Tom Fremantle has spent the last year-and-a-half hiking across the world. Now, grounded by lockdown, he shares what he’s learned about the ‘absolute joy’ of walking.
For the last year-and-a-half I’ve hiked across America, Europe and a swathe of the Middle East – a total of 6,200 miles (10,000 kms) – in a quest to walk around the world.
I’ve tramped 15 to 20 miles a day, across deserts, over mountains and through woods. I often wild camped, but I’ve bunked down all over the place – police stations in Lebanon, hostels in Jerusalem, churches in Texas, pubs in Ireland and mosques in the Turkish boondocks. Oh, and once in a mouse-infested but very comfy haystack in Serbia.
A few weeks ago, I finished the Holy Land segment of my walk and flew back to London to secure my next visas. Then, like a giant, invisible pothole, coronavirus struck. And yet I still feel blessed to be home, near loved ones and able to still enjoy that simplest of pleasures – a walk.
The joy of walking
Walking has been part of my life since childhood, yomping around rural Buckinghamshire or on family holidays in Scotland. This graduated to increasingly ambitious hikes, culminating nearly 20 years ago with a journey from Mexico to New York accompanied by Browny, my beloved if bad-tempered mule.
This current world walk (I hope to clock 16,500 miles in total) was inspired by my lovely mother, a champion walker. She would be shocked by a recent poll revealing that 52 percent of adults in the UK walk much less than a mile a day – about 2,000 steps. This is a shame, as walking outside – however short the distance – is such a boon.
On my world walk, time slowed down. After crunching along all day I was blissfully tired, unable to go any further. On foot I couldn’t pedal an extra 20 miles, or drive an extra 50 – sometimes I was so shot, I simply dropped where I stopped. I had to take whatever the road threw at me.
I believe walking brings out the best in us. Of course, we have to be sensible now, and quite right, too: a single walk a day, alone or with someone from our household and at least two metres away from other hikers/runners/dog walkers. More than ever, a daily walk feels like a Godsend, keeping our collective peckers up.
Too often, walking is taken for granted, mere pavement pounding, rather than being valued with the wonder it deserves. And yet, pilgrims through history have always known its qualities.
Middle Eastern dervishes strove to be ‘dead men walking’ with their soul in heaven, their body still roaming earth. Kalahari Bushmen believe that once the wind has blown away their final footprints that is the end of them, while some say Jesus Christ’s last words to his disciples were: ‘Walk on.’
Many took this advice – but not all. One horse loving Shoshone tribal chief proudly named himself Cameahwait, meaning: ‘One Who Never Walks’. Cantankerous writer, Max Beerbohm thought that footing it ‘rotted the mind’ and fellow scribe, Thomas de Quincey, railed that pedestrianism carries with it ‘the most awful shadow…of the pariah’, though to be fair, he ate opium like I eat donuts.
At times on my walk, I’ve heartily agreed with the anti-walking brigade: when the rain lashes down, my hiking buggy snaps an axle, a drunken yahoo shouts at me, or I’m so tired and footsore that I want to howl at the moon. But these are exceptions. It has mostly been an absolute joy and I recognise how lucky I have been out in fresh air all the time.
Perhaps the greatest privilege was the wonderful variety of people I met on the road, including other world wanderers.
One of the most remarkable was Rosie Swale Pope, a 73-year-old endurance legend, who has already run around the globe, including traversing Siberia in winter. I bumped into her in the Bulgarian countryside, part of her new run from Brighton to Kathmandu.
The final person I met before I returned home was Nacer, now living in a rundown seaside hut just north of the Gaza Strip. Nacer fled Gaza as a teen after some of his family were killed by Hamas militants. He’s written lots about his plight and the many hellish years divided from his loved ones. Nacer enjoys walking for miles every day.
‘I still have the sun, the waves, the stars and my walks.’ He told me, smiling. “It’s enough. God has blessed me.”
Nacer’s grace, his contentment with so few possessions, the way he rhapsodised about walking along his confined, chewed up stretch of beach, made me realise how lucky I am, and how free. What a soft life I’ve lived.
When this turbulent, virus besieged planet recovers post lockdown, it will hopefully make us all more grateful, whether for the splendid NHS and every key worker, the company of friends and, yes, the joy of walking. For all the chaos and tragedy of the last weeks, so much kindness has been displayed in Britain, just as it’s been by so many strangers throughout my walk.
But, for now, cooped up with our nearest and dearest, perhaps we should also heed playwright Noel Coward:
‘I like long walks,’ he wrote. ‘Especially when they are taken by people who annoy me.’
Tom Fremantle is an author, adventurer (and now NHS Volunteer Responder). His world walk is raising money for the Alzheimer’s Society, the Puzzle Centre and Medical Detection Dogs. www.tomsworldwalk.com.
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