“You walk with yourself,” says the canon of the Autun Cathedral to David Downie, “but that does not mean you walk selfishly.”
What, then, is the point of a pilgrimage, by foot, across hundreds of miles that connect villages, farms, churches, and strangers, if not to improve the self? Options might include: a cardiovascular upgrade, blisters, escape, or enlightenment. Or what else might the walker hope to gain?
Two recent books tramp and stumble in search of answers. Downie’s “Paris to the Pyrenees” is an account of his trek (with his wife, photographer Alison Harris) from Paris 750 miles south and west toward Spain, at times following and at times avoiding the pilgrims’ route known as The Way of St. James. In “Walking Home,” British poet Simon Armitage trods the 256-mile Pennine Way in the poetically-contrary direction most walkers take to the path — south to north, rather than the more typical north to south — so he can end near his childhood village of Marsden, West Yorkshire. His route takes him over moor and rock, through fog and rain, finishing each night by giving a poetry reading in a pub, hostel, or living room.
The word “quest” resides in “question,” and both authors pose a litany of queries before setting down their roads. For Downie, an American expat writer living in Paris, “the trek was about breaking away from distractions and stripping away the unnecessary things in life” and “coming to grips with ghosts and Hitchcockian family issues, spirituality and religion.” As a “seriously overweight freethinker with bad knees” and “a walking foie gras,” he’s also got health issues.
As for Armitage, his explanation points to midlife crisis. He wants to know whether he can survive by his own wits for a month. Says his wife: “ ‘Simon, I’m very worried about you,’ ” His poetically-charged quest/stunt: After each of his 19 readings during his journey, he passes around a hiking sock; into it, the audience drops whatever they think the reading is worth: money, “plasters” (Band-Aids), or other tokens. Armitage spends only what money he takes in. He relies on strangers to house him and schlep his suitcase, “The Tombstone,” to his next destination.
Told in diary form, “Walking Home” recounts his starts and stops, miles walked, and monetary haul. He notes the “difficult hours” of navigating a kind person’s home, sleeping in a “back bedroom, decorated with photographs of children long since grown up,” “reliquaries or shrines, museums of past lives or mausoleums devoted to a particular absence.” His purpose is to “observe and describe the land and its people’’ and to “encompass elements of memoir as well as saying something about my life as a poet.”
It’s difficult to write books about long-distance hikes without invoking the spirits of two master works, “A Walk in the Woods,” Bill Bryson’s 1998 tome about attempting to conquer the Appalachian Trail, and “Wild,” Cheryl Strayed’s 2012 bestselling account of her Pacific Crest Trail trek. The charms of each — in Bryson’s case, being funny, and in Strayed’s, a harrowing emotional journey — are tough to duplicate.
With arresting prose and sensibility, Armitage’s book is the more successful heir to the genre. After a long day on a remote trail, a golf course “seems absurdly manicured, conspicuous in its form and lurid in colour,” and his humor is rightly self-deprecating. He invokes Wordsworth and Sir Gawain; Aerosmith and Monty Python. He chides (tongue in cheek) the tourists who are “staining the purity of my mission.” He observes the “reversals of spirit” a long-distance walker must endure, stumbling through “endless, empty and ungoverned places.” He sneaks in the occasional poem. The walk is serious, but Armitage knows how to have fun along the way, while figuring something out and managing a surprise ending that feels, psychically, satisfying.
More disappointing is “Paris to the Pyrenees.” Yes, Downie peppers his prose with smart observations and evokes “the essence of ancientness” he spots on the trail. We learn much about Celts and Gallic chieftain Vercingétorix as well as logging practices and agribusiness. But by the halfway point, the account sags from what he calls (in a different context) “an overdose of history.” Travelogue overload, too: hotel rooms described, meals and coffee consumed, mayors and innkeepers met and dispatched. The chatter between he and his wife seems aimed for some Bryson-and-sidekick comic relief, but falls flat. Downie’s got nothing at stake. The family issues and psychological exhaustion referred to at the onset are never addressed. He’s an exhaustive tour guide, but emotionally, a cipher.
And, the walk ends in massive anticlimax. Reaching barely the one-quarter mark from Vézelay to the Franco-Spanish border, Downie is injured. He returns with his wife to Paris to recuperate. They later finish the final two-month leg. But, maddeningly, that remaining journey is summarized in a single paragraph. Where’s the boeuf?
Downie’s conclusion fits both books: “[P]ilgrimages weren’t really about finding an answer. More vitally they were about asking questions.” It’s just that in his case, he seems to have left out the spiritual ride.
A Poet’s Journey
By Simon Armitage
Liveright, 285 pp., illustrated, $24.95
Ethan Gilsdorf, author of “Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks,” can be reached at www.ethangilsdorf.com or Twitter @ethanfreak.