Serious walkers, like mountain climbers or fly fishermen, tend to be writers. Perhaps this is because walking lends itself to thinking, and long-distance hiking can produce enough mental material to fill a book. I’ve always dreamed of completing a long-distance hike, something like the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela in Spain or the Appalachian Trail, but until time permits, I must be content living vicariously through the words of others. In the meantime, here are a few of my favorite accounts of long distance hikes to whet the appetite.
The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen. In 1973, Matthiessen is invited to accompany zoologist George Schaller to Crystal Mountain in the remote Dolpo region of northwest Nepal. Schaller is studying the bharal, or Himalayan blue sheep, but both men are also hoping to catch a glimpse of the elusive snow leopard, which prey on the bharal. Matthiessen’s account of their gruelling two-month trek illustrates the truism that the journey is often more important than the destination.
A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush by Eric Newby. Surely one of the funniest travel books ever written. Newby abandons the fashion trade to hike to remote Nuristan in northwestern Afghanistan with fellow traveler Hugh Carless of Her Majesty’s Foreign Service. The goal is to climb Mir Samir (19,880 ft.), although Newby’s climbing experience is limited to a three-day climbing boot camp in Wales prior to the trip. Newby plays straight man to his eccentric friend and their three grumpy and unhelpful Afghan guides. In other hands, this would have been a whining epic of blisters, mountaineering accidents, gastrointestinal complaints, hostile tribesman, biting insects and altitude sickness, but in Newby’s hands it is a delight because he never loses his sense of the absurd.
The Roads to Sata: A 2000-Mile Walk through Japan by Alan Booth. At the end of his 128-day walk down the length of Japan, a reporter asks Booth why he’d decided to do it in the first place. “Because I’d lived in Japan for a quarter of my life,” Booth replies, “and still didn’t know whether I was wasting my time. I hoped that by taking four months off to do nothing but scrutinize the country I might get a clearer picture, for better or worse.” “Have you managed to do that?” “No,” Booth replies. But we do. He gives us an affectionate, at times bewildered, but always honest portrait of the country of he has chosen to call home. The people he meets along the way are brilliantly rendered and the clash of cultures has never been so funny. Booth died in 1992 of stomach cancer at the young age of 46, but the book will stand as a testament to his great spirit.
The Places in Between by Rory Stewart. In January 2002, shortly after the fall of the Taliban, Stewart decides to walk across central Afghanistan from Herat to Kabul. He is warned repeatedly that what he is about to attempt is dangerous, impossible, and that only a fool would try, especially in the winter. But he goes anyway. He is threatened by ill-health, trigger-happy young soldiers, blizzards, bandits and snow-covered passes, but somehow, against all the odds, he succeeds in reaching his goal. Along the way he picks up an elderly, toothless fighting mastiff that he names Babur, after the fifteenth-century Moghul Emperor whose footsteps he’s following. Stewart is plain-spoken and erudite, and through his journey and the many people he encounters we gain a better picture of the complicated tragedy that is modern Afghanistan.
A Time of Gifts by Patrick Leigh Fermor. Although I haven’t ranked these books in any particular order, the star of the firmament has to be A Time of Gifts by Patrick Leigh Fermor. After a less than exemplary showing in school, young Fermor is debating a career in the army. Instead, he decides to chuck it all, acquire a backpack, a warm coat, a walking stick, and a pair of hobnailed boots, and walk to Constantinople. He is 18 and the year is 1933. He doesn’t know it, but Hitler has just come to power and the Europe through which he is walking will soon be changed forever. While Fermor had planned to rough it on a few pounds a week, a chance encounter gives him an entrée into the dying world of the eastern European aristocracy, and so while he might spend one night sleeping in a hayloft, he spends the next cosseted in a castle. It’s a magical journey (hence the title) and Fermor manages to balance the exuberance of youth with the knowing nostalgia of age (he is an elderly man when he narrates his travels). Add to this the fact that Fermor writes like an angel and you have a book to treasure and to read again and again. Fermor intended to write his journey as a trilogy, and the second leg of his journey, from Budapest to the Iron Gates, was published as Between the Woods and the Water in 1986. Fermor died on June 10, 2011, before he could complete the third volume, but a surviving draft of the final book, edited by Colin Thubron and Fermor’s biographer, Artemis Cooper, was published in 2013. Together, they record a remarkable journey that can never be repeated, but which can be enjoyed again and again in Fermor's remarkable prose.