“The Walkabout Chronicles: Epic Journeys By Foot” is a newly-published, illustrated collection of 35 essays about walking. The writers, who come from more than 10 different countries, include scientists and archeologists, world travelers, artists, explorers, and “ordinary people who do extraordinary things.” They describe a wide range and variety of walking adventures in Europe, Asia, Africa, North and South America, in places as geographically diverse as the North Pole and Madagascar. Tor and Siffy Torkildson, veteran trekkers who compiled the collection and contributed two of the essays, recently took the time to answer my questions about this compelling new addition to the world of travel writing, via e-mail.
Janet Hulstrand: First of all, I want to ask just a little bit about your backgrounds. You both grew up in Minnesota, and it seems you both retain deep roots there, but much of your lives have been spent in other places. Where do you consider “home” now? And how did you arrive at that conclusion?
Tor Torkildson: Yes, we both grew up in northern Minnesota, and still maintain roots there. With that being said, we are also very entrenched in Europe and have been for some time. As a young boy looking out over sea-like Lake Superior, I dreamed of distant horizons, and when the opportunity finally presented itself I set out into the world and never looked back. It wasn’t that I was running away from anything, rather I was seeking out new experiences, cultures, and landscapes. Reflecting back over my life I find it amazing that I have been living abroad for more than 30 years. Where do I consider home? That’s a tough question, and I squirm trying to come up with an answer. I certainly feel like I have travelled beyond the point of return. Minnesota will never be our permanent home again, it is rather a place to spend time with family and in the wild country in the north. It is particular landscapes that hold sway over my sense of place these days. A beautiful mountain range, a coastal seascape, the people who inhabit a region are what gives me a sense of being home now.
Siffy Torkildson: From as far back as I can remember I knew I would never stay in Minnesota: even before I could read, I pored over atlases and National Geographic magazines, dreaming of faraway lands. I feel as Annie Peck wrote, “My home is where my trunk is.” In Sicily, where we recently purchased a small vineyard, we feel we are part of a large family: there is a strong sense of community there, and the food is fresh and local. We yearn for this simple, spiritual, and slow-paced life. Our land sits on the slopes of Mount Etna and overlooks the Ionian Sea. The mountain, as well as the deep history of Sicily, brings a mythical wildness to the region that excites us. We like to think of our property as our future lighthouse to return to after our far-flung travels. It’s easy to romanticize living simply on our vineyard, yet the ever-present urge to wander often leads us astray. Time will tell. Spending time at our little log cabin on the lake in Minnesota, at the vineyard, and traveling about seems like a utopian existence for us at this point in our life.
JH: What inspired you to put together this collection of tales about walking?
Tor: Initially, we wanted to celebrate world-walkers such as David Kunst, Steven Newman, Jean Beliveau, Tony Mangan, and Polly Letofsky. These amazing walkers inspired us with their books and achievements. Why celebrate them? Well, if you consider that thousands of people have climbed Mount Everest, and hundreds have been to the North and South poles, yet only a handful of people have actually walked around the world, these walkers are in fact extraordinary people.
I have always been fascinated by ordinary people who go out into the world and do extraordinary things with their lives. When I was sixteen years old I read The Man Who Walked Around the World, and began to dream about my own world walk, but I rarely told people about this dream.
Several years ago, when I was reunited with Siffy after 25 years–a long and amazing story that has been documented in our books, Cloud Wanderer and A Wild Hare–my dream to walk around the world came into focus. I asked Siffy if she would be interested in walking around the world with me, and she accepted the invitation enthusiastically, right away. So we began to plan our walk in earnest.
As we began to plan our walking journey it seemed only proper to celebrate those who inspired us to pursue this out-of-the-ordinary endeavor. We decided to do a series of Facebook posts on the subject of walking, in celebration of their achievements. Unexpectedly, this simple project began to take on a life of its own. It quickly became apparent that people walk for many different reasons, and we found ourselves flooded with interest in our posts. People from all walks of life began to reach out to us with walking themes. In the meantime, I became slightly obsessed with all things to do with walking and began posting my findings. The interest kept growing, and in April we decided that we had a potential book in the works. And that is how The Walkabout Chronicles: Epic Journeys by Foot was born.
