A couple autumns ago, I departed my childhood home in Toronto before dawn and attempted to walk to my parents’ cabin in the Haliburton Highlands. Travelling light and moving quickly along range roads and railbeds, with a pair of boat-ride shortcuts arranged in advance, I allowed myself four days. The cabin is off-off-the-grid, more shack than chalet. Commuting there on foot, along a transect we seldom experience slowly, would honour its anachronistic spirit and help me understand the well-worn yet evolving relationship between city and countryside, between my family and me.
I made several mistakes on that walk. For instance, reading the map wrong. Also: wearing new boots. By day two, my blisters had blisters. But most of my problems were the result of going too far, too fast. Regardless of the metaphysical potential of a journey, it’s difficult to meditate on the meaning of anything if you are fixated on counting kilometres and the looming darkness.
In The Road Is How, prairie naturalist Trevor Herriot embarks on a walk of modest distance but ambitious scope. He sets out from his house in Regina on a 40-mile, three-day traverse to the land east of the city where his family has a small cabin and a large garden. His three previous books – Grass, Sky, Song, Jacob’s Wound and River in a Dry Land – explore the rich layers of life that endure in the cropped-over grasslands and riverine coulees that most wayfarers tend to neglect, eyes drawn to the bold mountains farther west, or the crashing seas which bookend the nation. This walk is a return to familiar terrain, the subtle wildness next door; only now, in his early 50s, Herriot is focused inward. Recovering from a misstep off a ladder, cranky about the destruction of nature and community at the hands of profit-hungry government and corporate minders, he wants to discover what is wrong with himself. “It was as though my years as the know-it-all naturalist had rendered me deaf to the very spirits that might be able to help me grow up or heal or whatever it is I am supposed to do at this stage of life.”
It could be a frequency illusion, a manifestation of my own obsessions with walking and environmental armageddon, but pilgrimage lit seems to be trending. When the going gets tough, the lost go looking. Cheryl Strayed found herself on the Pacific Crest Trail. Harold Fry, Rachel Joyce’s unlikely protagonist, left his home in England and, instead of mailing a letter to an ailing friend, personally delivered it to her bedside (a fictional trek echoing Werner Herzog’s walk from Munich to Paris). British poet Simon Armitage hiked the 268-mile Pennine Way, exchanging nightly readings for beer and bed and breakfast.
In A Sense of Direction, his book about doing a trio of religious pilgrimages (including Spain’s Camino de Santiago, which attracts everybody and his donkey), Gideon Lewis-Kraus disses writers who name-drop flora. “It’s such a cheap and easy way to establish credibility,” he says. What, then, would Lewis-Kraus make of Herriot, who finds poetry in the microscopic minutiae of pollination and can identify myriad bird species by sound? Lesser yellowlegs, blue-winged teal, killdeer, gadwall, avocet … oh my. Such encyclopedic knowledge can be a barrier. Do we really care about “glomalin,” the soil constituent that is responsible for “tilth,” the way a handful of earth either sticks together or comes apart?
Well, when Herriot roots around in the ditches and pastures that line the route to his cabin, when he gazes up at the constellations as his sandals sink into the mud at the bottom of a slough, the answer is a resounding yes. He pushes beyond the symbiotic beauty of biological processes to see our entire existence – body and soul – as a reflection of forces that we can never possess.
Herriot walks slowly, mindfully. Every stand of aspen and mycorrhizal fungi sends him on a rewarding, lyrical detour. Many of these digressions come back to desire. He questions the differences between elemental urges and transcendent love. And he ponders the degree to which a global schism between male and female energies, including his own struggles as a husband and father, is responsible for the social and ecological discord that has left him at such loose ends.
The Road Is How is about and by a believer. The Creator (with a capital C) shares the trail. Infinite generosity is the goal. There are sexual temptations to resist; monogamy is a virtue; maturity can only be reached by respecting the maternal power of women and the planet. But Herriot also speaks to the secular reader. As in other recent books about pilgrimage, it is the journey that matters most. The destination is important; we need a reason to walk out the front door and keep on going. But the final step will not reveal anything unless you know which questions to ask along the way.
Dan Rubinstein is a writer in Ottawa working on a non-fiction book about the transformative power of walking, which will be published in spring 2015.
Editor's note: The original version of this story mistakenly stated the length of the Pennine Way. It is, in fact, 268-miles. This version has been corrected.