In Calgary, this past spring, I had the real pleasure of reading Leo Brent Robillard‘s fourth novel, The Road to Atlantis. The publisher had asked me to blurb it, which means to give it a tidbit of praise they can use on the cover, and I’m usually careful with these things so I didn’t agree until I’d checked out some of his work and started reading. The book drew me in quickly with its tender, evocative, well-paced tale of a family thrashing and trying to heal following the drowning of the daughter/sister. I like how Quill & Quire described it: “a welcome rarity: a multi-generational family saga that zips along at the pace of a thriller.”
I also found out that Brent’s a walker and as J. and I are already busy planning a few weeks of hiking in the Hebrides next summer, I thought I’d ask him to share some thoughts about what it means to him to get out on his feet. As usual, his writing is precise and profound, so give this a read and then, if you’d like a chance to win one of his books, post a comment about either why you’d like to read The Road to Atlantis or where you like to walk. I’ll do a random draw and contact the lucky winner.
“To be properly enjoyed, a walking tour should be gone upon alone.”
-Robert Louis Stevenson
“I am then never less alone than when alone.”
I don’t walk enough. Don’t get me wrong, as a teacher, I am on my feet all day. I probably rack up five or six kilometers before three o’clock. I’m a pacer. It helps me think clearly. When I speak of walking, I really mean hiking, or backpacking. But Wordsworth would never have used these North American idioms. And when I think of hiking, I think of Wordsworth and Coleridge and Hazlitt – those English walkers out on the wolds. I imagine what it must have been like to step out the front door of Dove Cottage and into the hills of the Lake District, leaving behind “the more tedious and less specific.”
But I also think of the American Thoreau, who went to the woods because he “wished to live deliberately.”
Of course, mostly, I do not think of walking or hiking at all. I plan for it. I buy the necessary supplies. I pack my bag carefully. I take a map. But thinking about walking is counterintuitive. To walk is to have your mind expand.
My favourite landscape is one of trees and lakes and rivers. But most importantly, mountains. A weekend in the High Peaks of the Adirondacks in Northern New York is sacred. Following the smooth stone highway of Johns Brook into the heart of the Armstrong Range is one of life’s great joys. Surrounded by Gothics, Saddleback, Basin, and Marcy, as I strike out for Slant Rock and lonely Haystack, is like reconnecting with old friends.
Each step is a casting off of life’s distractions. Hydro bills and mortgage payments drop to the footpath and are crushed under foot. Your legs, instantly tired, slowly find their strength, and your lungs adapt to the demand for more oxygen. You move into the silence of the woods at a distinctly human pace. There’s no rush. Nothing is more important than the placement of your feet as you move around rock and root.
Like this you learn to appreciate the essential.
Problems solve themselves in the forest. Stories clarify their intent. It is no small coincidence that so many authors have been, and continue to be, proponents of walking. Large swaths of novel have unfurled themselves to me unbidden while I’ve walked.
But walking in the mountains, in particular, is also a lesson in perspective. Alone on the eroding rock face of a summit, buffeted by wind, after hours of exertion and the last minutes of four-limbed scramble over stone and around the delicate Arctic growth of Deer’s Hair Sedge, I cannot describe that moment of elation that comes from witnessing the world tilt away in all directions. Or the moment you catch a Broad-Winged Hawk quietly hunting thermals upward from the valley floor. We are so very small here. And so perfectly integral.
Thoreau said it best, “As you simplify your life, the laws of the universe will be simpler.” And what can be simpler, or more humbling, than a walk in the woods? That quintessential art of falling forward.
Where do you most like to hike or walk, and/or why does Brent’s new novel appeal to you? Let me know in the comments for a chance to win a copy of this terrific book! Good luck!