JH: What was one of the most surprising things you learned in gathering this material?
Tor: To be honest, we have been flabbergasted by how quickly and intensely this idea to celebrate walkers turned into a beautiful book, filled with amazing essays and photographs in just seven short months. Granted, there was a lot of hard work and many long hours involved. Initially, after the group of participants began to take shape, many of whom are quite well known in the adventure/literary world, I began to worry that we would be dealing with serious ego issues. Boy, was I wrong! What I found with the more than 35 participants was a tribe of kind, brave, positive, intelligent, encouraging, and helpful people. This truly warmed my heart. In spite of all of their achievements, this group surprised me with their humbleness and enthusiasm. It was a pleasure to work with each of them, and get to know them as friends.
JH: What was the most enjoyable aspect of creating this book? What was the most challenging?
Tor: Meeting the walkabout tribe, as we came to call them, was the most enjoyable aspect of the project. Such a positive, thoughtful, enthusiastic, inspirational, and giving bunch of people. Talking to John Francis, Wade Davis, and Rosie Swale on Skype, having people like Brandon Wilson, Michael Kirtley, Arita Baaijens and Jeff Fuchs come and stay with us, the email correspondence, and the Facebook chats. Making new lifelong friends. It was a joy to watch the walkabout tribe grow and interact with each other. One of our main goals with this project was to somehow help each member through the marketing aspects, networking, encouragement, and the sharing of experience and knowledge. We feel this has been accomplished, and that everyone will benefit from this experience and from the publication of The Walkabout Chronicles.
The long hours Siffy and I spent, since we both have “day jobs,” and the hard work it takes to put together a book of this magnitude was the challenging part. Thirty-five essays, 430 pages, various personalities, backgrounds, and types of expertise all had to be coordinated. We feared that it wouldn’t be good enough, or that the tribe wouldn’t like it, or that we would have made mistakes, or overlooked something. It was a serious challenge to keep everything organized with so many essays, the constant editorial changes, tracking down the authors who were out on expeditions, and keeping everyone engaged. I spent at least two hours every day just posting walking-related information, and Siffy worked on formatting and editing well past midnight many nights. Yet, the tribe was always there for us in our time of need, and the project moved along on schedule. This truly was a group effort.
JH: When did you first start thinking of walking as an activity in itself, rather than just the way most of us get from one point to another, at least part of the time? Was there a moment or a period in your life when you began to think of walking as something special?
Siffy: Hiking was always a treat for me, as oftentimes it was on vacation, so early on I began to look at walking as something special. It was also a time to experience nature, to think and reflect, and again, something to look forward to. Later, when I learned about the Pacific Crest Trail and other long-distance trails, as well as people who have walked around the world, walking became even more special.
Tor: We both grew up with grandmothers who took walking very seriously. My grandmother was told as a young girl that to survive polio she would need to walk. And walk she did, three times a day, after each meal. Siffy’s grandmother walked every day, into her 90s. Growing up, both Siffy and I had a love for the outdoors and spent our youths tramping around in the woods. Our first hike together was in Glacier National Park, where we both worked in the early 80s. Naturally, as our respective travels around the world intensified, so did our love of trekking in the great mountain ranges of the world. I headed to the Himalaya, the Amazon jungle, and the Canadian Rockies, Siffy to the mountains of the western U.S. and the rainforests of Madagascar. I hiked with a group of monks in Japan who lived in the mountains and went on great walkabouts. Together, Siffy and I have trekked in the Southwest United States, the Himalaya, the Atlas Mountains, the Sahara, the Alps, Sicily, and the Pyrenees. Hiking has become a spiritual way to express ourselves and bring us closer to the natural world. Walking connects us with our nomadic past and brings us in touch with our ancestors. In that regard, walking is a little like going back in time.
JH: What is the most important benefit you get from walking?
