Three books about walking to delight and challenge us
Walking. Most of us take it for granted. We learn early. And in the words of Oliver Burkeman, author of Four Thousand Weeks, after the age of 4, we never get any better at it. And yet it seems that despite physical expertise, some of us never truly master walking – or even one dimension of it. Here are some books about walking that I love. They explore this seemingly simple, almost trite daily action in varied ways – from a simple stroll around the neighborhood with no purpose but to enjoy the sun, to daring explorations hauling hundreds of pounds of gear through pitiless conditions.
Mad, Bad & Dangerous to Know, by Ranulph Fiennes
Fiennes does not generally theorize. He describes his task, the obstacles, and its execution in an almost business-like manner.
“I had learned two lessons: the value of reconnaissance in unknown places and the futility of paying for expeditions from one’s own pocket.”
And what tasks! Circumnavigating the globe, by traveling through both poles. Searching for the lost city of Ubar in the Empty Quarter. The first unsupported crossing of Antarctica. Running seven marathons on seven continents – in seven days.
Fiennes won terrific triumphs. He also failed to accomplish the goal in at least half of his expeditions. Yet I came away from the book viewing him as an enormous success. Even after failure, he remained undaunted. Even after losing fingers to frostbite and a heart attack, he kept pursuing adventure. He took on Mount Everest at age 61. He finally summited after three tries at age 65. He trained in serious ice and rock mountaineering starting at age 61– so he could take on the North Face of Eiger – one of the toughest climbs in the world. Traversing Antarctica wasn’t enough for him. He attempted to walk across the continent in winter. He failed. He still sought new challenges. May we all keep at it, even after our failures, especially our largest ones.
This book continues to resonate with me, years after first reading it. One unexpected joy of the book: Fiennes deploys an enormous vocabulary. I had to look up more unknown words in this book than in almost any book I can recall reading…a bit of my own challenge. Some wonderful examples: escarpment, boffin, pingo, etiolated, contretemps, sphenisciphile, and hugger-mugger.
The Gentle Art of Tramping, by Stephen Graham
“It is a gentle art; know how to tramp and you know how to live.” So begins Graham’s missive. Later on, Graham will describe tramping – long, rambling hikes, sometimes on well-trod paths, other times in the midst of thick, untrammeled forests. The instant image of sweating, heaving, hefty breathing, aching muscles, and general discomfort comes to my mind. So why does Graham call this “a gentle art”? And, does some such thing as an “ungentle art” exist”? (An intriguing question for another time.)
The art is gentle because it is “passive” and “slow.” It is gentle because
“you learn to accept the simple and humble role and not to crave respect, honor, obeisance….If ever you were proud or quarrelsome or restless, the inflammation goes down, fanned by the coolness of humility and simplicity”
So much for “gentle” Why does he call it an “art’? Aristotle defines a citizen as one who “rules and is ruled” in the city. Graham has something similar in mind. He doesn’t use these exact words, but I believe he defines an artist as someone who “acts on and is acted upon by” the realm of reality. For instance, he writes,
“Nature becomes your teacher, and from her you will learn what is beautiful, who you are, what is your special quest in life and wither you should go.” He then contends, by tramping, “you are gradually becoming an artist in life….You are learning the gentle art of tramping, and it is giving you an artist’s joy in creation.”
By “in creation” he has two meanings – you are physically walking in creation, and in tramping you are doing an act of creation.
Graham takes issue with our modern notions of productivity. He wrote this book in 1926 – surely the intervening century has not assuaged his concern for the impact of productivity on our souls. The marketing guru Gary Vaynerchuk famously told Tim Ferriss, “I’m not worried about my years, because I’m squeezing the fuck out of my seconds.” Graham flips that notion on its head:
“No, take care of the hours and the minutes can go hang. Take care of your life and your days will be all right.”
This confrontation with the industrial obsession with productivity reverberates through the book. It is but one bone he picks with the modern world. Others include his preference for:
- Country over city life
- Untrod wilderness over paved paths
- Poetry, play and song as critical for health
- Love as the first ingredient in food rather than ‘fastness’
- Taking time to know someone over transactional networking
“You will discern that going tramping is at first an act of rebellion.” It is no small choice in life to determine whether we shall join Graham as rebels.
