From the moment I first heard of Wanderers: A History of Women Walking I just knew that I had to get my hands on it – the beautiful cover itself holding enough allure for me to order it immediately! The title alone had me hooked and when I received my copy through the post and saw which women were included in it, it was a case of ‘everything else can wait, this book needs my attention right now’!
As an avid writer, reader and walker myself this discussion and overview of women’s experiences of walking through different eras in history and the links with self-discovery, mould-breaking, creativity and healing was fascinating to me. I learned so much about how the very act of walking itself was oftentimes a rebellious act and when reading some of the chapters recognised myself on the page so profoundly that it affected me physically – I laughed and sobbed and shouted ‘yes’ as I realized I am not alone in how I experience walking in nature!
Kerri is an incredibly gifted storyteller and her passion for both walking and telling the accounts of these incredible women is extremely apparent. The entire work reads like a poetic love-story and although it zings with an impressive literary quality, testament to Kerri’s role as Senior Lecturer in English Literature at Edge Hill University, and is well-researched, with ideas unfolded in detail, the scene built so tangibly that you become immersed in the landscape of each woman, it is told with such heart that it always feels accessible and inclusive – quite a feat!
For me personally there were 3 particular standout chapters – those on Nan Shepherd, Cheryl Strayed and Virginia Wolf. I am a huge fan of Nan Shepherd’s work and The Living Mountain is a book which I read over and over again, for although she walked in the Cairngorms in Scotland and I walk in the Mournes in Northern Ireland, so much of what she unfolds in her short work resonates with me. She knew her mountains intimately, like friends, and it was that experience Kerri states that was ‘fundamental to her writing’. Kerri goes on to say that: ‘At the heart of Shepherd’s writing is a careful and subtle articulation of the complex interactions between physical movement, introspection and the landscape that create meaning in a human life.’ Kerri’s observations about the lives of the women in her book are equally as poised and intricate as Shepherd’s recordings of the terrain over which she wandered prolifically and with full awareness of the risks involved. Kerri explores the almost mystical aspect to Shepherd’s walking, the urges to ‘run away’ from her writing, the courageousness needed by Shepherd to accomplish the physical feats she writes of in The Living Mountain. Through Kerri’s words we are brought closer to understanding the woman behind the beautiful poetry and books that Shepherd brought to the world and that is such a precious gift.
I LOVE Cheryl Strayed so to see a chapter all about her included in Wanderers made my day! Strayed is probably best known for her book Wild which was later made into a movie of the same name starring Reese Witherspoon. The movie is really good and I enjoyed it a lot, but the book simply blew me away in its rawness, its openness and honesty, and account of the extreme highs and lows Strayed experienced as she tackled the Pacific Crest Trail solo – ‘one of the most arduous walks in North America’. Strayed’s journey begins after the collapse of her marriage and her mother’s death and although the book recounts the physical hardships she endures on her mammoth trek as a complete novice to distance trail-walking, Wild is also very much a story of introspection, self-acceptance and personal healing.
‘The violence done to the body of this solitary woman walker has been inflicted entirely by herself, by walking the trail. As such, it is thrilling, not frightening, and there is a sense of pride in Strayed’s account at not only having suffered it, but having endured it – even thrived under it.’
The aspect of this chapter which I enjoyed so much is the way in which Kerri discusses Strayed’s physical experience of a long-distance hike. She explains how Stayed’s body ‘Emerging from beneath the bruises and scabs, in a kind of particularly brutal metamorphosis, is a muscular, strong, vital body’. Kerri explores further and by picking up on Strayed’s own accounts of menstruating while on the trail sheds light on the fact that ‘Strayed as a woman walker is able to access, and give voice to, experiences that are unavailable to men’. Strayed’s physical journey is very different from the men that hike the same trail as her and the way in which Kerri picks up on this is achieved brilliantly.
My favourite chapter of all though was the one dedicated to Virginia Woolf, something about it just connected with me so deeply that I didn’t want it to end. I am not even all that familiar with Woolf’s own writing but Kerri’s exploration of the woman herself was simply awe-inspiring. I related so much to Woolf’s experience of being inspired, of writing and of self-understanding through the mode of walking because for me personally it is when I am wandering solo in the mountains that I feel most alive in my creativity and where the desire to write is at it’s strongest – yet, like Woolf, as much as the ideas and vision are there, I struggle to plant myself on a chair long enough to capture the thoughts because the process of walking is equally gratifying!
‘Only by placing her body into physical animation did she feel capable of animating her words, of giving life to sentences.’
Kerri delves deep in her exploration of Woolf and this chapter is so rich in detail and thought that it is mesmerising. She puts into words the way many of us may feel about our connection with walking through her portrayal of Woolf.
‘Woolf certainly saw the phrases and ideas that came to her through walking as some sort of produce of the land: writing then became an act of harvesting the linguistic and visual bounty.’
For me there are two things that transport me to that place in time where I feel my truest self: reading and walking. When reading my imagination is alive and firing, and while escapism is often associated with reading stories, I think in reading those tales we see and understand our own true selves in our most radiant light. While walking too I feel vital, free and full of possibility and hope. Kerri captures all of those sensations in Wanderers: A History of Women Walking. I feel like I have been on a walking journey with her. While she exquisitely unravels the lives of the ten women included in her beautiful book and brings them into sharp focus for us, she somehow has captured how I feel as a woman who loves to wander alone in the mountains too. I have learned about the intriguing and inspiring lives of other women walkers, even felt a sense of sacred kinship with them, and in turn understood deeper my own place in this world. Wanderers is so much more than a series of biographies with a particular emphasis on walking; it captured my heart and my imagination and helped me to see how the simple act of walking can be an extremely powerful thing, even more so than I already knew: it heals, it unlocks, it nourishes, provides solace, it is all at once spiritual, emotional and physical, it has the power to transform us, to stretch us beyond what we think we are capable of and aid us in finding our own place in the world and a connection with others who have walked before us.
As you’ve undoubtedly ascertained by now, I thoroughly enjoyed Kerri Andrew’s outstanding work Wanderers: A History of Women Walking and highly recommend it. If you are passionate about walking and creativity especially you will find so much richness among the pages of this stunning book. I can’t wait to read it again because I know I flew through it the first time in my enthusiasm to devour its delectable accounts of some incredible pathfinding women – to me though, that’s the true sign of good book, you can’t read it quick enough, are sad when it’s all over, and go straight back to the start for a second sitting as soon as possible!