Men and women have been walking around for thousands of years – and occasionally, one of them produces a literary masterpiece based on their experiences. The entries on this list are about much more than putting one foot in front of the other; the authors make cultural observations, tackle tricky philosophical dilemmas and, above all, keep the reader engaged (no small feat, considering the subject matter). Each one of these thoughtful works would make the perfect companion for any long-distance excursion.
Note: There are some excellent hiking guidebooks out there, but we kept this list strictly within the literary non-fiction realm.
AWOL on the Appalachian Trail by David Miller (2006)
Why it’s a classic: Well, classic might be a stretch since David Miller’s debut publication is only a few years old. Nonetheless, the author weaves a fascinating account of his 2,172-mile solo trek along the Old A.T. from Georgia to Maine in 2003. Miller left behind everything in order to complete the hike (wife, kids, full-time job, etc.), and his depictions of the gorgeous countryside — and ruminations about man’s innate desire to isolate himself — make you want to do the same.
Choice passage: “Anything that we consider to be an accomplishment takes effort to achieve. If it were easy, it would not be nearly as gratifying. What is hardship at the moment will add to our sense of achievement in the end.”
A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf by John Muir (1916)
Why it’s a classic: Published two years after John Muir’s death, this seminal favorite is a stirring account of the noted preservationist’s journey from Indiana to the Gulf of Mexico during the Reconstruction Period. Muir slept in Mammoth Cave, chatted with freed slaves and former Confederate soldiers and continued to marvel at this ‘electricity’ thing that everyone was talking about. This long walk ended in Florida, where he presumably rested for a few days, then hopped a boat to Cuba, sailed to the California coast and… well, the rest is history.
Choice passage: “The last of the Coast Range foothills were in near view all the way to Gilroy. Their union with the valley is by curves and slopes of inimitable beauty. They were robed with the greenest grass and richest light I ever beheld, and were colored and shaded with myriads of flowers of every hue, chiefly purple and golden yellow. Hundreds of crystal rills joined song with the larks, filling all the valley with music like a sea, making it Eden from end to end.”
A Walk Through Europe by John Hillaby (1977)
Why it’s a classic: Noted British biped John Hillaby may not be a household name in the U.S., but he gained fame on the other side of the pond for his many notable inter-continental journeys. His solo hike from Northern Holland to the Mediterranean Sea was arguably the capstone achievement of his career, and his account of the 1,400-mile adventure is thoughtful, informative and humorous to a degree that only English writers seem able to reach. If you finish this one and want more Hillaby, check out ‘Journey to the Jade Sea’, the account of his stroll through the entire country of Kenya. You know, no big deal.
Choice passage: “Few things are more pleasant than a village graced with a good church, a good priest and a good pub.”
Walking the Gobi: A 1,600-Mile Trek Across a Desert of Hope and Despair by Helen Thayer (2008)
Why it’s a classic: Helen Thayer, 63, looks diminutive in photographs, but don’t let her appearance fool you — National Geographic named her as “One of the Great Explorers of the 20th Century”. But she saved her most exciting adventure for the new millennium when she and husband Bill, 74, walked the entire length of the Gobi Desert (read: more than 1,600 miles). The experience wasn’t always pleasant; the couple encountered blistering sandstorms, endured 126-degree heat and, at one point, nearly perished from lack of food and water. But along the way, they came face-to-face with Gobi nomads, a people who have lived off the barren land for centuries — and the way she describes these encounters is at once heartwarmingly funny and profoundly moving.
Choice passage: “The raw heat of the unmerciful sun reflected from the surrounding pebble plain. Our shirts were salt-encrusted, sweat dried instantly in the dry air, and our feet felt as though we walked on burning coals.”
Wanderlust: A History of Walking by Rebecca Solnit (2001)
Why it’s a classic: Leave it to celebrated historian Rebecca Solnit to boil down the complete history of human movement into 336 pages. Always introspective and never dry, Wanderlust tackles every foreseeable topic related to pedestrianism, from the evolution of treadmills to the different walking habits of men and women. She also addresses some of history’s most famous walkers, from real-life figures like Henry David Thoreau and Wordsworth to fictional characters like Elizabeth Bennett (from Pride and Prejudice) and Theseus, the Greek hero who navigated the infamous labyrinth and slew the Minotaur.
Choice passage: “Many people nowadays live in a series of interiors…disconnected from each other. On foot everything stays connected, for while walking one occupies the spaces between those interiors in the same way one occupies those interiors. One lives in the whole world rather than in interiors built up against it.”
By Brad Nehring