I had spent quite a bit of the day at my desk. Mid-afternoon, I needed to find some head room. I’d already been out to putter in my small garden, which thanks to a bit of poor planning is overrun with flourishing tomatillo plants that have grown tall enough look me in the eye. I also have tomato and cucumber plants that are fiercely determined to wrestle the tomatillos to the ground. I was forced to cut off a few appendages (from the plants) that had broken in a recent storm, which turned out to be good news for the peppers. I’d picked (and eaten) all the ripe golden cherry tomatoes and strawberries that I could find. There was nothing left but to go for a walk, which I didn’t want to do.
Nearly every day, I walk, most often to the post office downtown. My town is small. I live on the southern edge, and if I’m to get in 10, 000 steps a day by taking walks, it will take three trips to the post office, which is in the center of downtown, there and back. Since I only get mail in my PO box every few weeks, one walk to the post office a day can look like a ruse as it is. A second or third is absurd.
So gardening was out, as was walking, but I was still needing space away from my desk and the house so I wheeled my bicycle out of the garage and pedaled off. A few blocks from my house, I turned north onto Viola Street, one of those places where the trees stretch toward each other creating a tall arch of foliage over the road and, for reasons related to my first childhood reading of the book, often makes me think of the road leading up to town inhabited by the Dufflepuds, the invisible monopod creatures in Lewis’s The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. But I wasn’t thinking of Dufflepuds this time, nor of King Edmund and Queen Lucy’s journey with Prince Caspian.
I was thinking instead of Harold Fry.
I was thinking about how his pilgrimage on foot (in yachting shoes) to Berwick-upon-Tweed to keep the ailing Queenie Hennessy alive might have been different if he’d set out by bicycle instead of walking, not the least of which differences would have been that his feet wouldn’t have been in such a constant state of blistering, though in return he may have needed to apply plasters to his arse, especially if he was not accustomed to riding and if he didn’t have a cushioned seat.
Reading The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce was an unexpected delight, in something of the same way that riding my bicycle can be. Walking often strikes me as less work, until I am midway through and still needing to put one foot in front of the other in the summer heat when I’m wishing that I’d not worn long sleeves, or that I’d changed my shoes and put on white cotton socks, or that I’d stopped for an ice cream cone or at the very least brought along a bottle of water. It’s then that I realize that walking is its own kind of hard work. And riding a bicycle, which until I start can seem burdensome and unwieldy (I have to move the bike out of the garage, and climb onto it, and I can’t very well leave it by the side of the road if I get tired) turns out to be freeing because of the way one still moves forward even while resting.
Besides, biking is faster. Which means I can be done sooner and still feel just as good about my outing. And it’s here that I begin to wonder about Harold Fry. In the story, a man sets off (unintentionally) on a walk of around 500 miles, believing that as long as he keeps walking, the woman he is walking toward—an old friend who is dying in hospice care—will stay alive. Along the way, as one might expect of a weeks-long walking excursion, Harold Fry regains a sense of himself that he had lost.
But the timing is everything. Had Harold traveled to Berwick-upon-Tweed by bicycle he could have shaved weeks off the trip. By car or train, he’d have arrived in a day, maybe two. And what would be the benefit for either him or Queenie Hennessy of a shortened trip? He’d have had none of the experiences that led to his awakening (though perhaps saved himself the disorientation and disillusionment of being on the road for so long).
As Harold saw it, every day he walked was another day Queenie would live, so to shortcut the journey was to shortchange his friend. But there was always the chance that he would tarry too long. In one scene, Harold meets up with a famous actor in a restroom, and the actor, like many of the people Harold meets along the way, has ideas about how a guy should arrange such a trip:
If I were you, I’d get myself in a car.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Bollocks to the walk.”
Harold’s voice trembled. “The walk is the idea. That’s how she will live. John Lennon lay in a bed once. My son had a picture of him on his wall.”
“John Lennon had Yoko Ono and the world’s press in the bed as well. You’re on your own, slogging to Berwick-upon-Tweed. It’s going to take weeks. And supposing she didn’t get your message? They might have forgotten to tell her.” The actor’s mouth arched in a frown, as if he were thinking through the implications of such a mistake. “What does it matter if you walk or get a lift? It makes no difference how you get there. You’ve just got to see her. I’ll lend you my car. My driver. You could be there tonight.”
The door opened and a gentleman in shorts made his way to the urinal. Harold waited for him to finish. He needed the very famous actor to know that you could be ordinary and attempt something extraordinary, without being able to explain it in a logical way. But all he could picture was driving a car to Berwick. The actor was right. Harold had left a message, and sent postcards, but there was no proof she’d taken him seriously, or even heard about his call. He imagined sitting in the warmth of the car. If he said yes, he could be there in hours. He had to grip his hands to keep them from shaking.
“I haven’t upset you, have I” said the actor. His voice was suddenly tender. “I told you I was an arse.” Harold shook his head, but kept it bowed. He hoped the gentleman in shorts wasn’t looking.
“I have to keep walking, ” he said quietly, although he knew he was no longer certain.
Harold Fry, an ordinary man wearing ordinary clothes and ordinary shoes took an extraordinarily long walk to do an extraordinary thing. Whether there was another way to do it, or whether or not he could explain it to another’s satisfaction, or even whether he was always certain of the journey himself, Harold Fry knew only to keep walking.
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