Simone de Beauvoir started hiking in 1931, when she was in her early 20s and assigned to Marseille to teach secondary school. She wrote in her memoir “The Prime of Life” that she at first viewed her post with dread. It was 482 miles from Paris, from her friends and from Jean-Paul Sartre, her lover. But she was surprised that she liked the city, “the smell of tar and dead sea urchins down at the Old Port” and “the clattering trams, with their grapelike clusters of passengers hanging on outside.” And then she found an obsession, hiking, “transforming my exile into a holiday.”
For the duration of the school year, she made it a rule to be out of the house by dawn on her days off, “winter and summer alike.” She would map walks that would last five or six hours, then nine or 10, traveling on some days as much as 25 miles. She was gripped by a “mad enthusiasm.” She climbed every peak in the region, “explored every valley, gorge and defile” and would organize vacations around her walking expeditions for the next 20 years.
Beauvoir is remembered as a philosopher, feminist and novelist, not as an outdoorswoman, and yet pages of her memoirs are taken up with descriptions of the hikes she took in her 20s and 30s: in the Maritime Alps, the Haute-Loire, in Brittany, in the Jura, in Auvergne, in the Midi. Since the publication of Cheryl Strayed’s “Wild” or even Robyn Davidson’s “Tracks,” it has become commonplace to see the solo excursion in the wilderness as a possible experience of feminine catharsis. Beauvoir abhorred sentimentalism in her writing and seemed constitutionally incapable of contriving a sudden epiphany after cresting a peak, but it turns out that in addition to all of her philosophical contributions she is a forgotten pioneer of this genre of memoir. She would describe the passion she developed that year, and the completist drive she brought to it, as emblematic of her “particular brand of optimism,” where “instead of adapting my schemes to reality I pursued them in the teeth of circumstances, regarding hard facts as something merely peripheral.” Beauvoir did her hiking in a very particular way. It was a popular pastime in Marseille, where there were many alpine clubs, and her colleagues would often take day trips in groups. Beauvoir hiked alone. She rejected “the semiofficial rig of rucksack, studded shoes, rough skirt and windbreaker,” instead traveling in an old dress and espadrilles. For food, she brought a picnic basket with some bananas and buns in it. She took buses to her starting points and hitchhiked between trails. She saw her colleagues’ warnings that she would get raped as “a spinsterish obsession,” and wrote, “I had no intention of making my life a bore with precautions of this sort.”