"All truly great thoughts are conceived by walking." -- Friedrich Nietzsche
"Pilgrimage -- this is beyond walking. This is walking with the intention of searching the soul." -- Stephanie Dale, My Pilgrim's Heart
"Suffering becomes beautiful when anyone bears great calamities with cheerfulness, not through insensibility but through greatness of mind." -- Aristotle
At recent count, over 350 articles have been published that extol the virtues of walking. Written by health institute directors, personal trainers, coaches and doctors -- walking has been medically proven to fight breast cancer, depression, heart disease, high blood pressure, bone density loss (osteoporosis), arthritis, weight gain and aging. An article appeared in the New York Times just last weekend recounting the pleasures of hiking the PCT.
There is walking, and then there is walking that encounters landmines, snakes, inclement weather and bears. The stories of two walking journeys in Wild and My Pilgrim's Heart, were published in 2012. With Wild having just gone into movie production with Reese Witherspoon starring as Strayed, and the increasing population of travelers seeking meaningful ways of encountering different cultures, (see "Future of Travel: Humanity".) the two memoirs -- although different in venue and style -- are instructive on the curative aspects of undertaking a long walking journey.
While Strayed ventures onto the well trod, if not perfectly marked Pacific Crest Trail, Dale walks across a continent, traversing and losing the way on city streets, freeway underpasses and major thoroughfares. Strayed follows the trail, such as it is; Dale's trip from Rome to Jerusalem is planned using Google maps. No matter the way. By the end of their journeys, each author achieves a catharsis worthy of a novelist's narrative arc and stand as testimonies to faith, endurance and perseverance.
What is most interesting about Wild and My Pilgrim's Heart is that they are radical departures from the hiker's memoir. Take, for example, Colin Fletcher's The Man Who Walked Through Time, a compelling account of a solo expedition through the Grand Canyon. Fletcher's book, while enchanting in its detail of the hazards, encounters with nature, logistics and physical challenges of a risky and lengthy hiking trip, does not open the door to his inner world.
Strayed's and Dale's memoirs, while covering similar hazards and challenges, define a different category. Call it "Conscious Walking," or "How I Walked Myself To A Better Life," journeys of over 1,000 miles that bravely explore the raw, rocky and often hazardous terrain of inner lives in crisis and turmoil.
While Wild awes us in Strayed's sheer audacity -- if not foolhardiness -- venturing out on a solo trip on a mountain trail with no backpacking experience, My Pilgrim's Heart attempts a walk through war-torn Bosnia and the not always woman-friendly countries of Eastern Europe. Both authors are stunning in their brutally honest explorations: a fraught marriage, grief, a loving and imperfect relationship with an only son, economic hardship and the pull toward creating a life of meaning and joy.
As is the way with pilgrimage, it began the moment I committed to going. I made no 'decision' to go; the only decision would have been not to go... I might be risking death -- but to stay certain is death...
Pilgrimage is the art of ancient travel, a subpoena from the heart that defies all common sense. It is a meeting at once supernal and terrestrial between the body and earth, the heart and God. The pilgrim is not unlike a comet, burning off all that is futile and unnecessary until all that is left is the essential, malleable core.
Fear to a great extent, is born of a story we tell ourselves, and so I chose to tell myself a different story from the one women are told. I decided I was safe. I was strong. I was brave. Nothing could vanquish me. Insisting on this story was a form of mind control, but for the most part, it worked.
In both memoirs, the women are faced with logistical challenges so great (the impassable Sierra for Strayed, the loss of the way for Dale) that they leave the trail by car, bus or train. I admired how both authors involve us in their process about how they come to the decision to take care of themselves, that leaving the trail for just a short while does not constitute failure.
The trail/way also provides the authors to examine their pasts with close attention; the trail provides no distraction to cloud difficult issues, no work to do except to survive the day. Dale examines her marriage, her sexuality, her role as a woman and a mother; Strayed delves deeply into her family of origin, her mother's alternative and quirky methods of child rearing and her death by lung cancer at the age of 45. Hindsight and time are the healers in these scenarios, overcoming fear and connecting with their inner power becomes the cure.
While it might be noted that Strayed takes her journey alone and Dale goes in partnership with her son, both women face solitude and manage loneliness and relationship in equal measures. While these journeys are more pilgrimage than walking for health, they inspire us. Word has it that more women are attempting the PCT than ever before. Who knows? Once you get hooked on walking for health you might also choose it as a means of discovery, adventure and self-examination.
Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, Alfred Knopf, 2012
My Pilgrim's Heart: A Woman's Journey Through Marriage and Other Foreign Lands, PRA Publishing, 2012