Walking the world
IT ALL BEGAN on the summit of a high peak in the Austrian Alps. As the sun shone onto my face on that warm summer day my thoughts wandered to the snow-covered mountain range in the far distance and I felt that the time had come to go on a long pilgrimage. I decided to walk out into the world, to live simply and to share the pleasure of walking with others.
Months of preparation followed. Finally I picked up my backpack and walking-stick. It was a big challenge to leave, to let go of the daily routines and securities of a regular life. But once I had left my home on foot and followed the ancient pilgrim trail to Santiago de Compostela in Spain I knew that this was the right decision. I passed by old monasteries and shared the path with many fellow pilgrims. Several weeks later I stood on the shore of the Atlantic Ocean. As I looked down from Cape Finisterre in Galicia I could not believe that I had walked every single step from the Austrian Alps to the sea. I felt that everything was possible.
Having crossed Europe on foot and sailed the Atlantic by boat, I continued my hike on the southern tip of Latin America. When I set out from Austria I had a heavy pack, but slowly I learned to leave stuff behind. The fewer things I carried with me, the more pleasant the hiking became. The essence of life for a pilgrim is to live simply and honour the beauty of the small things along the way. I enjoyed the smell of freshly cut grass, smiled when a falcon followed my path and when the sun shone onto my face after some days of rain. In the evening I was happy to have a warm dinner, crawl into my sleeping bag and enjoy a good rest. Nothing else was necessary for a fulfilling life: walking, seeing, eating and sleeping.
Further in the north I walked along the spine of the Andes on the ancient Royal Road of the Incas in Peru and over a lonesome pass in the Cordillera Blanca. The trail became steeper as I got closer to the glaciated mountain tops. A snowstorm approached. Soon I was walking in the clouds. The wind blew big snowflakes into my face. I reached the top, dropped my bag beside an old stone wall and took a rest. Moments later a huge shadow passed over the stone wall. A condor flew just two metres above my head and glided down into a distant valley. What an unexpected gift to meet the majestic king of the skies!
Eventually I made it to Quito, Ecuador, five months after I had left Cusco in Peru. On the Plaza San Francisco in the centre of the old town I was soon surrounded by a group of kids from the street. They wanted to clean my shoes but this was not something I wanted them to do; instead we all went to a nearby bakery, where we shared pastries and fresh fruit juice. I listened to their stories and I thought that our world would be a better place if, at least once in their life, every businessperson had a chance to look into the eyes of the kids from the streets.
The injustices I have seen between rich and poor have challenged my worldview and encouraged me to live more simply and slowly. With all these experiences and thoughts in mind I came to the USA. Arriving in Los Angeles was the biggest culture shock of my whole tour! All of a sudden I was immersed in an ever-increasing amount of stuff. After the simplicity of walking in the Andes I could barely handle this experience.
As I followed the coastline of California the beauty of the wilderness inspired me particularly the old growth forests of California. I camped among ancient sequoias: massive snow-covered trees grouped majestically around the tent. The moon glittered in the winter sky and no clouds hid the stars. It was freezing cold but truly magical. These ancient trees hold so much wisdom. I believe that they know the secret of a world in balance. We could learn so much from the trees, if only we took the time to listen to them.
AFTER WALKING THE coast of California I crossed over to Japan. While hiking in the hills around Kyoto, I came upon the hidden Ryan-ji temple with its famous rock garden. I sat down beside the biggest rock and wondered what the Zen master wanted to express with this garden. The sun was rising and when it shone on to the top of the biggest stone, it seemed to me as if the garden was made exactly so that the sun could illuminate the stone and so enlighten us.
I crossed the Pacific Ocean to New Zealand and then I walked the entire length of Aotearoa, ‘The Land of the Long White Cloud’, as the country is called by the Maori. For a year I followed their ancient trails into wild valleys, over mountain passes and along majestic beaches. It was a challenge, though, to walk alone in the wilderness for several weeks. I often had to cross swiftly-flowing rivers. There was hardly ever a bridge, and the water would sometimes reach my chest. Luckily I had a walking-stick from a branch of an ancient redwood in California which helped me to cross safely. When I got stuck in the dense bush of the rainforests I finally learned that I was as much a part of the Nature around me as were the rivers and the trees. So I learned to read the signs of Nature, and changed my way accordingly. After that I always found a good path in the wilderness.
Leaving New Zealand, I boarded a cargo ship to Europe. Late one night I went outside onto the deck. It was a clear night and all around the boat was the endless Pacific Ocean. The dark water contrasted strongly with the bright stars. I looked up at the Southern Cross. For a year it had followed my path. Soon I would cross the equator and I did not know when or if I would see it again. In the morning the bright sun shone onto my face. I was back in the Northern hemisphere. Three years of walking the world were coming to an end.
Back home in Austria a journalist asked me whether my walk had made any difference in the world. I hesitated, but then the story of a short walk with my uncle in the Austrian Alps came to my mind. We were walking beside a lake, and my uncle threw a small stone into the water. Then he pointed out that the pebble was a metaphor for our actions. The pebble created waves in the water that went out in circles and eventually changed the whole surface of the lake. Similarly, our actions can change the world. I only had to be ready to take the first step.
What I can say for sure is that this walk has profoundly changed my life and my way of looking at things. I have learned to live more simply, to take more time and to see the beauty around me – and to “be the change I want to see in the world”.