Tor: Walking brings us back to the basics of life, really. Walking upright is what makes us human, it is a part of our humanity. Walking is democratic and open to almost everyone, whether young or old, rich or poor. You can walk almost anywhere, anytime. I like this quote by Thomas Merton: “The geographical pilgrimage is the symbolic acting out of an inner journey. The inner journey is the interpolation of the meanings and signs of the outer pilgrimage. One can have one without the other. It is best to have both.”
Our destination is, in a sense, sacred, with the belief that certain voyages “out” might become voyages “in.” Think of it as a sort of geo-poetic quest; the glint of an outer light reflected, or of an inner light revealed. Through our memory maps, we navigate the sacred world, creating a web of connections from everywhere to everywhere.
We find that walking is essential to our emotional, physical, and mental health. It is the best cure for melancholy, stress, and anxiety. It releases the creative juices within, and brings us closer to our natural surroundings and sense of well-being. Walking also connects us to our past.
JH: One of my favorite quotes about walking, in fact one of my favorite quotes, period, is “Solvitur ambulando (“In walking it is solved.”). Does that phrase mean anything to you? What can be solved by walking?
Tor: I also like this quote, and the philosophy and practicality behind meandering.
What I see Aristotle as saying is that if he wants to solve a difficult problem or question, most likely one that seems to contain some kind of contradiction or paradox, the obvious way to do it is to put his body in the left-right alternating mode by walking, using ambos energy, ambulation, right-left energy–energy from both sides. This will put the brain current also to moving right, left, back and forth, as the alchemist does in the symbolic act of pouring back and forth. Through what I call “dissolve and coagulate natural modes of walking,” you can let rigid forms or thoughts dissolve and let fresh thoughts inspire you: something Aristotle knew intuitively long before right brain intuition and left brain intellect were discovered and explored by the likes of Julian Jaynes (check him out, The Bicameral Mind).
In walking, you set up a dual rhythm. Only thus do both sides of the argument get switched on equally: both come into play in a balanced, fair-play way, which naturally leads to the solution. With our swinging hands we also find balance: this, but on the other hand, that. Et voila! In yoga, you charge up the afferent and efferent currents. Then there is the Biblical snake that winds around the tree of life, that tree being the spine, or the apple whose core the snake offered in exchange for knowledge. We get to the core by the winding around it along the whirl/twirl Taoist path, which causes the central current to awaken, opening the shushumna. And when the shushumna is charged, it opens both the top of the head and the base of the spine, ambos, both, which all great thinkers know cannot be done sitting on a couch, or even seated under a tree meditating. You have to walk your wisdom into and out of yourself by creating an alternating current, the “body electric” of Whitman, who was another great ambulator. Hence, in walking, I ignite my body in a right/left alternating current: thus the dualistic nature of human wonderments moving up hill, down dale, “east side, west side, all around the town,” or side to side on the rocky, muddy mountain track. Once these dual currents are energized in our legs and arms, naturally flowing back and forth, whirling, swirling around the body trunk as it were, when you finally sit down to gaze and rest, the answer lands there on your branches and amidst the leaves of grass. The birds settle in your branches; they begin to sing up there in the brain. You have energized the question that is streaming up and down the trunk; the limbs of the tree are like the arms of Saint Francis: here now the birds bring us the answer in their song, song solved, Solvitur ambulando, and in their singing is the answer that gave old Solomon his wisdom.
Does this make sense? Your question brought out my philosophical side (laughs).
JH: Yes it does make sense, and there’s a lot to think about there. Thank you for that! And…now that your book is complete, what will you be doing next? Is there a trek in your near future?
Tor: We have been invited by Steven Newman and Julian Cook to climb Mount Kilimanjaro over New Year’s Eve. We are super excited about the climb, and about meeting Steven, who was one of the main inspirations behind the book, and behind our own dream to walk around the world. Next year we have plans to go trekking in Peru to research a book project on explorer Annie Smith Peck. Our main focus is to prepare for our world walk, which will begin in two years or so. We plan to start in Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland, cross North America east to west, then go down the Pacific Crest Trail and onward to South America. Our goal is to weave our way through sacred landscapes and the important watersheds of the world. We will use long-distance trails wherever possible, spend time in various communities along the way, and attempt to travel in a timeless, non-goal-oriented way. To walk, wonder, and document the state of the earth during this era.
