Walking has the power to connect people and cultures in a fast-paced world. Featured contributor and long-distance walker Leon McCarron, whose latest book charts his 1000-mile walk through the Middle East, explores this primal pursuit.
In almost every aspect of life, from news to travel, we live in an era of instantaneity. So choosing to move at just about the slowest speed that exists for an entire day—or a week or a year—might seem unusual at best, and downright counterproductive at worst.
So why do we walk? We go for fresh air, or to keep healthy, or simply to release endorphins and improve our mood. We walk to clear our heads, and take a break from home or the office. In some places, we might walk instead of taking a car but it’s rare, for most of us anyway, that we walk as an actual method of transportation.
Just look back to our human ancestors for both cause and effect; after all, they were the first long-distance walkers. Two million years ago, Homo Erectus began the first wave of human migration and by the Stone Age, Homo Sapiens had walked out of East Africa’s Rift Valley. Then, some 60,000 years ago, they continued across the planet, finishing up 20,000 miles later in Patagonia with no more land mass left to cover. But why did they do this?
Of course, it was primarily for survival—this search for food and shelter. But I like to think they also did so out of curiosity; a desire to see beyond the next hill, and around the proverbial (and literal) corner. If that’s true, then we are built to move—and staying still is what’s new to us.
I’ve spent much of the last decade on foot; I’ve walked 5,000 kilometers across China, crossed the largest sand desert on earth, plodded along Iran’s longest river, and traveled for five months through the Holy Land. This year alone, I’ve made journeys into the Middle East, hiked in the mountain ranges of the Caucasus, Balkans and Dolomites, and along the Camino de Santiago in Portugal and Spain. I’ve walked in places as far from home as Australia, and as close as the Mourne Mountains, a stone’s throw from where I grew up in Northern Ireland.
Walking encourages strangers to welcome you—for some reason, seeing someone on foot and carrying their life (in that moment, at least) on their back, seems to generate the most amazing acts of kindness.
From those footsteps—probably over 20 million—I’ve learned there’s joy to be found in the physical element; in pushing yourself beyond known limits, and loading improbable weight onto tired shoulders. In China, I walked a marathon a day, for six days a week, for over six months. At times, it was truly miserable. My feet hurt—in fact, my everything hurt.
But I loved it. I relished the fitness and daily sense of accomplishment. I’d never felt stronger, and the few hours of rest each night were a glorious, extravagant luxury. Over time though, this desire for achievement and retrospective pride faded, and I looked to the other, more enduring aspects of traveling on foot.
Walking makes us inherently vulnerable; to the elements, our own weaknesses, and the whims of the road. But it also forces us to be open to everything. There’s no escaping every sight, sound and smell. It also encourages strangers to welcome you—for some reason, seeing someone on foot and carrying their life (in that moment, at least) on their back, seems to generate the most amazing acts of kindness.
In a world that’s increasingly being pulled apart, with fears of ‘otherness’, walking puts people back in touch with one another.
Over a Mongolian winter, I was brought into a nomadic tent, a ger, in the Gobi Desert and handed a bowl of warm camel’s milk to warm me up. Dinner was prepared and vodka was shared. The unspoken message from my host was, “You’re clearly insane, but I’ll happily help you out.”
In the Middle East, often perceived as the most dangerous part of our planet, I’ve conversely found the people to be among the friendliest anywhere. On a hike from Jerusalem to Mount Sinai, I moved north through the West Bank, each day punctuated by offers of tea, or food, or with places to stay each night.
Later, in Jordan, after a particularly tiring trek, a man called Mahmoud called me into his home. “Why go any further?” he asked. “Stay here instead.” I gladly took up the offer. He then called over his sons. “I wonder if you might allow us,” he began, “to wash your feet? They must be sore after such a long day of walking.” Despite my worries that the smell after hundreds of miles might knock them out, I eventually agreed. The impact of that gesture, and the fitting Biblical nature of it, will stay with me for many years.
And that’s how walking connects us. In a world that’s increasingly being pulled apart, with fears of ‘otherness’, walking puts people back in touch with one another. The farther I walk—whether South America’s mountains or the East Asian steppe—the more I see that, as a species, we are more similar than we are different.
Walking across the world, I quickly saw firsthand that the basic desires we all have are shared: To look after our families, work hard, and have fun. A Bedouin once told me that he followed a philosophy of being charitable in life: “Give without remembering, and take without forgetting,” he said, smiling. I feel fortunate to have been hosted by Christians, Jews and Muslims in the Middle East (and by Yazidis and Zoroastrians and Druze too, and in other parts of the world by Buddhists, Hindus, Taoists, Sikhs.) These religious and ethnic divides that seem so distinct from a distance take on a different perspective up close.
I like the idea that we can walk not just from place to place, but from conversation to conversation, and from story to story, creating our own individual narrative—with footsteps.
Walking also connects us with landscapes. You often feel the layers of history, culture and faith beneath your boots. Back in Holy Land, I walked along paths first cut by the early traders and travelers on their way from Egypt to Mesopotamia over two millennia ago. Those trails were reinforced by Christian pilgrims en route to Jerusalem, then by Muslims heading from the Syrian highlands to Mecca.
More recently, the nomadic Bedouin kept the shape of these routes alive, and now, modern-day recreational hiking trails are breathing fresh life into the oldest of ways. When we walk, we feel how mountains rise, and how valleys slope. We feel soft sand, or wet grass, or hard granite rock. We become a part of the environment for the duration of each journey.
There’s also a clear link between exploring a place on foot, and exploring the mind. Since the times of the roving philosophers of ancient Greece, many have walked to think: Hippocrates (dubbed the “Father of Western Medicine”) was known for saying “walking is the best medicine.” William Wordsworth is famously said to have walked 180,000 ponderous miles during his lifetime; Jean-Jacques Rousseau claimed to be unable to think without taking to his feet; and Friedrich Nietzsche unable to write unless he’d rambled up a mountain. In more recent times, Steve Jobs was known for taking walking meetings.
Sadly, most of us might not reach the level of inspirational brainwaves as Nietzsche and co., but I can identify with the idea of the brain working in tandem with feet; of thinking at three miles an hour.
Walking, then, is about so much more than keeping the mind and body fit; and equally, it extends beyond just taking us to the top of a high mountain or across a desert—although those are certainly enviable achievements. It’s also fun and revitalizing, and a way to connect and understand.
I like the idea we can walk not just from place to place, but from conversation to conversation, and from story to story, creating our own individual narrative—with footsteps. That, as much as anything else, is a good reason to strap on a rucksack, pack some sandwiches, lace up our boots, and experience life at a walking pace.
The story of Leon’s walk through the heart of the Middle East is the subject of his latest book The Land Beyond published by IB Tauris.
Find out more about Adventure.com’s new featured contributor Leon McCarron.