Brandon Wilson


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Have you always wanted to do more than just see the Alps from a distance? Ready to experience them? Well, now there’s a new way to discover this legendary region. The Via Alpina consists of five hiking trails stretching more than 5,000 kilometers from Trieste, Italy, to Monte Carlo. They combine Alpine beauty, culture, nature, history and cuisine with some of the world’s most demanding trails and celebrated mountains across eight countries.

Where to start? That’s the beauty of this design. What speaks to you? The majestic Mt. Blanc circuit? The grueling Eiger? The tranquil lakes of the Julian Alps? Panoramic vistas from rustic Austrian huts? Or maybe a bit of them all? Set off in whatever country you like—Italy, Slovenia, Austria, Germany, Liechtenstein, Switzerland, France or Monaco—and hike as long as you dare through areas that interest you. Think of it like one of those chocolate samplers. Whether it’s nuts or chews, dark or white chocolate, it offers a surprise every day.
How well I know. Recently, I coaxed my wife into escaping with me to be among the first to thru-hike its eight-country length from the Adriatic to the Mediterranean Sea. As seasoned long-distance hikers, we imagined it as a European Appalachian Trail—only with better food and wine. We’d forgo the chili, chips, and beer to search for regional treats like polenta, alpenkäse and wine.
Unlike our historic 1,000-kilometer hike across Tibet, we wouldn’t dodge bullets and blizzards, but we’d face every other challenge. Right away, spotting trail markers became a contest as we navigated ice fields (11 on one June day) over narrow Slovenian scree paths. It’s a long way to the bottom, as Cheryl discovered. One misstep left her precariously dangling over a 500-foot chasm, anchored to an ice flow by only her Nordic pole. Although a badly swollen knee threatened to end her trekking then and there, she gritted her teeth and insisted we continue.

Then there’s Alpine weather, as unpredictable as love. At 6-9,000 feet (1800-2700 meters), it can be sunny, showery, snowing and foggy—all on the same day. As luck would have it, we faced the most rainfall the Alps have experienced in more than 40 years—40 days worth—followed by relentless squalls. Föhn winds are said to make even the locals crazy; with us, we were already halfway there.

We pride ourselves at being light-hikers, carrying just fifteen-pound (71/2 kilo) packs on the Via Alpina. Still, it wasn’t long before we found ourselves wondering what we could leave behind. Only our sense of humor was indispensable. Have no doubt, this terrain is demanding, both physically and mentally. Although we tried to hike at least 20 kilometers a day, a virtual marathon, in the back of our minds we knew another mountain awaited tomorrow…and tomorrow…and tomorrow. Over 31/2 months, I guesstimate we scaled and slid down 700,000 feet (211,000 meters)—12 Mt. Everests as measured from sea level. But who’s counting?

However, each day brought unique rewards. We shared company with celebrated goliaths like Mt. Blanc and the Eiger. Foggy days were brightened by a calliope of wildflowers. Statuesque steinbok, chamois and marmots always provided a pleasant surprise when we rounded a bend. Nothing beat finally arriving at a rustic mountaintop hut to enjoy a steamy shower, cold beer, and jaw-dropping sunset. As darkness fell, we enjoyed hearing all the local legends, such as the tale of Mt. Jolly and the far-too-sensitive shepherd whose tears froze to form Mt. Blanc glacier.
Then how could we forget the eccentrics, such as the fellow hiker who taught us “seductive duck walking” as he waddled side-to-side down the mountainside? Or the dairyman who helped us escape a hailstorm to sleep in his barn above 80-bell clanging cows for a cacophonous serenade. But usually, we bunked in cozy mountain huts run by mountaineering clubs or in pensions with local families. My mouth still waters as I remember Austrian breakfast spreads that included sliced meats, cheese, bread or pastries, müesli, fruit, coffee, juice and milk. Although our daily budget averaged about $40 each, as always, you could easily spend more.

