Such an odd thing, packing a rucksack. It’s an act of austerity that liberates even as it frustrates. For every item to earn its place on my puny shoulders, it must be life-preserving in some way. I limit myself to 26.5 pounds, casting out the frivolous, the inessential. I check weather forecasts, tear spines from books, put things in—paints, camera lenses, walnuts—then throw them out. Every time I toss away an item, I feel a swift stab of anxiety followed by a ripple of lightness. So that even as I shunt the pack onto my back, I experience a sense of weightlessness. I have become disencumbered. Free. My life whittled down to the bone.
Simone de Beauvoir’s rucksack invariably contained a candle, an alarm clock, a copy of the local Guide Bleu, a Michelin map, and a felt-covered water bottle filled with red wine. She hadn’t always walked with a rucksack: when she arrived in Marseilles, age twenty-three, to take up her first teaching post, she’d walked with a basket. It was here, among the mountains, valleys, and cliffs of Provence, that a passion for solitary rambles and “communion with nature” first took hold of her. “I derived a satisfaction I had never known in all the rush and bustle of my Paris life,” she wrote in her memoir.
But the funny thing is, 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.
This is not my Simone de Beauvoir. My Beauvoir—the version I unearth from her letters, memoirs, journals, and books, and in whose footsteps I walk—is a compelling, courageous, often reckless hiker. A lover of bare hills, forests, mountain ranges. A woman who walks as audaciously and rigorously as she thinks. A woman who shows us how walking can return us to our bodies. A woman who is nothing to do with Jean-Paul Sartre.
This is not to say that Beauvoir wasn’t the quintessentially Parisian woman she appeared to be. She loved the city of her birth—its libraries, bookshops, cafes, jazz clubs, and apricot cocktails. But, like so many of us, she needed both urban and wild in her divided life.
Beauvoir never made grandiose claims about her walking. “I’m not doing much thinking, I’m blissful,” she wrote to Sartre from one lengthy, mountainous hike. From the Italian Alps, she declared she “had not a thought in [her] head apart from flowers and beasts and stony tracks and wide horizons, the pleasurable sensation of possessing legs and lungs and a stomach.”
It seems to me that feeling bliss and pleasure is a compelling enough reason for walking. And when I began researching her, I was convinced that Beauvoir walked only for this reason—to rest her febrile brain, to distract herself from the metaphysical anxieties that threatened to engulf her. By the time I’d finished my investigations, I’d come to a different conclusion altogether. Her walking was infinitely more complicated than I’d ever imagined.
Before she reached Marseilles with its miles and miles of hiking trails, Beauvoir had been suffering acutely from an onslaught of confused, oscillating emotions. Riven with uncontrollable desire, unsure who she was, unable to write, desperately in love with the philandering Sartre but simultaneously needing to pull away from his influence, Beauvoir needed resetting. “I would like to learn how to be alone again,” she confided to her notebook.
The hills and calanques around Marseilles provided Beauvoir with much-needed solitude. And her vigorous walking enabled her to march her emotional, hormonal, and metaphysical confusion into order, purging herself of her previous turmoil and exorcising the sexual urges that had been plaguing her to the point of distraction.
Every Thursday and Sunday she left her house at dawn, returning only after darkness. In an old dress and espadrilles, with a basket of buns and bananas over her arm, Beauvoir climbed every local peak and crossed every canyon. She refused to wear the “semi-official rig of rucksack, studded shoes … and windcheater.” She refused to accompany her fellow teachers or join a hiking club. Alone, she walked through dense mists and along lonely ridgelines, bracing herself against the unruly mistral wind, the stinging rain, and the scorching sun: “At first I limited myself to some five or six hours’ walking; then I chose routes that would take nine to ten hours; in time I was doing over twenty-five miles a day.”
Her walks were plotted with military precision. She taught herself to map-read and navigate, meticulously planning every route. They became “expeditions,” each one “a work of art in itself.” Beauvoir devotes pages of her memoir to these “fanatical walking trips,” explaining that they preserved her “from boredom, regret, and several sorts of depression.” Time in nature, she added, gave her a “greater familiarity with myself.”
As a child, Beauvoir had spent long, carefree holidays at the rural home of her grandparents. Here she had everything denied her in Paris: freedom, privacy, space, and nature. At the age of thirteen her love of nature took on “an almost mystical fervour,” dramatically expanding her world: “I was no longer a vacant mind, an abstracted gaze, but the turbulent fragrance of the waving grain, the intimate smell of the heather moors, the dense heat of noon or the shiver of twilight; I was heavy; yet I was as vapour in the blue airs of summer and knew no bounds.” Here, she felt the luminous presence of God. And the more she pressed herself to the grass and the earth, the closer she felt to him.
Back in her parents’ choked, balcony-less, toilet-less apartment, Beauvoir wasn’t allowed to run or jump. She shared a room that was so tiny she and her sister had to take it in turns to stand between the two beds. Under the gimlet eye of her devoutly Catholic mother, her “wretched carcase” began an increasingly sedentary existence, buried more and more deeply in books and study. She developed an alarming and uncontrollable facial tic, while her awkward body spilled into lumps, bulges, and blotches. Her father pronounced her “ugly.”
At her Catholic girls’ school, Beauvoir was intellectually brilliant but “entirely friendless,” taunted for her make-do, ill-fitting clothes. At home she was vigilantly watched over by her mother, who opened her post, listened at her door, and banned all reading material she considered inappropriate. Merely reading about the stifling conditions of Beauvoir’s Parisian upbringing makes me feel short of breath, as if a huge boulder is being lowered onto my chest.
