I was a huge fan of epic fantasies as a preteen — that’s the genre of Game of Thrones. Back then I read David Eddings, Terry Brooks, and Stephen R. Donaldson, and like George R. R. Martin with A Song of Ice and Fire, they each had a long-running series or two at least five books long.
What these stories often had in common were incredibly long journeys across a vast land of some sort, through rural, wild, and untamed areas, sometimes by horse and sometimes on foot. The books often had map illustrations toward the front, where you could see mountain ranges and valleys, rivers and lakes, forests and plains, and so on. The landmarks of note and the cities of great would have old-sounding names, giving you a sense that this might be what the world was like in the Middle Ages, when everything moved slower than it does now.
But the journeys … they really were something. The journey wasn’t just necessary to the plot; it seemed essential for character development as well. A character and his group would take days and weeks to get from point A to point B, and in that time they learned something of themselves and of their purpose, and they learned how to work and live together.
They would cover maybe one or two leagues a day, more if they were on horseback — and back then I found out that a league was seven miles. Of course, they’d have to camp where they were at the end of the day, so that meant they had to have everything they needed with them, which meant packs of some sort.
I tried to imagine it as a teenager, tried to imagine what that would be like, but that was as far as I could go because my family wasn’t really into camping or hiking or even horseback riding, so I didn’t have any real-world experience of such a journey. But I tried to picture the day to day logistics of one because I wanted to be able to write my own epic fantasy and pull off those long treks realistically without having to merely mimic another writer.
Now, as a day hiker, I can easily do a league a day. I can even do two. But because I’m a day hiker and not a backpacker, I travel fairly light — a little pack with a first aid kit, some tissues and snacks, my phone and keys, chapstick, and two or three water bottles. I’m dressed in layers, a hat with a wide brim and a cloth flap to cover my neck, and sturdy hiking shoes. I might do 2.5 miles per hour, especially if there’s any elevation gain; I can do more, maybe three or four, if it’s flat, and I’m feeling speedy. After seven miles, I’m ready for a break, or for the hike to be over, depending on the circumstances. That’s about two or three hours in the early morning, and the rest of the day is free for me to do as I will.
But that’s as a day hiker with a light load, and I’m a seasoned day hiker. After each hike, I go home sweaty, have a decent lunch and shower, and then I get to work.
Now, I try to imagine doing that same thing as a backpacker, which means with a heavy load on your back, and after each hike, wherever you happened to end up, you unpack your living space and accommodations, set up what you need to get comfortable, make yourself something to eat, clean up, and bed down, right there; and the next day you do the reverse of that and do another set of miles before you pick another spot to unpack and do the whole thing all over again. It’s what my hiking leader has done countless times when she did the Pacific Crest Trail and various other famous long hikes.
Here’s the thing … at the end of my day hikes, I’ve used up quite a bit of the water I have with me, and I’ve built up quite the appetite, so I usually have a big meal at home. If you are backpacking, however, you have to make sure you have enough water not just for that day, but for however many days you might need water before you can come to a natural source of water, like a river or a stream.
In the meantime, water is heavy. Not to mention food. Food is heavy. The stuff you need to bed down in? Also heavy. The stuff you need to cook in? Heavy. They might not seem so as you hold them individually, testing them out, but put them all together and walk a number of miles with them all on your back, and you just want to kill yourself.
Just walking for ten miles without any sort of pack can make your legs and feet ache, especially if you’re new to it. A lot of the characters in those epic fantasy journeys grew up in small villages having gone nowhere before, or grew up as royalty or aristocrats having servants tend to their needs. It’s really difficult for me to imagine them without some sort of adjustment period. Even if they were on horseback, they would have to experience charley horse type aches and pains for the first few days before they toughened up and got used to the hard and long pace.
So, I now have a real appreciation for the scope of those epic journeys, especially as the groups of characters often traveled with their heavy weapons — swords, shields, knives, etc. Hunting helped with the food supply, and the fantasy lands didn’t have a California drought to worry about. They didn’t have the materials we do today — light but super sturdy and insulated, with wicking properties, etc. — but they weren’t spoiled and softened by a modern lifestyle either.
They didn’t have iPhones with hiking apps announcing every mile completed and in how much time. They likely also didn’t have clear trails to follow and probably had to bushwhack their way through bramble and bushes, high grasses and whatnot, which means they also probably had to worry more about snakes and wolves and mountain lions or whatever, even holes in the ground.
Speaking of which, they probably wore holes in their shoes. They certainly didn’t have modern hiking shoes with good tread and arch support, built to last and perhaps waterproofed or made to breathe. Just imagine the state of their feet! They probably didn’t have decent socks either.
So … epic fantasy characters are hardy, hardy people. Tough. Good stamina, long endurance. Healthy, fit folk capable of taking on strenuous journeys across the country and beyond. Makes me wonder what the authors are like. Have any of them tried to do anything that their characters regularly do in their stories? At least for the sake of authenticity? Realism?
Regardless, when all is said and done, their characters are out of my league. I know I can do what they do and take on those long epic journeys leagues across the uninhabited country, but I would hate it. I’m just not a backpacker type. I need my shower at the end and a good meal, then a good night’s rest in an actual bed, or I just wouldn’t be fit enough to hike again the next day.
Good thing the fate of the world isn’t dependent upon me doing any of that.Share this post: