Walk the Walk: Travel Memoirs on Foot
We all do it, and after a good one we usually feel invigorated, our senses alive to the world around us. Sometimes all it takes is a quick one; sometimes, a nice long one opens up places and feelings we couldn't imagine. Cheryl Strayed did it all over California; Bill Bryson up and down the Appalachian Trail. There's no equipment required; it's free; and it's a great way to keep fit.
So who doesn't love a good walk? Of all fitness endeavors, it's the simplest, and yet there is something about walking which causes the contemplative, deeper side of our natures to surface. Take the case of Strayed--her walking memoir, "Wild," captivated readers throughout 2012 with its mixture of adventure and introspection. Her book joins a long and illustrious line of narratives in which the star is the open (often wild) road, and the means of passage is two feet and a pair of sturdy boots (and a beautiful world to discover, of course). These locations begat the best books pedestrians have to offer.
Over a century ago, walking was the one of the only options for travel for many denizens of our planet, and many thought nothing of trekking tens of miles per day. One champion walker was Welsh curate Reverend Francis Kilvert. His diaries detail great treks across the Welsh hills, ministering to his flock, and even falling in love.
The Middle East
Robert Byron was the original British gentleman adventurer. An outspoken critic of Shakespeare, and of much of Western culture generally, he set out between the wars to travel in places more conducive to his aesthetic sensibilities--namely, the Middle East. His account of his trips in 1933 and 1934, "The Road to Oxiana," set the bar for travel writing, and are often very funny--the Persia of that time, for instance, forbade any mention of the Shah's name in public, so he and his travel partner, Christopher Sykes, refer to the ruler throughout as "Marjoribanks."
Around the same time Byron was setting out to walk across the Middle East, British writer Patrick Leigh Fermor, then just 18 years old, was leaving Britain for mainland Europe, from which he headed to Constantinople, arriving in 1937. Described by the BBC as "a cross between Indiana Jones, James Bond, and Graham Greene," Paddy Fermor, as he was known, didn't publish an account of his European walks until 1977. "A Time of Gifts" was the first of a trilogy, and though the second volume was published in 1986 ("Between the Woods and the Water"), the final book may appear posthumously in 2013 (Fermor died in June 2011, at the ripe age of 96--walking clearly doesn't hurt one's longevity).
The Hindu Kush
The Middle and Far East have long attracted the walking traveler. A quarter century after Robert Byron's travels, British fashion publicist Eric Newby threw off the garment business and set out to walk the Hindu Kush, a beautiful and mountainous wilderness in what is modern-day northern Afghanistan. Newby was horribly ill-prepared, despite being accompanied by Michael Carless, a career diplomat and friend. The book, "A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush," recounts all their misadventures and ends with a wonderful set piece in which the two come across seasoned adventurer Wilfred Thesiger who, noting that they're blowing up beds on which to sleep, deems them both "pansies."
Another writer fascinated by the beauty of Afghanistan is Scotsman Rory Stewart. Currently a British Conservative Member of Parliament (and formerly a summer tutor to Princes William and Harry), in 2002 he set out to walk across the war-ravaged country to see for himself how it was faring as the Americans invaded. He followed the Hari River, from Herat to Kabul (a trip of more than 500 miles), meeting many Afghans along the way who won him over with their warm hospitality. The trip is memorialized in his bestselling memoir, "The Place In Between."
The Appalachian Trail
Forget the far-flung Middle East and the Hindu Kush and Constantinople--what's wrong with the humble Appalachian Trail? Nothing if you're noted humorist Bill Bryson. He set out along the 2,184-mile, Georgia-Maine path in 1997, taking along with him one of the great sidekicks in all of travel literature, the portly, besieged-by-the-cares-of-the-world, wholly-unprepared for adventure Stephen Katz (a pseudonym for Bryson pal Matthew Angerer). A beloved bestseller, many readers have a favorite passage in "A Walk in the Woods," be it Bryson reading accounts of bear attacks "saucer-eyed" with fear, or throwing food off a mountain to lighten their backpacks, or the time Katz is chased by a man with a gun (he'd had the temerity to talk to the gunman's wife in a laundromat). Eventually, Bryson makes it all the way to the end of the Trail (he doesn't walk every mile of it--far from it), with a renewed appreciation for the America of his birth (he had lived in Britain a quarter century), but with no real love for trees, having seen so damn many of them.