Reading and Walking

Walking, Reading, and Reading about Walking

Category: Reading

Jeff Wall, “‘Marks of Indifference’: Aspects of Photography in, or as, Conceptual Art”

I wanted to re-read art historian and photographer Jeff Wall’s essay on the impact of photography on Conceptual Art (and vice-versa) before my end-of-semester review, mostly because during my presentation and influences talk in the Group Studio course, I was called out for suggesting that my photography is influenced by Conceptual photographic practices, and at that point I wasn’t familiar enough with Wall’s argument to respond coherently. But as I started reading this morning, I realized that since Wall’s essay is on the list of reading for my comprehensive examinations, I was beginning to read for those as well—not what I had expected to be doing today. I was thinking about blogging about that reading, and so here I am, writing something that is mostly for me, but that others may (or may not) find of interest as well.

Wall’s thesis appears very early in his short but dense (to me, anyway) essay: “Conceptual art played an important role in the transformation of the terms and conditions within which established photography defined itself and its relationships with other arts, a transformation which established photography as an institutionalized modernist form evolving explicitly through the dynamics of its auto-critique” (32). For Wall, art photography had to go through the same processes of “autodethronement, or deconstruction” (32), that other art forms had experienced during the twentieth century. For painting and sculpture, that process meant moving away from depiction, but that is difficult for photography, since depiction is part of its physical nature. Nevertheless, Wall writes, “In order to participate in the kind of reflexivity made mandatory for modernist art, photography can put into play only its own necessary conditions of being a depiction-which-constitutes-an-object” (32). In other words, Wall is interested in the development of avant-garde definitions of photography, and Conceptualism was one of the important stages in that development.

The first half of Wall’s essay traces the aesthetic developments of photography during the twentieth century: from Pictorialism at the turn of the century, through a shift to the “immediacy [and] instantaneity” of the capturing of the “evanescent moment of pictorial value” that was characteristic of the “art-concept of photojournalism” (33), through the challenge that Conceptual practices posed for the reportage that was characteristic of the artistic version of photojournalism. Wall’s discussion of reportage as something “inherent in the nature of the medium, and the evolution of equipment,” is a useful way of thinking about the photography of, to take one example, Walker Evans. “Reportage, or the spontaneous, fleeting aspect of the photographic image, appears simultaneously with the pictorial, tableau-like aspect at the origins of photography; its traces can be seen in the blurred elements of Daguerre’s first street scenes. Reportage evolves in the pursuit of the blurred parts of pictures” (33). However, the critique of photography articulated by such reportage was too simple, generating only a social validity: “the picture’s success as reportage per se” (34). “What was necessary,” Wall continues, “was that the picture not only succeed as reportage and be socially effective, but that it succeed in putting forward a new proposition or model of the Picture” (34). Reportage alone could not accomplish this dual aesthetic task. 

Conceptualism, Wall argues, was a fusion of aspects of what he calls “art-photography” with its critique, which was “aimed at foreclosing any further aestheticization or ‘artification’ of the medium” (35). One way of accomplishing this fusion was through a parody of reportage (36), an “introversion or subjectivization” that was manifested in two important directions: through staged or posed pictures, and through concepts of performance (36). Another way was through “the inscription of photography into a nexus of experimental practices [that] led to a direct but distantiated parodic relationship with the art-concept of photojournalism” (36). The photography of Richard Long and Bruce Nauman represent examples of the first direction; the photography of Dan Graham, Douglas Huebler, and Robert Smithson represent examples of the second. Huebler’s work is a particularly powerful example of a critique of previous modes of photography, according to Wall, because “[e]very element that could make the pictures ‘interesting’ or ‘good’ in terms derived from art-photography is systematically and rigorously excluded” (38). This exclusion “displays all the limited qualities identified with photoconceptualism’s de-skilled, amateurist sense of itself” (38).

