Walks amid the watchtowers of the Mani

An early 19th-century watchtower, now the Tainaron Blue Retreat guesthouse, overlooking the coastline of Cape Matapan

The most recent of quite a number of articles about visiting the Mani that I have seen of late. This being the best, written by William Dalrymple.

First published in the Financial Times, 28 August 2015.

I first came to the Mani through the pages of my literary hero and travel writing guru, Patrick Leigh Fermor. Paddy, who was once described by the BBC as a “cross between Indiana Jones, James Bond and Graham Greene”, published Mani: Travels in the Southern Peloponnese, in 1958. It was the first non-fiction book he wrote about Greece, and in many ways it is his most passionate: a love song to the middle prong of the trident-shaped southern coast of the Peloponnese. This was the place where he had been happiest, and the destination he would eventually pick in which to settle down, and spend the final years of his life.

For Paddy, the Ottoman Mani was to Greece what Cornwall was to 18th-century Britain: the most remote of places, cut off from the rest of the country by distance, unpredictable tides and wild cliffs, the abode of brave brigands, chivalrous smugglers and gentleman pirates. It was, he liked to point out, the southernmost point of mainland Greece: only a few islands intervene between Cape Matapan, the tip of the peninsula and location of the cave which the ancients believed to be the Mouth of Hades, and the shoreline of north Africa.

Many years later, shortly before his death in 2011, I went to stay with Paddy at the house he built in the Maniot village of Kardamyli. His villa was the most perfect writer’s house I have ever seen, designed and partly built by the man himself in an olive grove a mile outside the town, and with a view out to a small coastal island. Each morning, until a heart bypass prevented him, he would swim around the island, before returning home for breakfast.

Since Paddy’s death, however, the house has been given to the Benaki museum in Athens, and on my most recent visit I could only drive past it with a melancholic wave. Instead I headed on a further 90 minutes southwards, past tavernas hung with vine trellising, past chapels with red pepper pot domes, through stripfields and a patchwork of walled olive groves. These lower slopes rose to steep and arid hilltops, and it was on one of these, above the whitewashed village of Kotronas, that lay the beautiful house where I would be staying. It dominated a blue, mirror-like bay on the south-east coast of the peninsula and it was here, watching the ships come and go below, and with the mountains rising on all sides, that I planned a succession of treks into the deep Mani to see for myself the landscapes that Paddy had described so lovingly in his book.

To my surprise, the more I walked in the cactus-haunted hills, through spires of yellow verbascum and the seed heads of dried grasses as straight as miniature cedar trees, the more I found that the wildness of the Mani reminded me less of the bucolic Mediterranean than the bleakly beautiful mountains of the north-west frontier of Pakistan. For both the turbulent Maniots and the Pashtuns have an ancient tradition of blood feuds, which has led them to live in the fortified towers that are still the dominant architectural feature of their regions. In both, every man is a chieftain, and every farm a fort.
Tourism bounces back

“In these contests,” wrote Paddy, “the first blow was never struck without warning. War was formally declared by the challenging side. The church bells were rung: We are enemies! Beware! Then both sides would take to their towers, the war was on, and any means of destroying the other side was fair.” These included, apparently “bombarding them from above with boulders and smashing their marble roofs; so the towers began to grow, each in turn, during periods of truce, calling his neighbour’s bluff with yet another storey.” Paddy was fascinated by the proximity of the combatants in these feuds, “the equivalent, in distance, of the cannonading of Brooks’s by White’s, Chatham House by the London Library . . . or of the Athenaeum and the Reform by the Travellers’.”

There was apparently only one thing that could reconcile the warring hamlets of the Maniots: “a Turkish inroad, when, suddenly, for brief idyllic periods of internal harmony, their long guns would all point the same way.”

