“Why are you walking?” It’s the second most popular question of the Camino, after only “where are you from?”
Everyone had their own reason to put their life on hold, pare their belongings down to what fits in a pack, and set out on foot. I met people grieving the death of a spouse and those celebrating victory over cancer. I know people who walk for God, and those who walk with a whole lot of questions about God. For sport, for fun, to prove a point…we’re all there for something.
As I’ve said here before, I walk as a chance to re-set. When I’m burned out by the relentless pace and the easily deleted experience of life online, I go looking for old trails and holy places, seeking for something that matters, something that lasts. But also, I want an adventure and a story to tell at our weekly taco dinners. (I certainly found that.)
I started thinking again about that “why do you walk” question recently, because of a couple of books I finally got to read.
This isn’t my summer for a long walk. After Camino returns in 2017 and 2018, and the intensity of the book release and tour over the last winter, I knew this would be a recovery year. But if I can’t take a long walk, the next best thing is to read about them, right?
“Reading is a means of thinking with another person’s mind; it forces you to stretch your own.” – Charles Scribner, Jr.
And that’s exactly what two travel narratives did for me this summer.
The Salt Path and Thirst are both memoirs by women about their very long walks. But the similarities between each other, and from our Camino experiences, only go so far, and not just because they happen on opposite sides of the Atlantic.
Heather “Anish” Anderson is a hardcore American long-distance hiker. Last year, she hiked the “Triple Crown” of U.S. backpacking—the Appalachian Trail, the Continental Divide Trail, and The Pacific Crest Trail—in a single year. Thirst: 2600 Miles to Home is about her FKT—Fastest Known Time—Pacific Crest Trail walk in 2013. She hiked all 2600 miles, from Mexico to Canada, in just 60 days. That’s 40 miles (64 kilometers) a day, EVERY DAY. No rest days. Heck, according to the book, not even a decent rest night. It takes a lot of hours to walk 40 miles. And did I mention she did it all self-supported? That means no gear car or friends to carry her stuff. And no friendly Camino-style albergues. She carried a pack with her food and water and a tent to sleep in every night. And she was clearly taking enough notes to create a lovely, thoughtful book about her experience?
Why did she walk? The only word I have to describe Anderson is “driven.” She’d known since she was a child that she wanted to set some kind of record. She’d known since her first brush with wilderness hiking at the Grand Canyon that she loved long distances. In fact, by the time she started her PCT hike, she’d sacrificed almost everything for it. She’d left a home, a job, even a marriage, for the pull of the outdoors.
“As an adult, I often lost sight of the fact that, to most people, running fifty miles at a time wasn’t a normal weekend activity. Nor was knocking off a sixty-five mile loop on a weekend backpacking trip…It was easy to forget that I approached long distances—distances that 99 percent of people would only consider traveling by a vehicle—as casually as others approached a Saturday matinee.”
“I want to set a record because of the challenge. Is that really why I’m here? Or am I here because I need to thru-hike again, and the record is merely justification to repeat what most people call a once-in-a-lifetime experience? Perhaps thru-hiking was the only way I could cope with modern life. Some people drank. Others used drugs. Some zoned out in front of the screen. My escape was the trail, where life was not easy or comfortable.”
It can be hard to relate to a drive like that, hard to imagine the push that would risk a person’s health just to beat a clock. Or maybe that’s just me, because I like my long walks to come with beds and beers. But the story itself is entrancing, with lyrical writing to balance the harshness of the conditions.
Raynor Winn, on the other hand, was in no hurry. After she and her husband, Moth, were cheated out of their home and livelihood, AND THEN received a devastating medical diagnosis, they set out for the South West Coast Path, the UK’s longest waymarked trail, to walk while they sorted themselves back out. They wild camped along the way, not by choice but because they were stuck living off a meager 25 pound/week government stipend, which barely covered the packets of noodles and occasional bag of chips. Unlike Anderson, the Winns took their time, walking just a few miles a day, to accommodate Moth’s health and their open-ended situation. The Salt Path is her reflection on the experience, from those initial days of panic and loss, through the seemingly impossible physical challenges, to the hope and healing that came from the sea.
Why did she walk? The only word to use seems to be “forced.” What else is there to do when the whole world is pulled out from under you?
“The first few times we’d been asked how it was that we had time to walk so far and so long, we had answered truthfully: ‘Because we’re homeless; we lost our home, but it wasn’t our fault. We’re just going where the path takes us.’ People recoiled and the wind was silenced by their sharp intake of breath. In every case the conversation ended abruptly and the other party walked away very quickly. So we had invented a lie that was more palatable. For them and for us. We had sold our home, looking for a midlife adventure, going where the wind took us—at the moment it was blowing us west…that was met with gasps of ‘wow, brilliant, inspirational.’”
Anderson chose to give up her home and walk. The Winns did not. But still, the trail captures them.
“On a basic level, maybe all of us on the path were the same; perhaps we were all looking for something. Looking back, looking forward or just looking for something that was missing. Drawn to the edge, a strip of wilderness where we could be free to let the answers come, or not, to find a way of accepting life, our life, whatever that was. Were we searching this narrow margin between the land and the sea for another way of being, becoming edgelanders along the way. Stuck between one world and the next. Walking a thin line between tame and wild, lost and found, life and death. At the edge of existence.”
The Salt Path is a little short on detail as a hiking narrative, likely written for a UK audience more familiar with the landmarks casually mentioned. But it’s a deeply moving reflection on the reasons why we walk, and on the ideas of home and security. And it’s also surprisingly funny in places I least expect it. I can see why this is winning awards and getting attention on both sides of the pond.
“We all walk our own Caminos,” I heard over and over on the Way of St. James. It turns out that lesson applies to trails around the world, as well. Thank goodness for books to show us how.
Do you have favorite hiking narratives, or stories of long walks that made you see your own in a new light? The comments are open for recommendations!
PS. The book links above go to Amazon, because that’s the one place that I think all of you, regardless of location, can find these books. And yes, they are affiliate links, because if you happen to click through and then buy anything at all, it helps me pay my domain and hosting fees. However, if you have a chance to buy from an independent bookseller, or check a book out from a library, or buy directly from the nonprofit publisher, do that. The Salt Path was recommended to me by my local bookseller, and I bought it there, and I checked Thirst out from the library (though I will eventually buy a copy from the publisher, which happens to also be my publisher).