Of Women Who Walk: The Feelings Of Freedom and Fear

In the history of walking, the principal figures have been men. In her book Windswept: Walking the Paths of Trailblazing Women, Annabel Abbs literally follows in the footsteps of eight avid women walkers throughout history.

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Windswept: Walking the Paths of Trailblazing Women acknowledges the concurrent dreams and fears of women to experience the world with the privilege given to men—that privilege of power in the natural world. That privilege to do whatever it is we wish to do, see what we wish to see, for whatever our purpose, in safety, without being limited by our vulnerabilities or worrying for our lives.

I read this book with hunger and it fed me well.


This is a book that found its perfect writer.  

Annabel Abbs has a near out-of-body experience after a horrific fall, literally breaking her skull, where she realizes “without my legs I am captive.” 

She “grew up carless,” a member of a “self-exiled English family” raised in Wales. Her father followed Rousseau’s ideas of the importance of the outdoors, of freedom, notwithstanding the fact that Rousseau abandoned all his children.

While recovering, Abbs becomes obsessed with walking—with women and walking. 

She writes, “The juxtaposition between the compressed constricted space of female domesticity and the vast vistas through which these unburdened men roved hung vividly and disruptively in my wide-awake mind. These ‘walking men’ had mothers, wives, even children…”  

Abbs weaves in findings of scientists, psychologists, those fellow writers and walkers who have chimed in, such as Rebecca Solnit, who writes that the “principal figures” (in the “history of walking”) are “men.”

By the end of this book, Abbs has provided readers with an exhaustive account of eight avid women walkers: ranging from established, well-known women like Simone de Beauvoir, Georgia O’Keeffe and Frieda (von Richtofen) Lawrence, alongside others whose names might not be as familiar, like Welsh painter Gwen John, Scottish writer Nan Shepherd, or Australian-born writer Clara Vyvyan who was accompanied by British writer Daphne du Maurier.  

With an intensity of purpose, Abbs not only compiles their histories and idiosyncrasies, while offering numerous scientific and psychological insights with respect to walking—but she follows in their footsteps, revisits their paths, albeit over 100 years after the fact in some cases. 

Regarding women walkers, she notes that “none were accorded the celebrity and intention of the men.” She describes “sepia photographs of women walking and climbing in tight corsets, trailing skirts and wide-brimmed hats,” women with “no recorded name(s).”

But she reminds us that in rural places, women walked many miles for water, for “necessities,” but “also…for inspiration, consolation, and liberation,” reminding us of the courage this required. As for what drives them, Abbs writes—it is not to “enjoy all the freedom a man is capable of having” (Rousseau’s words)—but in her words: “to find minds of their own…for emotional restitution…to assert their independence…to become.

Regarding women walkers, she notes that “none were accorded the celebrity and intention of the men.”

The layers of history here arise from Abbs’s perspective that rivets for the richness of her inquiry, her persistence, her interaction with the works of her chosen women—and the fact that she walks their walks. 

She commences her family’s journey by following the Isar, where she hopes to experience first hand the locale of the six-week life-changing excursion of Frieda von Richtofen—the subject of Abbs’s first book. 

We might remember Frieda von Richtofen left her husband and their three children to follow the young poet and visionary, D.H. Lawrence, on a walking journey in the Bavarian Alps; but did we know that with the charge of adultery, she “forfeited all right to her progeny” and wouldn’t see her children for any length of time until they’d turned 21? Did we know she found liberty in sunbathing and swimming naked?

Abbs does the equivalent for each of her chosen women gleaned from “hundreds of accounts of female walks.”

The fact that readers might take to the Internet to see a painting or capture more of a biography, to see a face or a map—oddly speaks to just how thoroughly Abbs has pulled us into her inquiry.

I had not heard of Gwen John, nor the many other women artists of John’s time. I wanted to feel what Abbs felt when she compared two self portraits of Gwen John, who was Welsh but mostly lived in Paris and was both lover and model to Auguste Rodin. Gwen John walked with another woman, also a painter, carrying easels and paints on their backs, following the Garonne River, from Bordeaux to Toulouse, sleeping in haystacks, in parks. Abbs’s analysis of the first self-portrait suggests John is asking the onlooker to look at her—while the second self-portrait draws you in, asking you to look into her. Abbs relates the story of one of John’s models who spoke of John’s attempt to paint herself, John’s self, into not only the painting of the model but into her very being.

To pack a rucksack is to know yourself.

Annabel Abbs

How fascinating, this gesture, this insight here—namely the identificatory impulse, identification with other women, this searching for the self in the lives and art, in the being of other women.