That de-skilling is an important part of the story Wall tells in this essay. All of the arts, he writes, had to become modernist in part “through a critique of their own legitimacy, in which the techniques and abilities most intimately identified with them were placed in question” (39). Painting and sculpture could abandon depiction in an act of renunciation of skill, but photography cannot, because it is a mechanical process already. In the 1960s, however, artists “appropriated photography, turned their attention away from auteurist versions of its practice, and forcibly subjected the medium to a full-scale immersion in the logic of reductivism”—the logic of the process of abandoning skill as a criteria of art-making (40). Wall quotes Adorno on the need for art to become “anti-art” (41). In the case of photography, the renunciation or reductivism involved in this turn meant an embrace of amateurism, which “becomes visible as the photographic modality or style which, in itself, signifies the detachment of photography from three great norms of the Western pictorial tradition—the formal, the technical, and the one relating to the range of subject-matter” (42). For Wall, the work of Andy Warhol violates all three of these norms simultaneously (42). “It became a subversive creative act for a talented and skilled artist to imitate a person of limited abilities,” Wall argues. “It was a new experience, one which ran counter to all accepted ideas and standards of art, and was one of the last gestures which could produce avant-gardist shock” (43). The work of Edward Ruscha is paradigmatic of this subversive act for Wall, and he uses Ruscha’s 1963 book Twentysix Gasoline Stations as his example: “Only an idiot would take pictures of nothing but the filling stations, and the existence of a book of just those pictures is a kind of proof of the existence of such a person” (43-44). Wall concludes, “In photoconceptualism, photography posits its escape from the criteria of art-photography through the artist’s performance as a non-artist who, despite being a non-artist, is nevertheless compelled to make photographs. These photographs lose their status as Representations before the eyes of their audience: they are ‘dull,’ ‘boring,’ and ‘insignificant.’ Only by being so could they accomplish the intellectual mandate of reductivism at the heart of the enterprise of Conceptual art” (44). That enterprise failed, but its failure was able “to free the medium from its peculiar distanced relationship with artistic radicalism and from its ties to the Western Picture,” and it thereby “revolutionized our concept of the Picture and created the conditions for the restoration of that concept as a central category of contemporary art” (44).

Now, after that lengthy summary, one might legitimately ask the question I was asked during my presentation in Group Studio: what makes you think your photography is influenced by photoconceptualism? Notice that I said “influenced”: I’m not claiming to be a Conceptualist photographer, a claim that would put me 50 years behind the times. I have two reasons for making this claim. The first concerns my own amateurism as a photographer. During Wood Mountain Walk, I took pictures quickly, framing and shooting each photograph in no more than 30 seconds. The photographs were intended to document an experience, rather than being carefully composed photographs in their own right. For that reason, many of them were simply terrible: back-lit embarrassments with crooked horizons (very noticeable on the flat prairies). Moreover, my camera was on automatic exposure and focus settings throughout the walk. I may not be able to claim to be an artist performing amateurism, but as a photographer, I’m not a professional. I lack skills and even though I have acquired more knowledge and skill this semester, my intention is still to document an experience quickly, rather than to stop and carefully capture an image of the Saskatchewan landscape.

The second reason that I would argue that my practice as a photographer is influenced by what Walls calls “photoconceptualism” is something he doesn’t mention explicitly: the importance of the series in my work. Ruscha also worked in series: it’s Twentysix Gasoline Stations, and Every Building on the Sunset Strip, not just the gas stations or buildings he thought were particularly interesting. I did something similar during Wood Mountain Walk: as part of documenting that work, I took photographs ever 30 minutes or so, so that after nine days of walking, I had accumulated some 500 images. When I display those images—or the 20 or so that aren’t too embarrassingly amateurish—I display them as a series. I don’t think they have much meaning outside of that context. When I submitted work to the exhibition organized by members of the Group Studio course, I couldn’t show the entire series—that would have taken up too much space in an exhibition that was intended to show representative samples of the work of a dozen people—so I had to choose two. I framed those images, which added to their separation from the rest. I was very dissatisfied with the result. Moreover, the images themselves repeat a motif: the road, mostly from the perspective of the left-hand shoulder, the place where I was walking. I took photographs of the road and what was in front of me and the horizon in the distance deliberately, as a way of generating a series of similar photographs and articulating the experience of walking through that landscape. For those reasons—my lack of skill as a photographer and my intention to create a series of pictures—I would consider my photography to be influenced by photoconceptualism. There: now I can answer that question should it arise during my review—and I’m sure it will. 

Work Cited

Wall, Jeff. “‘Marks of Indifference’: Aspects of Photography in, or as, Conceptual Art.” Reconsidering the Object of Art: 1965-1975, eds. Ann Goldstein and Anne Rorimer, LA MOCA/MIT Press, 1995, pp. 32-44.

