A funny and heartwarming story of one woman’s attempt to walk off a lifetime of fear–with a soulmate, bad shoes, and lots of wine. The Worrier’s Guide to the End of the World is a tale of adventure, friendship, and regret.
Torre DeRoche is at rock bottom following a breakup and her father’s death when she crosses paths with the goofy and spirited Masha, who is pursuing her dream of walking the world.
When Masha invites Torre to join her pilgrimage through Tuscany–drinking wine, foraging wild berries, and twirling on hillsides–Torre straps on a pair of flimsy street shoes and gets rambling.
But the magical hills of Italy are nothing like the dusty and merciless roads of India where the pair wind up, provisioning a pilgrimage in the footsteps of Gandhi along his march to the seaside.
Hoping to catch the nobleman’s fearlessness by osmosis and end the journey as wise, svelte, and kick-ass warriors, they are instead unraveled by the worry that this might be one adventure too far. Coming face-to-face with their worst fears, they discover the power of friendship to save us from our darkest moments.
Excerpt from the Book: The Worrier’s Guide to the End of the World
We met in a New York bar. It was friendship at first sight. “You’re Torre, right?” she asked. Her eyes lacked the shifty, distracted expression you see on most people at networking functions—they were piercing and alert, as though capturing every detail in the room, every bluff, every whiff of bullshit.
It was at an airline-sponsored event in a classy bar, put on for travel writers, bloggers, and photographers in the hope that free drinks might lead to some favorable hashtags for the airline.
A perk of the job. Too many people were crammed into a small, dark space, and the crowd was busy shaking hands and swapping business cards with anything that wasn’t bolted down to the door. The bar was lined with glasses of anesthetizing beverages and bartenders who had been instructed to pour and keep pouring.
So I drank and kept drinking, trying to cleanse my woes with white wine in the way that one might flush out an infected wound with antiseptic.
“Yes, I’m Torre.”
She offered her hand. “I’m Masha.” She was wearing a pencil skirt that hugged her curves, tall black leather boots or high black heels or something elegant like that, maybe a shirt made of soft and delicate fabric: silk, I’d guess. Or maybe pants and a blouse? Don’t ask me. I had a glass of white in both hands.
Knowing her as well as I do now, her caramel-colored hair would’ve been gathered back into a bun, red lipstick and smoky eyeliner would’ve made her green eyes pop against the porcelain of her heart-shaped face. Charisma would’ve been oozing out of her pores to shimmer across her smile. There’s not a person in this world that Masha can’t charm with her smile.
She’d told me she was planning to walk around the world on a series of pilgrimages, but she didn’t look like an adventurer. She looked more like a glamorous New Yorker en route to a meeting with her wedding planner. The mismatch between her aspirations and her appearance was so confusing, I wondered if it was a networking stunt. I pressed her for more details. “So where are you going, exactly?”
“Well, I’ll start in Canterbury in the UK and walk through France and Switzerland to reach Italy, and then down to Rome.”
“All on foot?”
“Yes, on foot. And then from there, my plan is to walk pilgrimages in Turkey, Israel and Palestine, Mount Kilimanjaro, India, Nepal and Tibet, Japan, Australia, Hawaii, Peru, and then the Camino de Santiago to finish it off.”
“So I guess you’re really fit and have all your gear ready?” “Oh, sure. I’m super-organized. I’ve been working out every single day and have all my high-tech gear laid out, ready to go.” Her deadpan expression made her self-deprecation barely detectable, and I eyed her for a lengthy spell before catching on.
“Maybe you should shave off your eyebrows,” I said. “They’ll cause aerodynamic drag.”
“You already know me so well.”
We laughed. I went to sip my wine but noticed it was already empty, so I started on the one in my left hand.
“Am I prepared?” she scoffed. “No, that’s why I’ve called my blog the ‘Unlikely Pilgrim.’ I’m not in shape. My bag will be stupidly heavy. I have very little idea of how this is all going to come together. But that’s kind of the point, you know? To work it out as I go?”
My skin prickled with inspiration. “And you’re doing all this on your own?”
“Mostly. Some friends and family members might come and join me for parts here and there,” she said. “My husband is hiking Kilimanjaro with me, but he doesn’t really like to travel much so—”
“Wait,” I interrupted, “you’re married?”
She nodded. “He’s not much of a traveler. He runs a bar here in New York, and he’s pretty happy just doing his thing.”
“I had assumed you were single.”
She shrugged. “I want to see the world. He doesn’t. He knows it’s something I have to do, and we’ve talked about it a lot. I’ll take my year to travel, he’ll hang out and do whatever, and then I’ll come back to New York once the year ends.” She eyed me sideways. “You know, you should come walking with me sometime. Let’s keep in touch.”
