The heartbreaking 2016 Antarctic crossing of Henry Worsley, who came within 126 miles of his goal, recently returned to media attention. Eight hundred miles into his solo journey, Worsley was stopped by deadly infection.
Just hours after reading about Worsley’s valiant attempt, I happened upon a book by athlete Colin O’Brady, who claims to have been the first to ski across Antarctica without aid of any kind. Although many adventurers don’t consider O’Brady’s feat to have been unassisted, he is acknowledged as having made a crossing. He did it in record time by logging twelve-hour days, two hours longer than he thought he’d have to push.
(The actual honor of being first to make a solo, unassisted crossing of Antarctica is held by the Norwegian explorer Børge Ousland, who completed it in December 2011.)
I found O’Brady’s book The 12-Hour Walk stocked at the local copy store, among other personal-improvement favorites. While waiting for my print job to finish, I scanned the cover and blurbs and learned this:
Colin created The 12-Hour Walk for you so that you can overcome your limiting beliefs and cultivate a Possible Mindset™ that will empower you to step into your best life.
O’Brady invites readers to take the long walk so, specious claims aside, I thought why not? I needed empowerment to finish my current book project, which has been challenging both my stamina and my patience. Walkers can cover any distance, resting when needed, as long as we keep pushing “always a little further.”
I’m no stranger to twelve-hour days. I’ve put in plenty of them in the outdoors. The job where I did so day-in and day-out, as O’Brady did on his polar crossing, was as a Grand Canyon river guide. Rise before dawn to start coffee, ready the boats, launch just before or just as sunshine hit the water. Catch current downstream through the daylight hours, run small and big drops.
These days I don’t usually hike for more than five or six hours at a stretch. Usually, too, I’m watching birds like crazy, so I don’t always keep moving.
So Colin’s twelve hours of foot travel, by myself, would be a challenge. Staying in silence as he prescribed, though, would be wonderful. Even given some breaks, however, I knew I’d want to linger in places like, say, Kelham Beach. But Colin maintains that keeping moving for the entire day is an experience that helps us step into our best lives. I scheduled a time and set out for Point Reyes National Seashore.
Leaving my Olema lodging the next day at 6 a.m., really warming up by 6:30, I saw my first memorable sight, besides dawn lifting the fog in a gleaming bank from the hills: a dead, bloody rat in the road. He didn’t make it. Would I?
Down in the coastal rainforest, in my rain slicker, I threaded through dripping foliage. All the creeks running. The quail, finches, jays, and hawks making an absolute racket in the Doug-fir and redwood jungle.
At the shore, sunshine broke through the fog. I encountered a few people, nodded hello, and smiled. Everyone genuinely happy to be there.
The creeks—quite musical, running on all sides—were high but clear. They spilled over cliff faces and down to sandy channels while pigeon guillemots made eerily human sounds on sea stacks, hidden by fog.
By noon, my left foot and hip hurt. Probably nothing a good Feldenkrais teacher couldn’t coach me through, I hoped. I downed the electrolytes Colin had suggested I pack. I boldly popped two aspirin.
At about four hours, my math started to become elastic. Halfway there! I thought, until I recalculated. Um, no, you have eight more hours to walk, woman. Four hours out and four back would have been simple—I’d only have to turn around, not in a hurry, just moving ahead.
But twelve? I’d have to see.
At around two o’clock, I descended a steep trail to Sculptured Beach. It’s a shoreline of rocky, wave-carved outcrops that always remind me of cycling there with my daughter many years ago. Because she wanted to bring some toys (perhaps some Legos and Barbies?), she carried a pack too heavy for her. I warned that anything we carried in, we would carry out. She thought she could do it, so we took all the things along.
We parked our tandem bike at a picnic table on Coast Trail. Down on the beach, we explored live things in the tide pools. We found the shells of others on the beach.
When it was time to go, the pack nearly half as heavy as my daughter stopped her cold. After a few words of negotiation, I stuffed her knapsack into mine for the ride back.
Who could blame her? She’d wanted to carry the toys both ways. Who among us hasn’t shouldered things we’ve had to put down? We did finish no sweat, walking and pushing the bike when we had to, past cloud-like white yarrow blooming and crimson bursts of paintbrush by the trail.
I hadn’t thought I would find those memories when I started my 12-hour walk, but maybe that’s why I chose Point Reyes for it. Maybe it was to remember those long-ago days so precious to me now.
The nine-hour mark, when I wanted to short-cut to my starting point but had three more hours to log, was the least happy time for me. I took a selfie, as Colin advised (actually he advised a video with audio, but I wanted to stay in silence). I wore bright colors, as he suggested for the roadside walking. Hoping not to end up like the rat.
At that point, I didn’t bother removing my hat and glasses. I did smile, weary but content.
At the finish, right around 6:30 p.m., I was spent, sore, and in awe of the day. An hour of sunlight remained. As evening fog rolled into Olema, I hit the hot tub at the inn where I was staying with Steelhead. We wouldn’t talk much about the walk for a few days. I could just enjoy the feeling of having made it, in silence and beauty. (For those who’ve asked, thank you: none of the soreness lasted more than 48 hours.)
It wasn’t an Antarctic crossing, but it did serve as a reset. At home I got to work again, ready to recommit to finishing a book that’s been many years, many conversations in the making. I still had journal notes from fifty years ago to pore over, a lifetime of family letters and photos to study, and the wisdom of friends and colleagues to absorb.
Some days the effort of sticking with it gets the best of me. Not all writing has evaded me so. But it’s what’s happening now, as a friend of mine likes to say. At times it’s hard to put a meaning to it, but who among us hasn’t felt that way?
Maybe I’ll end up short of the finish line on this one. Like Worsley, we never know if we’ll make our goal. But we all should fail as magnificently as he did: moving ahead, calling on experience, resting when needed, pushing always a little further.
Walking for twelve hours (and somewhere between 20 and 22 miles) did show me that there might be more in my tank on any given day than I knew. I thank Colin for that.
Like “Finish”? READ MORE: What I Never Told You: Stories (Wavegirl, 2022). Back in print following a limited-distribution edition, Steelies and Other Endangered Species: Stories on Water (Little Curlew Press, 2014).