Interview with Siffy and Tor Torkildson, editors of “The Walkabout Chronicles”
“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.