Such a moment came in 1826 when the Ottoman commander Ibrahim Pasha arrived, intent on crushing the resistance of the most independent-minded of all the Sultan’s Greek subjects. From the point of view of the Sublime Porte, the Maniots were merely pirates and brigands, and a thorn in the flesh of honest Turkish shipping going about its business in the Mediterranean. The Maniots had a rather different view of themselves: as the flower of Hellenic chivalry and the last pure-blooded descendants of both the ancient kings of Sparta and the emperors of Byzantium. Both sides were spoiling for a fight; and they got it.

To block Ibrahim’s advance, the Maniots concentrated their forces at Verga, the entrance to the desolate passes of the Taygetus mountains, in the extreme north of the region. Ibrahim therefore decided instead to launch a surprise marine attack on Areopolis, far to the south, which the patriots had left undefended. Ibrahim successfully landed 1,500 Egyptian troops on the shingle beaches in Diros Bay, south of Kardamyli, a magnificent natural cauldron where the peaks of Taygetus dip down to the blue waters of the Aegean, so clear, even today, that it is said you can still see the wrecks of galleys lying on the seabed below. Soon the Ottoman troops were marching inland, up the coastal paths, looting as they went, and heading for the walls of Areopolis.

Ibrahim Pasha had achieved complete surprise; but he had not taken the women of the Mani into his calculations. As the church bells pealed from their Byzantine belfries, several hundred women who had been out in the fields harvesting converged on the Ottoman rear with their sickles and farm instruments. In an indignant song still sung in the region, the woman allegedly declaimed:

O Turkish men, have you no shame
To war with womenfolk?
We are alone, our men are gone
To fight at Almiro.
But we with sickles in our hands
Will lop off your heads like corn!

Within a few hours, those Egyptians who lived to tell the tale were running headlong for their boats. Only a third were rescued; the rest fell where they stood on the beach. That, at least, is the version of the story they tell today in the Mani.

Modern travellers to the region may end up feeling a certain sneaking sympathy with the Egyptians; for the descendants of those feisty Maniot women are still alive and well, and today they guard the keys to their village churches as determinedly as they once defended Areopolis. As Paddy knew, and wrote about so beautifully, the Mani contains some of the most ancient and Byzantine chapels and basilicas in Greece, dotted around olive groves above steep coastal cliffs; but any traveller who wants to get inside and see their celebrated frescoes must first find the guardian grannies who keep the keys, and then persuade them to disgorge them and to let you into their carefully tended holy places.

Watchtowers in the town of Vathia

Watchtowers in the town of Vathia

This can be more difficult than it sounds. On one occasion, trying to get inside the famed 11th-century church of the Taxiarches at Charouda, I was directed to the door of Antonia, a black-clad matriarch in widow’s weeds who looked so ancient she could almost have lost her husband to Ibrahim Pasha’s Egyptians. Yes, she said, with deep suspicion in her voice, she did hold the keys, but no, this was the time of her lunch. I should come back in an hour. I did as I was bid, only to find she was taking her siesta. Deciding to walk along the coast until she woke, I returned only to be told she was unable to take me to the church as she was feeding her great-grandchildren. Then she was putting out fodder for her donkeys: wouldn’t I like to come back tomorrow morning?

It was well past 7pm when, after a lot of begging and pleading, a huge primeval key was finally, reluctantly flourished and I followed the bent-backed matriarch to the church on the edge of the village. The sun was now slowly sinking over the hills at the end of a hot day; from the higher slopes, the tinkle of unseen goat bells cut through the background whirr of cicadas as shepherds led the flocks back for their night.

The church — in truth it was barely larger than a chapel — was very small, but very beautiful. It had a domed, tiled roof and round arcaded windows, whose brick tiles were made from fired red mud. It lay in a rocky graveyard dotted with oleanders and ilexes at the edge of olive groves, and was built from stone the colour of halloumi cheese. Only when Antonia finally ground the key in the wards of the ancient lock, and had crossed herself several times, was I allowed to step inside.

