Reading and Walking

Walking, Reading, and Reading about Walking

Wood Mountain Walk, Day Seven

All I’ve done in Assiniboia today is eat and sleep. And laundry. That’s what rest days are for.

It’s hot again today and I’m glad I’m not out on the highway. Tomorrow will be a shorter day, just 20 kilometres to Limerick. Sunday is supposed to be cooler, so I might try to finish the last 40 kilometres in one go. I haven’t decided. Maybe that’s a bad idea.

Watching cars and trucks speed past me the past few days has left me thinking about the freedom–or the illusion of freedom–petroleum has given us. Our planet–the only home we have–is on fire, but we can get to Moose Jaw in an hour. What a trade-off. Of course, I’ve been busy proving just how hard it is to travel without burning petroleum. We’ve created quite a dilemma for ourselves, and we’re mostly ignoring the consequences. I need to read Rebecca Solnit’s new book on hope in dark times, because I feel terribly overwhelmed.

It’s been years since I read Don Quixote, but I’ve been thinking about the distinction between the man of ideals and the man of appetites, between the Don and Sancho Panza. Sleeping in a ditch during a bizarre quest like this one doesn’t make you an ascetic or an idealist. When I get to town, I think only of my belly, like Sancho. And I haven’t even seen a wind farm.

I’ll go to the Co-op to pick up a couple of things, then back to the hotel to rest. Then I’ll walk back downtown for supper. Such a lazy day.

Wood Mountain Walk, Day Six

I didn’t end up at the campground last night after all: I found a room for rent behind a shop and leapt at it. This morning I slept late and got up stiff and sore and tired. There was coffee in the cupboard so I made a pot. That helped. And for once I enjoyed Ryvita and peanut butter, so I had a decent breakfast.

On my way out of town, an old fellow I’d met at lunch yesterday invited me into the Seniors’ Centre for a coffee. “No thanks, I’m already coffeed up,” I said. “Okay, then, have a good walk,” he said. I realize my refusal was ungracious and that I missed an opportunity to connect with people, but I also know that I couldn’t afford to pass up an hour of relatively cool temperatures. I like to get at least halfway to where I’m going before it gets too hot. But I regret my answer anyway.

Today’s walking is as hard as yesterday’s: the same crumbling, narrow shoulder, the same fist-sized chunks of broken asphalt to pick my way through when oncoming traffic forces me to the edge of the highway. The going is slow. I tried walking in the ditch for a while, like my friend Hugh, but it was too hard. I don’t know how Hugh does it. So I’m taking a rest in the shade of a hay bale, where about a million flies are inspecting me.

I’ve been waving at passing vehicles, the way you do in rural Saskatchewan, but I only get a return wave half the time. I was wondering why that might be when a fellow stopped to offer me a lift. He was deeply tanned, driving an old grey GMC pickup–a farmer, I suppose. Of course I thanked him and said no–I’m not hitchhiking, right? But it was another lost opportunity for connection. The ritual of waving is otherwise the only sign of common humanity on the highway.

My goal today is Assiniboia, where I hope to take a day off tomorrow. I’m just too exhausted to keep walking tomorrow. I have more than 20 kilometres of walking before I get there, and while I know that by five o’clock I’ll be eating an early supper at the hotel, it’s going to be a long day.

Later: What a difference between lunch yesterday and lunch today. Yesterday, food and drink in an air conditioned room. Today, trying to find respite from the sun behind a hay bale and wondering if I can keep going in this heat. A couple more people offered me rides this morning. Maybe I should’ve accepted.

Still later: A kind woman named Linda stopped and gave me a litre of water. She knew about Suknaski’s work, but was curious about why I am walking. “It’s a pilgrimage,” I answered. “The pilgrim must suffer.” Of course it’s not all suffering, but today’s been quite difficult, and it’s nowhere near being over.

Odd that I started out thinking about connection today and have received so many kind gestures.

I’m hiding from the sun in a row of poplars in the middle of a field of chick peas. It’s still hot and I’m running out of water. I won’t be in Assiniboia by supper, but I will get there eventually.

Still later: I’m in Assiniboia with food and drink and a bed. But not entirely under my own steam. For the last three or four kilometres, I caught a lift from two fellows, Maurice and Leo. Maurice works on offshore rigs in Texas; Leo, his father, is a farmer. They’d passed me earlier today and noticed how my pace had slowed. Yes, I was beat: 35 kilometres in this heat. I would rather have been able to walk in, but I just couldn’t say no to the ride. Thanks to Maurice and Leo for helping me!