This book didn’t make my list of “25 Books to Read for the Rest of My Life” but only narrowly. I love this book. Mostly, I return again and again to this book because of its charm and Graham’s undeniable joy in tramping – in the life he has chosen for himself. Graham is a master of the turn of phrase and beautiful imagery in writing. The life he lived and proffers reminds me:
“The end of a happy day should be the stepping-stone to one still happier.”
May that bless each of our days.
The Snow Leopard, by Peter Matthiessen
In 1973, the author Peter Matthiessen joined biologist George Schaller on an expedition to the Tibetan Plateau in Nepal. Schaller initiated the trip to study the bharal or blue sheep. He and Matthiessen also hoped to spy the extremely rare snow leopard.
Schaller came to prominence in the wider world through the book, but he cut quite the figure on his own. Born in 1933, he became perhaps the world’s foremost expert on the mountain gorilla. Matthiessen describes him
“GS….knows that the season is against him, and he will not really be at ease until he reaches the land of the blue sheep and the snow leopard. “Once the data start coming in, he said in Kathmandu, “I don’t care about much else; I feel I’m justifying my existence.” (This single-mindedness helps to account for his reputation: I have heard GS referred to by a peer as “the finest field biologist working today.”) Also, he dislikes all these small villages; we are still too close to civilization to suit him.”
Matthiessen had buried his wife, Deborah Love barely a year and a half before the trip. He writes poignantly of their fiercely rocky and spiritual relationship.
“Lovely in person and in spirit, a gifted writer and wonderful teacher with a passionate, inquiring mind, exceptionally intelligent and kind – such was the view of all who knew her. One friend remarked, “She has no mud on her soul.” Yet at times, there was an above-life quality as if she were practicing for the day when the higher state that she aspired to must come….My days with D were tainted with remorse; I could not abide myself when near her, and therefore took advantage of my work to absent myself on expeditions all around the world – once I went away for seven months. Yet love was there, half-understood, never quite finished; the end of respect that puts relationships to death did not occur.”
Much of his time and the book involves dealing with immediate concerns – the wind, the piercing cold, working with the Sherpas and porters, and eating. The expedition also gave Matthiessen time to reflect and process his marriage, his spiritual practice of Zen Buddhism, and his life. Even in the late 1970s, when he wrote the book, he reminds himself, “Simplicity is the whole secret of well-being.”
Simplicity, the present moment and living now. Those themes recur in his reflections, always having to be remembered, like a word on the tip of the tongue:
“With the wind and cold, a restlessness has come, and I find myself hoarding my last chocolate for the journey back across the mountains – forever getting-ready-for-life instead of living it each day.”
The hard moments of the journey return him to the present. He writes,
“My foot slips on a narrow ledge: in that split second, as needles of fear pierce heart and temples, eternity intersects with present time. Thought and action are not different, and stone, air, ice, sun, fear, and self are one. What is exhilarating is to extend this acute awareness into ordinary moments, in the moment-by-moment experiencing of the lammergeier and the world, which, finding themselves at the center of things, have no need for any secret of true being. In this very breath that we take now lies the secret that all great teachers try to tell us, what one lama refers to as “the precision and openness and intelligence of the present.” The purpose of meditation practice is not enlightenment; it is to pay attention even at the unextraordinary times, to be of the present, nothing-but-the-present, to bear this mindfulness of now into each event of ordinary life. To be anywhere else is “to paint eyeballs on chaos.” When I watch blue sheep, I must watch blue sheep, not be thinking about sex, danger, or the present, for this present – even while I think of it – is gone.”
If Fiennes's book embodies hard-nosed grit and hard-won victory, and Graham’s book represents joy in the ambling life, Matthiessen’s book calls us to a more philosophical approach to walking. I found myself thinking deeper and harder about my life while reading it than in quite a while.
I won’t spoil the book by revealing whether Matthiessen and Schaller spot the snow leopard. Suffice it to say, Matthiessen finds the walk worth the walking.
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Images created by Midjourney.