Nothing prepares you for the darkly melancholic and baleful beauty of the wall paintings of the Mani churches; but remote as it is, the church of the Taxiarches at Charouda is especially fine. The anonymous painter had a particular quirk of giving some of the saints a black triangular lower eyelid. The intention seem to be to enhance their gaunt asceticism and melancholic sadness, but I thought it gave them a look oddly like the buffoonish Pierrot in the Commedia dell ’Arte.

A grim-faced Christ Pantocrator glowers down from the decorative brickwork of the dome, hands opened and upheld as if in surprise at the wonders of his own creation. Below him, ranks of cherubim and seraphim stand with their wings raised. A phalanx of prophets line the lower drum; nearby stylites preach from pillars; and patriarchs in monochrome vestments like Malevich abstracts grip their bibles and proudly display the instruments of their martyrdom. More martyrs have their flesh ripped and eyes gouged out over the walls of the nave, the background landscapes to both virgins and saints as high and mountainously craggy as the Taygetus themselves, the men and the jagged rocks of the mountains sharing a clear affinity, and a similar angularity.

The most beautiful images of all lay at the west end, near the porch where the matriarch Antonia still stood silhouetted by the last rays of the sun. That light, reflecting off the foot-polished stone floor, illuminated a pair of youthful Byzantine soldiers: a young, swaggering St George astride his white charger, all glittering armour and levelled spear, while standing at ease slightly to his left, leaning on his javelin, was a swarthily beautiful St Demetrius with a glistening mail coat, a bow slung over his shoulder and sporting a single, rather dandyish earring; the very model of Maniot resistance to the encroachments of the outside world.

Looking both at Antonia, and the St Demetrius, it was no longer impossible to believe the old legends: that these remarkable, tough, independent Maniots really were the last descendants of Spartans who took refuge here when their hegemony beyond the Taygetus was finally destroyed, their struggle finally over.

Read more about where William Dalrymple stayed here.


Xan Fielding – the Armenian cousin of Vivien Leigh

Xan and Daphne Fielding with Dirk Bogarde on the set of Ill Met by Moonlight

Xan and Daphne Fielding with Dirk Bogarde on the set of Ill Met by Moonlight

Running the blog I am very fortunate to have all sorts of people get in touch with me about a whole range of interesting subjects. Few however can be so detailed, well researched and fascinating as Liz Chater’s site which is dedicated to research about the Armenian diaspora to India, and related matters. In this latest article on her website, Liz explores the truth behind Vivien Leigh’s Armenian heritage and then goes on to uncover some fascinating facts about Xan Fielding’s family who also have an Armenian background. Liz has also traced the Anglicisation of his surname from the Germanic Feilmann to Fielding. The following is a series of excerpts from the article on Liz’s site which can be visited here and includes many digital copies of original documents.

From Liz Chater’s website Chater Genealogy

I want to touch on the lives of Vivien’s cousins, and one in particular, Alexander Fielding-Wallace aka ‘Xan’ Fielding (above). Whereas Vivien had loving and devoted parents, her cousin Alexander ‘Xan’ never got to know his parents, his early start in life was beset with tragedy. Knowledge of the cousin connection between Vivien and Alexander has diminished with the passing of time, there are very few who mention his Armenian ancestors or those individuals he had in common with Vivien.

‘Xan’ was officially named and baptised Alexander Percival Feilman Wallace, he was born on the 26th November 1918. Seven days later he was baptised at the Sacred Heart Church In Ootacamond, India. In fact Alexander was baptised twice, the second occasion was on the 18 February 1919at the Catholic Church Middleton Street, Calcutta in the name of Fielding-Wallace. I can only speculate about why he was baptised on a second occasion but I cannot help wonder if it was directly connected to the process of becoming a member of the Feilman family and how he eventually ended up using the name of Fielding. This will become clearer a little further on in the blog.

Ten days after his baptism, his mother Mary Wallace (nee Feilmann) died on the 13th December 1918 in Ootacamond from fever.

The weeks and months that followed on from the death of Mary were to shape the life of Alexander forever.

