These 10 Books About Walking Will Inspire You to Get Moving
I was listening to ABC Breakfast radio recently (for you non-Aussie’s out there, the ABC is Australia’s answer to the BBC and their talkback radio is pretty fun) and heard one of the presenters say: “You know when you’re old, because you start thinking about taking up long distance walking, or you buy a bike.”
With so many of us working sedentary jobs, this makes perfect sense. I know as I’ve gotten older, I’ve experienced more and more joint pain and my metabolism has stopped bouncing back the way it did when I was 23.
Movement seems more necessary now, but I’m certainly less into the HIIT and weights classes of my youth. My exercise now consists mostly of yoga, swimming or walking.
I don’t walk long distances – it’s usually more of a stroll through my neighbourhood, but I find it lifts my spirits and clears my mind (and really pushes my fitness levels, particularly if sharp inclines are involved). Hiking is something I’d love to get more into in the near future.
Walking is good for both the body and the mind – it gives us a chance to take note of our surroundings and it’s one of the many ways we can easily insert ourself back into nature.
Yet, if you’re not in the position to go hiking yourself, then at least there’s the option of taking a journey in someone else’s shoes.
These are some of the best books about walking that I’ve read and encountered over the last few years and come highly recommended – whether you’re an avid walker already, or an armchair hiker like myself.
Neon Pilgrim – Lisa Dempster
During her late-twenties, Lisa Dempster found herself in a crisis of sorts.
She was overweight, depressed, living with her mother and had no idea of what she wanted to do with her future.
So, she does what any rational person would do – she packs up her life and flies out from Melbourne, to spend almost three months walking the henro michi, a 1200 kilometre Buddhist pilgrimage through the mountains of Japan.
In the middle of summer, with next to no money, having never hiked a day in her life.
Through this journey, Dempster turned her life around, ultimately finding her feet. She returned back to Australia, wrote Neon Pilgrim and is now a prominent figure within the Melbourne arts scene.
Her story is uplifting and heartwarming and will make you want to immediately book a flight to Japan to walk this arduous pilgrimage yourself.
Flâneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice and London – Lauren Elkin
Let me ask you a question.
When you travel to a new city, do you immediately take to it by foot? Do you walk along cobblestone streets, wondering what the lives were like of those who took this same path before you?
Then, you can happily call yourself either a Flâneur or in the feminine Flâneuse – which you won’t find in any dictionary, although it most certainly is a word that should exist.
Author Lauren Elkins considers herself a Flâneuse and feels far more at home in cities, seeing them as a setting which inspires thinking and creativity.Flâneuse is part memoir, part biography. As Elkins explores her adopted home city of Paris and other sprawling metropolises such as London, Tokyo, Venice and New York, she consciously follows in the footsteps of notable women such as novelist George Sand, artist Sophie Calle and film-maker Ages Varda.
If this book proves anything, it’s that urban rambles are far from being a solely masculine pursuit. Long live the flâneuse!
Wild by Nature: One Woman, One Trek, One Thousand Nights – Sarah Marquis
Sarah Marquis is no stranger to adventurous treks. She’s dedicated twenty years of her life to walking, a quest sparked in New Zealand where she decided ‘she would walk to fulfil her desire for discovery and her need to try and understand Life.’
Marquis has walked just about everywhere – throughout Patagonia, across the mountains of her native Switzerland, from Canada heading south to the Mexican border and has even trekked on foot through the unforgiving Australian desert (even attempting to survive off the land for three months, inspired by our Indigenous people).Wild by Nature is about one of her most ambitious walks to date, from Siberia, to her ‘little tree’ in South Australia. This book covers her three year solo journey on foot, which took her from freezing cold temperatures to the relentless desert heat, through six different countries… as a vegetarian, to boot.
She deals with so much on her adventure – sabotage by locals, fielding off men with horrific intentions, physical ailments and struggling with her grief surrounding the death of her dog, back in Switzerland.
However, I will say it’s the story that I find more engaging than perhaps the book itself. The writing is a bit disjointed and convoluted – it jumps from place to place and lacks narrative. I’m not sure if something got lost in translation, as Marquis is Swiss and English is therefore not her native language.
