EXTREME HIKER SARAH MARQUIS thinks that modern-day people who hurtle through the world at unnatural speeds have lost an important connection to their surroundings.
She will call her parents to let her know she’s on her way to visit — and she’ll get there in roughly a week. That’s because her chosen mode of transport is on foot, and from her house in the Swiss Alps to her parents’ up north is a seven-day hike. She wouldn’t want to do it any other way. “Walking is the perfect speed for us,” says Marquis, who has crafted a life out of walking extreme distances, up to 12,000 miles in one trip, and sharing her stories of endurance in her books and lectures.
The first step is simply being present.
In June 2015, she was dropped off by helicopter at the mouth of the Berkeley River, in crocodile country of desolate Western Australia roughly 60 miles from the closest town. “I had this amazing feeling of freedom mixed with fear, mixed with, ‘I have to get out of here, now,’” she says. For a week-and-a-half she walked with a singular purpose to avoid crocodiles and reach her destination safely. Gradually, her fear morphed into a growing awareness of her surroundings. “You start to notice little things in the landscape, like a nice little patch of grass that’s greener than the rest,” she says. The idea is to try not to focus on the conscious struggle with fear, and instead tune into strange, new sensations.
When you walk everywhere, every sense is heightened and tunes into unexpected pleasures.
She can detect the trace scent of water from several kilometers away. “The air is usually saturated with tannin from the plants, the trees and the grass, but as soon as you get closer to the water, the air becomes really sharp,” she says. “It’s difficult to explain.” As her sense of smell began to sharpen, her palate did too. Soon the edible flowers of the Grevillea tree were a sugary treat, until one day the nectar struck her as much too sweet. The bland heart of the Pandanus spiralis palm tree became one of her favorite wild foods. “It’s like eating a cookie,” she says.
The true goal is to shift what happens in your mind.
Marquis insists that the key to enjoying extreme walks is to resist the temptation to distract yourself with a book, an iPod or any other machine-made diversion. She also advises against spinning stories or songs in your head. Any attempt to avoid boredom is futile, and she’s seen her fellow hikers suffer the consequences. “They fight with themselves all the way, just to avoid this journey of the mind,” she says.
The goal is to harness your attention on your surroundings. “It’s an out-of-body experience, but you have to believe in yourself and step into the unknown. The exploration is not only happening outside. It’s constant work, a humbling road, but it’s so worth it.”
Boredom is inconceivable.
“There is this big open, wide, amazing space around you,” she says, “It entertains me all the way, and I’m fascinated with nearly everything.” Because anything from an insect under a leaf to the color of a rock becomes an object of fascination, each minute is as exciting as the last. “People often ask me, ‘What was the highlight of your trip?’” she says. “But it’s a stupid question, because there really is no such thing.”