Alexander’s father Major Alexander James Lumsden Wallace had a deep Scottish heritage. Born in Kirkcaldy in 1889 the name Alexander served four consecutive generations as a Christian name. A great deal of the Wallace family history can be found on the internet on various genealogy websites including many connecting records on Scotlandspeople.com.

Alexander Senior, for whatever reason, be it grief or the realisation that as young widower and an Army Captain he (later became a Major) was not in a position to bring up such a young baby, appears to relinquish all parental responsibility for the young Alexander. Ironically, Alexander Wallace (sr) remarried in London in 1925 to Marjorie Evelyn Hime. He retrained as a barrister in 1927 successfully passing the Hilary examination of students of the Inns of Court held in Middle Temple Hall in December 1926. In March 1927 he passed the Easter exams held in Inner Temple Hall, and passed his final Bar exams in December 1928. He and Marjorie can be found living briefly with her parents Walter and Florence Hime in Hampstead in 1929, by then they had a 5 year old little girl, Margaret Xanne Wallace, she would have been a half sister to Xan. Alexander and Marjorie’s marriage didn’t last and by the middle of the 1930s they had separated and presumably they divorced. He married for a 3rd time in 1944, passing away on the 19th November 1966 in Hampstead. I can find no evidence that young Alexander had any contact with his father, half sister or two stepmothers.

After the death of Alexander’s mother Mary Gertrude in 1918, he was effectively scooped up by her Feilmann/Fielding parents and into their still growing family. Suddenly Alexander’s uncles and aunts (brothers and sisters to his mother Mary Gertrude) became his brothers and sisters. According to Hugo Vickers in his biography of Vivien Leigh “…Xan was raised for eight years in the belief that he was the son of his grandparents…”

It must have been quite a shock to him to find out that the children he thought were brothers and sisters weren’t.

Alexander’s grandparents Percival Maurice David Feilmann and Mary Patricia nee Yackjee were just as keen as Vivien’s parents Ernest Richard Hartley and Gertrude Mary Yackjee to remove themselves from India back to England so they could offer their children and their grandchild the opportunities they would not have access to if they stayed in India.

Perhaps influenced by his grandfather and his uncles (more on them later in the blog), after joining the British Army, ‘Xan’ Fielding went on to become a wartime secret agent, writer and translator as well as serving as a Special Operations Executive in the British Army in Crete, France and the Far East. Lengthy biographical information has been written by author Patrick Leigh Furmor, although Alexander’s Indian Armenian family history has been overlooked. A blog by Tom Sawford on Patrick Leigh Furmor’s findings with references to Xan fielding can be found here

Alexander ‘Xan’ fielding married twice, his second marriage was to reconnect him with his own Armenian heritage because he married the widow of renowned Armenian artist Arshile Gorky, she was Agnes ‘Mougouch’ Magruder, her obituary can be read here.

Although Mougouch was not Armenian, her connection to an Armenian, and Alexander’s own Armenian links to India were perhaps a psychological tie to the ancestors of his grandmother. The connection would not have been lost on Xan, but the subtly of it has long gone for the modern-day enquirer searching out his story, but it is one that the Armenian community of today will enjoy and perhaps be a little surprised at too.
Percy Feilmann’s Anglicising to Fielding

Again, stepping sideways for a moment in this story of Armenian ancestry, and Vivien Leigh and her cousins, I want to turn now to the Feilmann name. Although not directly connected to Vivien Leigh they would have been an enormous support to her mother Gertrude when her own father died. It goes a little way to explaining how, with some astute forward thinking, Xan’s grandfather Percy Feilmann (Vivien’s uncle) and his family went from being German Jews from Hamburg to accepted members of colonial society in India and England as well as the South of France. How exactly did Alexander Percival Feilmann Wallace aka ‘Xan’ end up with the surname Fielding and also having his Armenian heritage set aside, just as his cousin Vivien’s Armenian heritage had been?

