Reading and Walking

Walking, Reading, and Reading about Walking

Category: Reading


planetwalkerIn 1971, two oil tankers collided in the fog beneath the Golden Gate Bridge. John Francis, a hippie living north of San Francisco in Marin County, caught a glimpse of the aftermath: oil coating the shore and volunteers trying to save dying birds. Those sights affected Francis deeply. He decided that by driving or even riding in petroleum-powered vehicles, he was contributing to a system that was destroying the planet. So he started walking everywhere. And for the next 22 years, he avoided trains and planes and automobiles. Instead, he walked, or occasionally cycled.

Most people thought that decision was strange, and that Francis himself, although harmless, was more than a little eccentric. But others got angry. Did Francis think he was better than everybody else? they asked. Who made him some kind of environmental saint? After walking, and arguing, for a few years, Francis made another big decision: he stopped talking. Not talking allowed him to learn to listen, he writes. That vow of silence lasted for 17 years.

Francis walked for some 10 years, including annual 500-mile hikes to visit friends in Oregon. Then he felt it was time to do more. With some friends, he established Planetwalker, an environmental education non-profit. And he started walking even farther: right across the United States, with stops along the way, in Montana and Wisconsin, to complete graduate degrees in environmental studies, including working as a teaching assistant. And he completed all that walking and studying without speaking a word. Instead, he communicated in sign language and with his ever-present banjo.

In Planetwalker, Francis tells his story. It’s a fine book, well-written and thoughtful and humble, with illustrations from the author’s sketchbooks. I’d heard about Francis–every book about walking makes reference to his story–and I’m glad I stumbled across Planetwalker in a tiny bookstore on the other side of town called Turning the Tide. No, I didn’t walk there–I was running errands, and so I was driving–but since I finished Planetwalker I’ve been wondering every time I get in the car to go somewhere: is this trip really necessary? Not that I could make the kind of commitments Francis did. I mean, I like walking, but going everywhere on foot? All the time? I don’t think I could do that.

One aspect of Planetwalker that interested me was the way Francis camped on his walks. In England, they’d say he was “wild camping”; in North America, it’s described as “stealth camping.” Francis would pitch his small tent wherever he stopped for the night, often on private land without permission. (Who can say who the owner of a particular plot of land might be?) Francis made his walk in the 1980s, and maybe things were different then, but he was rarely bothered by anyone, including law enforcement. I wonder if it would be possible to make similar walks now, camping behind trees or abandoned buildings or along roadsides, without getting arrested.

If you’re interested in pedestrianism, Planetwalker is definitely worth reading. And if you’re interested in the connection between the personal and the political, between global issues and local action, it’s worth reading, too. “The only person one has the ethical authority to change is oneself,” Francis writes. “When we change our self, we indeed change the world. As we continue our journey we can make a difference in our community and in the world, one step at a time.” If that’s true, it’s quite a hopeful statement. Planetwalker has given me a lot to think about, and I’m grateful to John Francis for writing it.

Across the Moon: Two Unprepared Brothers Traverse Iceland on Foot, by Jamie Bowlby-Whiting, and Walking and Trekking in Iceland, by Paddy Dillon

I’ve been watching a lot of Icelandic TV series on Netflix lately. And as a result, I’ve become interested in the landscape of that fragment of Europe sitting in the North Atlantic: the barren hills, the glaciers, the stark mountains. Would it be possible to walk there, I wondered? To find out, I ordered two books on the subject: Jamie Bowlby-Whiting’s first person account of crossing Iceland from south to north on foot with his brother Elliott, Across the Moon: Two Unprepared Brothers Traverse Iceland on Foot, and a guide to walking in Iceland, written by Paddy Dillon and published by Cicerone.


The subtitle of Bowlby-Whiting’s book tells most of the story: neither he nor his brother had any experience hiking before they attempted their walk across Iceland’s bleak and dangerous mountains. Their gear was useless, they weren’t physically up to hiking 25 or 30 kilometres per day while carrying 30 kilograms of gear (and not many people are–myself included, as I discovered in Ontario two years ago), and their only map covered just a fraction of their route. Because they weren’t prepared, they made many mistakes. They tried heading directly north, using a compass, and as a result they found their way blocked by raging glacial rivers which they had to wade across. Their packs were too heavy, so they got rid of most of their food; they ended up living on chocolate and uncooked ramen noodles for the remainder of their trip. Nothing cooperated: not the terrain, not the weather. A nearby volcano was threatening to erupt, and everyone told them they shouldn’t be walking near it. And yet they somehow managed to complete their journey. They were lucky, I think, because things could easily have gone very wrong for them. Well, even more wrong.

