Seeking freedom and simplicity, in spring 1997 Andrew Terrill, then in his early 20s, dropped a comfortable but unfulfilling life in suburban London to embark on an unlikely venture. His solo walk from the southern tip of Italy to the North Cape of Norway trod the full length of the Apennines, the Austrian Alps and forests of central Europe in winter, and the vast empty spaces of Scandinavia - an epic journey of well over a year that led him on a winding 7000-mile odyssey through the wilder reaches of our Continent.
Written at the remove of two decades, and based on the copious journals scribbled by torchlight in his tiny one-man tent at night, The Earth Beneath My Feet is part one of a two-volume set, covering his transition from green ingenu lost in the densely wooded hills of Calabria, to seasoned mountain traveller revelling in the challenge of the snowbound Alps.
"One thing I wanted above all else - more even than to reach the end - was to feel proud of the journey," he writes "to know I was giving the best of myself to it. To know I was walking in good style. Good style was sticking to a high-level mountain route and staying in the wild, and having fun while doing it."
In his self-imposed discipline to follow the hard path, help was never sought from others, while roads and civilisation were avoided wherever possible. Part hermit, part vagabond, these solitary wanderings may have been gruelling, at times almost masochistic, but there's no doubting the rewards he found in adversity, and the profound peace of extended solitude in nature. This was something of a personal pilgrimage, and the impression by the end is that it was the making of him.
The authenticity of the journey is reflected in Terrill's clear-eyed writing all these years later. With neither studied insouciance nor action hero hyperbole, the grinding lows and euphoric highs are recounted in an engaging and conversational style that puts the reader in the heart of the narrative. We're with him as he attempts to communicate with grizzled shepherds in spartan Apennine huts; we share his unalloyed joy on a remote summit at sunrise; we wince at his ruined feet.
Mistakes and miss-steps are recounted with a gentle self-deprecating humour, while his thoughts and feelings along the way come across with straightforward honesty. He clearly has great fondness for his idealistic and quixotic younger self, but we are spared the rose tinted sentimentality that such memoir can fall prey to. Anyone who recalls the wanderings of their own youth, the sense of limitless possibility, that glorious detachment, will find something to relate to here.
Much modern nature writing feels contrived, an unconvincing exercise in style over substance; but Terrill's prose is refreshingly straight-talking. Spared the scholarly quotes and tedious erudition, it feels truer to the experience of actually being out there. He is no mean photographer, too, and though the reproduction quality of the black-and-white pictures in the book is not great, the many photos effectively convey a sense of place, and the dramatic play of light on landscape.
In walking and enduring through the seasons, and doing it his own pig-headed way, he learns much about the country he passes through, becoming in the process a canny and hardened solo walker, a light-footed mountain traveller in tune with nature; but one suspects that his deepest insights are into himself.
The Earth Beneath My Feet is an engaging and inspiring read, and I'm looking forward to picking up the threads of Terrill's journey in volume two, On Sacred Ground (out Spring 2022).
- Published by Indie-publisher Enchanted Rock Press of Colorado, where Andrew Terrill now lives, The Earth Beneath my Feet is available on Amazon