As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning

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.

Laurie Lee

My smart new edition

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”.

Montealegre de Campos en la provincia de Valladolid (España), en el verano del 2008. Paisaje de campos segados con la ermita de Nuestra Señora de Serosas al fondo.

Castilian Landscape, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and Nicolás Pérez.

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.

Hiking Read – In the Abode of the Gods

Kawa Karpo - courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and  Jan Reurink

Kawa Karpo – courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and Jan Reurink

I hope this post will be the first of many about good hiking reads. I’d like to share what I have enjoyed, and perhaps get ideas in return. I’ve been prodded into this new territory by a gift.

Last month, for my birthday, my eldest daughter gave me the 2014 edition of The Best American Travel Writing. I had read none of the previous 13 editions, but was inspired to get stuck into this one because its editor was Paul Theroux, author of The Great Railway Bazaar and my favorite travel writer. I flipped through the contents, looking for an essay to read first, and settled for In the Abode of the Gods by Jeffrey Tayler. Mr. Tayler’s name did not ring a bell, but his first paragraphs promised a hike, the best mode of travel, railways notwithstanding.

Tayler’s hike is a 15-day pilgrimage around Kawa Karpo, a mountain on the border between the Chinese province of Yunnan and Tibet that is sacred to Tibetan Buddhists. The hike starts on the upper reaches of the Mekong River. You can read In the Abode of the Gods free of charge at World Hum, so I won’t précis it here. I’ll just mention a few things I liked:

  • Tayler’s occasionally poetic prose (“Downward we strode, our mules’ bells ringing.”)
  • Background information – what makes Tibetan Buddhism “Tibetan”; the relations between the Chinese government and the Tibetan inhabitants of the region …
  • Glimpses into the lives of Tayler’s local husband-and-wife guides.
  • That Tayler explains why he is on the trek (“long enamored of Buddhism”) but is otherwise quite self-effacing.

Because I enjoyed In the Abode of the Gods, I googled Tayler to find out more about him. Only then did I realize I had read him before, a book called River of No Reprieve about a boat journey down the Lena River in Siberia. I enjoyed that too, and no doubt will reread it soon, even though it is not about a hike.

A New Hike Arrives in the Mail

Vue du Mont-Blanc depuis les chalets de Varan, au dessus de Passy

Mont-Blanc from the chalets of Varan — courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and “TL”

Nine months ago I reconnected with a friend. I probably don’t need to add that this happened on Facebook. The last time this friend and I actually met was so long ago that I cannot place it. We first got acquainted in 1986, when we were part of a group of trainees that joined Reuters news agency at the same time. That was in London, but few of us stayed in London for very long, our friendships interrupted by overseas postings.

What, you might ask, does any of this have to do with hiking? I am getting there. When Seetha and I reconnected, we caught up on the big stuff – where we are each living, number and age of kids, what we are working at …  Then, a few weeks ago, Seetha said in a message that she wanted to send me a package. What was my home address? I was intrigued, but soon forgot about the matter when I became embroiled in an unexpected trip.

Well, last week a package arrived for me. It contained a thick paperback called The Bible of Mont-Blanc Hiking. I must have mentioned to Seetha that I liked to hike, and to write about it afterwards. Flipping through the Bible, I noticed the tables of information for each hike – 107 of them! I noticed the rough maps full of unfamiliar but exciting names – Col du Bonhomme, Gorge de la Veudale, Torrent de Miage …  There were photos of glaciers, jaggedy peaks, and mountain “refuges” that appeared to put the Appalachian Mountain Club’s rough huts to shame. Then I noticed that the book was signed by its author, Robert Quan, and Robert wished me happy trails.

I was, of course, very touched that Seetha would go to the trouble of sending me a book by a man she knew through a writers’ group in Geneva. But receiving the book also made me think that we should act on this kind of serendipity. I had not really thought about hiking in the Alps (my wilder thoughts recently have turned to Greenland or the Spanish Pyrenees if I should ever have the chance). But at the end of Robert’s book is a section on The International Tour of Mont-Blanc, a 10-day circuit of the mountain through France, Italy, and Switzerland. I’ve made a mental note of the Tour for an autumn adventure one day – an adventure with a tent; Robert says that those swanky-looking refuges mostly close in mid-September.

The Bible of Mont-Blanc Hiking by Robert Quan

The Bible of Mont-Blanc Hiking