Across the Moon is a self-published book, and although I typically don’t bother to read anything that couldn’t find a regular publisher, I’m glad I made an exception this time. Bowlby-Whiting is an engaging narrator, frank about his mistakes and the liberties he takes with the truth early in the book. I like the book’s structure as well: reflective chapters about Bowlby-Whiting’s life and his relationship with his brother alternate with chapters about the walk itself. It’s a fun read.

And yet, I can’t believe the two brothers attempted this hike, given their experience and their equipment. Let me give you an example. Bowlby-Whiting always took off his shoes while wading through those glacial torrents. His brother Elliott did not. Now, everything I’ve read about fording rivers has said that it’s a terrible idea to do it without footwear: rocks can be sharp or slippery and it’s easier to fall when you’re barefoot. In his book on walking in Iceland, Paddy Dillon suggests carrying a pair of Crocs for river crossings (and as camp shoes). So does Justin Lichter, the author of Trail Tested: A Thru-Hiker’s Guide to Ultralight Hiking and Backpacking. “If the ford is tough then do not go barefoot!” Lichter says. “If the river is really gentle wear shoes when fording a river. They help with traction and protect your feet in case there are jagged rocks in the water.” So whether the ford is tough or not, you protect your feet, according to Lichter.

But wearing shoes while crossing those rivers didn’t help Elliott in the end. His shoes were cheap, you see, and they shrank and twisted as they dried. He couldn’t wear them afterwards and ended up walking the final 200 kilometres with flip-flops taped to his feet. I can’t imagine that. The moral of the story: don’t buy cheap shoes, and always carry a pair of decent lightweight sandals.

Flip-flops. I remember seeing a young Canadian walking the Camino wearing flip-flops and carrying a hockey duffel bag instead of a backpack. He was from Kelowna, I think. Everyone has their own way, I guess. And the Bowlby-Whitings managed to complete a trek I’d never attempt, even with preparation and decent gear. So who am I to say?


Walking and Trekking in Iceland is a completely different kind of book. In fact, it’s the kind of book the brothers might’ve considered consulting before setting out on their trek. Dillon describes both day-hikes and multi-day treks in different parts of the island. He also explains important stuff about Iceland that foreigners might not know–like how to buy topographical maps of the island, how to get access to private mountain huts, how the country’s bus service works, and when to go if you’re thinking about a walking holiday there. (August is busy and before June it’s too cold.) It’s the kind of book I’d have in a Ziplock bag in my coat pocket or at the top of my backpack if I were walking in Iceland, the kind of book one could use to plan a walking holiday in that country.

So read Across the Moon for a story about what not to do, one that luckily has a happy ending, and read Walking and Trekking in Iceland if you find yourself thinking about visiting that country.


Two More Books About Walking


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.


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.

Two Books About Walking

In the past couple of weeks, I’ve read two books about walking while a sore knee has been keeping me close to home. The first, Morris Marples’s 1959 classic Shanks’s Pony, is primarily focused on English writers who were also walkers. The second, W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, is a fictional (or perhaps fictionalized–it’s always hard to tell with Sebald) version of a walking journey in Suffolk.


Two chapters in Marples’s book examine non-literary walkers. One discusses the professional “peds” of the eighteenth century, who would engage in long, fast walks (such as the challenge to walk 1,000 miles in 1,000 hours) to win lucrative bets. The last chapter is a brief look at the rambling clubs in the twentieth century and their effect on both walking and the countryside. Marples’s class anxiety comes through loud and clear in that chapter: he complains about “hooliganism, damage, destruction, and litter” that have resulted from an interest in walking by people outside of the literary elite he writes about elsewhere in the book, and concludes that “the invasion of the country by townspeople is bound to continue, and we have got to make the best of it.”