We have already seen the evidence of Xan being baptised twice, once in the name of his birth father Wallace, and secondly in a subtle shift to the double-barrelled surname of Fielding-Wallace. The name of Feilmann in Calcutta was synonymous with the animal hide and tannery business.[13] Hugo Vickers in his biography of Vivien Leigh described Percival Feilmann as a “box-wallah” i.e. a travelling salesman or merchant. This is incorrect, in fact Percy was involved with the tanning business, an area his uncle Maurice Feilmann was also involved in. They regularly exported raw hides to Europe, which were then made into shoes, bags, rugs and other items. It was Vivien’s uncle by marriage Ernest Lehmann who had married Vivien’s aunt Agnes (Gertrude’s sister) in 1898 in Darjeeling that was an agent of wooden boxes and chemical remedies.

As I looked into the Feilmann name and in particular the background of Alexander’s grandfather Percival Feilmann/Fielding I made some fascinating, if a little disturbing discoveries. Firstly, his full name was Percival Maurice David Feilmann[14] born in Hamburg on the 27th September 1864[15] according to the naturalisation document of “doubtful origin”, meaning that although his father John Bernhard Feilmann was born and brought up in Germany, Percy strongly maintained that his father had been naturalised as a British Subject, purely on hearsay no proof was ever remitted to this effect. Other independent records suggest that the Feilmann’s had a Jewish German family history. As remarkable as ‘Xan’ was during his lifetime, so indeed was his grandfather. Percy underwent the most unusual step of acquiring naturalisation as a British subject THREE TIMES during his lifetime each with a distinct ruthless calculation to erase anything German from his background. According to official records, the first application was made in India in 1905. Unfortunately there are no copies available of the 1905 certificate, but there are for the other two.

The next in 1916 and lastly in 1919 he was again granted naturalisation as a British subject.

Percy’s Special Naturalization Certificate was granted in India by the Governor General and he swore Allegiance to His Majesty King George 5th on the 6th November 1919 when his application was finalised. His naturalization application stated his parents were John aka Julius Bernhard Feilmann and Caroline Farlow, both British subjects. Although Julius is likely to have also been born in Germany he must have also applied for Naturalisation, although I haven’t been able to locate it yet (and having read Percy’s file, I am in some doubt as to whether Julius really was ever a naturalised British citizen). John and Caroline had married in Calcutta in 1855[16] and had at least 8 children, 6 of whom were born in Calcutta, Percy and his sister Alicia were the only 2 who were not.

Feilmann’s Anglicising to Fielding

… In the 1919 application Percy Feilman in a clear contradiction to his signed and sworn affidavit of 1916 attempted to change his father’s nationality. He had effectively disowned and sold his late father down the river for 30 Rupees – which is what it cost to have the naturalisation certificate endorsed in India.

Xan Fielding would have learnt at the knee of a master manipulator the techniques he would use in later life on how to successfully play one side off against the other during the course of his career. His grandfather had successfully displayed such qualities and had no hesitation in lying and denying his own heritage. Percy cleverly manipulated the Indian Government authorities into granting him three naturalisation certificates just because he didn’t want his father listed as German. The erasure of his origins was the most important fact Percy needed to achieve. It makes one wonder exactly how he managed to pull off such an unusual act of administrative penmanship and who exactly he was on particularly friendly terms with to achieve such a collection of certificates. They were so readily agreed to in India but were looked upon with suspicion at the Home Office in London.

Read the full article with documents here.

Please consider supporting Wild Carpathia 4

Over seventy people have now backed the funding of the next Wild Carpathia film, White Carpathia, and many came from this site. They have pledged over £9,000, but much more is needed to meet the target of £50,000 over the 25 days left for fundraising.

As we saw with the shooting of Cecil the Lion in Zimbabwe in July, wildlife and habitats all over the world are in danger from thieves, poachers, corrupt officials, and frankly the rich trying to enrich themselves even further or taking what they think they can buy. This is our collective heritage and no-one has the right to take it away from us. The countryside of Romania, and the Carpathians in particular which are rich in native trees and wildlife including wolves, European bear, lynx and deer, are true gems with a complex eco-system which need to be preserved and managed to provide income for local people. What is happening there now with the illegal destruction of the pristine forest is not management but rape.  It is theft, aided and abetted by corrupt officials and locals who just need a job.

