not really about walking at all, although two or three of the poems are about walks. The others are about the relationship between humans and the planet they inhabit. Sometimes the poems are angry about the way we treat our home. One poem, “Consummatum Est,” is a list of species that are extinct on on the edge of extinction because of human activity. Other poems are about specific places, relationships, histories.They are quite beautiful and well worth reading.

The title comes from the last poem in the book, which describes a long walk on a winter’s night:

Only your footsteps, and the dark,
its nearness, and the way it does not care,
that clear, sweet silence after snow.
Is it the dark itself you love?
No. But forgive yourself for asking.

But perhaps the first poem, “Courage,” is the most powerful–or at least, perhaps it affected me the most. It uses the metaphor of walking, of the path, to describe a moment of clarity, a moment when you realize what you’ve done wrong. And it provides a context in which the rest of the poems in the book ought to be read:

And now you know that it won’t turn out as it should,
that what you did was not enough,
that ignorance, old evil, is enforced

and willed, and loved, that it
is used to manufacture madness, that it is the aphrodisiac
of power and the crutch of lassitude, you,

an ordinary heart, just functional, who knows
that no one’s chosen by the gods, the aspens
and the blue-eyed grass have voices of their own,

what will you do,
now that you sense the path unraveling
beneath you?

There is so much wisdom here, so much beautiful language, so much powerful emotion and thought. It doesn’t matter if you find a copy of I’m Wearing My Ninth Pair of Shoes; that book is in many ways just a historical curiosity, something only someone interested in long walks might enjoy. But The Long Walk is definitely worth reading and I hope that if you happen to run across a copy in your local bookstore you will buy it.

I last posted in this blog back in September. Here I am four months later. What have I been doing? Working, mostly. My walking lately has consisted of trudging along the same five kilometres to work and back. It’s gotten more difficult in the past week or so, when the temperature has been in the minus 20s and the windchill a lot colder than that. But the barrier is mostly psychological, to be honest. I’m always afraid of the cold before I set out, but in truth the hard part is not wearing one layer too many and getting too hot and sweaty as I walk. There’s a lesson in that experience: something about experience being the opposite of what you think, or fear, it will be. I’d like to think that’s an insight worthy of Jan Zwicky, but it’s probably in fact nothing special at all. Still, it’s all I have to offer this afternoon.