No, there was no peanut butter on this trek. One of our fondest memories is of a feast in a cabin by firelight. First, the shepherd fixed socca, a traditional fried chickpea meal crepe, similar to what you’ll find on the French Riviera. Then came a wild nettle and potato soup, roast lamb with herbed onions, and four kinds of handmade cheese. As always, there was schnapps, unfiltered hefeweisen wheat beers and great local wines, especially welcome at the end of a tough day.
Although hiking the Via Alpina is demanding, it’s a tasty feast. Although you can, you don’t have to devour the entire 1200 miles in one bite. As I said, it’s like a chocolate sampler. Choose one area, matching your interests and physical condition. Today, you’ll be among the first to bite into this tasty nugget. Think of it as an uncrowded holiday, providing much more than postcards and a few souvenirs. Besides, there’s no better weight-loss program.
Each night I chronicled our adventure while our muscles still ached and lungs still wheezed. My new book, Over the Top & Back Again: Hiking X the Alps, sweeps you along for a gritty, sometimes funny, tell-it-like-it-is look at the Alps—and at a slightly crazed couple who dare to follow their gonzo dream. Join us. Whether you’re a fellow hiker, or never walk farther than your couch, it’s a journey to remember.

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Cruising home (to Hawaii) at thirty thousand feet, in between the tiny bags of pretzels and constant interruptions, I had time to reflect on my wanderings. (The book details his WALK from Paris, France to Jerusalem!) My introspection would continue long after my feet returned to their normal size. Although my journey of self-exploration felt gratifying, I hoped I’d accomplished more than finding personal peace and a communion with spirit. If anything, I hoped I was successful in sowing seeds of peace along a trail long used for war. Like a Johnny Appleseed, perhaps I’d planted a vision, while reminding folks they had non-violent options-one village, one person at a time.
Along the trail, I often imagined the possibilities if this same route were to become a pathway open to people of all cultures, faiths and nationalities to walk together; an international trail of peace. The simple act of walking together would nourish tolerance while dispelling fear, prejudice and hatred. Once people share a similar experience as intense as this one, they realize how much our hopes and fears are alike. Then again, everyday pilgrims would discover a tranquil sanctuary within, once they disconnect from an ever-more chaotic world. Returning home, more at peace and enlightened, it was only natural they would share this serenity and inspiration with families, friends and co-workers, as other peregrinos I know had done.
On the other hand, immersing yourself in other countries can be the best way to re-discover your own. I had five months of quiet, sometimes painful, sometimes inspired contemplation. Many days, I reflected on the root causes of our never-ending wars; a global imperative as we stand hip-deep in another quagmire.

Remembering back to those horrendous events of September 11th, 2001, with everyone seeking answers or revenge, we were promised the illusion of safety and freedom. All it took was war-and a pre-emptive one at that. Congress willingly complied, with few dissenting voices. The government would try not to disrupt our lives too much. As citizens, we were only asked to “keep shopping” and sacrifice a few liberties via the Orwellian-named Patriot Act-for our own security, of course.

However, war is never freedom; no more than black is ever white. The absence of war, peace, is freedom.

It’s one thing to protect our homeland against aggressors, and I’d never advocate abandoning self-defense. But our invasion of Iraq was clearly not a case of self-preservation. Saddam Hussein had no links to Al-Qaeda, as we all know by now. Instead, we were sold a polished, pre-planned confrontation for “freedom” (and oil). It was a costly fabrication whose consequences will eat away at the fabric of our nation for generations to come, just as the debacle in Vietnam has done.

In today’s world, it’s far too easy to declare war, invade, and fire missiles at faceless targets below. In one sense, we can blame the media that present us with a sanitized view of death and destruction. Once the celebratory fireworks of “shock and awe” have passed, we see nothing of its aftermath and huge civilian casualties. After the devastation is complete, we leave our children and the rest of the world an even more precarious and pernicious legacy. America deserves better.

