Taking a walk is such a mundane activity, but there is still something mysterious and wonderful about it, even if it only takes us around the neighborhood. One notices a relaxation of pace and shortening of perspective, perhaps — objects often seem farther away in a car or the bus, bracketed, as it were, by the window. And if the opportunity to take a longer walk occurs — a hike, say, or a trek — what a life-changing experience that can be! Things glimpsed ordinarily and daily become new and seductive. Our framework for understanding is skewed — objects stranger than they appear — just because we are strolling by.
The experience of walking has attracted many notables in literature, and they have given us accounts of their transformations. Herewith, a sampling:
Patrick Leigh Fermor, A Time of gifts: On foot to Constantinople : from the hook of Holland to the middle Danube and Between the woods and the water: On foot to Constantinople: the middle Danube to the Iron Gates
These wonderful books narrate the author’s adventures as a nineteen-year-old before the onset of World War II, when he set out from Holland and walked through Europe to Constantinople. His artist’s eye sees detail like no other, and his descriptions have a foreshortened quality that suggests doom.
Laurie Lee, As I walked out one midsummer morning.
Another young man’s adventure, this is the story of Lee’s 1934 trip to Spain. Walking most of the way from Gloucestershire, he supported himself with his violin and the young ladies he met on his travels. Later on, Lee joined the Spanish resistance and fought in the Spanish Civil War.
Eric Newby, Short Walk in the Hindu Kush: a preposterous adventure.
Two smart-alecks on a spree, this is unrelievedly hilarious but also tender-hearted. All of Newby’s writing is worth an investigation.
Robert Byron, Road to Oxiana.
And this is a noble account of a journey along the Amu Darya river (between Afghanistan and Russia) taken by two Brits in search of ancient architecture. Travel light, and never lose your focus might have been their motto. Byron was a casualty of World War II and wrote no books after this.
Walter Starkie, Raggle Taggle: Adventures with a fiddle in Hungary and Roumania (New York, E.P. Dutton & Co., 1933. Not in the library collection; available through interlibrary loan).
This is awfully good, but also maybe mostly made-up. Starkie picked up his violin and joined gypsy bands in central Europe in the 1920’s, learning their language and their songs-or did he? The library thinks of it as fiction.
Bill Bryson, A Walk in the woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian trail.
Bryson and an old friend take a life-changing walk. Fighting the appeal of fast food, beer, and candy all the way, Bryson’s self-disparaging wit (also directed at his friend) is tinctured with a growing sense of his own worth as he conquers the road. This is pretty funny, but more than funny, it’s about the way we all look for a way out of middle age.
George Orwell, Down and out in Paris and London.
This one is a sleeper-Orwell (Eric Blair, in actuality) tells a number of stories of youthful penury, among them a stint as a hobo in England. Doss houses, no food, pious yet despicable benefactors — all grist for his socialist mill. This precedes Road to Wigan Pier and the books about the Spanish Civil War but has much the same tone.
Edmund White, The Flâneur: a stroll through the paradoxes of Paris.
What a flaneur does is to observe — an activity that naturally accompanies a stroll. While this combination of activities is appropriate in Paris, it is surely right for any other city, or any place where human activities occur. White’s stroller is heavily invested in the historical layers of Paris where a walk through the present brings as many memories.
Shirley MacLaine, The Camino: a journey of the spirit.
If anybody can derive spiritual values from a hike, it is Shirley MacLaine. As she trudged along the pilgrim route to Santiago de Campostela, her mind ranged wide-through time, through space, through realities. The essential purifying and focusing of this experience seems not to have occurred to Shirley although that is many a person’s object in taking this hike.
~ John S