While I felt the account of her journey could have been better delivered, you gotta admire the determination of this woman to see the world on her own terms.
Tracks: A Woman’s Solo Trek Across 1700 Miles of Australian Outback – Robyn Davidson
From one determined woman to the next, Tracks tells the story of Australian Robyn Davidson’s 2,700km trek from the centre of Australia to the west coast in 1977, accompanied by four camels and her dog Diggity.
At the age of 25, Davidson gave up her studies in Brisbane and moved to the central Australian town of Alice Springs. She conceived a plan to do this expedition, working at the local pub and camel ranches in exchange for board and the camels that would accompany her on her quest.
She had hurdles thrown in her path – lack of funding, illness, death and the day to day reality of living off the Australian Outback.
It took her 195 days, but she did it, despite the scepticism of those around her and the general public.
Many wondered what had possessed a young woman to undergo such a trek. In an article written shortly before the release of the film adaption of her memoir, she stated using the same no-nonsense style of language that makes up the pages of her book:
“I love the desert and its incomparable sense of space. I enjoy being with Aborigines and learning from them. I like the freedom inherent in being on my own, and I like the growth and learning processes that develop from taking chances. And obviously, camels are the best means of getting across deserts. Obvious. Self-explanatory. Simple. What’s all the fuss about?”
Wild Journeys – Bruce Ansley
I travelled to New Zealand in late 2018 and this book was seemingly everywhere I turned – I eventually caved and bought it, for the cover alone, much less the text within it.Wild Journeys doesn’t cover one specific journey – rather it tells of perilous journeys throughout NZ’s history.
There’s the Maori prophet and faith-healer Rua Hepetipa’s track in the Ureweras, following a grey ghost through Fiordland, John Whitcombe doomed trek across the Southern Alps and prison escapee George Wilder’s journey through volcanic plateau.
I personally know shameful little about my country’s southern neighbour and picked up this book in the hope of learning a bit about the history of trekking through one of the most marvellous landscapes in the world.
To the River: A Journey Beneath the Surface – Olivia Laing
I fell in love with Olivia Laing’s writing after picking up a copy of her book The Lonely City the last time I was in New York. She’s fast become one of my favourite authors, for many reasons.
Her texts are part memoir, part biographical – the best kind of non-fiction, if you ask me. In To the River, a relationship breakdown inspires her to don her walking shoes and walk along the River Ouse in the UK – the same river Virginia Woolf stepped into after filling her pockets with rocks in 1941.
As she walks, Laing muses upon life, believing that the river has the ability to give a sense of direction to those who have ‘lost faith with where they’re headed’.
She writes about the natural history of the area and the river’s link to writers who were influenced by it, such as Shakespeare, Iris Murdoch, Kenneth Grahame and Woolf.
It’s not a long walk she has undertaken, as the Ouse is only 84km long. Yet, she takes her time, giving herself a week to complete the journey. She stays in small towns, drinks in pubs, listens to the chatter of those around her, but enjoys the solitude of the walk. It allows her to reflect upon her background and current situation and examine the relationship we have with the land in modern life, generally one of discord.
This book is a gentle read, brimming with introspection. It is a homage to Woolf as a writer, the natural world and the healing nature of a good, long walk.
Wanderlust: A History of Walking – Rebecca Solnit
From one fantastic memoirist to the next. Rebecca Solnit is a writer, historian, feminist, activist and perhaps above all, a traveller.
Quite a few of her books reflect upon travel in some way, but it’s Wanderlust that best examines walking – its human history, our relationship with it as a species and the need to keep it incorporated in our lives, in an increasingly car-dominated society.
Walking is in many ways, a political act. We walk when we take to the streets of our cities, to protest. We walk, despite it being looked upon as a lower-class act – why would you subject yourself to the elements, when you could arrive in a timely fashion all rugged up in a horse-drawn carriage or motorcar?
It was considered unfeminine for women to walk and they were often arrested for the act. Think of the term “streetwalker” and the connotations it brings with it. Think of the recently examined “Flâneur”, of which there is no female equivalent.
