Last year, two of my favorite books were Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Coast Trail and Into Thin Air, both of which are fairly different from each other, except for one thing: they are about personal pilgrimages of great distance and energy expense. Since reading them I find myself thinking, quite often in fact, about doing a similar thing. Hitting a trail for a really long hike.
I'm not sure my life would ever allow it, really: how could I be gone for months or even weeks on end, somewhere in the wild? (Plus: I hate sleeping in a tent. That'd be a problem.)
But there is something entrancing about it to me, the prospect of being in nature, moving through it, for longer than a day. For longer than a few days. Being challenged physically in a way I never have been; learning something about myself that I don't already know. Which is why I kept eying the novel The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Frye. When my friend Karen loved it, I finally checked it out (I didn't even have to wait on the hold list!), and then read it in three quick days.
It tells the story of Harold Frye (obviously!), a retired salesman, who one day, while sitting in his home on the south coast of England with his wife, receives a letter from a woman named Queenie. They used to work together, twenty years ago before something ugly and difficult happened, but he hasn't heard from her in ages. In the letter, Queenie tells him that she is dying of cancer, but she wants him to know that she appreciated their friendship.
Harold writes an awkward reply, puts on his nearest shoes, and walks down to the mailbox. Except, once he gets there, he decides to keep walking—ostensibly, just to the next one. But somehow, he doesn't stop. He mails the awkward letter, but an idea starts to form as he walks: If he makes his way to Queenie (who is living in the north of England), on foot, he will somehow save her.
So he writes another letter to her, with his plan, and he keeps on walking.
As I was starting this, I wasn't sure how the writer would create a story out of someone walking. There's only so much excitement generated by the walking itself; of course, what ends up pulling the story along are the people he meets. My favorite is a doctor who is waiting for her partner to come home, except he's never really coming home. She helps Harold with his blisters and the pain in his calf, and gives him a compass, and a place to rest for a few days. He also meets some fairly strange people. He starts to accumulate stories, and realizes something: "It must be the same all over England. People were buying milk, or filling their cars with petrol, or even posting letters. And what no one else knew was the appalling weight of the thing they were carrying inside. The inhuman effort it took sometimes to be normal, and a part of things that appeared both easy and everyday. The loneliness of that."
(About sorrow they were never wrong, the old masters...)
He gathers stories, and knowledge. When he tells his story, people want to help him: buy him food, or give him a place to stay, or just be encourage.
He keeps walking.
Meanwhile, his wife Maureen is at home. He does call her and let her know what is happening—but he doesn't invite her along. He sends her postcards of his stops along the way, and gathers souvenirs for her. I loved Maureen's part of the story, too, how Harold's absence made her start to see her part in the enormous gap between them, how they've been living together but not really together, since that thing that happened twenty years ago, another story that unfolds as the novel progresses.
I think that, as with all journeys, it's best not to know all of the turns the story takes, but to discover them as you go. If you like nature, or walking, or hiking, or travel stories, or gentle stories, or a novel about a crumbling marriage that needs something dramatic to shore it back up, or one about fathers and sons, or parents and sons, or England, or how strangers influence us; about endurance and courage and sadness and being present in the world: any of that, I think you'll love this book.
The only thing that bugged me? Harold's shoes. He starts out in boat shoes and finishes walking the entire length of England in those same shoes. Blisters are his constant companions, and while I understand the compunction, the way we get attached to our shoes (I love my hiking boots, for example), I thought he should've bought himself a better pair of shoes along the way.
But otherwise: awesome, lovely, heart wrenching, nearly perfect book!