As Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods comes to our cinemas, Tim Jepson celebrates the joys of long-distance hiking, from America’s Appalachian Trail to our own South West Coast Path

Walking, never mind long-distance walking, rarely makes it to Hollywood. But two major films this year feature trekking on two of the world’s greatest trails: in January, Reese Witherspoon starred in Wild, an account of a walk along the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) in the western United States, while today marks the UK release the film adaptation of Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods, an account of the writer’s attempt to hike the Appalachian Trail between Georgia and Maine.

Long-distance trails are a genre all of their own. Britain’s Long Distance Walkers’ Association lists 1,102 “long-distance” walks in Britain alone, 162 of which are more than 100 miles long. A hundred miles is a good walk in anyone’s book, but the Appalachian Trail is more than 2,100 miles long and the PCT runs for 2,663 miles.

Why walking is man's best medicine

Reese Witherspoon in Wild. Photo: WILD

So there are long walks and there are very long walks. And it is those very long walks that concern us here, and what it is that inspires people to hike their hundreds, often thousands, of miles.

For Bryson, in the beginning at least, it was, in the words of Sir Edmund Hillary, “for the hell of it”, a response to a small voice in his head that said, “Sounds neat! Let’s do it.”

For Cheryl Strayed, the writer whose 2012 memoir inspired Witherspoon’s film, the reasons were more complex. An inexperienced hiker, she was battered by marital trauma, heroin addiction and the death of her mother when she walked the trail in the hope that the experience would provide a release from the “sick mire” of her life.

Between the two extremes, doing it for a lark and the odyssey of self-discovery and healing, are countless other motivations and pleasures that draw us to the outdoors and the ancient imperative of covering immense distances on foot.

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I’ve hiked all my life and tackled all or part of many long-distance trails, including Britain’s South West Coast Path, Corsica’s GR20 and Mare a Mare Nord, the Pacific Crest Trail and sections of Spain’s GR11, a 522-mile route along the Pyrenees from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean.

For me, the appeal of such walks has nothing to do with length for its own sake and everything to do with the fact that long trails invariably provide a journey with a compelling geographic, social and historic structure. Many long walks tick the geographic box, not least the Appalachian and GR11 trails, which are both defined by great mountain ranges that guarantee routes with a topographical appeal all their own.

But any long walk is also the sum of its parts, and in the Pyrenees these parts often consist of ancient paths between settlements. Time and again on the GR11 this year my friends and I walked, often for miles, along part-cobbled paths, edged with crumbling walls and terraces, the work of centuries lost in a generation.

Such links to the past are found on shorter walks, but on a longer trail the passing of the days connects us more profoundly to the same slow, enforced journeys of days or weeks made by travellers before cars, planes or trains. They also reconnect us to the scale of our world – a mile, never mind 100 miles, means something when you walk it.

But what of the more specific pleasures of a long walk? Mine begin with the allure of beautiful landscapes, a notion nurtured by Romantic poets such as Wordsworth, Coleridge and Keats, all “walkers” in the modern sense at a time when walking usually suggested vagrancy or poverty. They helped suggest the idea that Nature, far from being a malign force, can be a balm for the soul.

Strayed wrote that her trek “had nothing to do with gear or footwear or the backpacking fads or philosophies of any particular era or even with getting from point A to point B. It had to do with how it felt to be in the wild. With what it was like to walk for miles with no reason other than to witness the accumulation of trees and meadows, mountains and deserts, streams and rocks, rivers and grasses, sunrises and sunsets.”

Why walking is man's best medicine

The film adaptation of Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods. Photo: A WALK IN THE WOODS

The scenic highlights of my own recent long walks are many, from the staggering cliffs of the Pyrenees’ Ordesa Gorge in June to a trip in April to sample part of Te Araroa, a glorious new 1,864-mile trail along the length of New Zealand. On longer walks the landscape’s effect, as Strayed suggests, is cumulative: the countryside changes over time, sometimes subtly, often dramatically, and for me – having reached a summit, say, or crossed a pass – a sense of ownership or belonging begins to accrue.

En route, too, there is the pleasure gained from the landscape’s detail. In New Zealand, among other things, I loved the curled delicacy of the ferns and the shadowed patterns, sharp as etchings, they cast on the trail, while in the Pyrenees the vivid purple of orchids and the delicate spring green of beech and silver birch caught the eye.

To walk for long periods is to escape the quotidian, to leave jobs, people and life’s minutiae for routines of a different, more nourishing kind. The effects of solitude, like those of landscape, accrue over time. You become attuned to the nuance of weather. Simple pleasures and modest imperatives become the most important things in life – chocolate, dry clothes, blister-free feet.

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On a long hike, says Bryson, you have “no engagements, commitments, obligations or duties; no special ambitions and only the smallest, least complicated of wants”. In Wanderlust: A History of Walking, the American author Rebecca Solnit suggests that long hikes are barometers of “various kinds of freedom and pleasures”, of “free time, free and alluring space, and unhindered bodies”.

She goes on to explore another of hiking’s pleasures – the way it allows us to think. Walking is slow, she writes, “and I suspect that the mind, like the feet, works at about three miles an hour…” “Solvitur ambulando,” said St Jerome: to solve a problem, walk around. “All truly great thoughts are conceived by walking,” said Nietzsche, while Dickens observed: “It is not easy to walk alone in the country without musing upon something.”

In my experience, though, the longer you walk, the less you think – and that, again, is part of the appeal. A trek often begins with me teasing at some problem, but by journey’s end, if not long before, walking has left my mind curiously still. There is, after all, only so much thinking one can do. “I have walked myself into my best thoughts,” wrote the Danish philosopher Kierkegaard, but “I know of no thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away from it.”

Why walking is man's best medicine

Sunset in the Appalachian Mountains. Photo: AP/FOTOLIA

But while long trails can be mentally refreshing, they are physically demanding. Again, that is partly the point. How rarely are we physically tired and yet how oddly pleasing it is when we are; and how gratifying, in the words of Hippocrates, to find that walking really “is a man’s best medicine”. After the Pyrenees I slept for a week but woke with a literal and metaphorical spring in my step.

Long-distance tracks can also be monotonous. They often involve walking up mountains and then down them… over and over. Physical toil can be meditative and invigorating, but it can also be wearing and Sisyphean. Strayed compared her days of ascents and descents to endlessly knitting a sweater and then unravelling it, “as if everything gained was inevitably lost”.

They’re also tough. As Bryson pointed out, you have to carry everything you need, which in his case meant a pack of over 40lb: “It’s one thing to walk 2,000 miles,” he said, “quite another to walk 2,000 miles with a wardrobe on your back.”

They’re also potentially dangerous. On the GR11 this year, as my friends and I enjoyed an end-of-day beer, a hiker staggered into our hotel. He had two lurid black eyes and deep cuts and abrasions to both cheeks. He had come from Sydney to hike the GR11 – alone – and a week into his walk, high on a snowy pass, he had fallen. The next day we met him again. He had given up.

We saluted him. To give up is no shame. Bryson “gave up” after 870 miles. Strayed managed 1,100 miles. Failing in this sort of endeavour is not failure, unless you are unhealthily goal-driven. As with the best journeys, long trails are about the travelling – slowly – rather than the arriving. I ssuggest you try one if you haven’t already. Whether you walk 10 miles or a thousand, you’ll feel part of something bigger. You’ll also feel better, and in all sorts of ways.

Source: The Telegraph
September 18, 2015
By Tim Jepson