Leon McCarron is no stranger to epic trips. When he was 23 years old, the Northern Irish writer and filmmaker biked 6,000 miles across the United States and down to the Mexican border, a journey he documented in his first book, The Road Headed West: A Cycling Adventure Through North America. What could have easily been a one-off escapade changed the course of his life forever.
“I’ve always traveled by human power,” says McCarron. “Cycling, kayaking, but these days, mostly walking. I like it because it’s slow and it’s thorough and it’s immersive and it makes the traveler vulnerable. You have to be open to every sight, sound, and smell, whether you like it or not.”
Now in his early thirties, McCarron has cycled 14,000 miles from New York City to Hong Kong (flying over the ocean, of course); trekked 1,000 miles across the Empty Quarter desert in Oman; ridden horses across Argentina; followed Karun, Iran’s longest river, from source to sea; and walked 3,000 miles across China, an experience he filmed for a series that aired on the National Geographic Channel. In his latest long-distance, human-powered adventure—the subject of a new book, The Land Beyond: A Thousand Miles on Foot through the Heart of the Middle East—McCarron spent four months hoofing it over old pilgrim trails and ancient trading routes from Jerusalem to Jordan and through the deserts of the Sinai Peninsula.
We caught up with McCarron in his adopted hometown of London, post-journey, to find out what he learned along the way.
The landscape is exceedingly diverse.
“One of the preconceptions I hear regularly about the Middle East is that it’s just one enormous sandpit. There are huge deserts there, but some of the climates are quite Mediterranean-esque. At times it can feel more like Italy or Southern Spain, with orchards and terraces of olive groves. Jordan is a very water-scarce country, but in the north they get rain in the winter. All the wadis, which are these dry canyons, fill up and become flash-flooded rivers. It looks verdant and fertile. To have all of that, on top of the huge expansive red deserts and the granite and sandstone mountains of the south, is a real blessing. When you put your tent up and sleep under the stars, you feel miles away from civilization.”
It is a region that has been carved by footsteps.
“The Middle East is a place where people have always walked. All of the great trade routes of the past were here. Anyone coming up from Egypt through Anatolia to Mesopotamia would have traveled through on foot with caravans of animals. There were the Romans and their contemporaries, the Christian pilgrims from 4th century A.D., Muslim pilgrims from the Syrian highlands walking down to Mecca, and the Crusaders a few hundreds of years later. Then there are the Bedouins, who’ve always been walking here. Everywhere I walked in the Holy Land has been walked on before; it’s amazing to go on a contemporary journey and think about all of the things that brought people there, whether it’s faith, trade, or simply adventure. The original pilgrimage accounts are fascinating, too. They talk about a place that, in those days, had lions and hippopotamus running around. The landscape itself hasn’t changed much, but everything else has. For the first time in years, I was reading the Bible as a sort of travel guide. It’s not quite Lonely Planet, but it’s pretty good!”
It can get very, very cold.
“As I walking through the West Bank, in the early part of the trip, it was dropping to single digits in Celsius. I was the recipient of all this wonderful hospitality—people would invite me to eat food with them and stay the night, but it was so cold. The houses feel like refrigerators: much colder inside than out. I didn’t have the right equipment because I assumed it wouldn’t get cold; it was a good lesson for someone like me, who claims to be a professional, well-organized traveler. If I were to do it over, I would take a down jacket to wear at night. They’re pretty light and it’s a good pillow when you’re not wearing it. I’ll carry one forever now.”
The human body is incredibly adaptable, but also inherently fragile.
“This journey was 1,000 miles on foot and it was the fourth big walking journey I’ve done in the last few years. The irony is, I’m not even remotely athletic. I was always average-to-poor at sporting things in school. But just through sheer repetition of action and motion, my body has gotten good at doing these simple but lengthy endurance challenges. I’ve come to the conclusion that we’re often so much more physically capable than we give ourselves credit for—mentally as well. The human body is amazing; it’s the best bit of equipment we’ll ever own, but it requires being looked after.”
Good boots are worth their weight in gold.
“Good boots and a good backpack are the two things I would never ever compromise on, because walking every day with feet that are falling apart is so totally miserable. If boots work well, you don’t think about how great your boots are until you finish. But if they’re not working, it can ruin the whole experience. And I’ve used the same type of backpack now for seven years—a 65-liter pack from Osprey. Same with boots. I’ve been using a Dutch company called Keen. They just fit my feet. I stock up and hope they never change their design.”
Going slowly gives greater access to the layers of a place.
