Get Out Your Walking Shoes

Sit back and get ready to enjoy a quiet and gentle read in The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry (2012) by Rachel Joyce.

Harold, 65 and recently retired, was only walking a letter to the mailbox at the end of the road.  At least that was his intention.  He had written a simple note to a former coworker he had not seen or heard from in about 20 years.  Queenie Hennessy had written from hospice to say goodbye to him.

For some reason Harold just could not let loose of that envelope.  Thoughts of his life with Maureen, his wife, and their son David entered his mind.  He passed by the post office and kept walking.

It was when he made a stop at a gas station seeking something to eat that he happens to meet the garage girl.  He explained he was mailing a letter to a friend with cancer.  The young girl gave him advice based on experience with a family member.

“You have to believe.  That’s what I think.  It’s not about medicine and all that stuff.  You have to believe a person can get better.  There is so much in the human mind we don’t understand.  But, you see, if you have faith, you can do anything.”  The words, faith and hope stayed with Harold.

He made a call to the hospice and left a message: “Tell her Harold Fry is on his way.  All she has to do is wait.”  Harold started his 500 mile walk to Berwick with no cell phone, no walking shoes, no map, no clothing and no plan other than giving Queenie hope.

Harold meets all sorts of folks along the way.  In fact, he becomes quite a celebrity.  He talks to those who cross his path, learns about their lives.  One large group joins him on his trek to Queenie and Harold almost lost his way.

Queenie is still alive when Harold arrives but very near death.  It is a bittersweet ending for Harold’s unlikely pilgrimage.  But, it is not the end of Harold’s story.  In many ways, it is a new beginning.

I finished Harold’s tale wanting to know about Queenie.  Author Rachel Joyce did not make wait too long with the companion novel.  The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy (2014) is not a sequel.  It is a parallel story. It is Queenie’s tender version of how she and Harold met, her time with David and her cottage and the sea garden.  I found it a very satisfying way to answer questions I had about why Harold felt compelled to make his pilgrimage.  I highly recommend both of these novels.

Harold’s story is purely fictional.  For a real-life story, you need to meet Emma Gatewood in Grandma Gatewood’s Walk (2014) by Ben Montgomery.  I was simply amazed by her adventures.

Sitting in the waiting room for a doctor’s appointment, Emma Gatewood picked up a dated magazine to kill time.  From reading an article in an old copy of “National Geographic” dated 1949, a seed had been planted in Emma’s mind.  She was hooked.  Emma was going to walk the Appalachian Trail (AT).  Those 19 pages of colored photos in the article made the walk look like a picnic.

Emma quietly prepared for her journey.  Money was a must so she began saving what she could from her $25 a week job in a nursing home.  She also had to work long enough to draw her minimum Social Security, $52 a month.

Besides making sure she had the financial end of the walk figured out, she began walking in January to be ready by her start date of May.  First it was just walking around the block.  Then she added distance a little at a time. By April she was walking 10 miles a day.

As time drew near items she felt she needed were packed in a cardboard box.  Included in that box was her drawstring denim sack she had made and a 25-cent memo book along with a pen…all of which will play an important role on down the line.  No one knew of her plans except the cab driver and a cousin.  She told her kids she was going on a walk.  They did not question it.

On May 2, 1955 Emma left Gallia County, Ohio to begin her quest of walking the length of the AT.  She began at Mt. Oglethorpe in Georgia.  By May 14 she crossed into North Carolina. In those first few days she had experienced swollen feet, washed her clothes in a spring, spotted copperheads, and enjoyed the Spring azaleas.

Her early days went along smoothly for the most part.  She found folks who would welcome her to overnight, others who refused and sent her on her way.  Somedays she had plenty to eat, others not so much.

Emma experienced both the beauty of the weather and its wrath.  She was very near her goal when a rogue hurricane blew through where she was hiking.  Just as things started calming down, a second major storm blew through.

Grandma Gatewood reached the highest point of Mount Katahdin in Maine on September 25, 1955, less than a month before her 68th birthday.  In 146 days she hiked through 13 states, covered 2050 miles wearing her seventh pair of sneakers.

“I did it.  I said I’d do it and I’ve done it.”  Emma then sang the first verse of “America the Beautiful” at the spot the sunshine first touches the United States in the morning.  And then she signed the register.

Her successful walk on the Appalachian Trail is NOT the end of Emma Gatewood’s story by any means.  Read Grandma Gatewood’s Walk.  She was one amazing woman.  She is walking proof that age, gender, education are not what matters.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email