How far would you walk for someone you love? Ten miles? Fifty? One hundred? How about a thousand? As detailed in his book, Walking with Plato, journalist Gary Hayden set out to do just that, accompanying his wife, Wendy, on Great Britain’s longest walking challenge, End to End. Although the trip begins more as a physical challenge for Hayden, his journey becomes a meditation on walking, our relationship to nature, and philosophy.
Like the Appalachian and Pacific Crest Trails in the United States, End to End is a physically demanding, long-distance walk many undertake to fulfill a life goal. Unlike these trails, however, End to End has no set path, but rather makes use of many different trails and roads across the British Isles. Participants walk from John O’Groats in Scotland to Land’s End on the South West Coast, or vice versa, with trips ranging from 850 miles in six weeks to 1200 miles in three months, depending how direct the route is. For more scenic-minded hikers, the walk traverses some of Britain’s most beautiful and challenging trails. For those taking more direct routes, it means a lot of trudging along highways. Campsites are available to all, although many stay in hostels and bed and breakfasts along their routes.
Splitting their journey into chapters with each covering several towns and landmarks, Hayden relates his and Wendy’s experiences with each section of the hike, from their grueling first days to their bittersweet but triumphant arrival at the coast and Land’s End. The two battle blisters, downpours, guard dogs, bogs, broken equipment, exhaustion, and the monotony of long-term walking. We learn the ways in which their bodies and their minds change over the course of their journey — how strange ordinary life begins to seem and how they respond differently to discomfort and adversity.
However, Walking with Plato is not a blow by blow of their trip. In fact, Hayden admits he doesn’t have much of a memory for scenery, in the mode of most travel writing. Nor does he intend to offer a guidebook for would-be End-to-Enders.
Instead, the book is a blend of trip anecdotes with more introverted reflections, relating both the physical and psychological effects of their walk on a backdrop of philosophical discussions. Hayden prefaces each chapter with a quote from a relevant text, including Plato’s Republic and Symposium, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Nature, and Wordsworth’s “I Traveled Among Unknown Men.” Additionally, the text itself considers the musings of still more of our greatest thinkers, including Rousseau, Nietzsche, Bertrand Russell, Tennyson, Bashō, and many others.
Happily for lay readers, Hayden’s discussions are not purely academic; he delves into the personal lives of his subjects as well. His considerations of Rousseau’s battle with depression and subsequent solace in solitary walking are particularly poignant — and of course highly relevant to the subject of Walking with Plato.
So, although these musings may first appear to be digressions, they actually form the heart of the book and ultimately feel as organic and necessary to the narrative as Hayden’s descriptions of mountains and moors. It is as though the reader is walking beside him, listening to his associations and discussions of philosophy, literature, and life. Although not quite a memoir, Walking with Plato is a highly personal read, and Hayden’s warm, funny style lends itself well to this approach, inviting the reader along for the adventure.
Consequently, the book should appeal to fans of travel writing, hiking, and philosophy alike. And for readers unfamiliar with the texts Hayden references, never fear. He explains everything quite clearly, quotes liberally, and assumes no knowledge on the part of his audience. Rather, he presents these authors’ inquiries in a manner accessible to everyone, offering them as questions relevant to any individual, which, of course, they are.
Finally, for those interested in the psychological effects of walking — particularly as it benefits those suffering from depression and anxiety — you will not find a comprehensive text here. But Hayden does offer some consideration of those topics, establishing an ideal starting point for those hoping to read or think more about the relationship between our mental health and the natural world. Indeed, it may be almost unavoidable to close this book without unearthing some new interest or perhaps revitalizing an old one: be it reading Plato’s dialogues or undertaking a long hike of one’s own. Or perhaps readers will simply make their way outside for a stroll. Whatever the project, the point will not be the destination, but the journey. And if one should happen to entertain some philosophical questions along the way, that’s even better.
Walking with Plato
Oneworld Publications, July 2016
Paperback, 240 pages