There’s nothing like traveling on foot through breathtaking scenery to give you the emotional space to start thinking, as seasonal resident Kathy Elkind does about her past, present, and future in her new book “To Walk It Is to See It: 1 Couple, 98 Days, 14,000 Miles on Europe’s GR5.”
Through Elkind’s superb writing, we experience the sights, sounds, and tastes of her and her husband’s journey — both the exterior one through the countryside, as well as her profound personal insights and inner growth as they hike the entire Grande Randonnée Cinq (GR5), the long-distance trail from Hoek van Holland to Nice, on foot.
With the kids out of the house and wondering what was next, she writes, “This was the perfect time to pause. We had a shared vision to travel and adventure before our bodies began to fail us. This was a symbolic journey, representing leaving the old life and entering a new one. We would embark on an unknown adventure to find our true selves and discover who we were as a couple entering the last third of our lives.”
Traveling intensely with your partner can be like putting Miracle-Gro on your issues, and Elkind shares this part of her and her husband’s journey with grace and self-perception. Asked in an email if she learned anything about herself in the writing process, she replied, “Yes, by writing the dialogue between Jim and me, I learned that sometimes he was right, and I might have been wrong. Writing your partner’s dialogue is an interesting and revealing exercise. Sometimes I wished I had a therapist on speed dial.”
For Elkind, the trip was also a time to reflect on herself as a maturing woman. She writes, “I’ve checked all the boxes. Am I done? Is there more? In the society I’ve grown up in, women over a certain age become invisible and irrelevant. Youth is idealized, but there is change in the air. Strong older women are beginning to be valued. I’m not done.”
Elkind deftly weaves in some of her past to help us understand where she came from and the dynamics in her life. About her dyslexia and its impact when pretending to read in fourth grade, Elkind would turn the pages without reading. Yet she worried, “Was I turning the pages too fast? Too slow? Would someone find out that I was pretending? It took a lot of work to pretend to read — to pretend to be normal … Pretending was exhausting. It emptied my heart. At the same time, the shame kept growing. Shame is emptiness.”
Elkind experiences significant growth and healing along her journey. At one point, she writes, “Walking across Europe has given me the time to practice savoring all delights. I’m an expert now … I’m full and content in infinite ways. My hunger for walking, pure food, beauty, connection with my partner, and alone time is satiated. The GR5 becomes the wise woman showing me the way.”
Elkind told me in the email that she was inspired to write “To Walk It Is to See It” because “when I got home from the walk, I did not want it to end. I was thinking and dreaming about it. I had a deep desire or need to share the GR5 with the world. When I wrote about our journey, I could still experience the trail in a new way.”
Interestingly, Elkind did not keep an extensive journal, but rather just wrote a paragraph each day. However, these, along with her husband’s journal and the more than 2,000 photos and videos she took, helped jog her memory when writing. Elkind shares, “I loved diving deep into a scene and putting myself back on the trail. I worked hard to share the scene with the reader using words.” She describes the walk successfully: “The next morning when we walk over a rise, an expansive landscape paints the scene in front of us. Reverence hovers in the view. The winding road in the foreground curves through rolling green hills. In the distance, the Vosges Mountains’ enthusiastic blue peaks are silhouetted against the tranquil sky. We are leaving the Lorraine. Good-bye to baby frogs, nesting storks, quiche, mousse, and mirabelles …”
Elkind’s book is satisfyingly rich, whether she is writing about her interior or the exterior landscape. Ultimately, she hopes that readers will recognize, “We are all stronger physically and emotionally than we think we are, especially when we go at our own pace. And walking is the best way to see a country. Try a walking vacation or adventure. To walk a country is to see a country.”
“To Walk It Is to See It” by Kathy Elkind, available at Bunch of Grapes and Edgartown Books. Kathy Elkin will be at the Chilmark library on Wednesday, Sept. 27, at 5 pm.