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(Image: Archi Banal)
(Image: Archi Banal)

BooksNovember 12, 2023

Cheryl Strayed, Victoria Bruce and the history of finding solace one step at a time

(Image: Archi Banal)
(Image: Archi Banal)

Josie Shapiro considers what it means for a woman to strike out solo, and the books that share that experience – from Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, to Victoria Bruce’s recent book about walking Te Araroa trail, Adventures with Emilie.

I’m not alone in being a writer who likes to walk. Not the only writer who finds, in the footfalls and the passing streets, solitude and time to think. To process. Excuse the pun, but when you’re blocked, sometimes you literally must go out and stumble upon a new idea. 

In her book Wanderlust, Rebecca Solnit described walking as “subversive” and as “the scenic route through a half-abandoned landscape of ideas and experiences”. That is exactly where I like to hover for a while, in my own quivering world of nearly lost thoughts and dreams, a place accessible when I’m walking. And in an age of destination rather than journey, an age of result rather than process, to eschew the vehicle and walk is subversive. The walk itself is the goal, the steady footsteps, the world passing; passing so gently there is time to observe, to ignore, to capture detail, to search, to discover.

Most days, the Fitbit strapped to my wrist clocks up somewhere between fifteen and twenty thousand steps. Less if I’ve had an uncommonly good day writing; more if I’ve had an uncommonly bad one. I traipse. I think. Sometimes I take photos of things that take my eye: colours, the ocean, the way the sun hits a building. Mostly I try to keep my phone in my pocket, although when I get a good stride, and the blood is pumping, and my breath is a little ragged, it’s hard not to pull it out and open the Notes app. 

A lot of my best writing is done on the Notes app. 

There’s plenty of scientific evidence linking walking with cognitive and creative acuity. Studies show that optic flow – the sensation that things move past us as we walk – reduces stress. There’s certainly no lack of books about men who like to walk – the flâneur who saunters around cities, keenly recording what he sees, or the courageous adventurer, traversing continents and deserts and mountain ranges simply to experience life at the extremes. For plenty of reasons I’m sure I don’t need to lecture you on, in the past there have been fewer books that celebrate women walking. In Duncan Minshull’s 2018 book, Beneath my Feet: Writers on Walking, about six of the thirty-six writers included are women. 

But they walk. Oh yes they do. They get subversive and they stride across all terrain, despite the many obstacles in their path. And thankfully we are starting to see more books published that celebrate this. Kerri Andrews’ book Wanderers: A history of women walking, was published in 2020, and was written to set the record straight on the many, many women who have also walked and had incredible creative success and philosophical insights. Some of those included are well-known for their walking already, like Virginia Woolf who plotted and wrote The Lighthouse while she stalked around Bloomsbury, Anais Nin taking in the streets of Paris, Nan Shepherd climbing hills and writing prose poems in the Cairngorms, and Cheryl Strayed tackling the Pacific Crest Trail. 

Strayed might be the most famous contemporary walking woman I know. Her memoir, Wild, tells the story of her trek along part of the PCT, a path that stretches the length of the United States from the Mexican border to the Canadian Border. Strayed has garnered some haters in the thru-hiking world, who decry her decision to hike without adequate preparation, though to be fair I’m not sure people use this book as a guide to the PCT. There’s something compelling about this book, and part of it I think is because Strayed’s prose has a rhythm that echoes the feeling of trekking. The falling of steps, the falling into memory. The time to make mistakes, the time to glory in the world around you.

The reader is keenly aware that Strayed’s abandoned her life entirely, that she lives on her feet, the pack on her back holding her sole possessions. Yet she still seems to have too many possessions: her pack was so large it garnered the nicknamed “Monster”. Strayed’s Wild is a call to bravery, to find that steel inside you to cast aside unwanted social mores, to be open to the idea that who you are at the very core needs to be released and spun out on the world. Get into nature, find adventure, renounce expectations. Love it or hate it, it’s an inspiring story. Even for fictional characters: Lorelei in Gilmore Girls is so pumped up after reading it, she hikes the PCT. And this episode of television was inspiring, too. After Kiwi blogger Michelle Green watched Lorelei’s trip, she decided to walk the Te Araroa Trail in New Zealand.

“Lorelei in Gilmore Girls is so pumped up after reading it, she hikes the PCT.”

Wild isn’t just about a woman off for an adventure. It’s a memoir about the transformative power of movement, after Strayed’s life disintegrated following the death of her mother. She confesses, with incredible power and honesty, all her failings: drug abuse, adultery, and the resulting fall-out with her (now ex-) husband. Reese does an admirable job in the movie version, though in my mind, there’s nothing better than the book. Strayed walks to find a new self, to find a new path in life. In most books or stories about men walking, it’s purely for the adventure; maybe the honour in the bravery of the expedition; sometimes the kudos for ‘discovery’; many times, the trek is simply done to be the ‘first’ to do such a feat. To get a woman to leave her place and go out into the world with her feet as her transport has often taken more than a mere lust for the new and exciting. There’s traditionally been less freedom for women to up and leave, especially after they’ve had a child.

