Over the Top and Back Again: Hiking X the Alps


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The Via Alpina route through 8 countries in the Alps.The Via Alpina route through 8 countries in the Alps.

Over the Top and Back Again: Hiking X the Alps

Reviewed by Stephen Hartshorne
GoNOMAD Associate Editor

Ever since Yak Butter Blues was published in 1993, we have been big fans of Brandon Wilson’s ‘one step at a time’ style of traveling and travel writing.

No other writer we know of is so adept at uniting the outer journey with the inner journey, using the daily details of an arduous and difficult trek to draw out and inspire the reader’s inner pilgrim.

He has hiked 650 miles along an ancient pilgrims’ trail through the Himalayas from Tibet to Nepal. He has walked the Way of St. James, twice, as well as the Via de la Plata and St. Olaf’s Way in Norway. He hiked 1150-mile Via Francigena from England to Rome and the 2600-mile Templar Trail from France to Jersusalem.

In Over the Top & Back Again: Hiking X the Alps, he describes the 1200-mile trek he took with his wife Cheryl on a new trail called the Via Alpina through eight countries — Italy, Slovenia, Austria, Germany, Liechtenstein, Switzerland, France and Monaco — climbing a major summit nearly every day.

Reading about their experience with the rain, the arduous climbs, the treacherous snow fields (even in summer!), the slippery trails, the precipitous precipices, the missing signs, the noisy bunkmates, the cow patties and the scree, sometimes you wonder why he’s doing it.

But then you realize that Brandon Wilson walks the way Forrest Gump runs. He’s driven to it. As the trek gets fully underway we see him become hypnotized by the rhythm of his footsteps, his labored breathing and the pounding of his heartbeat as he ascends a giant mountain every day for three months.

Add to this the jaw-dropping vistas, the Alpine wildlife and wildflowers, the unspoiled villages and villagers, and the bond with his equally intrepid wife, and it becomes crystal clear why they take these outrageous treks year after year. In fact it makes you want to take one yourself.

>Brandon Wilson in the Alps Brandon Wilson in the AlpsBrandon Wilson in the Alps

Simpify, Simplify, Simplify

To allow them time to complete their trek, the Wilsons actually moved to Italy, selling their home in Hawaii and nearly all their possessions. This is kind of emblematic of the way the trek simplifies their lives.

The trek does not go too well at first. It turns out some Slovenians had removed all the markers for the Via Alpina, the guy they hired to make maps for them never came through, and the weather was terrible.

The lack of maps and markers is particularly annoying, because they’re never quite sure they’re on the right trail, and several times they have

Cover art for Over the Top and Back Again by Brandon WilsonCover art for Over the Top and Back Again by Brandon Wilson

to backtrack.

But it is only after sharing their visicissitudes for a few chapters that we come to share their simple pleasures. Wilson explains why he takes to the trail:

“It’s reducing life to it’s primal essentials and finding satisfaction in the smallest things: a hot shower, a warm meal, a soft pillow, or a word of encouragement.

Cheryl WilsonCheryl Wilson

“It’s the new people you meet every day and experiences shared. It’s the personal peace you find when you reconnect with nature and with the Universe.”

Hannibal, Caesar and Napoleon

As the trip progresses, you can sense the exuberance that comes from eight hours of hiking a day for more than three months. The scenery is the most magnificent in the world. The mountain villagers are, for the most part, friendly and welcoming.

The Wilsons trek past enormous ancient fortresses and disused army barracks from long-forgotten wars, through passes once crossed by Hannibal, Caesar and Napoleon.

A few hut keepers serve stingy meals or fetid curry, but for the most part the pilgrims dine on polenta with mountain cheese and sausage, or heaps of spaghetti bolognese. Here Wilson describes a particularly memorable Alpine banquet:

“The [hut] guardian whipped up socca, a Niçoise specialty of garbonzo bean meal fried like a thin pancake in olive oil and served with a cold rosé wine. Next came a rare treat: wild nettle and potato soup, followed by a savory roast leg of lamb simmered with onions and tiny potatoes.

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“To top it off, he proudly served three handmade fromages straight from his farm: a goat, an agedia Alpinasheep, and a pungent cow cheese, followed by a tasty goat yogurt with berries for dessert.” Yum!

And Wilson’s journey is a study of human nature. In his day-do-day interactions with others we see the foibles and the majesty of humanity writ large, like the world reflected in a drop of dew.

Some people are nasty and miserly and unhappy, while most are friendly and generous and happy.

The author also provides some practical advice for those planning a long-distance hike: use hiking poles, replenish minerals and don’t drink from streams. There’s also a trick for avoiding blisters, but for that you’ll have to read the book.

As for the connection between the outer journey and the inner journey, Wilson never pushes it. You get it in small bits, as he does, because that’s the way it comes. It has a lot to do with savoring the simple pleasures of life that surround us every day.

Brandon Wilson’s books point the way toward this happy state of mind: just be bold and endure a few vicissitudes.

Stephen Hartshorne

Stephen Hartshorne is the former associate editor of GoNOMAD.com. He writes a blog called ArmchairTravel about books he finds at flea markets and rummage sales.

Order this book: Over the Top and Back Again: Hiking X the Alps

Read more about Brandon Wilson’s books on GoNOMAD:

Along the Templar Trail: Seven Million Steps for Peace

Dead Men Don’t Leave Tips: Adventures Across Africa

Yak Butter Blues: A Tibetan Trek of Faith

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Stephen Hartshorne
Stephen Hartshorne is the former associate editor of GoNOMAD.com. He writes a blog called ArmchairTravel about books he finds at flea markets and rummage sales. He teaches in local public schools in the Pioneer Valley and lives in Sunderland, Mass.
Stephen Hartshorne

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