By Barbara V. Anderson
When I retired I discovered long-distance walking, a natural extension for a lifelong walker with newly found time. In France I walked 500-miles on the GR65 and 600 on the GR653 and two 100-mile walks in Britain. In 2015, I am planning another 630-mile walk. All over Europe, pensioners are taking to the road, or rather to the path, walking town to town, hostel to hostel, whether on pilgrimage or for sport. I have enthusiastically joined their ranks and have written a book about my French journey, Letters from the Way.
What is long distance walking? One type of long-distance walk is portrayed in Cheryl Straved’s “Wild” — carrying one’s own stove and tent, sleeping alone in the great outdoors, and using bear canisters to protect food. The Pacific Crest Trail and the Appalachian Trails are two of America’s iconic and rugged long-distance trails.
In Europe some long-distance walkers sleep in tents but many sleep in inns or in shared sleeping accommodations such as France’s gites, Spain’s refugios or England’s hostels. Trails are often laid out so that the hiker arrives each day to a hot shower and a bed.
Since many walks are village-to-village, it is not necessary to carry stoves, sleeping bags or tents but of course essential clothing and beauty and health care must be packed. What is essential varies greatly and after reading dozens of blogs I can confidently say none share the same definition of “essential”. I prefer to carry my own backpack but many people do not. Fortunately for them, many trails offer an option to “taxi” your bag to the next night’s lodging for a nominal fee. This can be ideal for certain people depending on whether they see it as “essential” to carry a pack.
There are well-marked trails throughout Europe with guidebooks and maps specifically designed for these routes. Some hikers prefer and feel safer walking with tour groups. Another approach is a self-guided tour (reservations made, maps provided, baggage handling booked). I prefer to walk alone and plan my own itineraries. It gives me the option of mixing a night in an inn after a few nights in hostels or staying longer in villages to enjoy their beauty, spend time writing, or simply to wash clothes.
But why, why walk at all? To lose weight? Fulfill a bucket list ambition? Health reasons? Bragging Rights? For me there is only one reason to walk, the pure joy of walking, not the arriving but taking the time to arrive. Walking gives me time to be present on this trail on this day in this moment. I hear bird songs, leaves fluttering, water cascading, and my own breath. I see butterflies, flowers, and billowing clouds. I approach a village watching it grow slowly from a vague silhouette on the distant horizon, to a distinct skyline, to individual buildings and finally the rarely visited village museum, the lace curtains rustling in an open window or the quirky little café in back of the church. We are so used to darting about a landscape in a car and arriving to five or six destinations in a day, hopping out of the car, checking off the things we are supposed to see, jumping back into the car, the next town, the next check list.
Long-distance walking is a way to magically stretch time, to slow down every moment. Often we overfill time into a whirlwind of activity. Time flies we say, but why do we want it to fly by? I prefer to savor time. A long distance walker takes a week to see what others visit in a day, but what a long distance walker sees, they really see.
When I return home after months of walking, my friends who were in the same part of France for only one week ask, “Did you see this, did you see that, did you go here, did you go there?” And I must answer, “No, that was twenty miles off the trail so no, I didn’t go there”. But then, I don’t ask them if they saw the pink roses growing out of the sidewalk near the patisserie, since I know they didn’t have time.
Barbara V. Anderson is the author of Letters from the Way. Her book takes readers on her 600 mile solo walk on the GR 653, from Arles, France to Puente la Reina, Spain. While on her walk, she wrote letters to family and friends about the world around her and as these letters got in the hands of more people, the new number of readers grew with each letter. The book also has photos from her walk that capture her journey.