The Book of the Bivvy


Ronald Turnbull’s The Book of the Bivvy is an odd book. In part, it’s a collection of comic anecdotes about walking and climbing trips Turnbull has made in Northern Ireland, Wales, the Scottish Highlands, and the Lake District. But it’s also a guide that explains how to go about making such journeys, with detailed information about hikes to Skiddaw, Bruce’s Crown, and Pumlumon Fawr, as well as advice about re-enacting Alfred Wainwright’s walk to Hadrian’s Wall and back (see my post on Wainwright’s book about that journey here). What ties these disparate elements together is Turnbull’s belief that the bivouac sack–the bivvy bag–is the best form of shelter for hikers, walkers, and climbers, one he relies on for all of his adventures.

I can hear you wondering: what on earth is a bivvy bag? It’s basically a waterproof sack in which the walker (or hiker or climber) sleeps. It might be a basic plastic survival bag which costs £5 or less. It might be a more expensive bag made out of a fabric that’s both waterproof and breathable, like Gore-Tex. It might even have a small pole to keep the bag away from your face while you’re sleeping, although Turnbull argues that such a bag isn’t a bivvy bag at all, but merely “an extremely cramped and uncomfortable tent.” It’s cheaper than a tent–or at least for Turnbull, it ought to be–and it allows for an entirely different experience of the outdoors than a tent does. “Can you really experience nature’s rawness from inside a zipped-up storm flap?” Turnbull asks. “For those who want to bring a bit of old-fashioned pain and suffering into the outdoor experience, the bivvybag is the place to be.”

Old-fashioned pain and suffering? Who wants that? Anyone, Turnbull suggests, who wants no “oppressive luxuries” to stand in the way between themselves and the experience of the natural world. That means being able to see the stars and the moonlight without having to put on your boots and climb out of the tent. It also means experiencing the “full misery” of the wind and the rain if that’s what the weather brings. “A bivvybag,” Turnbull writes,

may not be all that expensive, but it’s not a way of saving money. It is, rather, a new way of having fun. A bivvybag isn’t simply an extra bit of kit that has the backwards effect of making the rucksack lighter. It’s a new attitude, a new way of being in the hills. It rearranges the co-ordinates of space and time and allows us to wriggle through the wormholes into a different universe.

If leaving luxuries at home and experiencing the world in a new way sounds like your cup of tea, then a bivvy bag might be for you, and Turnbull’s book will tell you everything you need to know about them.

I myself am the proud owner of a bivvy bag: a heavy, green British army surplus sack, allegedly made of Gore-Tex, in which I slept on my most recent walks. If you pull on the drawstring, the opening gets smaller, which is helpful on a cold night, although if the opening gets too small, breathing fresh air becomes difficult. (Hence my search for the sweet spot between hypothermia and asphyxiation while walking to Gravelbourg.) The bag also lacks any protection against mosquitoes, which is a definite disadvantage in this part of the world, although I wore a cheap head net to bed in an attempt to keep from being bitten. (It worked, but the cold temperatures were probably the real reason.) The dark colour allows me to camp where I’m not supposed to without drawing the attention of the RCMP or other passersby. I’ve never used it in the rain, though, and I’m happy about that. When you’re sleeping in a bivvy bag and it rains, Turnbull writes, you get wet. Condensation is the problem: a sleeping human produces about a pint of water vapour overnight, and on warm, damp nights that vapour will condense inside your shelter and soak your sleeping bag. And rainy nights tend to be warm and damp. I’ve been thinking of investing in a lighter bivvy bag–maybe even one of the luxury versions Turnbull scoffs at–and many people who post online reviews of the models I’ve been considering complain about dampness, but according to Turnbull, their bags aren’t leaking: even breathable fabrics, like Gore-Tex, are prone to condensation problems. His solution? Move higher up the mountain, where it’s colder, because a difference in temperature between the outside of the bag and its inside will help to limit condensation problems. Of course, moving higher up the mountain isn’t possible in Saskatchewan, so I’m not sure what my options might be. A synthetic sleeping bag instead of the down one I’ve been using, I suppose, since down is useless if it gets wet, and takes forever to dry.

I like The Book of the Bivvy. I like its oddities, which I assume reflect its author’s own eccentricities. I like the stories about sleeping in puddles and caves and on the tops of mountains. I even like the idea of opening oneself up to the natural world even if that means a degree of discomfort (or, in Turnbull’s words, “full misery”). And I find The Book of the Bivvy reassuring; I’m not the only crazy person willing to spend the night in a waterproof (I hope) sack.