Wood Mountain Walk, Day Five

Since I came back from walking in Spain five years ago, I’ve played a little game with myself when driving down highways. It’s called, “Where Would You Camp?” I look for likely spots where one could sleep rough in comfort. Behind those bushes? On top of that rock cutting? Last night, I played the game for real: I slept in a ditch.

There was nowhere else, and it was comfortable enough, and after walking 38 kilometres I didn’t have the energy to search for a better spot. And from what I’ve seen this morning, there probably wasn’t one. After a while the traffic stopped and I lay there listening to the coyotes singing. Eventually I fell asleep.

This morning the walking is hard, despite the cool breeze. Since the turn off to Willow Bunch, the shoulder of the highway is narrower and often broken, leaving ragged chunks of asphalt on the gravel verge where I walk. It’s hard to build up a rhythm when you’re stumbling over them. And the verge is choked with weeds sometimes. It’s a slog.

My feet are sore, too, after yesterday, with bleeding blisters on my left sole. Nothing I can do about that.

My goal today is Mossbank, where there is a hotel and a bar and a restaurant, apparently. I have 21 kilometres to go. Wish me luck.

Later: I’ve made it to Ardill, where the hotel is open and serves lunch–and beer! I may never leave, even though I still have nine kilometres to go.

Still later: Here’s the happy ending. I’m in Mossbank. A 40 kilometre walk today, the farthest I’ve ever walked, and I’m done. The hotel and B&B here are out of business, unfortunately, so I’m off to the campground. Tomorrow will be another long day, but there is definitely a place to stay in Assiniboia and I’ll be there. Too bad the highway has turned out to be such a miserable walk.

Oh, the town boys are calling me “hitchhiker.” “Walker” isn’t part of the vocabulary here. Good to know.

Wood Mountain Walk, Day Four

It’s 2:30 in the afternoon. I’m leaning against a fragrant hay bale in a ditch beside Highway 2. I’ve walked 24 kilometres so far and hope to get to 35 before I stop for the day.

It’s been a good day for walking, cooler than yesterday and cloudy, although now the sun is shining. I mostly walk on a weedy gravel verge beside the paved shoulder. There’s a lime-green plant that grows only there, it seems, and when I step on it, it releases a sour stink. That smell has accompanied me most of the day. The passing vehicles create a kind of imaginary community: we’re just people trying to get somewhere. It’s just that my mode of transportation is completely impractical by 2018 standards.

I stopped at the Sukanen Ship Museum this morning. I’ve driven past many times, but I’ve never pulled off the highway to take a look. The collection includes the ship Tom Sukanen, a Finnish homesteader, built in the 1930s to sail home to Finland on the Saskatchewan River. He was heartbroken by the loss of his wife and children and in those dustbowl years he must’ve thought he’d made a terrible mistake leaving home. But there’s also a kind of pioneer village stocked with buildings salvaged from nearby towns: a garage, a blacksmith’s ship, a train station, a combination library and municipal office, a school, a church, a telephone exchange. Everything seems so small, especially the homesteaders’ shacks, which include the house where Diefenbaker grew up. It’s also very sad. Those people sacrificed and suffered to build new communities and lives, and now they’re gone and the communities they created are mostly gone as well.

There’s no denying what those homesteaders accomplished, but at the same time they were only able to make this province because the First Peoples of this place had been removed from the land, incarcerated on reserves. We tend to forget that part of the story. Forgetting makes the homesteaders’ struggles both innocent and heroic, and not part of a colonial enterprise which depended on the displacement of other people. From what I’ve been reading about the treaties, where we are today is not what the Indigenous negotiators had in mind.

I had a Coke and an energy bar and petted the resident cat, and then I started down the road. That was ten kilometres ago. What will the next 10 kilometres bring? I’m craving a BLT, but I doubt they’ll bring me one of those.

