MILES AWAY: A WALK ACROSS FRANCE by Miles Morland. Random House, 238 pp., $21.
ABOUT halfway through this charming account of a couple's walk across France, the author, who recently quit a lucrative job at an investment company and has also just reunited with his wife, acknowledges that this walk is a sort of pilgrimage. ``I like pilgrimages, journeys with a destination, both physically and in the soul. I felt our walk was a pilgrimage of a kind, not just a journey from sea to sea, but a crossing into a different life.'' You finish ``Miles Away: A Walk Across France'' thinking every marriage, indeed every person, needs what Miles Morland and his wife refer to as ``the Walk.''
The part of France they walk through is not as constantly written about as the popular and picturesque Provence. Stretching from Narbonne on the Mediterranean Sea to just north of Biarritz on the Atlantic Ocean, the region the couple covers has many of the aspects of Provence: the little villages with an air of history, the tiled roofs, the out-of-the-way restaurants (which, contrary to popular opinion, don't all rate stars), the slower pace of life, the sun, but, unlike Provence, not so many tourists. It's the perfect spot to figure out one's future, reinvigorate one's marriage, and all at the pace of 15 miles a day.
That's not exactly a stroll. The Morlands meticulously planned their itinerary so they could carry few possessions. They washed out their clothes every night before falling into bed at small hotels spaced fairly evenly apart. This walk was an important symbol for the rejuvenation of their marriage, and it was a risky move. Take a long walk with someone, even someone you think you know well, and you have the potential for tremendous rows. Miles and his wife, Guislaine, have a few, but not enough to threaten their commitment to each other and the Walk.
There is a difference between a writer like Morland and polished literary travel writers like Bruce Chatwin and Jan Morris. Morland has a funny raw enthusiasm which is rarely cloying. This is someone who can write, ``Poppies are my flower.... There had been poppies [in England], but poor lonely things in their ones and twos where the farmers had forgotten to put herbicide. Here it was different. Whole fields were gashed red, acre on acre of poppy.''
Interspersed throughout the book are little historical diversions about the Black Prince, Napoleon and Wellington, and local lore. One of my favorites, recounted by a friend of the Morlands, was about why the French put rosebushes at the end of their vines: ``In the days before tractors they used to use oxen to plough between the vines. Every time they reached the end of a row, the ox would take a bloody great mouthful of vine while he was turning into the next row. They planted the roses to give the ox a muzzleful of thorns instead.''
For Morland, the end result of such a long walk (553 kilometers or 350 miles) is that he thinks about his life, what got him to where he is, and what he's going to do after he stops putting one foot in front of the other.
So the reader learns along the Walk a lot about Morland's life at a big investment company, about why he quit his job and why his wife left him, and how the two got back together again.
Morland paces his narrative well. As soon as the talk about blisters, kilometer counts, and alternative routes gets tiresome, he shifts to the past, life in frenetically paced New York or London. By the end, it's understandable why he made the job switch and you wish him well in his new life. In fact, you rather want to join him. He now lives on a houseboat on the Thames with his family and is writing a new book.
The best time to read ``Miles Away'' is right now when the first chills of autumn are drifting up through the floor cracks, or better yet, in the middle of winter, when it's the time to roll out the maps and plan your own Walk.