Hardly surprising that she developed “a great longing for freedom,” or that the prospect of “liberty and physical pleasure” dazzled her. Hardly surprising that her life became an obsessive quest for freedom. Or that travel, walking, and backpacking—surely the most emancipating of all experiences—became such a significant part of her life.
In the two years before she discovered hiking, Beauvoir’s world had turned on its axis. She had begun an intense love affair with Jean-Paul Sartre, “the genius who opened the world to me,” who turned her life “upside down, inside out.” The affair swept both of them away, as much for its sexual energy as its intellectual vigor.
Except that Sartre had a rapacious sexual appetite and a gluttonous need for beautiful young women. He suggested an open relationship: honesty was more important than fidelity in his existentialist world. Beauvoir agreed, thrilled by the affront to conventional bourgeois values their “pact” represented. And unaware of how much emotional tumult—anguish, jealousy, fear—Sartre’s philandering would cause her.
As if emotional tumult weren’t enough, a horrified Beauvoir also found herself in the merciless grip of physical desire. Having “surrendered” her virginity to Sartre “with glad abandon,” she was now racked by her own bodily needs, which presented as “actual pain,” “torture,” “agony.” She was seized with shame, repulsed by her “physical appetites” that cried out for anyone, regardless. Even the brush of an anonymous hand on the bus sparked fierce sexual urges that she felt unable to master.
At first she regarded her emotions and urges as mere weaknesses, and tried to will them away. Her attempts at subjugation failed. She became a mess, so swamped with emotional pain she repeatedly drank herself into sobbing oblivion. Her love for Sartre was unconditional, and the jealousy that gripped her was, Beauvoir said, “the most unpleasant emotion that had ever laid hold on me.”
Crushed between jealousy and thwarted desire, Beauvoir was rescued by her twice-weekly rural walks: “I … subdued my rebellious body, and was physically at peace once more,” she explained.
On my first day in the calanques around Marseille, I spend an hour scrambling in and out of bleached-white inlets and peering into turquoise water so clear I can see the limestone rocks on the seabed. On slender crescents of sand, oiled bodies soak up the year’s last rays of sunshine.
I slip inland to the scrubby woodlands where it feels more authentically Beauvoir, not only because it’s deserted but because she often professed her love of trees and woodland. In her memoir she described standing motionless “day after day … for hours at the foot of a tree.” But trees don’t occupy my thoughts for long, because I’ve read something else about Beauvoir that is gnawing away at me. She was always the last chosen for any team game or sporting contest at school, and considered herself without grace or athletic ability. “I couldn’t do anything with my body,” she wrote in despair. “I couldn’t even swim or ride a bicycle.” Reading this had thrown me back to a similarly scarring experience, one I thought I’d buried but now blasts from my memory as brightly saturated as if it were yesterday.
When I arrived at secondary school, I couldn’t swim or ride a bicycle either. Worse, I’d never played a game of netball or hockey, never kicked, batted, or thrown a ball. In my first games lesson, a tennis racket was thrust into my hand. I struggled agonizingly with it, watching it leap and dance, like a cat struggling to escape. A ball was flung at me. I chased after it, trying to scoop it onto the strings of my racket. In a single feline movement, both ball and racket escaped, skittering across the court. Miss Monk blew furiously into her tin whistle, instructed the girls to form a circle round me, and demanded that I “serve the ball.” Hot and confused, I tossed and swung. The ball sailed out of the court. Miss Monk, her face shut-tight and red with outrage, screamed at me: “That is exactly how not to serve.” For years, I was the example of how not to catch, how not to throw, how not to sidestep.
Being singled out as physically incompetent, weak, and flawed at the very time I was going through the disorienting years of puberty altered the relationship I had with my body. Our bodies are the prism through which we experience the world: from then on I felt as if my control over life was tenuous and frail, that I would never be fully independent. Somehow, my own body had betrayed me.
When I took up hiking—in my early twenties, the same age that Beauvoir began distance walking—it was a profoundly affirmative experience, reconnecting me with a body that had become little more than a source of shame and indignity. Suddenly I could outwalk other people. My legs ceased being flimsy and unreliable. They became a ferocious pair of pistons, and a source of deep inner pride. I couldn’t catch a ball, but I could walk—for hours and hours. Slowly I realized that my body needn’t be an ungovernable lump of fat and bone. It could become. Emboldened, I learned to ski, to swim, to hold a tennis racket. I ran. I lifted weights. My body was me. The world began to feel different. And for the first time, I liked who I was.
Beauvoir went through a similar journey, ignited by a throwaway comment from an early crush: “How fast you walk! I love that,” he told her. Beauvoir began to see herself as a walker, “just like a man.” From here it was a short step to strenuous hiking. Scrambling, climbing, jumping, and lugging a heavy backpack were a means of obliterating the clumsy, gawky girl Beauvoir had been. Week by week, she began the process of reconstructing herself as physically strong, athletic, graceful. Climbing requires strength, agility, and balance, while hiking for hour upon hour requires exceptional physical and mental stamina. Beauvoir had these in spades. No wonder she bragged about her walking feats. Walking through spaces usually possessed by men was proof of her own physical presence, proof of her autonomy and resilience. But it was also proof that she could recast herself. Later, she wrote of her time in Marseilles, “I felt a certain self-satisfaction … I no longer despised myself.”
Annabel Abbs is the author of Windswept: Walking the Paths of Trailblazing Women. She writes regularly for a wide range of newspapers and magazines and lives in London, with her husband and four children. Her novels, The Joyce Girl and Frieda, were published to great acclaim.
Excerpted from Windswept: Walking the Paths of Trailblazing Women, by Annabel Abbs. Published with permission from Tin House. Copyright © 2021 Annabel Abbs.