Didn’t Keep in Touch
We didn’t stay in touch. When I went home my dad died and my relationship ended, and I didn’t keep in touch with anyone. But six months later, by way of a blur of boarded planes, trains, and random left turns, I found myself in Cinque Terre, Italy, for no good reason beyond the fact that, in a series of strange cities and cheap hotels, I could watch the tick of a new clock, hoping time would heal all wounds.
Each morning I would sleep until the noon sun would flood the room with light, and then I would remind myself: You have legs! For what a great privilege it is to not only have legs, but arms and a torso and eyes that see things, to have a remarkable vehicle made of exquisite flesh and sensory feeling with which to explore the world, to have sunshine and air, to have breath and a heartbeat, to have—
But your dad is dead . . .
Then I’d roll back over and go to sleep for several more hours because I couldn’t stand my own asinine attempts at positive thinking.
When I woke, I walked. Along a cliff edge that traces the Mediterranean, I climbed stairs. The terraces built on the cliff face looked like colorful Lego blocks that could so easily topple and drop off into the sea—plop, plop, behind which were stepped green orchards of sweet nectarines, vineyards, and fields of enormous lemons that pucker and bulge like an old man’s elbow.
Their aromatic peels get zested to make limoncello, which is probably a deliciously sweet alcoholic beverage, but I wouldn’t know because sorrow makes everything taste like armpit. The pasta tasted like armpit; pizza tasted like armpit; salami tasted like toe jam. If you think it’s possible to eat your way out of grief, I’m telling you it’s not, unless you have a fetish for the taste of damp and fetid places.
From the highest point on the cliff, I looked out over the water toward the sailboats bobbing on twinkling refractions. Memories flashed, lucid and sharp, of adventures, had, now lost. Once upon a time, I had lived on a small boat with the man I loved and we didn’t go a single minute without seeing each other, but after I said goodbye to him at an airport as he stood holding a ticket to another continent, the length of our apartness would make up the rest of our lifetimes.
All I had to show for nine years of companionship was a few boxed personal items, half the money we’d saved together, and a published memoir called Love with a Chance of Drowning—the story of our voyage across the Pacific Ocean.
Each day I would get heartfelt emails from readers: “I cried like a baby at the end of your book,” confessed one gay man from New Jersey in a tender letter.
“You’ve given me hope for my own relationship. I’m so pleased that your story had a happy ending.” But page 352 wasn’t the ending. It would’ve been inhumane to reply with anything resembling truth:
Our love? It drowned. It broke apart like the Titanic, splitting in two and sinking into freezing waters while violins played and people screamed and fought over who gets a seat in the life raft. I’m terribly sorry.
Seventy-one percent of the world was now a salty, blue reminder of a failed relationship. It felt personal.
But you have legs!
Oh, go fuck yourself.
I snapped a photo of the blue water and Cinque Terre’s cliffs and uploaded it, using social media for one of its most beneficial functions: to give the illusion to others that I had my life together.
For two months I’d been floating around Europe, working from my laptop from any random location, hoping that creating the illusion of high spirits would become a reality in time if I simply Photoshopped a layer of golden joy over the top of all images.
This is one of the benefits of being a traveler with a communications degree, otherwise known as a Digital Nomad. A bum with a laptop. A homeless pixel artist.
As I started down the stairs, my phone pinged with a message. “Torre!” the message read. It was from the woman I vaguely remembered from the New York bar, Masha. “I’m one train stop away from you right now.” She had begun her walk around the world and, by coincidence, was only four minutes away by train. “Do you want to meet up?”
My thumbs hovered over the screen. “I’m sorry, I’m busy.” Delete.
“Sure, that sounds great!” Delete.
“I’m sorry, I’m busy.” Delete.
“Sure, that sounds great!” The cursor blinked.
I wanted to sink into the inviting depths of my aloneness and go back to bed. Oh, how I wanted to sleep, but I had legs and eyes and a fully functioning torso with which to experience the world.
All I lacked was any iota of motivation for anything at all, but I hoped that once my body was in motion, the willing- ness might catch up.
You have legs!
In a blink, I hit send.
She looked different than when I’d met her in New York: sun-kissed, lean, and radiantly present in the way that people are when they’re soaring so close to the edge of danger. She was still more glamorous than your average adventurer, though, in her lipstick and elegant skirt, her blonde hair plaited halfway down her back.
We sipped rosé at the edge of the sea in Monterosso al Mare and talked in the company of a blogger named Jimmy, who happened to be there, too. It was the day before Masha’s thirty-third birthday. “My Jesus birthday,” she joked.
For a month she’d been walking from Canterbury in the UK, mostly alone, and was well over the halfway mark on her 1,200-mile journey to Rome. By the slow and steady vehicle of her own two feet, she’d passed through the entire width of France to reach Italy, camping out in the wild or else sleeping in convents or hostels along the way.
“Do you ever get lost?” I asked.
