Feet to the Ground

Book cover
Walking to Vermontby By Christopher S. WrenSimon & Schuster. 273p $24

The day Christopher S. Wren retired from The New York Times newsroom he made a statement about how he planned to live the rest of his life. Rather than just sit passively back and let retirement wash over him, the former foreign correspondent strapped on a backpack, slipped into his hiking boots and started on a 400-mile walking adventure.

The game plan was simple: Wren was going to hike from The Times’s midtown Manhattan office to his home in Vermont. There was no hurry, so once out of the frenetic bustle of New York City the 65-year-old retiree could take his time and just mosey through five states on his way up to his new permanent home turf in New England.


What normally takes about five hours by car took Wren five weeks. Once he worked his way through the labyrinth of New York’s streets, the journey followed mostly unpaved roads and trails.

Although he camped out much of the way, Wren was not without creature comforts during his odyssey. Overnight stops included stays with relatives, friends and even a small convent of Episcopalian nuns. The walk was also punctuated by two visits from his wife, when the author retreated to an inn or bed-and-breakfast to regroup for the next leg of the trip. Stopping for a good meal occasionally was also an acceptable part of the itinerary.

As one would expect, Wren’s encounters with people along the way provided a wealth of material to write about. Categorizing these moments, he writes, “I walked through four geographical zones of attitude on my way to Vermont: Go away; Don’t bother me; Hello; and How can I help you?

Since a good portion of his journey followed the Appalachian Trail, the author’s interaction with fellow hikers provides some interesting moments. Most of these individuals were serious “thru-hikers” who took to the trail from someplace in the south, like Georgia or West Virginia, bound to make it all the way to the northern terminus in Maine.

Using only trail names (a real name would be a breach of trail etiquette), Wren shares fleeting moments with an array of males and females with such interesting monikers as Hack, Storyteller, Bad Moon and Stray Dog. The permissible social discourse on the trail fell into three broadly defined categories: stoves, comparative weights of packs and miles covered daily. Always the consummate journalist, though, Wren was usually able to pull additional information from these brief meetings, which at least gives us a hint of where the individual came from and why he was trekking north or south.

Besides adding this social element to the narrative, Wren also shares historical anecdotes about the area he passes through, and he seamlessly weaves in reminiscences from his long career as a foreign correspondent. The deep foliage along the trail might elicit a story from his stint in Vietnam covering the war, or a cloudburst might remind him of a jungle raid on a cocaine factory in Colombia. These little impromptu tales not only provide this trail memoir with some bulk (it would have been a much shorter book without them), but they suggest that perhaps the author did not go willingly into the “night of retirement.”

Nevertheless, these digressions, coupled with continual references to the battered copy of Thoreau’s Walden Pond that accompanied Wren on much of the journey, make for interesting reading. Although no match for many of the hikers who were easily notching 25-mile-plus days, Wren eventually assumes some of the innocent smugness of the trail traveler who feels superior to the day campers encountered along the way.

The man who trudged across the finish line on a somnolent August afternoon had shed 19 pounds in transit, spent time in a hospital emergency room, met a host of interesting trail folks and savored the satisfaction of having completed the task he set for himself. Along the way, naturally, some minor epiphanies occurred. Perhaps the most important, as Wren explains, was having “stumbled upon the secret of how utterly irrelevant chronological age is. Just imagine how old you would feel if your parents never told you how old you ought to be.”

Looking back on his experience with a bit of pique, Wren asks: What if everyone upon turning 65 hit the road in search of his true age? He continues, “I sense the subversive stirrings of a revolution if we could pool our experiences to demonstrate the absurdity of being discarded by employers, stereotyped by bureaucrats, and patronized by advertisers on the basis of a few digits typed inside a tiny box on a birth certificate. If those who dismiss us feel so much more vigorous, let them get out and walk the walk, and try doing it in cheap socks.”

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