Janet Hulstrand is a writer, editor, writing coach, and teacher of writing and of literature who divides her time between the U.S. and France. She leads book groups at the American Library in Paris, writing workshops in Essoyes, a village in the Champagne region, and teaches “Paris: A Literary Adventure” each summer in Paris for Queens College, CUNY. Everywhere she goes, or stays, she loves to walk.
David Downie is a native San Franciscan who moved to Paris in 1986, and who now divides his time between France and Italy. He is the author of more than a dozen nonfiction books, including the bestselling and critically acclaimed “A Passion for Paris: Romanticism and Romance in the City of Light,” “Paris to the Pyrenees: A Skeptical Pilgrim Walks the Way of Saint James,” and “Paris, Paris: Journey into the City of Light,” now in its 10th printing. He is also the author of two thrillers, and his travel, food, and arts features have appeared in more than 50 print magazines and newspapers worldwide. I have often used David’s books in my classes, and he has always been most generous with his time, several times chatting with my students about his work from wherever he is.
David recently took the time to answer my questions (via email) about his thriller, “Paris: City of Night,” which I chose as this month’s selection for a book group I am currently leading at the American Library in Paris. (You can read other posts about his work on this blog here and here.)
Janet Hulstrand: First of all, what inspired you, a writer of mostly nonfiction, to take on the challenge of writing a novel? And why a thriller?
David Downie: Actually I wrote my first novella when I was 18, and concentrated my efforts as an aspiring writer on producing short stories, novellas, and novels, until the age of perhaps 26, when I finished graduate school and had to make a living. Essentially I stopped writing for a number of years, wound up in Italy, and did white collar work to survive.
One of the better jobs I landed was press secretary (or some such thing) for the commercial section of the South Korean Embassy in Milan. I also wore the hat of researcher and did market research, and wrote up lots of boring reports about all kinds of outlandish products. I became a very low-grade industrial spy, I guess. On the side, working through an agent, I translated a zillion things from Italian into English—technical reports, market studies, and so forth. And I worked for a big Italian publisher, checking and repairing translations of novels from English into Italian, corresponding with authors, that kind of thing. Then I pitched a few stories to magazines and newspapers and started getting assignments. In 1986 I moved to Paris and tried again with fiction, but I couldn’t get any traction—my stuff was too bizarre and “un-American.” The New Yorker wrote me some very flattering rejection letters, though.
All this to say, fiction is what I was passionate about from the start. As to why I chose to write a thriller, that was mainly because I grew up watching Alfred Hitchcock movies and his TV show, plus Perry Mason and all the cop show classics from the 1950s, 60s, and early 70s. I also read everything by Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and so on. I was weaned on crime novels and thrillers. For example, Graham Greene has always seemed to me to be an excellent writer, despite or perhaps because he wrote across genres and therefore could not be classified. There is nothing wrong with writing a book that has a plot, as long as its characters are well developed. Strangely, Paris: City of Night did not start out as a political thriller but rather as a mystery, what the English call a “cosy.”
JH: Can you introduce us, just briefly, to the protagonist of “Paris: City of Night?” Who is Jay Grant, and how would you describe him in a couple of sentences?
DD: Jay Grant is a bilingual, bicultural Franco-American with an unusual family background, a professional photographer who, facing the realities of the digital marketplace, decides to specialize in vintage photography and become a photo rep. He’s a complicated guy with lots of psychological baggage and family issues—he knows his dad was a spy, for instance, and he’s not entirely sure what kind, good or bad, if clear demarcations can be made in that world. Jay is an unwitting, though not entirely unwilling, avenger. He’s got a crooked, jagged, scarred personality but is fundamentally benign. I suppose you’d have to call him an anti-hero, not a hero.
JH: What is the hardest thing about writing a novel, and also, what are the particular challenges of writing a thriller? What was the most fun about it?
