There was a time when British writer Annabel Abbs spent her vacations climbing mountains and hiking wilderness trails. But that "ceased abruptly with the birth of our first child," she writes in "Windswept," her memoir.
Years later, a fall and a conk on the head shook her out of her sedate urban life. "All holidays, from this point forward, will be walking holidays," she declares. Looking for inspiration, she turns to her bookshelf — whereupon she realizes that all of her hiking memoirs were written by men. Where are the women?
And so she begins to dig. In museums and libraries, she finds old photos of nameless women "walking and climbing in tight corsets, trailing skirts, and wide-brimmed hats." She finds written accounts — most unpublished, or out of print — of women's long-distance treks.
In "Windswept," she follows in the footsteps of eight women who were long-distance hikers. Some I'd heard of (artists Georgia O'Keeffe and Gwen John), some I hadn't heard of (Clara Vyvyan and Frieda von Richthofen) and some I would never in a million years have associated with hiking (Simone de Beauvoir and Daphne du Maurier).
Part memoir, part biography, part history, part rumination, "Windswept" is a fascinating, deeply thoughtful read. It delves into all sorts of questions about these eight women in particular, and about walking women in general. Why did they hike? What did they wear? Did they hike alone, or with someone? What compelled them? What did striding through forests or scrambling up mountains do for them? Where did they sleep? (In haystacks, fairly often.) Weren't they afraid? (Mostly, yes. But they kept going.)
Each chapter is devoted to one woman; Abbs tells their story, hikes their route as best she can (though in most cases the landscape has changed greatly over time) and uses their stories to ponder her own.
She writes cogently about fear. "Being alone in remote places makes us feel vulnerable," she writes. "Will I be harassed or assaulted? Will I arrive before dark? Is this area safe?"
She explores practical issues that are not often openly discussed: How did these women deal with menstruation out on the trail? What did they do when they needed a bathroom?
Abbs herself spends "far too much mental effort on finding suitably discreet locations," once veering off a canal path for 30 minutes to find a private spot to squat. But as she resumes her walk, a boat sails past her down the canal. On the back of the boat, a man stands, "peeing into the canal, making careless arcs of urine in the air. And grinning at me."
Symbols! They are everywhere, when you look.
The women she writes about were nothing short of remarkable, covering sometimes as much as 30 miles a day in long skirts. Simone de Beauvoir hiked in "an old dress and espadrilles, with a basket of buns and bananas over her arm," and still managed to cover 25 miles a day in the hills around Marseilles. Von Richthofen sometimes hiked barefoot.
At times, Abbs veers too far into speculation as to why these eight women walked, or what it did for them, and at other times her musing wanders a little off course. For instance, when writing about Georgia O'Keeffe's penchant for collecting things — fossilized shells, feathers, rocks — she writes, "When we collect things, aren't we really collecting the scattered pieces of ourselves?"
Well, no, not necessarily. But these oversteps might just be evidence of Abbs' determination to get to the essence of what motivated these women, who, she writes, "walked for inspiration, consolation, and liberation."
"Windswept" is a thoughtful dive into how hiking settled the minds and calmed the nerves of eight women — as well as the author. After all, "Walking," Abbs writes, "is nothing less than the bodily articulation of freedom."
Laurie Hertzel is senior editor for books at the Star Tribune. • @StribBooks
By: Annabel Abbs.
Publisher: Tin House, 368 pages, $26.95.