Thousand-Mile Walk Home

Lay of the Land
Art by James Wardell

Eight years ago this spring, I blew out a lumbar disc while running a jackhammer in the desert near my house—an accident that was the result of simple bad luck, with the odds skewed by the fact that a jackhammer was the wrong tool for the job and that alcohol may have been involved. After a long, miserable recovery period during which I was as ornery as a walleyed mule, I finally mended enough that my wife, Eryn, could get me out of the house, which was a great relief to her.

As I began to get back on my feet, Eryn asked what turned out to be one of the best questions I’ve ever received: “Bubba, now that you’re finally healing, how do you want your life to be different from before the injury?”

My reply was immediate and spontaneous. “I just want to walk and walk and walk.”

In that moment, I came up with an idea that was absurdly arbitrary: I would walk one thousand miles in the next 365 days, and I would start every walk from home—an approach that was practical, since we live in northwestern Nevada, adjacent to BLM lands stretching all the way to California. Why one thousand miles in a year? A better question seemed to be, Why the hell not? I had not one single good reason, no justification, not a hint of a plan. Nor did I have any idea how far one thousand miles really is, though it sounded like a lot. But once I started to break it down, I realized that I would not need to pull heroic, big-mile days of the sort long-trail hikers on the nearby Pacific Crest Trail do. While one thousand miles sounds impressive, it amounts to just 2.74 miles per day, which seems incredibly modest. Just 2.74? I reckoned plenty of people probably walk their poodles farther than that in their suburban neighborhoods.

Within two weeks of walking toward my goal, however, I realized that 2.74 was the wrong number to have focused on. The number that mattered, as it turned out, was 365. It is rugged country out here, and if you subtract from 365 the number of days we have scorching heat, deep snow, blasting winds, or raging wildfire, you are down to approximately the number 7, and I had to admit that seven 143-mile walks seemed daunting. If I was going to get to one thousand miles, it was not going to be as a weekend warrior—I had to approach these short desert hikes as something that happened every day no matter what. And so I was forced to rethink my experiment, which now seemed less about walking than about practice, in the same sense that a monk must meditate in the temple each morning or a bassist must rehearse every afternoon.

And that is how walking became for me a discipline that I practiced each day, regardless of mood or conditions. When the snow grew too deep to posthole the 2.74, I snowshoed it. If the blasting wind shotgunned sand up from the desert floor, I wore ski goggles. When temperatures soared to triple digits, I hiked by moonlight. Once, when an earthquake hit while I was walking, I was forced to squat down until the tremors subsided; then I stood back up and just kept walking.

I also walked in ways that would earn the censure of most nature writers, who insist earnestly that each saunter should be an ennobling, Thoreauvian pilgrimage that hones our attention to the natural world. I did take hundreds of walks of this ennobling variety, but many were far less solemn. If the San Francisco Giants were playing, I listened not to the breeze as it finned dried balsamroot leaves, but rather to the crack of the bat as it channeled in through my earbuds. One day while doing fuel reduction for fire control, I weed whacked more than half of the 2.74—not very Thoreauvian, I’m afraid. That first year, I walked at least one hundred miles pushing my daughter Caroline in her off-road stroller (which I customized by equipping it with knobby tires, slimed to protect against puncture by desert peach thorns), and I may have skipped at least four miles of that first thousand with our older daughter, Hannah. On days when I had been made to suffer fools in town, I ritually drank 2.74 beers as I walked.

It wasn’t long before I managed not only to fit in these daily walks but could not survive without them. For the past eight years, I have continued the thousand-mile annual walks, which are exactly as arbitrary and as gratifying as they were when I began. Because I actually averaged more like thirteen hundred miles per year, the miles I walked in those years could have taken me all the way from the Great Basin down to Key West, where I might have enjoyed a bowl of conch chowder and a good spiced rum before rambling up to the coast of Maine to eat fresh lobster and drink imperial IPA. Then I could have hiked from there over to Montana to do a little fly-fishing, after which I’d still have enough miles left over to saunter back down to New Orleans and catch a late set at the Bourbon Street Blues Club before walking across Texas and the American Southwest and back to my home in the western Great Basin.

But my miles did not tend that way. They were all walked here, in the high desert, on public lands, within a ten-mile radius of my home. If my bioregionalist experiment of walking more than a thousand local miles each year has involved weed whackers and beer and skipping as well as pronghorn and golden eagles and the wordless beauty of moonlight gleaming on unbroken snowfields, that may be just as well. It is incremental work, but I have had a glimpse of how these walks might someday add up to a journey, in the same way that a life is comprised only of individual days, which are themselves nothing more than a series of moments in which we choose to take a small step, or do not.

Michael P. Branch is professor of literature and environment at the University of Nevada, Reno; book review editor of the journal ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment; and coeditor of the University of Virginia Press book series Under the Sign of Nature: Explorations in Ecocriticism. His books include John Muir’s Last Journey: South to the Amazon and East to Africa (Island Press, 2001) and Reading the Roots: American Nature Writing before Walden (University of Georgia Press, 2004). Branch has contributed to a number of magazines including OrionEcotoneSlateIsotopeHawk and HandshawWhole Terrain, Utne ReaderPlaces, and Red Rock Review. He also writes a monthly blog essay, called “Rants from the Hill,” for High Country News.

Comments

  1. I am inspired by Michael’s ability to convey life’s mundane-ness with such eloquence and simplicity, and the heart’s sincerity shines through it all. Always a joy to read his work.

  2. I liked your non-solemn take on how to saunter even more aimlessly than Thoreau recommends. I posted your article on my Author page on Facebook and send it, too, into the Tweetosphere so others may enjoy it.

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