DD: Writing is hard, no matter what kind of writing you do. A novel is like a whale, it takes a huge breath, dives down and swims, and surfaces far away, blowing out steam and water and probably small fish and detritus too. A short story is a porpoise. The novella comes in halfway between. Some writers are made for the whale ride, others are porpoises, and still others are the proverbial rari nantes—the lone swimmer in a vast sea. The endurance required to successfully write a novel is considerable. I’m not sure I have it, but I’ve given it my best try more than once, and I’m trying again now after many years of nonfiction writing.
Novels can sprawl all over the place—look at War and Peace or even Huckleberry Finn, which is relatively short but meanders like a river. When you write a thriller you have to plot out every event, every move, every word, you have to weave in clues and help the reader find the way, making discoveries and feeling rewarded as the action plays out. The threads of the story have to come together smoothly and tightly, like a net closing on unsuspecting prey, otherwise the reader feels cheated. Also, you must be sure to maintain the suspension of disbelief. The pacing is key. Readers these days have very little patience, the concentration span is generally very short. I don’t pretend to have succeeded in this thriller but the challenge was huge, and I thoroughly enjoyed the game. I also enjoyed getting revenge on people I know—some of the characters are drawn from life at least in part. Killing bad guys is great fun!
JH: How did the story of “Paris: City of Night” start for you? Was it with a character? A situation? Something about Paris?
DD: The story came to me because I woke up one morning blind in one eye. I have posterior ischemic optic neuritis. The color drained from my right eye as the optic nerve died. It was terrifying but also fascinating. Seeing became a challenge. I was also deeply involved at the time as my wife’s sometime photography assistant. I’d become fairly proficient with lighting. It was highly technical stuff—this was in pre-digital days. The irony is I could no longer stand light. I am totally photophobic, so that work became torture for me. The whole process of understanding light and the functioning of the eye and brain and the camera became an obsession. I read volumes about photography and the history of photography, and I discovered some amazing stuff. “Paris: City of Night” started out as a murder mystery about a historical character from the world of photography—it was a character-driven cozy. I worked out a convoluted plot and stuck to it. The pace was slow. The writing was lyrical, mimetic, as if it had been written during the heyday of romanticism.
I had already written one crime novel, La Tour de l’Immonde, which came out in French, and was published in Paris. I had the English-language version of that novel as laid out by the publisher, who was looking to sell it in America. I took the page proofs to New York and flogged them. Vintage had a crime novel and thriller line at the time. The editor really liked the French novel but said it was “too French” for the U.S. market. So I said, I have this other story, and she said “Write me a treatment.” I wrote her a very detailed treatment of the novel I had started—about 90 pages blow by blow, with plenty of dialogue. She said “Great! Now write me four chapters.” I wrote her four chapters. Then I waited and waited, and while I waited I kept writing. By the time I had finished the book the editor had gotten divorced, quit her job, and left New York. The new editor didn’t like my new book—“too French” he said, “Very strange, nice writing, but not for us…” So I decided to totally rewrite the novel, introducing new characters and “Americanizing” it. That’s the main reason it is so complicated. I found an American publisher in the end. It took years, and I got too many rejections to count. My work really doesn’t fit into any of the classic genres or schemes. I am the rari nantes…
JH: What are you working on now? And will we have the opportunity to see Jay Grant in a future book of yours?
DD: I’m finishing the copyediting of A Taste of Paris: Journey Through the Culinary History of Paris, a nonfiction romp from Caesar’s table to Ducasse and others. And I’ve just started plotting and writing a new novel. It’s a work of literary fiction, a “serious” undertaking, and God knows if it will ever be published. I don’t want to jinx it so will say no more. Jay Grant might come back, though to be honest he’s not the kind to vote for Trump, and will definitely not fit into the world of corporate publishing that lies ahead for the next four or eight years. But maybe I’ll turn him into some kind of progressive political avenger, and kill off a few reactionaries… fantasyland!
Janet Hulstrand is a writer, editor, writing coach, and teacher of writing and of literature who divides her time between the U.S. and France. She leads book groups at the American Library in Paris, writing workshops in Essoyes, a village in the Champagne region, and teaches “Paris: A Literary Adventure” each summer in Paris for Queens College, CUNY.
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