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July 09, 2008

Trekking the Templar Trail: Q&A with Author Brandon Wilson


Author, photographer, and serial long-distance adventurer Brandon Wilson has walked six of the world's most important pilgrimage trails: the Camino de Santiago and Via de la Plata across Spain, the St. Olav's Way across Norway, and he was the first American to walk the 1,150-mile Via Francigena from England to Rome. In 2006, he pioneered the 2,620-mile Templar Trail through 11 countries from France to Jerusalem along the route of the First Crusades. Away.com caught up with Wilson over email to chat about life on the trail and his new book, Along the Templar Trail: Seven Million Steps for Peace. Visit www.pilgrimstales.com to learn more about Brandon Wilson.

You've completed a number of such long-distance treks. How does the Templar Trail compare?
This is the eighth trek I've made of over 1,000 kilometers (650 miles) and I've learned that each of them presents unique challenges. Although this wasn't as lung-searing as my trek across the Tibetan plains (where altitudes ranged between 12,000 and 17,000 feet), several factors made this more difficult. The distance was 2,620 miles, equivalent to walking from New York to LA. My French friend and I covered this in 160 days with 137 days of trekking, averaging 31 kilometers a day. That made it very different than my other treks, which only lasted 30 days. There's a huge added mental challenge to pace yourself for six months.

Then there was the wide range of weather. Temperatures ranged from snow and freezing rain to nearly 100 degrees. On one occasion we slogged through 18 out of 21 days of drizzle. Packing for all those variables can be tough—especially when I insist on traveling light. I carry only 15 to 17 pounds (seven kilos).

Unlike the other routes, we had no guidebook, good maps, or arrows to follow. We were re-blazing this trail. We set off to follow the path of the First Crusades, with our route roughly tracing a thousand-year-old map. Most of the major cities still exist, but as you can guess there have been a few major changes over the past millennia. Unlike trails such as the legendary Camino de Santiago across Spain with its albergues, we had no idea where we'd spend each night. In our effort to travel as lightly as possible, we didn't carry a tent and tried to stay in simple hostels, pensions, or monasteries. However, we seldom knew if the village at the end of each day's hike had lodging or not. Some days we arrived only to find it full, closed, or non-existent—so we had to continue to the next.

Finally, there were the language differences. The Templar Trail crosses 11 countries and two continents, so every couple of weeks I'd have to learn a whole new set of basic phrases ("Where is the bathroom?"). However, many more people these days are studying English, so it could have been much harder.

Can you tell us about some of the more unusual experiences on your trek through Europe and the Middle East?
I find that walking makes you very approachable. So some of my fondest memories are of people we met along the way.

One day I was out walking alone in the blazing heat across the high chaparral of Turkey. I was totally out of water without a house or village in sight. I finally spotted a cattle trough off the road and went down to fill my bottle. Well, the water was green and rank. Fortunately, I met two local fellows who led me behind an olive grove where their family had spread out a picnic. It was more food than I'd seen in weeks. They plied me with melon, tomatoes, bread, and feta cheese as they asked about my walk for peace. This intrigued them and one question led to another until finally they stood to leave.

"What about all this food?" I asked as they began to get into their van.

"Oh, it is for you!" they replied and drove off with a wave.

I couldn't believe my eyes. I was like the family dog left alone at the Thanksgiving Day table. I didn't know where to begin.

That's just one example of the generosity shown to us nearly every day by average people, all of whom expected nothing in return. Kindness was extended regardless of nationality, culture, or religion. And each day it was someone new: the waitress in a small café giving us a taste of a special local delicacy; a French family inviting us in out of the rain for homemade soup and wine; an innkeeper offering a free room; a fruit seller treating me to cool watermelon under the shade of his umbrella; a priest inviting us to spend the night in a 16th-century monastery. We approached strangers with openness and curiosity and were met with the same. After hearing the reason for our trek to Jerusalem, I like to think they each wanted to join us or participate in their own small way.

What about danger? Did it feel like a dangerous or foolhardy undertaking at any point?
There's always an element of danger in these treks. Hey, there's an element of danger just stepping out of your door. But I seldom worry about these things. You have to travel with a certain amount of trust and faith in your own instincts. Initially, the biggest concern was my friend's heath. He was 68 and a diabetic, so walking 30+ kilometers in extreme heat for eight hours a day posed a physical danger for him at times.

Then, once we left the bicycle trails that we'd followed through France, Germany, Austria, Slovakia, and Hungary, we were thrown onto country roads that too often became larger and busier as we approached Belgrade, Sofia, or Istanbul. At those times, we kept a constant eye out for pathways through pastures to avoid the onrush of trucks.

Finally, by the time we reached Belgrade, Israel and Hezbollah were trading missiles. Southern Lebanon was being evacuated. There was talk that this could be the beginning of WWIII.

That unplanned world event that made us re-examine the wisdom of our trek, but we avoided making any drastic decisions until we reached Istanbul, hoping for an all-clear sign by then.

What's your experience of long-distance hiking in the U.S.?
Most of my trekking experience has been abroad, although I've done extensive camping in the U.S. I know there are some great trails, but I've always been drawn more to the exotic and unknown. Besides, the wine's better.

