In mid-June, while driving down Highway 127 in Russell Springs, I noticed people walking with backpacks. They were spaced out a mile or so apart. Later that afternoon, we drove down to Wolf Creek Dam in Jamestown and saw more people walking on Highway 127. I knew it was a long distance race of some kind if people were spaced 12 hours apart. We stopped on the dam and asked someone what was going on. He told us about the Last Annual Heart of the South Road Race. A group had been bused to Frankfort, Ky to start a race of over 300 miles back to their cars at Sand Mountain in Georgia. For the next 8 days, we became enamored with the race and started keeping up with the runners on Facebook and their locations along the way.
This rekindled my fascination in long distance walking and running. It reminded me that most of my favorite books are about people traveling long distances by foot. I love books about a person that sparks an inward journey as they take outward steps towards something.
One of my favorite books is The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce. I have read it six times. Harold Fry lives in a small English town where he spends his days of retirement in mundanity with his wife, Maureen. They have a cold, numb relationship that causes them to walk around each other even when they are in the same room. She is irritated by everything that he does. One day, Harold receives a letter from an old coworker named Queenie Hennessy. She informs him that she is dying in hospice and tells him goodbye. Harold writes a short reply and walks to mail it. On the way, he has an encounter that leaves him with an epiphany of hope. He must walk the letter 600 miles and give it to Queenie. As long as he walks the letter, she will live!
Harold sets out with no previsions or gear. With each step of the journey, he begins to look backwards and inwards. He starts to reflect and evolve. As he does, you learn the story of his life. You learn of his life with Maureen and how Queenie fits into the picture. As he travels, he encounters the kindness and oddness of others. By the end of the book, you have fallen in love with Harold. You feel like you know Harold Fry and love who he is and love his story. The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is a story of pilgrimage, hope, change, and strength.
I read this book at a time that I was running long distances alone while training for half and full marathons. The journey can give you the solitude and fortitude to reflect and evolve. You are not the same person when you come out on the other side. It was journeying alone that led to some of my biggest moments of self reflection. You learn yourself. You find out what you are capable of. You find out your weakness and your strength. You fail, you falter, and you continue on. While I ran, I was going through some of the biggest changes in my life and beliefs. I was asking questions about religion and God, arguing with myself, thinking outside the box, changing beliefs, looking inward, and finally resting in the silence of the journey. I was on a literal pilgrimage. This was the landscape that I was in when I picked up Harold Fry for the first time. Together, Harold and I, got to the end of our journeys as different people than we started. We were on pilgrimage together.
My love for books about people walking long distances doesn’t stop at Harold Fry. Here’s a list of some of my favorite books about people walking as they take steps to look inwardly. I could (and may) write whole Notes on my love for them. I have read them all multiple times. Enjoy!