But the rest of Shanks’s Pony surveys the history of English writers who were also walkers, or whose walking played an important role in their writing. Many familiar names in the literature of walking are here–Wordsworth, Coleridge, Robert Louis Stevenson–but many others are new to me. I didn’t realize, for instance, that Leslie Stephens was an inveterate walker. Nor had I heard of the Renaissance writer Thomas Coryate, who travelled to Venice and back–walking on the return journey, because he was out of money–and wrote about the experience in a book called Coryate’s Crudities, or Coryate’s contemporary, Wlliam Lithgow, who walked some 36,000 miles over 19 years of “pedestriall pilgrimages.” I didn’t know that the Romantic poet and critic William Hazlitt was a walker (and the author of an apparently famous essay on the topic). Thomas De Quincey was a walker, too, and according to Marples, “strenuous daily exercise was the only way of counteracting the torpor caused by” his daily use of opium. Keats was a walker, too, as was Shelley. I didn’t realize that walking was so important to so many of the English Romantics.And not just the Romantics, either.George Borrow went on many long walks, often travelling with Roma and Sinti people, about whom he wrote. Hillaire Belloc walked to Rome and wrote about his journey. And Marples doesn’t just write about walkers; he also devotes a chapter to mountain climbing as well.

Marples devotes several chapters on women who walked. He begins, of course, with Dorothy Wordsworth, who kept pace with her brother (as well as Coleridge) on their walking tours. But I’d never heard of Ellen Weeton, who recounted her walking tours in several books around the turn of the nineteenth century. One problem for women like Wordsworth and Weeton was the fact that the fashions of the time did not allow for energetic walks–a problem that wasn’t solved, Marples says, “until women took to wearing trousers,” something that didn’t happen until well into the last century.

The phrase “energetic walking” hardly describes the kind of walks made by these men and women. Marples tells of people walking 30 or 40 miles in a day. That’s 50 or 60 kilometres–an unimaginable distance for someone like me, who struggles to finish a walk of 40 kilometres, while wearing the latest in lightweight hiking gear. President Theodore Roosevelt wanted his senior military officers to be able to walk 50 miles in 20 hours, a distance and rate of speed that seems incredible to me, but in the context of the 19th century, where people regularly walked like that, it becomes a more plausible feat.

Marples’s book is long out of print, of course–my copy used to belong to a library in central Wales–but it can be found online quite easily. And it’s worth a look if you’re interested in the intersections between walking and writing, at least in England.


W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn is, in part, an account of a walk through Suffolk. But Sebald’s digressive narrative means that the book is about much more than that. The book follows its narrator’s mind, which floats freely across literature and history, touching on topics like the life and writing of the Renaissance writer Sir Thomas Browne, the books of Jorge Luis Borges, the life of Joseph Conrad, and the introduction of silkworms to Europe. It’s not clear whether these are things the narrator thought about while he was walking, or whether they are things he considers as he writes about his experience. That’s one of the mysteries of this wonderful book.

One of Sebald’s trademarks–and this goes for all of his writing–is his use of long, sinuous sentences. They seem to go on forever, and they help to create the dreamlike atmosphere that’s so characteristic of his work. Another trademark is his use of photographs. Black-and-white photographs, always uncaptioned, grace the pages of his work, and it’s up to the reader to determine their relationship to the text. Sometimes the connection is obvious. A reproduction of Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson, for instance, is related to Selbald’s narrator’s belief that Browne was among the onlookers in the anatomy theatre in Amsterdam which is the subject of Rembrandt’s painting. According to this essay by Rick Poynor, Sebald was an avid photographer and the photographs he includes in his books are the product of his own camera. Sometimes he would photocopy them to make them seem as if they were taken from other print sources.

According to Poynor, Sebald’s syntax and his use of photographs are linked. “Sebald,” he writes,

is brilliantly visual. He makes you realize with some discomfort that you often fail to look attentively enough at what you see. Another novelist referred to the “phenomenal configuration” of the author’s mind and what astonishes and delights in Sebald’s sentences, superbly rendered by his translators, is his ability to convey not just the detail of so many things hitting the senses in a rain of fleeting simultaneous impressions, but the precise emotional shading and personal import of each of these moments. His eye records with photographic accuracy and then these perceptions are recovered from memory and reconstituted as fictional experience with the same exhilaratingly scrupulous fidelity.

“The complication in Sebald’s writing,” Poynor continues,

which he apparently intended, lies in our uncertainty about how much of what he describes derives from his own experiences (seemingly a lot) and how much of it is largely or entirely imagined. Based on a reading of the books alone, the narrators show every sign of being Sebald himself, but we know from what he has said elsewhere that these melancholy figures are fictionalized versions of the author.