Please consider giving something to this cause to ensure that the film is made, which can only add to the common understanding of the the beauty and value of this land that Paddy loved possibly even more than Greece. Raising awareness leads to raised pressure on politicians and authorities to do more. A small donation now may make a big difference.

You can pledge anything from a few pounds to as much as you like at the Kickstarter site here. Thank you.

Read more here.

An award in memory of William Stanley Moss at University of Crete

Gabriella Bullock (Left) and guests at the inaugural awards 21 July 2015

Gabriella Bullock (Left) and guests at the inaugural awards 21 July 2015

In July, Gabriella Bullock, one of “Billy” Moss’ daughters, travelled to Crete with her husband Hugh to present the inaugural prize in Billy’s memory at the University of Crete in Rehtymnon. The annual William Stanley Moss award is open to graduate students of the Faculty of Philosophy studying the subjects of Philology, History and Archaeology.

Gabriella is funding the award from royalties of her father’s books as an expression of gratitude and debt to the Cretan people on behalf of her father. She described the whole experience as ‘very moving, very dignified and warm and emotional for everyone.’

The ceremony on 21 July was attended by the Metropolitan of Rethymno and Avlopotamos the Reverend Nicholas Nikiforakis, the Rector Euripides C. Stephen, the Dean of the Faculty of Philosophy Lucia Athanassakis, the Dean of the School of Education Anthony Chourdakis, the Chairman of the Department of Literature Angela Kastrinaki the President of Department of History and Archaeology Antonia Kiousopoulou, Emeritus Professor Anastasios Nikolaidis, Professors of academic departments of the University of Crete, Foundation staff and students.

Gabriella and Hugh went on to deliver talks in Anogeia and Patsos where they met many relatives of those who worked with Billy and Paddy in those desperate days of the war.

Upcoming PLF Society events

A couple of dates for your diary from the PLF Society. A daughter and dad act for the autumn.

Patrick Leigh Fermor in Greece – Artemis Cooper

DATE: Tuesday 8th September 2015 TIME: 7:15pm

LOCATION: Great Hall, Hellenic Centre, 16-18 Paddington St, London W1U 5AS

RSVP info@patrickleighfermorsociety.org

Paddy’s World – John Julius Norwich

John Julius Norwich is patron of the Patrick Leigh Fermor Society and knew PLF for more than fifty years.

DATE: Tuesday 10th November 2015 TIME: 7:15pm

LOCATION: Great Hall, Hellenic Centre, 16-18 Paddington St, London W1U 5AS

RSVP info@patrickleighfermorsociety.org



Why (some of) the Most Popular Hiking Memoirs Don’t Go the Distance

Whilst I find Bill Bryson amusing, his, possibly contrived, whimsey would probably get on my nerves if I read too much of him. I have never read A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail, but I have sometimes thought how it must be to walk it. During my Camino to Santiago de Compostela I walked for some days with a guy who had done it three times; he was all at once a loner but at the same time he craved company. I guess that you really do have to be a loner to walk all 2,200 miles of the Appalachian Trail. I thought that you might find this article interesting, and it may whet your appetite for watching the movie of the book (walking movies are all the rage) which stars Robert Redford and Nick Nolte, due for release 2 September.

By Robert Moor

First published in the New Yorker, 21 August 2015

When I was eighteen, I bought a copy of Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail which remains, if my conversations with strangers are any indication, the only book anyone has ever read about the Appalachian Trail. It was summer. My friend Andy and I had driven across the country and ended up in the town of Sheridan, Wyoming, where we stayed for a week with a genial middle-aged couple, family friends of my friend. Scanning my hosts’ bookshelves, as I have a tendency to do, I was quietly horrified to discover that they were exclusively stocked with works of pop evangelicalism (Rick Warren and the like). It was a literary desert: xeric, Mosaic. Bryson’s book was the only one I’d brought, so, while Andy rode dirt bikes with a guy named Dusty, I lay on a fold-out couch in the basement, consuming it in controlled bursts, as if bolting food rations.

