Editor’s note: This article was published before the coronavirus pandemic, and may not reflect the current situation on the ground.
In the summer of 2015, having never walked particularly far before, Jonathan Arlan decided to walk 400 miles through the French Alps, a trip that would become the focus of his debut book, Mountain Lines, and leave him with a few pearls of wisdom.
I’ve told the story of how I ended up walking 400 miles through the French Alps so many times that I’m starting to doubt how much of it happened the way I say it did.
Sometimes, I’ll be doing the things a suburban milquetoast such as myself normally does, like watching squirrels eat acorns from my window or walking my maltipoo, Bella, around the block, and I’ll wonder if I didn’t just make the whole thing up.
To assuage these doubts, I’ll run through major plot points in my head.
First, there was the big breakup. (That definitely happened.) Then there is the part where I quit my job, sublet my Brooklyn apartment, and flew to Tokyo. (All true; I still have the plane ticket.)
Here, I typically jump ahead a few weeks to Greece, where I begin a six-month lollygag of a Balkan tour.
I hitchhiked on a donkey cart to the ancient ruins of Mycenae, saw the gateway to the underworld at the tip of the wind-battered Mani, and bussed from Macedonia to Kosovo to Albania to Macedonia to Kosovo to Montenegro to Bosnia before burning out on the backpacking thing in the blistering heat of a Herzegovinian summer. It sounds (mostly) too good to be true, right?
But where the story really starts to stretch credibility is in the weeks following the burnout—weeks I spent holed up in a 1000-year-old monastery in southern Serbia trying to figure out what to do next. There, taking my meals in silence with monks and wandering the surrounding hills, I had something like an epiphany: Of the awesome, curative, restorative, regenerative and potentially transcendent power of a really long walk.
Yes, I thought. What I need is a good, long walk. This led to a late-night internet search and the discovery of the GR5 walking route in the southeast of France. Finally, two months later—having never hiked a day in my life—there were those first shaky steps out of a small French village and into the mountains. And that’s just how it starts.
If there is a thought in your head, walk with it for a while. Let it roll around in there; better yet, try to follow it all the way to the end.
The easiest explanation for the ongoing—and, indeed, increasing—doubt I feel about the truth of my own adventure story is not that I made any of it up, but that it simply didn’t happen to me. Rather, it’s a story that belongs to someone else, someone far more interesting, adventurous, audacious and outdoorsy than I’ll ever be.
Luckily, that person’s memories are my memories, his lessons my lessons. And this is lesson number one: We are many people when we travel, a new person every day if we want. Embrace and absorb all of them. Figure out who they are and what they want later.
Now, I would no more offer practical advice on hiking than I would on spaceflight, and thankfully, very few people ever ask. But I’m just narcissistic enough to fantasize about what I might say if someone were to ask what I learned from walking more or less alone through the Alps. What follows are a few of those lessons. While these platitudes make the most sense in the context of a long walk, I’ve found them just as meaningful in my everyday life (that is, again, while walking my designer dog or watching squirrels).
Do not be afraid. Before I started walking, and for a while after, I was deeply anxious—of nothing in particular but of everything at once. Of falling, and freezing, and dehydrating; of not having enough food; of ending up as food; of failure. None of these contingencies turned out to be the one thing I should have been worried about, which is: How to make up for twenty-nine years I’d wasted not walking in the mountains. (And lightning. Worry about lightning.)
Slow way down. Unless you’re running, hiking is already slow, which is good. But my advice is to go even slower. Pretend you are walking behind a group of elderly tourists in Manhattan. Take a deep breath. Look around. If there is a thought in your head, walk with it for a while. Let it roll around in there; better yet, try to follow it all the way to the end.
The speed at which we move on foot is gorgeously organic—the kinetic equivalent of the fractal patterns found in leaves or the Fibonacci spirals of sunflowers. Writer Rebecca Solnit put this more beautifully than I ever could when she wrote: “The rhythm of walking generates a kind of rhythm of thinking, and the passage through a landscape echoes or stimulates the passage through a series of thoughts.” Find this rhythm and this landscape wherever and whenever you possibly can.
What I can say is this: Buried under the layers of self-deprecation and defensive disclaimers and offers of banal advice is a deep sense of gratitude for the entire episode.
Your body is actually sort of a machine. The functionality of my body was a revelation. Who knew this thing was so useful, so efficient? Once, at a talk I gave about my book, an audience member asked what made me think I could walk all that way, if I had never done anything like that before. I said that at the time, walking struck me as a lazy man’s adventure: You put one foot in front of the other and you can’t mess up.
This got a big laugh. Of course, it was not easy, walking all that way over all those mountains. Physically, it was pretty damn hard, at times excruciatingly painful, and almost always uncomfortable. But despite three decades of disuse, my body was somehow up to the task, self-tuning as it went until I was possessed of some remarkable abilities. Namely: strength, stamina, balance, and energy.
Which brings me to my final point: Is this even an adventure? Despite the difficulties mentioned above, my walk wasn’t actually that difficult. Nor, relatively speaking, was it even that long. For a while, I wondered if it counted as a real adventure at all.
The Victorian explorer John Hanning Speke deafened himself digging an insect out of his ear while trying to discover the source of the Nile. Australian writer Robyn Davidson walked across a great stretch of Australian desert with four camels and a dog. And if these are adventurers—which they certainly are—what does that make me, exactly?
I walked for a month in gorgeous country, among friendly middle-aged French people; I slept under a roof every night. Then again, each day was more exhilarating than the last, each night charged with something bordering on magic.
What I can say is this: Buried under the layers of self-deprecation and defensive disclaimers and offers of banal advice is a deep sense of gratitude for the entire episode, the kind of gratitude you feel when you’ve been given something you didn’t know you needed.
Whether it was an adventure or not, I have no idea; I suspect it doesn’t matter in the least. Just as it doesn’t matter if I no longer believe it all really happened the way I tell it—which, of course, it did.
Jonathan Arlan is the author of the travel book Mountain Lines: A Journey through the French Alps. He has lived in Cairo, Belgrade, Osaka, New York City, and New Orleans, and loves each and every one of these places, but is currently based in his hometown, Kansas City.