I wanted to say something about Andrew Suknaski and Wood Mountain Poems. Suknaski was born in Wood Mountain in 1942. His father was a homesteader who walked from Wood Mountain to Moose Jaw and back several times, so I’m not the first person to make this journey on foot, although Suknaski Sr. seems to have taken the road through Limerick, a town that no longer exists*. In Wood Mountain Poems, Suknaski writes about the community where he grew up, his family, his connection to that particular place. He also writes about the wider history of Wood Mountain, the place where Sitting Bull and 5,000 Lakota people sought refuge after the Battle of Little Bighorn. Suknaski overtly claims all the history of the area as his to write about, including the First Nations presence (there is a Lakota reserve at Wood Mountain), something one wouldn’t do today, because of concerns about cultural appropriation. But 40 years ago, when Wood Mountain Poems was published, it was a typical move. Suknaski took the trouble to learn some Dakota, and includes the language in some of his poems (why Dakota and not Lakota? I don’t know), but the poems about his family and the settler experience are by far the strongest in the book. He was closer to those experiences. By contrast, the poems about the Lakota are often forced and therefore much less successful.

Wood Mountain Poems was Suknaski’s first book, and I love its evocation of a part of the world that deserves to have more poems written about it. I wonder if I’ll find a plaque in his honour when I get to the village. Probably not. So I’m making this walk instead.

*Since I hit “publish,” my friend Connie has informed me that Limerick does exist. I’ll be going over to make a visit–but likely not on foot.

Wood Mountain Walk, Day Three

Don’t believe Google when it tells you it’s only 70 kilometres to Moose Jaw. Maybe if you’re driving. If you’re walking on backroads, it’s more like 90. At least, that’s what it feels like. I’m as wiped as someone who’s walked 90 kilometres in three days can be. I have 160 kilometres left to go.

I’ve been in the hotel–the fancy one–for an hour, and I’ve already showered and shaved, done my laundry in the sink, put ointment on my chafed areas, and gone through my pack to separate out stuff I have no intention of carrying one more step. Not bad. I might even get in a nap before supper.

What a contrast to sleeping beside the river last night, without even the illusion of safety a tent provides. Just me, in my bivvy sack, under the full moon, listening to coyotes sing and dogs bark (at me, probably) and nameless rustlings in the bushes. It was cold, too, and sometimes I was shivering too hard for sleep, despite wearing all my clothes. But it was also exhilarating, being there with the other creatures under the night sky. Yes, they don’t use Gore-Tex or fuss about water, but perhaps we were in the same space in a similar way. Or at least I’m pretending we were.

I ran out of water quickly–I’d never been so thirsty–so at the first gas station I saw, just on the outskirts of Moose Jaw, I bought a litre of Gatorade and some water. That took care of that. It might be my imagination, or my thirst, but Gatorade isn’t as terrible as it used to be. Then breakfast at a Smitty’s, with coffee and more water. I sloshed down Main Street in the heat. Sloshed, or hobbled, given my blisters and chafing. Ouch.

A woman on the sidewalk asked me where I’d come from and was surprised at the answer. “Stay hydrated!” she said. Wise words. I’d called ahead about a room, because I thought a large smelly dirty man might get turned away by the desk clerk. When said desk clerk asked if I needed a parking pass, he could barely believe the answer.

Christine is coming to meet me for supper. It’ll take her just 45 minutes to drive here. That’s the freedom petroleum has given us. On the other hand, of course, using it has set the world on fire and choked the oceans with plastic. And we’re all hooked on the stuff. I mean, nobody wants to walk three days just to take the waters at the Moose Jaw Spa.

After supper, I’ll use the in-room Jacuzzi on my sore muscles. Then, first thing tomorrow, I’ll be headed south. On the shoulder of a highway this time. There are upsides and downsides to that, but at least I won’t get lost. If it gets too busy, I might detour onto grids, but I might not have the stamina for detours. We’ll see.

Maybe tomorrow, if I have the energy, I’ll explain why I’m making this walk. Now I think it’s nap time.

Wood Mountain Walk, Day Two

Today was hard. It was hot and I was so thirsty. I may have underestimated how much water this walking requires. I can’t eat much without feeling bilious, and the iron rations in my pack have turned out to be unappealing. After 29 kilometres, I’ve stopped beside the Moose Jaw River to rest. It’s a good spot to camp and a lovely valley, but the sun is hammering down and this chokecherry bush, right on the cutbank, is giving little shade. I might move on; I haven’t decided.

There’s no cell service here, either, which is another reason to keep going. But my fatigue is keeping me here for now.