I had dreamed of hiking the Appalachian Trail since I was ten years old. From Bryson’s wry, well-researched account, I began to learn how it would feel to walk through two thousand miles of mountainous wilderness. What stood out most were the descriptions of “tranquil tedium,” a seemingly endless trudge through the “cubic” vastness of deep woods. “At times,” he writes, “you become almost certain that you slabbed this hillside three days ago, crossed this stream yesterday, clambered over this fallen tree at least twice today already. But most of the time you don’t think. No point. Instead, you exist in a kind of mobile Zen mode, your brain like a balloon tethered with string, accompanying but not actually part of the body below. Walking for hours and miles becomes as automatic, as unremarkable, as breathing.”

Around page one hundred, I reached the passage where Bryson and his hiking partner study a wall-map of the trail in an outdoors store, in Gatlinburg, and, overcome by the sight of how little of it they had already walked, decide to skip the state of North Carolina and drive to Virginia. I let out a howl of indignation and threw the book against the wall. But, needing to know how the book ended, I picked it back up again. I repeated the cycle (howl, throw, retrieve) when Bryson decided to skip the northern portion of Virginia and just drive up the trail, taking hikes here and there, and again when he quit a quarter of the way through the Hundred-Mile Wilderness, at which point he concludes, defiantly, “I don’t care what anybody says. We hiked the Appalachian Trail.”

There, in that basement, I resolved that one day I would hike the trail the right way: from end to end, in one continuous trip—what’s often called a “thru-hike,” always with that peculiar, abridged spelling, otherwise reserved for fast-food signage and nineteenth-century poetry.

I eventually did so, in 2009. It was roughly how Bryson described it: long, hard, and monotonous, but also beautiful and enlightening and wonderfully (and then, later, worryingly) slimming. While hiking the trail, I learned that whenever a thru-hiker met a day-hiker (as thru-hikers somewhat dismissively refer to those who are “just out for the day”), the day-hiker would invariably ask the same question: “Have you read ‘A Walk in the Woods’?”

Many thru-hikers bristle at this question. By quitting in Gatlinburg and then hop-skipping up the trail, Bryson bastardized the central conceit of a thru-hike, which is that you hike through—through mountains and valleys, through farms and small towns, through pain, through hunger, through nagging doubt. For thru-hikers, the continuity is the point, in the same way that running a marathon is more meaningful than running four separate 6.5-mile races. Certain thru-hikers, referred to as “purists,” take this emphasis on continuity to obsessive lengths. Some touch or kiss every blaze of white paint along the trail, while others carefully line up their shoes, like Japanese slippers, in the precise spot they entered a lean-to, so as to know exactly where to resume hiking the next day.

Bryson thus finds himself in the curious position of being both the outward face of the Appalachian Trail and its most inwardly mocked figure. This discrepancy will likely intensify when the film version of the book, starring Robert Redford and Nick Nolte, premières on September 2nd. I gather that some people who have thru-hiked the Pacific Crest Trail feel similarly about “Wild,” Cheryl Strayed’s best-selling hiking-memoir-turned-feature-film about hiking one third of the P.C.T. There is also the curious case of Paulo Coelho, the author of, among other books, “The Pilgrimage,” a best-selling account of walking the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, the famed network of pilgrimage routes across Spain (and beyond). Coelho quit in the town of O Cebreiro, some hundred miles short of his destination, and then rode in a bus to Santiago de Compostela. According to a profile of Coelho published in this magazine in 2007, the proprietor of a hotel along the Camino told Coelho that his book had done wonders for his business. “As Hemingway was for San Fermín, you are for the pilgrimage!” he exclaimed.

The question arises: why are the three most famous accounts of hiking three of the world’s most famous long-distance trails written by people who did not hike the whole distance?