Trespassing Across America and This Land Is Our Land


Ken Ilgunas was a cook in an Alaskan oil-field work camp when he had an idea. At least, his friend and fellow cook Liam had an idea. They were concerned about global warming and the part they were playing in what he calls “our country’s wrongheaded conception of ‘progress,'” and they were tossing around ideas about what their duty was as citizens of the earth. “What if we hike the Keystone XL?” Liam asked. “Some deep, inner part of me recognized the brilliance of Liam’s idea with a startling immediacy,” Ilgunas recalls. “I hadn’t begun to consciously rationalize why, but some farseeing part of me knew then and there that I was going to–no, had to–hike the Keystone XL.”

And that’s what he did. Liam dropped out of the project, but Ilgunas carried on alone, planning a route and buying gear and mailing boxes of food to post offices along his route, the way through-hikers do. His idea was to walk the exact route of the pipeline, and not just wander along nearby roads, so he was going to have to cross private land the whole way. “You’ll get thrown in jail,” he was told. “You’ll probably get shot.” But he was committed to the project, despite those warnings, and in late September 2012, he set off from Hardisty, Alberta, a town of 639 people that is the northern terminus of the pipeline, for Houston.

Nobody shot at Ilgunas, although he did have a couple of run-ins with rural police, and when he was caught trespassing on the pipeline in Texas, he was asked to leave. In fact, everyone he met was generous and kind, even though he was trespassing on their land. Only in Oklahoma was he forced to take to the roads, mainly because of vicious dogs. Finally, after five months of walking, he reached Houston in February, 2013, and dipped his toes into the Gulf of Mexico.

Trespassing Across America: One Man’s Epic Never-Done-Before (And Sort Of Illegal) Hike Across the Heartland is the story of that journey. It’s filled with suggestions for people who might be thinking about walking in western North America. For example, Ilgunas only carried three litres of water, which he would drink over the course of a day, so he often had to stop at farms to ask for refills–and nobody ever said no. Ilgunas didn’t have money for motels, so he would knock on church doors and ask if he could camp on the lawn. Often, he was invited to bunk down inside, on the floor. I’d never thought of relying on Christian charity while walking. Trespassing Across America is an entertaining read, and it shows that you don’t have to rely on established trails (like the Camino de Santiago in Europe, or the Appalachian Trail in the U.S.) if you want to go for a walk. But despite reading about Ilgunas’s experience, I’m leary of trespassing; I keep thinking that the landowners I’d run into might not always be as accommodating as the ones Ilgunas met. Maybe I’ll just stick to grid roads.


Ilgunas’s journey led to his latest book, This Land Is Our Land: How We Lost the Right to Roam and How to Take It Back. It’s both a history of the right to roam in North America and elsewhere, and a call for the United States to adopt the kind of legislation that exists in Scotland and Sweden, which allows pedestrians to walk on private land (within limits). Americans (and Canadians) used to have that right, but over the course of the twentieth century it was eroded–mostly through court decisions that established the rights of landowners to exclude anyone and everyone from their property–to the point that right-to-roam laws now sound crazy to most people.

I wish the kinds of changes Ilgunas is calling for were on the legislative agenda anywhere, but in an era of increasing selfishness, it isn’t likely to happen in North America any time soon. So, if you want to be able to trespass, legally, you have to go to Europe. How unfortunate. I’m about to set off on a walk in Saskatchewan, and it’d be a completely different kind of walk if I could set foot in pastures and on native prairie, instead of being confined to roads. Maybe someday we’ll see that change. I hope we do.


A Pennine Journey


September 1938. The Munich Crisis. Hitler is threatening to invade Czechoslovakia. Europe teeters on the brink of war. In England, people are forming civil defence units and preparing for the conflict that will begin if Hitler’s demands are not met by his deadline: October 1. And Alfred Wainwright, a clerk in the Blackburn Borough Engineering Department, takes his annual holiday despite the fact that he is suffering from what he calls “a mild influenza”: a 200-mile walk from the Yorkshire town of Settle to Hadrian’s Wall and back. Published nearly 50 years after the events it recounts, A Pennine Journey is the story of Wainwright’s eleven-day journey north on the eastern side of the Pennines and then back south on the western side.

It might seem like an odd time to leave one’s wife and children and head off on a long journey on foot when the world is on the brink of war, but for Wainwright the escape seems to have been a necessity. “I was free,” Wainwright recalls of his first day of walking:

For months I had been in chains, body, mind and soul. So complete a bondage was new to me; my body is a prisoner always save for a few days each year, but my mind and soul are seldom captive. Yet latterly they too had seemed fettered; they had been in the grip of a fearsome monster we called Crisis.

Well, I was away from it all. How sweet was the realization, not until this moment fully comprehended!

