Eighty years ago this summer, a 21-year-old Englishman set out on a long walk. Much later, he wrote a book about his journey. I bought my first copy of it in the 1970s (it cost 60 British pence – then, as now, about a dollar).
In my late teens and early 20s, I liked the book a great deal. Then it became just another part of my stuff. When – for a reason I forget – I plucked it from its shelf recently, the cover was missing and the back detached. The pages were brown and musty. I binned it, and ordered a copy I could read without sneezing.
When I read my smart new edition, I still liked Laurie Lee’s As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning.
Like a lot of books I like, it starts with a rough map showing the road taken by the intrepid author, in this case a curling line from the northwest to the south of Spain. Lee’s journey ended, at least temporarily, when the Royal Navy rescued him from Spain’s exploding Civil War in 1936.
Lee is best known for Cider with Rosie, a memoir of growing up in rural England. As I Walked Out is about what happened next. It starts like this:
The stooping figure of my mother, waist-deep in the grass and caught there like a piece of sheep’s wool, was the last I saw of my country home as I left it to discover the world.
As I Walked Out is about more than walking, but there is a lot in it that the hiker will recognize and enjoy – and it is all described by a poet. Have you ever, out on a hike, experienced misery followed quickly by exhilaration? On his first night out, on the road to London, Lee does not put up his tent. It rains. He feels wretched.
But when the sun rose in the morning the feeling of desolation was over. Birds sang, and the grass steamed warmly.
The following year, Lee sailed to Spain, and another set of twinned emotions – the anxiety and excitement of setting out. Looking into Spain’s “alien magnificence” from a hilltop at the end of his first day, he feels “a last pang of homesickness, and the first twinge of uneasy excitement”.
It was the landscapes that Lee describes that grabbed my young imagination the most, although he writes beautifully about the impoverished towns and courtyard inns along his way too. He treks through Galicia in the northwest and then across the burning plains of Castile (on “a white dust road as straight as a canal, banked by shimmering wheat and poppies”). He climbs the sierras that run across Spain west-east, and finally walks the Mediterranean coast of Andalusia, dirt-poor at that time.
Nobody will like As I walked Out just because they like to hike. But if you like some combination of lyrical writing, Spain, and foot travel, you might enjoy this book for as long as I have. Keep in mind that Lee, a man of powerful imagination, wrote As I Walked Out 30 years after his journey. Everything may not have been exactly as he describes.