One obvious answer: great writers are simply less athletic than your average human. But this theory crumbles upon closer inspection. John Muir walked a thousand miles, from Kentucky to the Gulf of Mexico, while Vachel Lindsay walked from Illinois to New Mexico, Matsuo Bashō walked the length of Honshu and back, Rory Stewart walked across the mountains of South Asia, Robyn Davidson walked across Australia, and Patrick Leigh Fermor walked across Europe.

In fact, I would argue that the loneliness and skull-bound nature of a long-distance hike fits quite nicely with the thinking out, if not the actual writing, of books. The dusty back aisles of Amazon are glutted with first-person accounts of successful thru-hikes, most of which tend to be buffed-up re-writes of the author’s trail journal. These books have a limited audience (namely, other thru-hikers), whereas the books that become best-sellers speak to people who would never embark on a long-distance hike in the first place. “A book about hiking the Appalachian Trail? Spare me. I could imagine it: We walked. We saw trees. We went up. We went down,” snarked a 1998 article in the New York Times, before praising the many charms of Bryson’s book.

The rare best-sellers leap this pitfall by hitching onto other well-established genres: Bryson’s is a humorous travelogue, Strayed’s a memoir about healing, and Coelho’s a quest novel. They also avoid the doldrums of strict, day-by-day linear storytelling. Instead, Bryson chunks his trip into discrete regions, drilling down into the history of each; Strayed pares the story back to a string of anecdotes, and then interweaves them with flashbacks from her rocky upbringing; and Coelho structures the walk around a series of spiritual “exercises”—battle a dog, climb a waterfall, raise a cross—assigned by his guide, Petrus. The reader is never tempted to skip ahead to see if the author finished the trek or not, because that has ceased to be the point.

Finally, all three narrators share the nervous, wide-eyed enthusiasm of a greenhorn. Reading the list of extraneous items that Bryson and Strayed packed for their thru-hikes—folding cutlery, a plastic dish, a spare gas bottle, four bandannas, a “big knife for killing bears and hillbillies”; a towel, binoculars, a foldable saw, a stainless-steel digging trowel, a metal votive-candle lantern, shampoo, conditioner, a hairbrush—made this minimalist’s teeth grind. But I imagine that a non-hiker might read that same list and think, “Oh wow, is that all? For four months?” Because they began in places of utter ineptitude and painfully ascended to the status of hardened veterans, Strayed, Bryson, and Coelho were able to fashion engaging emotional trajectories for their books. But that same lack of preparation and training made it exceedingly difficult for them to finish the trail, so they were ultimately forced to trim back their ambitions.

It has been twelve years since I last read A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail I picked it up once following my thru-hike, but I found I was too close to the material; I quibbled over every description, guffawed over every misstep. Recently, while working on my own book about trails, I picked up my old copy again. Reading it as a writer, rather than a hiker, it felt fresh. In a voice at turns erudite, acid, and tender, it somehow manages to provide a brisk overview of both the long history and the vast expanse of the trail. Bryson captures the alienating shift in perception that attends a return to civilization from an extended stay in the wilderness, and uses that weird lens to inspect the more grotesque aspects of American society. He manages to sound the depths of a lifelong friendship without becoming maudlin. And he ultimately succeeds in claiming a personal victory from an otherwise botched expedition. In the book’s concluding pages, he catalogues all he gained from his hike: “For a brief, proud period I was slender and fit. I gained a profound respect for the wilderness and nature and the benign dark power of woods. I understand now, in a way I never did before, the colossal scale of the world. I found patience and fortitude that I didn’t know I had. I discovered an America that millions of people scarcely know exists. I made a friend. I came home.”

In the end, as at the beginning, I found “A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail to be a delightful little book. Still, I don’t care what anybody, including the author, says: Bill Bryson did not hike the Appalachian Trail.

Buy A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail

Views of Dumbleton Church

Thank you to Brooke Rozorio for sending me these recent shots of Dumbleton church to share with you all.