As I read The Rings of Saturn, I found myself wondering what the relationship between Sebald and his narrator might have been, and whether the author did, in fact, go on a long walk through Suffolk himself. Are the people the narrator meets versions of people that Sebald himself met? How much is real, and how much is imagined? I don’t know.

At its heart, though, The Rings of Saturn is a book about death, about entropy and decay. Almost everyone the narrator thinks about is dead, and he tells us when and how they died. He stays with a family who personifies entropy: their fortunes are in decline and they are incapable of turning around their downward trajectory. He spends time in declining towns like Lowestoft, which is now a shadow of its former Victorian prosperity. He considers the Jasenovac concentration camp in Croatia, where 700,000 men, women and children were murdered and where the former Secretary General of the United Nations, Kurt Waldheim, worked as an administrator. He passes close to the site of medieval Europe’s most important seaports, Dunwich, which was claimed by coastal erosion, slowly falling into the sea over a period of centuries. The rings of Saturn themselves are, according to the novel’s epigraph, “fragments of a former moon that was too close to the planet and was destroyed by its tidal effect,” and the planet becomes a harbinger of death in one passage derived from Thomas Browne:

As I sat there that evening in Southwold overlooking the German Ocean, I sensed quite clearly the earth’s slow turning into the dark. The huntsmen are up in America, writes Thomas Browne in The Garden of Cyrus, and they are already past their first sleep in Persia. The shadow of night is drawn like a black veil across the earth, and since almost all creatures, from one meridian to the next, lie down after the sun has set, so, he continues, one might, in following the setting sun, see on our globe nothing but prone bodies, row upon row, as if levelled by the scythe of Saturn–an endless graveyard for a humanity struck by falling sickness.

Wow. What an image. Seen from a great distance, people going to bed with the setting sun become a pantomime of mass death. Sebald’s melancholy vision of the world might be hard for some people to accept, but it accords with my own, although I could never express it in such powerful words (whether they are Browne’s or Sebald’s or a mixture).

Sebald taught German literature at the University of East Anglia in Norwich. He wrote in German and his works were translated into English by, among others, Michael Hamburger, who translated this edition of The Rings of Saturn and whom Sebald’s narrator encounters during his walk. Sebald died in a car crash in 2001–a tremendous loss for world literature.

So, two very different books about walking: both worth reading, but for very different reasons. Sebald’s novel is by far the greater achievement, although like other books on the topic of walking, Marples’s history is an interesting discussion of the history of pedestrianism. I’m glad I read both.

Walking for Fort McMurray

Just in case you think my walks around town are difficult, a fellow from Sioux Lookout, Ontario, named Stanley Barkman is on a 2,000 kilometre walk to Fort McMurray to raise money for that community after it was devastated by wildfires last month. Now that’s a pretty amazing walk. Barkman and his two friends have been on the road for a month already. Read about this tremendous walk here, and take a look at their Facebook page.


Michael Leunig’s “How to Get There”

My Australian Camino buddy Neil Millar suggested that I take a look at Michael Leunig’s cartoon and poem “How to Get There,” and it’s too good not to share.


I think that is how you get there: by keeping on with it, one step at a time. Thanks, Neil, for letting me know about Leunig’s work.

More on Paul Salopek’s Out of Eden Walk


I noticed this essay on Facebook today: Paul Salopek’s most recent musings on his walk from the Rift Valley to Tierra del Fuego.

Paul Salopek’s Out of Eden Walk


Paul Salopek is on an amazing walk: from east Africa to the southern tip of South America. It’s only going to take nine years. He was interviewed this week on The Current about his experiences. The interview is here; one of his essays about walking, “A Stroll Around the World,” is here. Both the interview and the essay are worth a look.

Hiking the Continental Divide Trail

I don’t know much about the Continental Divide Trail, and I’ll probably never hike it, but I enjoyed this blog post about it, from the New York Times.

The author, Barney Scout Mann, discusses the economic impact hikers have on small towns along the way, and it made me think about how the Camino affects the villages it runs through. I’m sure many of the bars we walked past or sat in wouldn’t be able to carry on without the money peregrinos spend. And that’s just the Camino Francés. What about the effect on some of the lesser-travelled routes, like the Via de la Plata? Some day, I hope I find out.

New Map of London Underground Includes Walking Times Between Stations

This is quite something: Transport for London has created a new map that shows how long it takes to walk between stations on the Underground.

Apparently there’s been a big demand for such a thing.

An article about this new map, with a link to it, can be found at