I thought about the sounds I’ve been listening to for the past two days: the howl of trucks in the distance on the Number One highway, train horns, the rumble and squeak of machinery digging another pipeline, but also innumerable crickets in all the fields, and birds (like the bank swallows I hear now), and of course the crunch of my feet on the gravel.

Time shifts when you’re walking. It slows. An hour passes and you look at my watch to learn it’s only even 10 minutes. Something on the horizon–today, a potash mine–seems to stand still for hours as you walk towards it. But eventually you pass it and trudge towards the next landmark.

It is lovely here, and I’m so beat, but that sun won’t quit. Maybe I’ll stay a little longer. I don’t know.

Later: I decided to walk a little farther. Good thing, because all the roads in the valley dead ended at gravel pits. I was thoroughly lost. I flagged down a passing SUV. The driver pointed out an abandoned road that led across a condemned bridge. That, he said, would take me into Moose Jaw. Had I started walking early tomorrow morning, I doubt anyone would’ve been around to give directions.

He was the second person to stop and chat. The first was a cyclist heading to Pense from Moose Jaw. I thought I was the only crazy person out here, he said. And a family stopped to ask where I was going. All these interactions are meaningful when you are engaged in such a solitary activity.

The road wasn’t marked on my map, or was it? The details are sparse. I crossed the bridge and set up camp in the shade of a scrubby ash tree.

I’m drinking tomorrow’s water–this is a problem.

Now to force myself to eat something and then try to sleep.

Wood Mountain Walk, Day One

I’m not prepared for this walk. Maybe that’s okay. I’ve always thought that the best way to get ready to do something was to do it. I did try a similar walk a few years ago, and it didn’t work out. But I learned from that experience. My pack is lighter, and my route is easier. So I’m hoping this time it’s different.

A cold breeze was coming through the window this morning, and I didn’t want to get out of bed. I won’t be sleeping in my own bed for almost two weeks. But it turned out to be a warm day–almost hot–with few clouds: perfect weather for walking. I’ve walked this way before, but nothing is ever the same twice, is it? There’s a new bridge over the Bypass, and although it isn’t finished, I ignored the “road closed” signs and walked across. Nobody tried to stop me. And just a few kilometres from Pense, a farmer stopped his pickup truck and gave me a cold bottle of iced tea. “This is what you need,” he said. He was right.

And the pub/hotel is open, with Rebellion on draft and a room for the night. What else can you ask for?

Of course, the road was the same arrow-straight gravel trudge between fields of barley and lentils and flax and canola, but that’s normal here, where the land was divided according to a plan invented in Ottawa. It’s an industrial landscape, completely remade in the past 140 years. I can’t complain about that, because it’s what defines our economy, and is the reason settlers are here. But still, ghosts of what was are there if you look: asters and wild rose beside the road, ducks in the sloughs, gopher holes. It feels impoverished, but who am I to say so?

You can see the Pense grain elevator 15 kilometres before you finally reach it. The land is so flat, and the sky so large, I swear I could see the earth’s curvature.

Oh, yes. I’m walking to Wood Mountain as a sort of pilgrimage in honour of Andrew Suknaski’s book Wood Mountain Poems. It’s the only book I’ve brought with me and I’ll be reading it along the way–particularly on those days when I find myself wild camping behind some caragana someplace. There will be many hours to fill before it’s dark enough to lay out my bivvy sack and try to sleep.

But not tonight. I’m tired, the CFL game is on, and the beer is cold. Soon I’ll repair to my room for a nap, and then I’ll have the privilege of eating someone else’s cooking. That won’t happen tomorrow. Stay tuned.

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.


Apple TV Walk

Christine read Edward St. Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose books a while back, and when we learned that they were going to be turned into a TV series starring Benedict Cumberbatch, she wanted to see it. The series is carried by Crave in Canada, but we’ve had trouble with Crave’s app not working on our TV–so much trouble that I abandoned our subscription in disgust. Maybe, though, it would work if we had one of those Apple TV boxes. It’s worth a try, I thought, and if it doesn’t work, we could watch Borgen, which everyone raves about and which is only available through Apple. So yesterday I walked to the big-box retail jungle of the city’s east end, a 20-kilometre round trip, to buy an Apple TV box for Christine.



