Recommended reading: Books to take you on a walking journey

Words and Images: Meredith Hicks

Reader, writer and bibliophile Meredith Hicks takes an amble with an armful of amiable book companions that will surely stir readers to take a walk in the real world. 

So many types of walking, so many words to describe it and numerous reasons to do it. It’s exercise, a mode of transport, it helps creativity and immersion in the great outdoors is always good. There is little excuse not to go for a saunter or a stroll, a trek or a tramp, a plod or a perambulation.

The following selection of books is based around the theme of walking. Try one, or two, and see where they might take you.

Interested in walks both great and small? Check out this excerpt from Tramping in New Zealand that ran recently in NZ Life & Leisure (Nov/ Dec 2023), listing three tempting options to inspire a summer adventure.

The Art of Mindful Walking – Meditations on the Path by Adam Ford
Published 2011

“Walking is the simplest and most human of things.”

I had this book out from my local library no less than five times over the last year and finally managed to read it. The title appealed as I thought it might hold some answers on how to make walking a meditation. I received so much more than I was expecting. Written by a retired Anglican minister with a masters degree in Indian religions, who also taught astronomy and loves to walk, it is an interesting angle from which to approach this subject. It is a collection of his musings on subjects ranging from the geology of the places in which he walks, history, a bit of theological theory, environmentalism and even a touch of bird spotting. He takes the reader to Australia, China, the USA and the UK and thus there is an element of a travel guide. On top of all of this, he recommends other books about walking.

All of these elements are held within 140 pages and the author darts down different tracks as the impulse grabs him. This sense of a somewhat disorganised ramble doesn’t detract from the essence of the book. I read it in one day and it made me think about a range of things – not least that walking can offer so much no matter where someone comes from or what they are doing it for. I will search out a copy of this little book for myself as I know I will dip into it again.

The Most Beautiful Walk in the World – a Pedestrian in Paris by John Baxter
Published 2011

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“And we who walk in Paris write a new history with each step. The city we leave behind will never be quite the same again.”

This gorgeous little book caught my eye at a thrift store earlier this year. I knew nothing about the author who I discovered was a prodigious writer of science fiction, memoir and biography. Australian-born, he married a French woman and has lived in Paris since 1989. It was here he fell into the job of being a literary tour guide in the City of Light.

The book surprised me. I started out knowing it was a memoir, but I found it to be a delightful mix of several genres including travel guide. It contains a wealth of historical information about people and places in Paris, particularly the ‘Lost Generation’ who came of age during WW1 and moved to Paris in the 1920’s to live a high life, drink excessively and be creative. It is a love letter to Paris and its hidden corners linking them back to the now-famous people who made it their home – Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Joyce, Picasso, to name a few.

The author’s job as a literary tour guide fell into his lap serendipitously and it’s evident that he walks often in this city of wide boulevards and green parks. He weaves in his musings on the role of walking in life, even writing a chapter about his native Australia, the land of the Aboriginal ‘walkabout’.

I became immersed in the history of Paris but also in the benefits of walking and how it might take one places both figuratively and metaphorically. If walking is not possible then by reading this book, one can enjoy the journeys Mr Baxter takes through Paris and its past. If walking is possible then this might be the inspiration needed to make that stroll more than just putting one foot in front of the other.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce
Published 2012

“He hunched his shoulders and drove his feet harder as if he wasn’t so much walking to Queenie as away from himself.”

How did it take me so long to hear about this book, one that has so changed my perspective and woven its way into my heart? I was looking for a fictional book that involved walking. When my cousin recommended I try this one I tracked down a copy and proceeded to read it in two days. I literally couldn’t put it down.

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Harold Fry is a retired man in his mid-sixties living a routine and unsatisfying life alongside his wife of 47 years in the south of England. One day a letter arrives from an old work colleague who is dying. As he heads out to post a reply to her, something in him feels compelled to go to her to right a past wrong and so he starts walking. He begins this journey with no clear intention. As he takes each step, things change for him and he finds he must keep going. Harold thinks as he walks – about regrets, about love, about his marriage and his son, and I found myself championing his cause.

This is a book about the ordinariness of things and how they can be peeled back to reveal the complexities of human lives and their attendant relationships. This deceptively simple story shows the elements of humanity that are often ignored or forgotten in the rush through life. I also learned that it has recently been made into a movie starring Jim Broadbent and I am looking forward to seeing how it plays on the big screen. Now that I’ve finally read the book I can allow myself to search the movie out and enjoy the story all over again!

Wild: A Journey From Lost to Found by Cheryl Strayed
Published 2012

“I was surrounded by rocks and trees that jutted out from the icy snow. I felt both uneasy about my situation and astounded by the vast lonesome beauty.’ Should I continue on or turn back?’ I wondered, though I knew my answer. I could feel it lodged in my gut…”

This book came to me in a box of books a friend was getting rid of – I couldn’t say no. (You never know what treasure might be amongst the volumes someone else no longer wants.) It was eight years after this book was published. It had also been made into a film and I’d never heard of it.

I didn’t think it would appeal, but I thought I might as well read it – and I am so pleased I did. It drew me in and took me on an adventure through a part of North America I knew very little about, walking alongside the author as she worked through her grief, angst and screwed-up life circumstances at the ripe old age of 26. Some of her new wisdom, found as she discovered herself in the wilderness, hit me hard. Despite being twice her age when I read this book I realised that my life had not really challenged me as much as it had some people – until now.

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I marvelled at her stupidity going out on a long tramp so ill-prepared, yet I wondered at her bravery in doing so. I imagined what it would be like to have the freedom to undertake a journey like this and started a quiet plan to do something similar in the future. It is a memoir I recommend trying and, if it appeals, the movie is a good interpretation of the book and a great way to see the landscape in technicolor.

The Salt Path by Raynor Winn
Published 2018

“It was just a coastal path after all; it couldn’t be that hard and we could walk slowly, put one foot in front of the other and just follow the map. I desperately needed a map, something to show me the way.”

There are some books I am certain we are destined to find at certain times in our lives. Books that resonate so deeply it is as if they were written just for you. This book is one of those for me.

I first heard of it during a writing course and the subject piqued my interest. I finally tracked down a copy at the library and enjoyed it so much I ordered myself a copy (something I do too often).

I think the cover might have caught my eye if I’d seen it in a bookshop but it was the story that captured my attention; a woman loses her home, her livelihood and then faces the loss of her husband to a terminal diagnosis and they decide they have nothing more to lose and that, somehow, a long walk might be the answer.

Beautifully written by a first-time author in her 50s this book had me hooked from the beginning. I felt so many emotions reading it: fascination that so many terrible things could happen to one couple, envy that her husband was still well enough to take this walk with her, sadness as I recognised her anticipation of her husband’s death, a sense of hope in the magnificence of Mother Nature in all her guises. Not least, I felt a sense of permission that I might be able to walk to find healing too. It made me want to pack all I need into a bag on my back, to be carried as a turtle carries his home, and go out into the world to take one step, one day at a time, and see where it leads me.

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