“In between journeys, I’m based in London, one of the busiest cities in the world. People are always dashing about, speaking in one phone, answering emails in another, jumping on trains—life is just 100 miles per hour here. One of the benefits of these journeys is the ability to slow everything down: slow down my speed of thought, slow down my interactions, slow down my experiences. When you’re able to do that, you can draw connections between the places and people you meet in a journey that you might not otherwise be able to do if you were in a car or bus. In a place like the Holy Land, which has all these layers of faith and culture and history, moving slowly is like watching the world through a different lens. Besides living there for 20 years, I don’t know that there is a better way than walking to try and experience it.”
We are more similar than we are different.
“A journey like this is a social experience, characterized by meeting people—every single day, even in remote areas. The Middle East is thousands of miles from where I grew up. It is a mixture of different Abrahamic religions. Culturally, it’s incredibly different from Ireland. And yet I see the same threads of humanity running through everyone I meet. People want to work hard and look after their families and have fun. In a world where we are increasingly scared of other people, and there’s an us-versus-them mentality pushed from certain sectors, it’s important to remember we’re all pretty much the same. One example of that: I met a young Bedouin named Souleyman. He’s about 21 years old, and I met him in the southern part of Jordan. He wanted to walk with me for a couple of days, which was great; he just left his animals with his brother and joined me for a day or two. As we walked we talked, he would tell me about his life, his friends, what they got up to, his interests. He told me the Bedouin have this saying—and it’s a value he tries to adhere to. ‘Give without remembering, take without forgetting.’ It was really nice to hear this young guy espousing these values a lot of people in the Western world would like to live their own life by. Things like that are important in this day and age, particularly.”
Getting lost, or being vulnerable, often brings out the greatest kindnesses.
“I’m under no illusion—in a lot of these places I’ve walked through, I’m a foreigner, I’m a stranger, I come from this wealthy country in the West, and I’m always going to be an oddity. But if you’re traveling on foot, you’re much less intimidating than if you show up in a 4-by-4. There’s more of an equilibrium and a direct connection that I can make with the people I meet and the people I meet can make with me. The Middle East has a wonderful culture of hospitality. One example: Mahmoud in Jordan. I’d just walked maybe 12 or 13 hours and I was really exhausted. I was trying to get to the next town so I could sleep, when I passed this tiny little village. This guy came out of his house, saw me, and called me in. He said something to the effect of, ‘Come in you crazy foreign person and let me look after you.’ This is Mahmoud. I told him where I’d been and what I was doing. He brought in his two sons and asked my permission if he and his sons might be allowed to wash my feet, because they must be so sore after such a long day of walking. It was a really generous, genuine, and sort of biblical scale of gesture in this part of the world. I was kind of concerned the smell of my feet might kill this poor guy! They were quite toxic by this point. Anyway, he insisted and so my boots and my socks came off and there was this kind of ritual bathing of my feet. It was amazing! It felt like the greatest thing in the world. Those are the experiences that I’ll never forget for the rest of my life and I feel extremely privileged to have been a part of. That wouldn’t have happened if I wasn’t in a vulnerable position, sort of lost, at night, in a strange country, on my own with a backpack.”
Camels are really nice team members to have.
“As I moved south through Jordan, I’d see an increasing amount of camels. When I crossed the Sinai peninsula, I actually walked with a camel called Harboush, who carried the vast majority of our kit and our food. The poor camel was doing all the work. It was the first time I’d traveled with camels for a couple of weeks and it was a really nice team member to have. Harboush was a rookie just like me, doing his first long trip across Sinai. We were with these two Bedouin, Musallem and Souleyman; I was constantly asking Souleyman questions like, ‘Hey, how do you know where all the water is?’ and ‘Tell me about this rock.’ Harboush was under the tutelage of Souleyman, too—being told when he was able to walk, when he needed to lie down, that he shouldn’t eat all of our cucumbers, and other things that are important for camels to know.”
Wealth and happiness mean different things to different people.
“Coming from the West, I live in a society where the pursuit of happiness seems intrinsically linked in people’s minds with their pursuit of wealth. So to spend a lot of time in these big empty spaces with people who have different ideas is really enlightening. Musallem, the Bedouin who was guiding me across the Sinai desert, told me he felt like the richest man in the world because he had everything he needed: a couple of camels, a camp by the sea, and he got to do what he loved every day, which was walk around the desert. It’s nice to be reminded of those perspectives because they’re so easily lost in crazy cities and modern-day life. When I come back to London, I immediately take everything for granted: I dash around like a headless chicken, I complain that the trains aren’t running on time or that my fancy bike needs a new tire. Sometimes I have to catch myself and remember the great fortune I have to be in this position. Going away always reminds me of what else is out there.”