A Hiker's History Of Hoofin' It

Huffing and puffing from Georgia to Italy

One of the delights of my life is to sling a light backpack over my shoulders and start walking.

I began with the Appalachian Trail, starting in Georgia and hiking into North Carolina. Most recently a visit to Arizona led me to hike around Sedona and in a corner of the Grand Canyon.

I've also taken more formal walking tours in England, France, and Italy. Each offers something special, and I wouldn't have missed out on any of them.

I love the Appalachian Trail's wild beauty, and the informality and cordiality of the hikers. The trail requires ferrying two cars, leaving them at different places, or using one car and having to retrace your steps.

A hiking career

Nonetheless, the experience has made me appreciate this country, its pioneers, and rugged scenery. It was a wonderful start to my hiking career, and once a year or so, I enjoy tackling it again.

I also loved my walks in the red rock country around Sedona, and at the Grand Canyon; after helicoptering to a Havasupai Indian Village in the canyon, our group took a two-hour walk with an Indian guide and shared lunch at the base of a waterfall.

My first organized walking tour was in the Cotswolds in England, where the local law provides for a public footpath through private and public lands. Owners must maintain the paths well enough to ensure they are accessible.

There are a great many stiles - gate-like dividers between the properties - in the Cotswolds, as the properties and fields are so small. We would wager how many stiles there were in a day's walk. The winner was crowned with a wreath of Queen Anne's lace.

One thing I discovered on this walk is that I appreciate seeing nature in relationship to man-made things - such as walking through a field of wild Queen Anne's lace, then another of bright yellow canola, followed by a Cotswold village built of warm yellow stone, with thatched roofs or shingles and beautifully tended gardens.

I've traveled with the Cotswold tour company, The Wayfarers, on two other walks: the Loire Valley in France, and the Lorna Doone Trail in England.

Like many companies, Wayfarers has two employees taking care of approximately 10 walkers. One drives a van, the other leads the walk.

The van driver is often a "super mom" who picks up the luggage in the morning and takes it to the next B&B or quaint hotel, and meets the group during the day with cookies, fruit, and soft drinks (you can request your favorite in advance).

Three or four times a day the driver meets the group, allowing you, if you wish, to request a ride to the next lodging or to spend the rest of the day on your own, or ride with her as she shops at bakeries, grocery stores, and elegant carry-out places that provide meals, snacks, and picnics.

Lunch is always enjoyable local cuisine, such as a ploughman's special (a long loaf of bread split and filled with ham and cheese or other goodies) eaten on the deck of an English restaurant, or soup by the fire of a small Tuscan cafe, or a picnic in the ruins of a French castle.

After an afternoon break for tea, more walking is done, with an extra bit of trail for the zealous who want to get in 14 miles for the day - as if they are paying by the mile!

The groups are by and large composed of gregarious sorts; since the pacing determines who your companion will be, you may find yourself walking awhile with one person, then either a single lane or a stile may interrupt the conversation and give you a new companion.

Ages of the group vary - some are senior citizens, who are often in the best shape.

On the Cotswold trip, several 70-plus-year-olds who walked every day at home hiked rings around the rest of us. Married couples, parent-adult-child combos, and good friends are generally part of any group, since the majority of rooms call for double occupancy.

Charm of B&Bs

I'm always glad to get back to my room, particularly relishing the charming bed and breakfast inns that offer cozy rooms and a bathtub deep enough for a proper soak.

After a nap, there is dinner. Meals are usually preordered, with various choices (including vegetarian) made available each day.

For those who do not drink, these tours offer a perfectly comfortable environment, even when meetings are sometimes held in a restaurant's pub bar. Wine is occasionally included with meals, but copious amounts of bottled water or juices are also paid for, so one need not be concerned about paying for wine served to others.

This was also true in Tuscany, where my only option to see Italy's glorious fall was a wine tour with Backwoods, an upscale company that started as a biking tour agency and has added walkers.

Cooking lessons in Tuscany

Tuscany is a series of hills, each with stunning views of vineyards and villages, olive and fruit trees, and an enveloping autumn warmth that is neither too hot nor too cold.

We took cooking lessons in a home kitchen, rolling out pasta and making bruschetta. We made pizza in an outdoor brick fireplace next to a vineyard. When we visited a winery, I sat and read with my back to the winery wall - with an incredible vista at my feet - while the others went inside for a tasting.

The working staff set a picnic table with tomatoes (so red and sweet that I couldn't stop snitching) and tiny olives intense with flavor.

Whether it was because I was ravenous or the setting added its own seasoning, I remember it as one of the most outstanding meals of my life, even when compared to the superlative dinners we had in grand Tuscan restaurants.

As a whole, the Backwoods group was younger and more fitness-oriented than my Wayfarer groups.

The cost of a Backwoods tour is higher than Wayfarers and the accommodations scaled up to match.

Each of my walking trips has provided a diversity of highlights, with some unique experiences: in Tuscany, for example, a visit to a falconer's, tea in a castle, and a cooking school; and in the Loire Valley, a visit to a troglodyte cave home carved in a mountainside. The host was a teacher who expanded his home by digging with large spoons!

Encounters with people and food

Walking gives you opportunities to get to know the local people in ways you never would through conventional tours.

Not only do gardens and architecture point up the special nature of the country's inhabitants, but also small things such as wild flowers in the fields, the paving in the roads, and the aroma of cooking meals enhance the experience and your understanding of the culture.

The foods of each area provide for vivid contrasts and many memories - France's sweet grated carrots, Italy's tomatoes, England's desserts and creams - to say nothing of the happy fact that, wherever you might travel, walking some 10 to 14 miles a day enables you to eat all you might want.

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