If you can choose, what are the most rewarding aspects of these long-distance journeys?
I love slowing life down, reducing it to its bare essentials. Trekking is my Walden Pond. I've found that long-distance hiking is a trampoline for the mind, as you process a lifetime of thoughts, emotions, memories, and sensations. There's also the beauty of re-connecting with nature. Your senses become heightened, you're more aware of your surroundings. There's so much that we miss in our daily rush to get from here to there. I really delight in the minutiae of smells and sounds: the scent of an approaching cloudburst or hearing the scamper of a lizard in the brush.

I've also found an inner peace through these treks. I've lightened up my pack—and metaphorically my life. Long-distance trekkers know that special feeling, and we return with it to our homes, businesses, and communities. It's something that remains with us, a sanctuary when life becomes too crazy once again.

What keeps you motivated when things get really tough?
There's a part of my character that keeps me going; a tenacity that says, "Never give up." It's gotten me through some pretty tough adventures: when my wife and I were crossing Africa—especially climbing Kili in the dark of a moonless night. It got us across Tibet after being shot at by Chinese soldiers, shuffling through a blizzard, and slowly starving ourselves over 40 days.

But this Templar Trail presented a special motivation for me. It was, as Richard Bangs calls it, "Adventure with Purpose." I wanted to remind ordinary folks along the way that there are better ways to settle our differences than resorting to war. You constantly see reminders from centuries of conflict in Eastern Europe and the Middle East. Every dollar spent on weapons is one less available for education, hospitals, roads and bridges, tractors, housing, programs to eliminate poverty or to develop alternative energy. And you don't have to go abroad to see this.

I also wanted to increase awareness of this important historic trail, so that others will walk it in the future. That was a main reason for writing my book. I've realized that an amazing thing happens when folks walk together. At the end of the day, we all rub sore muscles and tend to blisters. We take cold showers and share stories and a bottle of wine around the dinner table. Before long, we realize we're not that different. Although we speak different languages, our hopes and dreams are very similar. We all want a better life for our families: healthcare, security, freedom, opportunity, a homeland. Much more than that is pure gravy.

Did you ever considering giving up?
Only on one occasion, just after I narrowly escaped becoming road-kill in Bulgaria. More often than not, I just felt lucky to revel in the freedom of the road.

How do you pack for such an undertaking?
Very lightly. A 2,620-mile trek is no walk in the park. So I whittled down my gear mostly to a change of clothes, med kit, camera, journal, sleepsheet, raingear, and cold-weather gear. (My book has a complete list.) Choose your clothing, shoes, and gear to match the terrain and conditions, but limit objects you may only use once or twice. Pick a lightweight pack (mine weighs just over a pound), and then make a test run. Pack it up and walk 20 to 30 kilometers over similar terrain in similar weather if possible. At the end of the day, it's amazing how much you can leave behind. Nowadays, companies like GoLite offer a wide range of lightweight gear.

Any other specific preparations?
I have my own regimen where I bulk up a little for two months in advance. I also carried rehydration powder on this trek for the Middle East. Sometimes I've jogged and lifted weights in advance of these trips, which helps with endurance. However, I've found it best to start slowly and give your body a week or so to get used to walking with a pack over different surfaces every day.

Besides your brain, your feet are the most important parts of your body on these hikes. On one of my first long treks, I worked out feverishly in advance, only to have my shoes blowout on the first day. I dragged into camp with eight blisters! So, I was forced to slow down for the first week to avoid too much pressure on my pitiful feet. That made all the difference. I discovered the beauty of slow travel.

Did you have a favorite place or country? If so, why?
There were too many favorites on this trek: the canals of eastern France (not to mention the local cheese), the vineyards and weinstubs of Austria, the culture of Budapest, the kindness and courage of the Serbs and Bulgarians, the amazing history of Istanbul, the wild beauty of central Turkey and its high steppes, the Templar heritage of Cyprus, the hospitality of the Israelis, and pure satisfaction of finally reaching Jerusalem.

What would you say to people who don't have two, three months to spare to "go long"? How can they unshackle the soul, so to speak, in a shorter timespan?
I like that term "unshackle the soul." Long-distance hiking is a transcendent experience. There are trails all over Europe (the GR system), as well as pilgrimage routes. You could virtually walk from Finland to Greece on well-maintained trails that allow for treks as long as you like. Never let time or money be an excuse for not doing something. (Our budget on this was $31 a day.) If you can only trek two or four weeks, so be it. Pick an area of interest and you'll probably find guides or maps to get you out there.

The Templar Trail starts in Dijon, France, and follows canal paths until it connects with the Donau Radweg in southern Germany. That superb bicycle path continues through Germany, Austria, Slovakia, and Hungary to Budapest. Incredible. My book supplies all the stages and distances for the entire 11-country route.

In your book, you describe your 2,600-mile journey as a trek for peace. Since you completed the trail in 2006, how do you feel this message of peace has fared? Do you ever feel dejected by the current state of world affairs in that respect?
The quest for peace is ongoing and the linchpin for addressing the rest of our global problems. Peace is attained one person at a time, not necessarily by world leaders, but by ordinary folks like us who will eventually say, "Enough!"

As Margaret Mead once said, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever does."

I hold out hope. I have faith that our better nature will prevail—one step at a time.

Inspired to hit the trail? Visit Away.com's sister site, GORP.com, for a comprehensive library of everything you need to know about long-distance trekking, from trail safety to blister prevention to essential gear.


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