Yet it’s exactly this situation Victoria Bruce found herself in a few years ago, walking with her child. Bruce’s memoir, Adventures with Emilie, was published last month with Penguin Random House New Zealand. Like Strayed, Bruce has a past she’s struggling to put behind her. She suffered a traumatic childhood with devastating consequences. Sexual violence, drug addiction, neglect – all before she’s seventeen. A diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder and severe burnout from an unwelcoming workplace gives Bruce the push she needs to make a massive shift in her life: she quits her life, a little like Strayed. She resigns from her job, takes her daughter out of school, and they set off, this little duo of Bruce and her daughter Emilie, to walk the length of New Zealand on Te Araroa Trail. 

Victoria Bruce and her daughter Emilie walked Te Araroa trail.

Like Wild, Bruce and her daughter find many interruptions to their trip. Covid lockdowns, weather events. Emilie almost sliding to her death. There’s plenty of heart-stopping drama on a hike that goes on this long, plenty of descriptions of hungry bellies and exhaustion and frustration at putting wet socks on dry feet. Like Strayed, Bruce uses the trail to map a path into the depths of her own soul, hoping that hard work, sweat, and a few tears might help guide her through.

There’s a reserve to Bruce’s story that isn’t there in Strayed’s. A hesitation to confront the demons she’s determined to battle on the trails of Te Araroa, from Cape Reinga to Bluff. The demons seem to be very much in control, and the rawest part of the text is when Bruce works toward describing her past, and the pain that is hidden there. It’s genuinely touching to read someone write so openly. You can feel her mind at work, the darkness playing at the edges while in the real world she’s busting her gut to fit in with work colleagues and trying to be the best mother she can be for her daughter Emilie.

And Emilie is what sets Adventures with Emilie apart from many of the other memoirs about women walking. Victoria isn’t doing this alone. There is less time for her to commit to thinking about herself, because when there’s someone there dependent on you for their safety, their sleep, their food, their play, their mood … the walk becomes less about the walk, the time less about you. A child is an energy vacuum. They take and take – this is the natural way of things. Emilie seems so sweet, a very brave and adaptable young girl who loves her mother. Victoria praises her daughter many times in the book, perhaps aware that in coming years this same child will grow and read this story herself, however the truth lurks in the text about the difficulties of child-rearing alone, at home or on the trail. There is no shame in this. The book is something different from its title: ostensibly yes, it’s an adventure with her daughter, but the book is also attempting to be a few things beyond that. A cathartic memoir like Wild, a simple guide to the trail with details about native species and plants, and a recreation of a trail blog.

Women walking. There’s a strength in it, a bold middle finger to the fear we might feel when alone on the path. It’s vulnerable to be alone in the wilderness, or sometimes even when walking the streets of your own neighbourhood. Bruce doesn’t talk much about feeling scared when she’s alone with Emilie on the trail – they feel safe enough to strip naked and swim in rivers around the country, and when people arrive at the huts they are staying in, Bruce is more annoyed at having to make small talk than worrying about their safety. But in an all-female New Zealand-based hiking Facebook group I’m a member of, that’s one of the biggest concerns about walking solo: is it safe? Strayed talks often about the dangers she felt walking so far by herself, and there’s a particularly frightening scene with a hunter that is replicated in the movie. It should be safe, shouldn’t it? We should be safe to be outdoors, alone, to walk and ponder and dream.

Women walk for many reasons, though there seems to be a pattern that in the stroll, or the saunter, or the march, or the trek – all the many ways that we can walk – and that is to find some stability in instability. Women walk to take back their minds, to take back their bodies, to own their place in the world. To be in the world, in the most physical way possible. As Cheryl Strayed wrote in Wild, ‘‘There’s always a sunrise and always a sunset and it’s up to you to choose to be there for it,’ said my mother. ‘Put yourself in the way of beauty.’’

Get out there, and if you can, walk. Put yourself in the way of all that beauty, and you might be surprised what else you find that you might not have even realised you were searching for.   

Adventures with Emilie: Taking on Te Araroa trail in 195 life-changing days by Victoria Bruce (Penguin NZ, $40) can be purchased at Unity Books Auckland and Wellington. Everything is Beautiful and Everything Hurts by Josie Shapiro (Allen & Unwin, $37) can be purchased there, and here, too.

Keep going!