Jonathan Arlan did not spend his childhood training to be a rugged outdoorsman.
His childhood was not spent camping, hiking, facing down Mother Nature, or even walking all that much. Heck, he didn’t even walk to his school, Hyman Brand Hebrew Academy, near his Overland Park home.
But the 31-year-old writer
always dreamed of walking long distances and spent a lot of time studying maps and reading travel books.
It wasn’t until two years ago that his travel studies mingled with his dreams.
He walked from Geneva to Nice, about 380 miles through the French Alps, on a trail called the Grande Randonnée 5, or GR5.
Arlan, who has a bachelor’s degree from Loyola University, had never done a whole lot of writing before completing a manuscript on his adventures in “Mountain Lines” (Skyhorse Publishing).
He decided to make the trip after becoming: disenchanted with New York City, where he’d worked as a book editor for four years. His friends, were moving away, his income was depressingly low and he was about to turn 30.
It was time to make a change.
On a recent morning at an Overland Park Starbucks — a far cry from any French café — Arlan says his walk lasted 35 days. Depending on the weather and his health, he walked anywhere from a few miles, to close to 20.
Because he was in the Alps, he had to ascend as much as 3,000 feet in one day.
He writes: “I panted and cursed on the way up, but as soon as the land tilted toward the sea, I missed the smooth muscular movement of climbing. Descending is closer to a kind of controlled and prolonged fall; there is no grace in going down — only clumsy steps on canted ground.”
Arlan tried to carry very little with him.
He kept his pack to about 40 pounds, carrying little food and camping gear. Because the GR5 is a popular trail in France, and many French consider hiking a national pastime, small refuges dot the trail.
Each day, Arlan walked from one refuge to the next, ending each day with good food, wine, company, and a safe, warm place to sleep.
In retrospect, he wonders if it was all too easy. He refers to the walk as a “low-boil adventure” and “very small potatoes.”
But some of the pages of the account in his book don’t paint a picture of a simple trek.
Maybe because he didn’t consider the trail difficult, he’d done next to no preparation for the trip, other than buying good boots.
So, while he was relieved to have no blisters, he writes, “It was the fiery pulses shooting out of my feet in regular intervals that concerned me. I wondered what the odds were that I had broken both my feet.”
He repeatedly thought about quitting, but persevered. Then, somewhere around the halfway point, he noticed he was in excellent shape. So much so that he felt he had developed a superpower.
“I took off jogging,” he writes. “The bag felt light on my back. My legs didn’t hurt… I barely broke a sweat running downhill, taking switchbacks like I’d spent my life training on them.
“The sensation of running that easily was like being in someone else’s skin. I wondered what I could do on flat ground without a 40-pound backpack.”
Throughout his book, everyone he met asked him why he was walking. Each time, he fumbled with an answer. Was it just something to do? Or did he simply like walking? It’s still hard for him to articulate.
At one point he writes that walking felt natural and necessary for him, “as if I’d wandered out of a city, out of my life, and I was crossing the Alps to get back.
“There was a sense during the hike of a reset, sort of doing something right when I hadn’t done a bunch of things right before. And finding a track or getting back on track,” he explains.
Mostly, he was simply curious to see what it would be like to walk that many miles. He’d heard of marathon runners having a kind of out-of-body experience. Would walking do that, too?
“You get into that meditative mode where your body’s just doing what it’s supposed to be doing and you’re not paying attention — you’re not even paying attention to the landscape; you’re far inside your head,” he reports.
Now that he’s back home in Kansas City, people ask him about hiking, assuming he’s an expert. He loves that they ask, and especially loves to hear that his book has inspired others to walk a similar trail.
But, as far as hiking advice goes, he humbly points people to the professionals at REI.
He’s writing more than ever, looks forward to an upcoming trip to Iceland, and is doing a lot of indoor rock climbing.
“I’ve never climbed outside on real rocks.,” he said with a smile.”It would be really scary. There’s no pad at the bottom.”