One Step at a Time: Q & A with Brandon Wilson

Brandon Wilson in a poppy field in Hungary
Brandon Wilson in a poppy field in Hungary

One Step at a Time:
Q & A with Brandon Wilson

Brandon Wilson is an award-winning travel writer with a passion for trekking.

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

Ever since he published his first book in 1993, Yak Butter Blues, we at GoNOMAD have enjoyed his ‘one step at a time’ view of traveling and travel writing.

In his latest book, 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.

GoNOMAD recently caught up with Wilson at his home in Italy and asked him about packing light, choosing the right footwear and writing top-notch travel books:

GoNOMAD: Your resume covers a lot of ground from Eagle Scout to actor to assistant to the mayor in an Eskimo village, to travel writing, photography, video production, etc. Can you sketch that out for us? It seems like there’s an interesting story there.

Brandon Wilson: It’s a wild and sordid tale. My life has never followed a straight path. When you grow up, all too often there’s an emphasis on “what you want to become.” But there’s a limited call for astronauts and secret agents these days. With a recession prone economy and my own curious, rebellious nature, I learned a range of useful skills until I finally discovered my passion for travel and exploration. There was an “a-ha” moment and then I wondered, “Is this really possible?” It became a matter of finding out how to live that passion while eking out a living.

GN: Then in 1992, you and Cheryl made your famous trek from Lhasa to Kathmandu, which seems to be a major punctuation point in your lives. Can you tell us about that?
Brandon Wilson won the Lowell Thomas Award for his book Along the Templar Trail. The work was also honored by the M.K. Gandhi Institute for Non-Violence, and by peace activist Cindy Sheehan, who called it “a living example of peace making.”

Brandon Wilson won the Lowell Thomas Award for his book Along the Templar Trail. The work was also honored by the M.K. Gandhi Institute for Non-Violence, and by peace activist Cindy Sheehan, who called it "a living example of peace making."
Brandon Wilson won the Lowell Thomas Award for his book Along the Templar Trail. The work was also honored by the M.K. Gandhi Institute for Non-Violence, and by peace activist Cindy Sheehan, who called it “a living example of peace making.”

BW: My wife and I heard about an ancient path running from across Tibet. We knew the border had been mostly closed to Indy travelers since Chinese occupation, yet Tibet has always epitomized the rare and exotic to me.

So we queried the Chinese to see if it might be possible to make this trek. Well, their response made it clear it was “impossible” for a litany of reasons. Funny, that only made me more determined. Tenacity can be a virtue.

Unable to get a visa in the U.S., we set off for Kathmandu, hoping to land one there. If not, we planned to sneak across the border and test our luck. But for the first of many times we experienced serendipity. The border opened just the day before for the first time in many years and we were granted 60-day visas. The only stipulation was that we had to change directions, begin in Lhasa and return to Nepal, about 650 miles across the wild Tibetan plains.

It was an incredible experience. We had little idea just how severe the conditions would be that autumn. The weather ranged from 80-degrees to freezing. We felt the effects of hiking 30 kilometers each day at 12-17,000 feet, the lack of water, slow starvation, injuries, blizzards, and then dodging Chinese bullets.

Wilson's wife Cheryl in the Himalayas with their faithful horse Sadhu.
Wilson’s wife Cheryl in the Himalayas with their faithful horse Sadhu.

Also, our trek quickly changed from a personal adventure into something larger. It introduced us to the notion of what I call “slow, deliberate travel.” You slow life down and “travel within” as your life becomes permanently intertwined with the landscape and people around you.

Staying with Tibetan farmers and former monks each night, we witnessed their faith in the Dalai Lama’s return and learned about the lack of human rights in Tibet. Given that, we decided to carry prayer flags to Nepal to present to the King (if we made it) with the hope he’d fly them as a symbol of solidarity.

GN: You must have refined the art of packing light. What do you generally carry with you?

BW: The baggage we carry on our back is like the weight we carry in our day-to-day lives—the less, the better. Even though we have to prepare for many contingencies, we never carry more than 15 pounds in our lightweight GoLite backpacks. That makes all the difference between an enjoyable experience and slow torture, especially when you’re climbing. We carefully tailor what we take to match the terrain and environment.

On our latest trek across the length of the Alps, my wife and I each carried a change of clothes, sleeping bags, raingear, a down jacket, medical kit, camera, journal, and maps. I carried a lightweight Gossamer Gear tent for emergencies and Cheryl brought her Mac i-Touch to check emails whenever we made it to a rare Wi-Fi area. It’s all detailed in Over the Top & Back Again: Hiking X the Alps.

GN: Any tips on footwear and avoiding blisters?

The right footwear is important.
The right footwear is important.

BW: I learned about blisters the hard way. (I had eight at a time on one of my first thru-hikes.) There are many things to consider. Again, tailor your footwear to the terrain, conditions, and your own foot shape.

Yes, most of us upright bipeds have ten toes, but after that, there are many variations. When buying footwear, walk a few hours before shopping. Hiking around with a backpack is even better. Feet swell or flatten when you carry a weight and hike distances. So your ideal shoe size may be 1-2 sizes larger than normal. Then, depending on the terrain, boots may not be ideal. An extra pound on your feet is like carrying an extra five on your back.

Light trail runners like Montrail’s Continentals may work better for you, especially in hot climes. I went through four pairs on my trek from France to Jerusalem and especially liked the mesh uppers that allowed my feet to ventilate in hot Middle Eastern weather.

