Walking for dear life



I received a message this week from a man who doesn’t want to be named. He’d read about how much I like walking, and he wanted me to know that his brother is, right now, walking from Durban to Johannesburg.

He isn’t necessarily walking in a straight line, and when he gets there he might turn around and walk back. He isn’t walking for charity and he isn’t dressed in a rhino suit. He won’t tweet about it or blog or get interviewed on breakfast television. He doesn’t want your attention or your money. He’s walking because although he isn’t religious or especially superstitious, on some level he believes that if he walks his sister may not die of the illness that is killing her.

I wondered if he had read The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, by Rachel Joyce. An old man named Harold Fry learns that a friend is on the last lap of cancer and sets off, unprepared, to walk across England to see her. He isn’t sure what he’ll say when he gets there, but he wants her to know that he is coming. He hopes, if hope is the word, that his walk will keep her alive.

It’s an act of faith but not in anything. It’s an action to exert what small influence a man can exert over an indifferent universe, which is to say, no influence at all. He walks because it’s all he can do, and something might be better than nothing. It’s a lovely book and if it goes on a bit towards the end, well, that’s the nature of very long walks.

The unacknowledged urtext for Harold Fry is surely Werner Herzog’s Of Walking In Ice. In the icy winter of 1974 Herzog received word that the German film historian Lotte Eisner was dying in Paris. Herzog instantly walked to see her. He was in Munich at the time. He walked for three weeks through conditions so cold and grim you’d have to be Werner Herzog to endure it or deserve it.

It would take a hard Wildean heart to read Herzog’s frozen prose and hear his lugubrious Wagnerian voice intoning, “A black morning, gloomy and cold, spread like a pestilence. I curse Creation” , without laughing out loud. Herzog walked for three weeks, on foot except when he accepted lifts, single-minded except when he took a detour to see the birthplace of Joan of Arc. Lotte Eisner lived another eight years.

The writer Geoff Nicholson tells how, inspired by this story, he went on pilgrimage to Herzog’s home in Beverly Hills to ask him to blurb The Lost Art of Walking. He walked in the faith that if he walked, Herzog would surely agree. Alas, not all walks have happy endings.

I love walking, but not as an act of faith, or even penance. Nicholson also tells about Old Leatherman, an unusually ambulatory gentleman of the highway who between 1858 and 1889 walked a 500km route around precise points of Connecticut and New York State, dressed all in leather. The circuit took 34 days and he walked every day, wordless, never taking a day or an item off.

The odour of unlaundered leather didn’t bother him because he was a Frenchman named Jules Bouglay, who loved a woman and worked a year’s apprenticeship in her father’s leather business to prove his worthiness. Regrettably, he ruined the company, bankrupted Dad and lost his love. He went to America and spent the next thirty-some years walking to expiate his guilt. I like to think he returned at the end to claim her, although he might have had some difficulty proving what he’d been doing all that time. Maybe he should have tweeted about it after all.

I try to walk between 10km and 15km each day – ambling and mooching and occasionally sauntering (from sainte-terre, or “holy ground”, initially used to denote pilgrims who walked to the Holy Land, and then, sarcastically, for people too lazy to walk to the Holy Land). Since I started walking seven years ago, I no longer get depressed.

For me walking is like drinking – it makes me happy but I can do it only when I’m happy already. If I have quarrelled or I’m fretful I often set out to walk all day but I become panicky. I feel exposed on foot in the world if my heart is not at ease, as though something terrible and irreversible is about to happen. I become gripped with the breathless fear I sometimes get descending underwater, and I have to hurry home.

So I couldn’t do what the brother of my new friend is doing, but my thoughts are with them both. Thoughts don’t change anything. Neither does prayer. Neither does walking, but you have to do something.


The Times, 21 October, 2013