After I left the house, I noticed the first flowers on the western Canadian violet that covers the shady areas in our front yard. I also noticed some creeping bellflower mixed in with it. I hate creeping bellflower–it’s a terrible weed, and if left alone, it will simply take over–so I put the walk on hold and started pulling it out. I didn’t get the roots, so it’ll be back, but I didn’t want to disturb the violets and wild strawberries too much, either. Around the corner, a jackrabbit was sitting in the alley, inspecting the neighbour’s vegetable plot.


The street elms are beginning to leaf out. In another week or two, the streets will feel like green leafy tunnels again.




The path around the small end of the lake was busy. The Sikh community was having a parade, and there was some kind of run going on, and the usual cyclists and dog walkers and families were simply enjoying the sun. The big end of the lake, though, on the other side of the bridge, was, as usual, pretty empty, with just a few runners and cyclists on the path. I did see my friends Katherine and Paul-Henrik on their bikes, but I didn’t think to try to take their photographs.



I walked past an ambitious prairie restoration project that hasn’t worked out very well. Where the native grassland has been ploughed under, the soil is now filled with the seeds of invasive Eurasian weeds and agronomic grass species, and those introduced plants will outcompete indigenous plants every time–unless the restoration project is managed very carefully, which never happens. So instead of a field of June grass and little bluestem and blue grama grass, of gallardia and coneflower and asters, you end up with an expanse of quack grass and thistles. It’s almost inevitable. The lesson I take away from this sad truth: stop destroying native grassland, because once it’s gone, you can’t get it back.




I crossed the highway and walked along Assiniboine Avenue. It’s one of my favourite places to walk in this city, because the sidewalk turns into a gravel path, which reminds me of walking on similar paths along Spanish highways. It’s only 300 or 400 metres, but I like the relative softness of gravel underfoot, instead of pavement.



A footpath runs through a park from Assiniboine Avenue to Arens Rd., and I like that walk, too. It runs past a planting of bur oaks and along Pilot Butte Creek. The creek is very low this spring, because last year’s drought is continuing, but it still provides a home for mallard ducks and red-winged blackbirds.





I stopped for lunch and then pressed on to Best Buy. Then, with an Apple TV box in my backpack, I started walking back west.




I’ve been thinking about the difference between walking and driving lately, partly because at a symposium last fall, a colleague talked about his experience of the landscape being framed by the windshield of his car, and how that framing affects that experience. My immediate response was to think, “then get out of your car and walk,” but that’s not an option for most people. After all, walking 30 kilometres will take six or seven hours, but you can drive that distance in 20 minutes. So, given its slowness, given the physical exertion that it takes, why bother to walk? The answer, of course, is that you walk because it’s slow, because it takes physical exertion, but more importantly, because it allows for a deeper engagement with place, even a place as relatively unappealing as the suburbs of a small prairie city. In the glass and steel bubble of an automobile, you don’t hear or feel very much. Walking is very different. As I walked yesterday, I thought about what I was feeling and hearing and smelling, about the kind of sensory experiences I wouldn’t be having if I were driving. I saw the same things–the sky, the grass, birds, other people–but without the enframing a windshield creates. I heard birds singing, mostly red-winged blackbirds and grackles, and the omnipresent hum of distant traffic, and the constant sound of the wind. I smelled charcoal burning, as family picnics began around the grills provided by the park authorities. I heard my feet crunching on the occasional gravel path, the thud of the rubber tips of my walking poles on the more typical concrete or pavement, dogs barking. I felt the warmth of the sun and, simultaneously, the coolness of the breeze, and the heat and sting of blisters forming, followed by the explosion of pain when one of those blisters burst. Yes, nobody wants to experience that, but discomfort and fatigue is part of walking, too. Besides, I haven’t figured out how to toughen my feet so that they won’t blister except by walking.





I walked through the park (including a climb up one of the city’s two hills–the other is the landfill) and into my home neighbourhood. I bumped into my friends Kerri and Jess, who were out walking their dogs, but of course I forgot to take a photograph. “People should have to walk if they’re going to buy something,” Kerri said. “That’s how I stopped drinking pop when I was at university–there was just no way I was going to carry it home.” They carried on with their walk, and I limped home on my blistered feet, where I had a well-deserved beer and watched the last two periods of the Jets-Knights hockey game. Today, I’m going to have to catch up on the yard work I didn’t get done yesterday–and I’m going to have to set up the Apple TV thing–but all of that is a fair tradeoff for being able to walk across town yesterday.



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.