My initial reaction to Andra Watkins’ book ‘Not Without My Father: One Woman’s 444-Mile Walk of the Natchez Trace’ was to baulk, absolutely, at the premise. I walk. I run. I cycle. And that’s a truly, gut-clenchingly HUGE distance to go. Alone.
Added to which, who even does that?
Well Andra does – did – and it transpired that not even she was entirely sure why, but that it was all tied up in a historical novel she’d written previously about Merriweather Lewis (an important man in Natchez Trace history), the spirits of the Trace (which had gotten well and truly under her skin) and a determination to prove *something* to herself.
So off she set (and not to give the plot away, but oh BOY did she ever walk that Trace) and the memoir leaped quickly into the realms of the emotional landscape. It was brimming with fascinating internal dialogue, self-doubts, critical thinking, and the gradual untwisting of several tangled threads which had been consistently knotting up the way Andra viewed her past, her life and herself.
There was the visceral, too, with all those miles doing a number on the feet (you won’t believe the palpable relief which can come off a page when you’ve invested yourself in the narrator, whose feet are bleeding stumps of agony, and she finally sinks them into a bath of Epsom salts), the many reasons Andra will never again be without toilet paper, and the sheer GRIT required to keep going, day after day, whatever the weather.
And then, of course, in Best Supporting Character role – Hotshot – her father, whose excesses, failings, enthusiasm and storytelling provide a background of hilarity, heartbreak and agonising frustration to the tale, even as we are brought along with Andra’s viewpoint to see him with compassion, and even adoration.
In the end, though, the thing which was most apparent through the story, other than the magic of the Trace, the beauty of earth-time-not-screen-time, and the delight of accomplishing something she’d set out to do, were Andra’s relationships and the way they changed as she spent time walking and thinking.
Even ordinary families have their snuggles and difficulties, and Andra’s is no exception, but with the flow of unadulterated thoughts from her perspective, tempered by stories and thoughts from her father, we get to see the ways their understandings of themselves as individuals and within the context of familial relationships have had an impact, and gradually the unique context of the journey seems to bring to the fore the things which have been buried, and now, suddenly, matter.
Andra’s consistent message to her readers is to take time to consider what matters, and to focus on the people who are important, and create time to make memories with them – maybe not a 444-mile hike, or five weeks in their company, or even five days – but to ensure that lives don’t fade away without contact, and that those fundamental relationships aren’t left to turn to ash.
In thinking about this book and it’s message, I felt I was given the chance to look at my own family and determine, as Andra did, what matters, and in what ways these people who (for better or worse) have profoundly influenced my life, merit a portion of my thoughts, and possibly more of my presence than I’ve been allowing them.
Because in the end, this book, like so many of the best things, is about love.
Buy ‘Not Without My Father’ in time for Father’s Day – CLICK HERE
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