“I climbed up the wrong mountain in the Alps once,” she laughed. “I didn’t realize until I’d reached the top that I’d taken a wrong turn at the bottom of the mountain. Eventually, I found the right path once I climbed back down, so it was fine.”
I was impressed. Her stories were captivating. What I found most inspiring was that she had the courage to embark on such a huge adventure alone, because in any given horror story, a woman who ventures into woods on her own is 100 percent guaranteed to get picked off by some kind of monster.
“How do you cope with all the dangers? Wild dogs? Snakes? Rapists?”
She shrugged. “They’re out there, I guess, and they’re terrifying.”
I gave her a beat to elaborate, to end that grim declaration with some kind of cliché, like “You’re more likely to get killed in a car accident on your way to work,” but she didn’t. She left her statement dangling in grim reality. In my early teens, a brawny boy had chased me along a wilderness trail, yelling obscene demands at me in a rumbling howl, but I escaped because I was nimble and speedy, and nobody could compete with my levels of adrenaline.
If there were an Olympic sport for out running sexual predators, I’d be modeling for TAG Heuer billboards by now.
“One time,” Masha said, “my cousin was walking with me and a wild dog came out of nowhere and lunged at her legs. In the blink of an eye, she flicked up her walking stick behind her and knocked the dog off the edge of an embankment.”
I gulped. “What happened to the dog?”
She shrugged, unbothered. “It went rolling down the hill.”
“That’s . . . truly awful. Have you seen any snakes?”
At this, she turned chalky white, covered her mouth, and looked like she was going to retch. “Torre, I can’t even talk about them. I just can’t.”
“I’m sorry, but you’re walking around the world and I thought—”
“No,” she said, through a mouth covered with both hands. “Just no.”
Who walks around the world with a snake phobia? And how on earth had she made her way across the entire width of France with such a profound fear? Just as I had been on that night in New York, I was intrigued by this paradox of a woman. She really was an unlikely pilgrim.
“You should come walking with me for a day or two, Torre. It’s so beautiful. The mountains, the vineyards, the people you meet along the way . . . It’s just incredible. The Via Francigena is known as the ‘Way of the Heart.’ This pilgrimage is supposed to help you learn to follow your intuition.”
“My intuition is currently saying: Walk off a cliff, don’t look back.”
She laughed at my black humor, and I loved her for that. Perhaps the worst part about grief is not the sensation itself— the weight of sand in guts, the sluggishness of pushing against thick mud to do even the smallest tasks—but the fact that your very presence terrifies most people. “Negaphobia,” says writing mentor Robert McKee, “is the fear of all things negative. People are afraid of expressing the darkness within them, of pointing out the darkness they see in society and in human nature.”
We live in the era of positive thinking and our culture of neg-aphobia isn’t so great at knowing what to do with sad people. We try to make them laugh, get them to turn that frown upside down, or else tell them: Do not pass Go, do not collect $200, go straight on antidepressants. To be openly sad is to be a poop on everyone else’s rainbow.
Masha showed no signs of negaphobia. “The pilgrimage goes all the way to Rome,” she continued, “and will take three or four weeks, but you can just join me for a day. Or you can walk all the way to Rome with me if you like.”
“Dooo eeett,” said Jimmy.“Dooo eeett,” said Masha.
There were three weeks left before my return flight, which meant I had twenty-one days to prepare for starting life over from scratch on my own. All I wanted to do was sleep. How could I find the energy to walk all day with a stranger?
“You know what?” I pounded my fist on the table in triumphant non-commitment. “Maybe!”
We sipped our rosé and looked out at the Mediterranean Sea, where sailboats bobbed on sparkling refractions. My legs twitched, eager for adventure, to know their own strength and aliveness. Something odd stirred in my belly. Wanderlust? Inspiration? Hope? It had been a long time since I’d felt such light emotions.
But I had too much luggage: clothes and shoes, books and watercolor paints, a laptop, and a camera. No hiking gear to speak of. Possibility morphed into worry as I began to ramble: “What if my shoes aren’t appropriate? What if I can’t find a place to store my luggage? What if it rains? I don’t have a rain jacket. What if? . .”
Masha’s smile was gentle as she waited for me to finish my string of What Ifs, and then she shrugged and said, “I’m sure you’ll work all that out. I set out again in two days.
Have a think about it, DeRoche.”
More about Torre DeRoche
Torre DeRoche lives in Melbourne, Australia, born of American and Australian parents. Her first book, Love with a Chance of Drowning, was published to great acclaim in 2013. “ I didn’t set out to become a writer. My father was a film and television writer, and I saw how the craft robbed him of hair and put a crease in his brow so deep we could almost water the family cat from it.
Read Torre DeRoche’s Blog, The Fearful Adventurer
Read an excerpt from Torre Roche’s first book, Love with a Chance of Drowning on GoNOMAD.