I was a free man on the hills again.

And, for the 32-year-old Wainwright, the outbreak of war would surely mean one thing: he would end up in the army, another form of bondage. Perhaps his journey was intended as one last experience of freedom before he surrendered to the necessities of national service.

Wainwright is a romantic, a lover of the hills and mountains of northern England, particularly the Lake District. He is a connoisseur of landscapes, judging the dales and villages he walks through according to their beauty and often finding them lacking in some essential aspect. He is also a committed walker, covering distances of more than 20 miles through difficult terrain without carrying a bottle of water, a flask of tea, or even a sandwich. As a result, he’s typically famished when he reaches his destination. I would be, too.

I have friends who think they travel lightly, but Wainwright puts them to shame: all he carries in his small haversack is a rain cape, a razor, a few pairs of extra socks, his maps, and a toothbrush. It’s incredible that he could walk for almost two weeks without changing his shirt, but (as L.P. Hartley wrote) the past is a foreign country, and people do things differently there. Plus, when it rains he gets soaked, despite his rain cape, and perhaps that’s close enough to doing laundry. Note that Wainwright doesn’t get a bath during his journey, either, despite a few unfortunate encounters with peat bogs while crossing moors. “I was filthy,” he notes, “so filthy that I was beginning to itch.” No doubt.

Pennine Journey - Alfred Wainwright

Wainwright is so excited by seeing Hadrian’s Wall–the chapter where he describes his day walking along the wall is filled with rapturous prose–that his return to Settle is rather disappointing. The weather doesn’t help: while he’s walking south, a tremendous gale and rainstorm causes flooding all over England, and Wainwright has to take shelter for most of the day in an inn–luckily, one of the nicer ones he stayed in. I found myself wondering if his approach to accommodations was typical of vacationers in the 1930s. Wainwright had made no arrangements in advance, and when he arrived in a village, he would either ask to rent a room at the local pub, or else he would stop in at the village shop and/or post office and ask if anyone took in visitors. Sometimes that’s how he manages to find meals as well. I can’t imagine that approach working today, with so many more people travelling (not on foot, of course), and so many more rules and regulations about serving food to paying guests.

By the end of his life (he died in 1991), Wainwright had produced more than 40 books, all about the hills of northern England. His ambition on the walk he writes about here was to produce a book of landscape photographs, using his Brownie box camera. Some technical error on his part resulted in the photographs of his walk north being ruined, so that plan came to nothing, but on his return journey, he decided to turn his notes into a book over the winter. It would be a way to relive his journey, he suggests, long after its conclusion and his return to the office and its “bondage.” However, A Pennine Journey wasn’t published until 1986, nearly 50 years after Wainwright completed his walk.

I don’t think it would be unfair to describe Wainwright as an eccentric, and at one point he acknowledges that others find him odd:

A strange thing, but nobody ever said to me: ‘I wish I could be like you’, nor, now I come to think of it, can I recall anyone regarding me with even mild admiration. Strange, yet, for though I do not profess to have all the virtues I consider myself immeasurably superior to most men; and it seems even stranger now that I come to write of it. Next time I am on a hilltop, I must ponder the problem. But I am grossly misjudged. Not so very long ago, a gentle maiden related to me that she had told her mother I was mad. She spoke ever so quietly, yet quite bluntly; she was so convinced that it did not occur to her that I might be inclined to dispute the assertion; she was stating an obvious fact, not inviting comment. . . . But I am not mad. I like to consider myself a thwarted genius. There is comfort in the thought, and a thwarted genius need not go to the trouble of explaining his conduct to himself.

Mad or not, these days Wainwright has a number of admirers, even followers, since it’s possible to walk a route not unlike the one he took to Hadrian’s Wall and back, a route described online. Of course, since Wainwright often walked on roads–roads which have become busy highways in the 80 years since his journey–it’s not possible to walk in his exact footsteps. One could try, I suppose, but in England, highways lack shoulders, and there is no place for pedestrians (as I’ve learned from experience) except in the lane with speeding traffic. And that’s not conducive to comfortable, or safe, walking.

I’m impressed enough by A Pennine Journey that I would like to make the contemporary version of his walk. I have one of his other books, a guide to the Pennine Way (England’s first long-distance walking path), and his drawings there are quite charming. I wonder what his photographs are like; in the 1950s he published a number of books of photographs of the Lake District. True, his prose is sometimes leaden and his views of women belong back in 1938, if not earlier, but A Pennine Journey is a worthwhile read.


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.