Why is it the “Mission Accomplished” leaders of the world are often those who have never smelled the stench of gunpowder, gone deaf from the mortars’ roar, or held a bloodied buddy in their arms? Let them first taste the grotesque horror of war, the sheer repulsion, and gut-wrenching fear-before sending another mother’s naïve child to a needless, futile death on any foreign shore. America deserves better.

I feel deeply sorry for the latest brave men and women who volunteered for our country, misled into believing they were protecting our homes. I mourn with my country for those thousands who will never see their sons and daughters again. I grieve over those tens of thousands whose scarred lives, and those of their loved ones, will never be the same because of the latest grand deception. America deserves better.

If one thing, after this journey, I am certain most people of the world truly want and crave peace. If only their leaders will listen.

We can no longer continue on these paths of recklessness. The wanton destruction of nations’ infrastructures-let alone their honor-only creates poverty, despair and more people left with nothing to lose. In the name of fighting “terrorism,” we douse flames of poverty and resentment with oil. We create new generations of terrorists through our invasions, economic sanctions and wide-reaching actions. We bankrupt our own society by devoting the bulk of our national budget to the military industrial complex. At the same time, we dismantle freedoms and destroy the guiding principles on which our nation was founded.

If we are to eliminate the root cause of war and suffering, we need to assure the basic needs of our citizens at home are met, and in proxy, those of the world. As American president, general and military hero Dwight D. Eisenhower once said, “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies in the final sense a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.” Today, our country feels that loss.

As someone traveling with his home upon his back for five months, I often thought of the less fortunate in our land of plenty. In my nightly search for a place to sleep, I remembered those thirty-six million Americans living in poverty. As I worried where my next meal would come from,
I was reminded of the thirty-eight million of my countrymen who have trouble finding the money to keep food on their table-and the eighteen percent of American children who live in poverty. On my worst days, limping in pain, I sympathized with forty-five million Americans suffering because they have no health insurance to buy medicine. At those times when trucks zoomed past, throwing me into the ditch, I knew the fleeting transient nature of life and empathized with those who live day-to-day with violence. While nearly 4,000 soldiers have died in Iraq since our invasion, more than 65,000 people have been killed in America during the same four year period. While walking cold and battered in the rain, I thought of those more than 3.5 million who would experience homelessness in America this year-25% of them employed-40% of them military veterans. This is an American tragedy.

Fortunately the brave are among us, awaiting a finer destiny, waiting to feel part of a greater, more noble cause. It’s part of our nature and human heritage. It’s one altruistic reason that some enlist in the military; to make life better, I believe-not to kill in the name of democracy.

As still free, conscious citizens of the world and true patriots, let us be the first to say, “Enough!” in one voice. It is time to channel those same selfless citizen efforts into social action, instead of destruction. Devote our abundance of resources to creating better lives. Eliminate poverty. House the homeless. Protect human rights. Care for the elderly. Protect our planet. Educate and teach our children tolerance. Rebuild our highways and infrastructure. Develop energy independence. Revitalize our cities and protect them from natural disasters. And wage war against devastating diseases.

It is time to win support for democracy through our generous deeds and social progress, instead of through aggression and violence.
It is time to never allow another politician to claim that improving the welfare of our citizenry and the state of the world is beyond our budget. For when it comes to war, America’s wallet is always full-and always open. These are national values that transcend bi-partisan politics. They are the ideals that helped our forefathers build a nation from wilderness. Once we set our mind to it, surely we can wage peace just as effectively as we’ve waged war. When there is hope and progress, when people can live their dreams, the need for international confrontation will wither on the vine. War profiteers, those peddlers of death, will disappear. Peace will prevail.
After seven million small steps, in my heart I know we can each make a difference. What progressive world movement has not begun small, even if by just one person with truth and determination; pilgrims committed to walking “roads less traveled.”

We are all pilgrims, each on their own path, each with their own story to tell. Walking is only a first step, but one we each can take to discover the peace within. In that way, eventually, war will become unconscionable. Darkness will be dispelled with light-one person, one step at a time.