The Unlikely Inspiration of Rachel Joyce: A Book Report

It’s that time of year again, when long nights are more easily spent accompanied by a good book, preferably one that has something to do with an adventure. But your next favorite hiking read may have nothing to do with the any of the triple crown trails, although it was written by a woman who hales from a country governed by one. You’ll meet trail angels, wax nostalgic over daylong rains, and maybe even recognize members of your trail family, but this story isn’t about hiking.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by British author Rachel Joyce, is a 2012 Booker Prize long-listed work of fiction that resonated in ways no other post-hiking memoir has. There are, however, a few things you might first want to know before you hit that Amazon “buy” button.

The book introduces us to a recently retired brewery salesman, Harold Fry. Harold has just received a letter from Queenie, a former co-worker he hasn’t seen in at least twenty years. Queenie writes to say she is living out her final days in hospice more than 600 miles north of where Harold and his wife, Maureen, live. On his way to the post office, he impulsively decides instead to carry the letter to Queenie himself and thus begins his journey to Berwick-upon-Tweed in Northumberland, England.

Why the ringing endorsement?

A universal thru-hiker narrative is revealed as we follow Harold rambling across the English countryside and through towns. Harold finds himself exchanging confidential secrets with fresh acquaintances, spending the night in homes of complete strangers and recognizing how villages become vortexes that refuse to release him when he stops for lunch or needs only have his shoes resoled—or as Harold muses—how “a city diluted his purpose.”

When I was preparing for my own thru-hike, I devoured the usual fare of memoirs: Grandma Gatewood’s Walk, AWOL on the Appalachian Trail, both books by The Barefoot Sisters, and that literary staple, A Walk in the Woods. I sunk my teeth into Wild. And of course, no thru-hiking preparation would be complete without a requisite reading of Appalachian Trials.

Each of these books helped me understand what a long-distance hike might look like distilled through the eyes of someone who actually experienced it.

What I find so compelling about this particular invented story is how the author nails so many thru-hiking situations it’s hard to believe the author hasn’t hiked the Appalachian Trail herself. (And as far as I could determine, she hasn’t.)

“You’d think walking should be the simplest thing,” she said at last. Just a question of putting one foot in front of the other. But it never ceases to amaze me how difficult the things that are supposed to be instinctive really are.”

Five Reasons Why You Will Recognize Yourself Within These Pages

Instead of summarizing key themes found in The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, I’ll let the work speak for itself.

  1. Heightened Awareness

    “There was no hiding. The rain shot at Harold’s waterproof jacket and down his neck, and even up the elasticize rims of his sleeves. The drops hit like peppercorns. Late in the afternoon, the rain stopped so abruptly it was hard to credit there had been any at all.…the mass of gray split again and again revealing new colors: blue, burnt amber, peach, green and crimson.”

    “The air smelled green and full of beginnings. A soft mist rose, like wisps of smoke. Harold was so tired, he could barely lift his feet, and yet felt such hope, he was giddy with it. If he kept looking at the things that were bigger than himself, he knew he could make it…”

  2. Loads of Time for Reflection…Or Not

    “As I walked, I have been remembering so much. I didn’t know I had forgotten.…Some of the memories have been hard. But most of them have been beautiful.”

    “There were days when he wasn’t aware of himself, or his walking, or the land. He wasn’t thinking about anything, at least not anything that related to words…and all the time the ball of his foot pushed his hell from the ground, and weight shifted from one leg to the other, and this was everything.”

  3. Chance Encounters

    “As a passerby, he was in a place where everything, not only the land, was open. People would feel free to talk, and he was free to listen. To carry a little of them as we went. …I don’t suppose our paths will cross again, but I am glad we met. I am glad we talked.”

  4. Hike Your Own Hike

    “What kind of socks do you wear? You have to wear specialist socks,” said the hiking man. “Of course it’s what you wear on your feet that counts. What kind of boots do you have? You should wear Scarpa. Scarpa is what the pros wear. We swear by Scarpa.”

  5. Perseverance

“I can’t explain why I think I can get there, when all the odds are against it. But I do. Even when a big part of me is saying I should give up, I can’t. Even when I don’t want to keep going, I still do it.”

Out of all the hiking memoirs I’ve read, none have quite summarized the overall essence of long-distance hiking quite as much as this work of fiction. From blisters to trail angels, people to perception, the story of Harold Fry’s 87-day journey encapsulated just about every physical and emotional sensation I underwent on a completely different continent during my own real-life adventure.

But if a fictional armchair tale just won’t cut it, check out these links for your next unlikely source of inspiration, perhaps one that will set you off across the pond, planning your own English countryside and coastal walks.

Local Berwick-upon-Tweed walks

National trails in the United Kingdom

Best walking trails in England


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Comments 2

  • pearwood : Dec 28th

    I read the hiking memoirs as I work to get my own head wrapped around this whole crazy venture.

  • Gilligan : Dec 31st

    Just ordered it. Thank you for the review.


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