Solnit examines how walking was traditionally not only a form of transportation, but meditation too, favoured by artists, writers and philosophers. And there is so much truth in the matter. I work in a creative field and know when I’ve often got stuck, be it at work, or at home languishing over this blog, that a simple twenty minute walk outside can drain the blockages within, to channel the flow once more.
This is less a history of walking, more a collection of reflections and musings, which will encourage you to prioritise walking in your day to day life.
Wild – Cheryl Strayed
I don’t think anyone could write a list of books about walking, or indeed travel memoirs and not include Wild.
Thanks to the success of the book and subsequent movie, it has popularised the Pacific Crest Trail. I’m thinking of a scene in the recent-ish season of Gilmore Girls ‘A Year in the Life’, where Lorelai goes to “do Wild”, to give her some space from her relationship with Luke. She finds the trail utterly commercialised, herself present amongst many other like-minded women, who have found themselves inspired by either the book or the movie.
However, I digress. At its core, Wild is a story about a young woman coping with grief. Strayed loses her mother at 22 to cancer, a central core event in her life from which everything else disintegrates. She becomes addicted to heroin, cheats on and eventually divorces her husband. She has no direction in life and has lost everything she ever cared about.
Finding herself at rock bottom, she decides to walk the PCT, armed with a heavy backpack and the hope that the walk will give her the chance to move on from her mother’s death. And as she puts one foot in front of the other, along over 1700 kilometres, she slowly heals.
My friend Hope wrote a fantastic review about Wild, exploring the relationship between grief and walking – you can read it here.
A Walk in the Woods – Bill Bryson
From one famous American walking trail to another. A Walk in the Woods covers Bill Bryson’s journey along the Appalachian trail.
Bryson has returned to the States after twenty-years of living abroad in the UK. A keen adventurer in his youth, he realises he’s not quite as fit as he used to be. Wishing to get out off his armchair, reacquaint himself with his homeland and make an attempt to live in the wilderness, he decides to tackle the trail. He loads up on expensive outdoor gear and ends up recruiting his old friend and travel-partner, the now overweight and alcoholic Stephen Katz.
Along the way they battle the elements (in the form of weather and the woods most dangerous inhabitants, bears), manage to shake off irritating fellow hikers and deal with the setbacks of their ageing bodies.
Bryson only ended up walking 870 miles of the 2100 that the trail stretches along, abandoning the hike in Maine to hitch-hike back home. He’s been criticised for this, but who really cares? The point is he attempted the hike at all and what he gained from it, what he describes as:
“…a profound respect for wilderness and nature and the benign dark power of woods. I understand now, in a way I never did before, the colossal scale of the world.”
I guess I’m one of those who worships at the church of Bill Bryson, as I greatly enjoy the way he writes. His books are laced with wit, introspection, interesting facts and tidbits and wry observations on society and human behaviour.
A Walk in the Woods is no exception and it will certainly inspire you to enlist in the company of your most sardonic friend to take a stroll together.
Girl in the Woods – Aspen MatisGirl in the Woods is a survival story, in more ways than one.
On her second night of college, Matis is raped by a fellow student. In dealing with this traumatic ordeal, she is discouraged from reporting the attack by her parents and finds the assistance provided by the college lacking in, to say the least.
So, she decides to walk, taking a five-month trek along the PCT, starting in Mexico and ending in Canada. A momentous journey for anyone, let alone a 19 years old battling the trail alone.
This book has mixed reviews, some saying they found Matis to be self-absorbed and the book in need of a good edit. Others have acknowledged that a memoir about a young woman walking the PCT will always inevitably be compared with Wild and Strayed’s writing style is a hard act to follow.
Regardless, this is simply a story about a young woman attempting to pick up the shattered pieces of her life after a horrific attack and put herself back together, step by step.
Are there any books about walking that you found inspiring? Feel free to name them in the comments, book recommendations are always welcome.
After more bookish posts?
Here are seven books about New York City to read if you’re either visiting or living in the city (or longing to be there!)
Determined to read more when travelling (or at home!) but not sure where to start? Here are some ideas and tips.
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