This probing is what keeps this reader reading—along with the sheer beauty of Abbs’s textured engaging prose. Following, Abbs describes a moment in Scotland, as she walks in the steps of writer and teacher Nan Shepherd, who authored The Living Mountain about the Cairngorms massif.

“The snow lies on top of springy, waterlogged moss, creating the wavering sensation of walking across a waterbed. As we go, each foot plunges through twelve inches of sifted-sugar snow, then sinks another four inches into invisible sodden moss. With great effort, we retrieve our ice-laden boots and repeat the full manoeuvre, step after exhausting step. My boots begin to leak, and soon my feet are freezing and soggy. Above us, buzzards circle in lazy loops. Below us, white mountain hares spring and bound, disappearing into the horizon.” 

Nan Shepherd waited 30 years before she elected to publish. One devastating review caused her to stop writing for many years. She was 87 when it was published—dead by the time of her fame for having written it.

I hadn’t known of her either. Apparently she’s the only woman in the U.K. besides Queen Elizabeth with her portrait on a banknote. I’ve already ordered The Living Mountain. 

There are so many avenues of approach that Abbs takes as she explores the walking lives of her chosen women. Her writing falls in that wonderful liminal area between poetry and prose, between fiction and nonfiction, between autobiography and journalism—and indeed she has published well. 

The book is laced with memoir. Abbs remarks: “To pack a rucksack is to know yourself.” We hear intimate stories about Abbs’s girlhood, stories where she allows for her own vulnerability—a telling window into her explorations of the vulnerabilities and analyses of the other women.

Not to mention her research on the vagaries of traversing mountains during that time of the month—both 100 years ago and now. 

De-centering Beauvoir’s notoriety, Abbs writes: “no one thinks of Beauvoir as a backpacking hillwalker. We think of her sitting in smoky Paris cafes, a string of pearls at her neck, a chic turban wrapped around her head, Jean-Paul Sartre philosophizing at her side.”

And while Beauvoir is “conspicuously absent from what writer Robert Macfarlane has called ‘the literature of the leg,’” she walked, orchestrated these walks and carefully plotted them. Abbs writes, “In an old dress and espadrilles, with a basket of buns and bananas over her arms, Beauvoir climbed every local peak, crossed every canyon, clambered in and out of every calanaque,” alone. She started at five hours a day, which evolved into more than 25 miles. And on that mountain range near her grandparents’ home, Beauvoir writes that she “felt the luminous presence of God.”

Walking in Beauvoir’s paths, Abbs describes a panic that overcomes her, finding out later that a bloodbath occurred in that locale over 400 years before. Coming back to her room, she recalls Beauvoir’s fear in one of her hikes.

Regarding the paralysis of fear, Abbs writes that it is “Shepherd who helps me most … She transformed it into another means of experiencing the richness of life.” Abbs points out that there’s a word for fear of forests: “hylophobia or xylophobia,” and at night it’s “nyctophylophobia.” Georgia O’Keeffe, favored midnight walks in the desert that she wrote were “terrifying as they were exhilarating.”

O’Keeffe also wrote that she loved the earth “with my skin,” and that while painting a tree, she becomes the tree. 

According to Abbs, the Southwest, the land that generated the emptiness that so nurtured O’Keeffe and inspired one gorgeously sensuous painting after another, was responsible for her prolific output. It was not the only landscape where O’Keeffe walked, and there were long bouts when she could not create, for the emotional upsets regarding the response to her work or her relationship with Stieglitz, whose own prolific output was so dependent upon O’Keeffe modeling. His photographs, but her naked body.

One recalls Susan Sontag, Abbs writes, about “how photographing people violates them,” as the onlooker has a view the model herself cannot ever have, and “having knowledge of them they can never have, it turns people into objects that can be symbolically possessed.” Regarding Stieglitz’s photos of O’Keeffe, Abbs writes, “It is not O’Keeffe in these portraits, I realize. It is Stieglitz.”

Similarly, it is Abbs writing herself through her chosen women walkers, and we, too, reading ourselves through Annabel Abbs. So much here in this book for a woman to think about, to ponder, to ruminate on both now and when she finds her mountain, when she walks.

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About

Geri Lipschultz has published in the New York Times, the Toast, Black Warrior Review, College English and others. Her work appears in Pearson’s Literature: Introduction to Reading and Writing and in Spuyten Duyvil’s The Wreckage of Reason II. She teaches writing at Hunter College and Borough of Manhattan Community College. Geri was awarded a Creative Artists in Public Service grant from New York State. Her one-woman show "Once Upon the Present Time" was produced in NYC by Woodie King, Jr.