Caught by the River

In Praise of Paths

Clare Wadd | 11th August 2020

In his latest book, Torbjørn Ekelund considers paths, the literature and history surrounding them, what we may be missing out on in an era of car travel and navigation apps, and what we could gain from taking to paths once again. Clare Wadd reviews.

This delightful, quirky little book takes a sideways look at walking and the history, purpose, meaning and importance of the paths that enable it. 

Following an epilepsy diagnosis which prevented him driving, Norwegian journalist Torbjørn Ekelund hung up his car keys for the last time and starting walking instead. Walking was his new mode of transport, and he walked everywhere – but he also experimented with walking too, walking in different places and in new ways.

He found he adapted really quickly, didn’t miss his car, started thinking about time differently and enjoyed the slower pace of life and the way he saw the world now he walked everywhere. He considered how walking is a means to finding yourself, to ‘become at one with yourself and everything around you’ in a way that’s reminiscent of Raynor Winn’s tremendous South West Coast Path odyssey, The Salt Path – though the context is very different.

From walking to work, Ekelund progresses to ‘miniature journeys of discovery’ such as circumnavigating the island where he’s spending his holidays. He then ponders his memories of the first path he knew as a child, which led from the cabin where his family holidayed to the woods – before eventually walking there from the nearest station to re-experience it – but doing so as slowly as he can, to eke the journey out.

In Praise of Paths and its author are both playful and serious. Ekelund tries walking with his eyes shut, barefoot in summer, then in different footwear – all just to find out how it feels. He muses on our human history as wanderers, our current existence living largely sedentary lifestyles and the distinction between a walk with purpose and one for leisure. He talks about the inherent urge to wander and the ability to keep on going after a long walk and, unlike with other exercise, still feeling able to continue.

With a friend Ekelund attempts to walk in a straight line across a dense forest, up to a ridge, without using paths and without any navigational aid. After two days of this, the two dig out their phones and GPS only to find they have constantly zigzagged and are only 3.5 miles from where they started. With the same friend and their children, he hikes over the high mountains of the Hardanger Plateau between Oslo and Bergen, staying overnight in busy mountain huts where the only conversation is where you’ve come from and where you’re going.

When the first snows of the year come, Ekelund contemplates the machine-made ski tracks that are temporary paths for the Norwegian obsession of cross-country skiing. But he shuns these and strikes out alone in the freshly laid snow to look for animal tracks to help him understand how paths might be created, and compares animals’ purposes such as looking for food – so making tracks that arc, zigzag, or run in circles – with ours of covering distance and getting from one place to another.

Ekelund’s scope is international as well as local, urban as well as countryside. He finds a Holloway that’s 2,500 years old and, with the traffic from a nearby motorway within earshot, meditates on the Vikings whose steps he walks in, one foot in the present and one in the past. He contemplates the distinction between paths as part of the landscape and roads which destroy it, and our ongoing battle with urban planners over the desire lines we create that spoil their designs. 

In Praise of Paths is curious, charming and readable. And, in a world where I thought there wasn’t much more to be said about paths and walking, it brings a new and thought-provoking perspective to the subject.


In Praise of Paths: Walking Through Time and Nature is translated by Becky L. Crook, and is published by Greystone Books. It is out now, and available from your local independent bookshop.