So your summer choice for flat desert trekking will be different from a rainy mountain trek. And forget about claims that boots are “waterproof”. I haven’t met that animal yet. The coating may last momentarily but rain always wins in the end. That said, always wear thin sock liners.

Footcare is essential to having a great trip. Prevent blisters. I find that a small (dime-size) dab of Vaseline applied to the bottom of your feet each morning does wonders to cut down on friction and keep them blister free. Sure, it’s a little gooey, but it beats having massive sores. Yes, there are also commercial lubricants that marathoners use but I haven’t found them as durable. Finally, if you do feel a blister starting, apply a Compeed bandage to the area after it’s been cleaned and dried. Great prevention.

Wilson in the Black Forest in Germany
Wilson in the Black Forest in Germany

GN: I notice you took a set of Nordic walking sticks this time. Do you recommend those?

BW: I do. Especially for mountain trekking, they’re indispensable and help preserve your knees and hips. I started using them back on the St. Olav’s Way, a trail across Norway and they helped me hop across bogs and down slippery 60-degree slopes. On our latest Via Alpina trek, we climbed and descended nearly 700,000 feet (12 Mt. Everests) over 3 1/2 months, so we were very lucky to have our LEKIs along.

GN: Do you write your books as you travel, or do you make notes and write it up later?

BW: I make it a point to write in longhand every night after we arrive at a hut, while muscles are still sore and clothes still damp. Many ideas and impressions from when I’m on the trail and I want to share those. You could never remember all the minute details after the fact and your story would end up as a fictionalized account that hardly resembles reality. I tell it like it is.

Sure, I’ve received criticism in the past, but I’m proud to say my accounts are real and unsanitized (for your protection). Adventure travel can be a dirty business—too gritty for some. If so, those folks can always find solace in the glossy travel magazines.

GN: Have you found there’s a difference between what you set out to write and what you end up writing?

Cheryl and Brandon Wilson in Africa
Cheryl and Brandon in Africa

BW: Unlike fiction, there are constraints when you set out to tell a true story. When writing fiction, you usually know the characters and how the story ends before you begin. For me, I don’t know what will happen that day. Who we’ll run into? What will we see? Will a blizzard, a corrupt African border guard, or a Chinese soldier’s bullet create a dramatic situation? Will we even be able to physically accomplish such an arduous journey?

Then again, at points I find myself wondering, “Do I really want to reveal this? (TMI?)” or “This incident might work better if it happened later in the book.” But I usually just go for it.

GN: As you progress through one of your treks, does it strengthen your relationship with your traveling companions, in the most recent case, your wife?

BW: Traveling, for all its benefits, is also one of the hardest experiences on any relationship. Again, we’re not talking about a week spent at Club Med sipping tall umbrella drinks around the pool. Adventure travel is a different animal. It makes you question all aspects of your life. You lean on a partner like never before, sometimes for your very survival. That creates some tense emotional strains. Afterward, if you’re lucky, it can also create a tremendous bond that helps you through difficult patches in your everyday life.

Then you can laugh and say, “Yes, this may be tough, but remember that time we were swinging by the rope over the abyss in the French Alps?” It puts life into perspective.

GN: Through history, there has traditionally been a connection between pilgrimage and spiritual development. We’ve noticed you never overplay this spiritual component, and yet it seems to be a central feature of your books. As a writer, what is your approach to the spiritual side of your journeys?

BW: Tough question. Trekking is a trampoline for the mind; you travel outside while traveling within. These journeys put you more in touch with all aspects of your life: the physical, mental and spiritual. Part of it comes with removing yourself from the din and clutter of the outside world.

“Slow, deliberate travel” can be a Zen exercise of living in the moment. Hiking through nature’s cathedral and slowing life down centers you and brings remarkable peace. Walking is transcendental. As such, certain truths are revealed; life becomes more clear.

As a writer, I walk a fine line in sharing those very personal experiences, especially within the context of an adventure book. Sometimes I imagine they are details within a timeworn painting of a forest.

Some people will glance, saying, “Nice trees.”

Others will look deeper, saying, “Look, there’s a bird eating a worm” or “Here’s a marmot sunning himself” or “See the gnome smoking behind the bush!”
>Traveling light on the Camino de Santiago in Spain.

Traveling light on the Camino de Santiago in Spain.
Traveling light on the Camino de Santiago in Spain.

It all depends on the reader. Sometimes messages are interwoven within a story. Other times, I’ll emerge as a nasty protagonist in counterpoint. Others, I’ll pose questions for readers to ask themselves—if and when they’re ready.

Otherwise, the painting remains as “Nice trees.”

Overall, I like to imagine these journeys as Adventures With Purpose, to borrow a phrase from Richard Bangs. I want to inspire others to take to the trail.

As travelers, I believe we’re able to effect change in the world. Our own awareness spawns an increased global awareness that we carry back to our families, work and communities — planting a seed for greater tolerance and peace — an imperative in these times.

GN: Your treks seem to be getting longer and longer and more and more arduous. How long can you keep topping yourself? Aren’t you going to have to make some concessions to mortality?

BW: We all do at some point. None of us are getting out of this alive. Until then, these adventures excite me. They’re my passion. I never think, “What can I do that’s harder, higher, bigger than before!” They grow and new ones seem to appear as I evolve.

Once someone suggested that my books are an adventure series. Initially, with the world short on Hobbits, I recoiled at the thought. Then, as I reconsidered, I thought maybe they are in one sense. They are the story of an everyday traveler, a modern pilgrim, who set off to discover a world of adventure—and in the process found so much more.

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