Walking to Extremes in Iceland and New Mexico
Kingston NY: McPherson & Company, 2008
144 pp., paper
ISBN 978-0-929701-86-8


a review from Chronicles of the Trail
Quarterly Journal of the Camino Real de Tierra Adentro Trail Association, Winter 2009


In this aptly titled book, Howard McCord takes the reader on walks through two culturally and geographically separate lands: Iceland and New Mexico, places that would not seem to share many similarities. But what they do share are the extremes of the landscape and the author's passion for experiencing them. The first part of the book narrates his walk across Iceland, through the desolate, beautiful setting of lava plains, bisected occasionally with canyons and rivers. His narration is mostly introspective; wonderful passages about walking in barren surroundings: "A desert's power is unalterable emptiness...It is the most simple nowhere you can achieve by walking."


A walk across the Jornada del Muerto (Journey of the Dead One) in 1987 is the primary focus of the second half of the book. The ninety mile stretch of pretty much waterless desert in south central New Mexico is one of the most pristine, austere and isolated segments of El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro along its entire 1600 mile length from Mexico City to Santa Fe. Don't look for insights into the history of El Camino Real because they are not there, nor is it a goal of the book to present this history. The author uses aspects of the Camino's lore as a backdrop to his personal narrative about walking in extreme surroundings. "The Jornada del Muerto is a place where you feel you could walk a thousand miles and still be in the same place." McCord and his companion walked the "Jornada" in the heat of the summer with water being the biggest weight of their forty-pound packs: "Water is the only source of order...There is nothing like the consideration of water to straighten ones path." I have also walked the ninety miles of the Jornada del Muerto. When people would be surprised to learn that I had done such an unusual walk, I would have to remind them, and myself, that thousands of people have done the same "jornada" over the centuries, many of them without the luxury of the water and food that I had. As McCord relates: "It seemed strange to walk in such an empty place and yet feel throngs about me."

McCord has spent a lifetime working, walking and exploring places in Asia, Europe, and the Western Hemisphere. In 1953 he began publishing poetry while serving in the navy. Since then he was written over thirty books and taught for forty-three years as a professor. He received a Fulbright award to do work in India and southeast Asia and two fellowships from the National Endowment of the Arts. But his landscape roots have always been Southwestern, having grown up in the El Paso area, spending many days hiking in the Hueco, Guadalupe, and Organ Mountains. A return hiking trip to the Organ Mountains in the 1980s is told in a short chapter at the end of the book.

McCord's observations are what many of us have sensed and experienced while walking in isolated areas, but have never been able to put into words in the masterful way McCord does. His observations and introspections are the anchor of the book: "A lifetime of meditation has led me to believe that there is little that is better to do in this world, or more pleasurable, than to walk unfrequented places."

If you want to get a first-hand sense of the book, Google Howard McCord and click on his YouTube-Walking To Extremes. I highly recommend this publication for those of you who appreciate the desert and walking, and especially for those of you who seek the vicarious experience of trekking along isolated stretches of El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro. This wonderful book was a real delight to read.

Michael Romero Tayor
La Cienega, New Mexico


Surely a book with the title Walking to Extremes in Iceland and New Mexico must call to anyone afflicted with incurable wanderlust---or at least it called to me, especially because I share Howard McCord's passion for walking, as well as his Western roots. McCord's roots were set in sight of the Franklins, the Huecos, the Organs, the Sierra de los Burros, and the Juarez Mountains during his upbringing in El Paso, Texas. But in the past seventy years or so, McCord has left his footprints throughout the world.

McCord has been to so many places, in fact, that even someone with wanderlust is well advised to have an atlas at hand in order to keep up. In the first of the book's four essays, "The Arctic Desert," McCord takes the reader in just eleven pages from the Imnaha (Oregon) to Odadahraun (Iceland), Abisko (Lapland), Kungsleden (northern Sweden), Washington Irving Island (in the watery Kane Basin near Greenland), and even visits the decidedly non-geographic Shiva, the Hindu god of death and regeneration. If the journey seems grueling, it is some relieve to learn on page 62 that:

This is a grammar of walking I present to you, not a guide, not a travel book, but cautionary tales of structure in experience. Experience is simply the vehicle, as awareness is of knowledge in the joy and confirmation of oceanic consciousness. There is a deep health in feeling and knowing the root connections of things, the intricate mesh which has the ultimate unity of a point. I sequester myself from others both as a discipline and as a cure, for I find it hard to see with other people about with their distractions. But in the calm toil of walking alone I can measure the nearness of others fairly, and love them as I believe I should.

In short, Walking to Extremes is not quite a companionable to another footloose traveler as one might have hoped. McCord's purpose in "The Arctic Desert" is as much to ruminate upon life and learning as to go to specific exotic locales. To that end, the essay doesn't exactly offer a trove of reliable information---it focuses more on such things as how the brains of trees are underground and how trolls, elves, and sprites are present in places of enchantment. McCord wants the rester to understand this much:

What matters has no intellectual base; therefore, the importance of walking. Walking reveals the conflicting will of God. (What God commands is Good. What does this mean?) Even a child knows there is no intellectual justification for morality, that it goes deeper than that....

McCord's other lifelong passions---writing and teaching writing---also claim space in this essay, bubbling up from whatever simmers at his mental campfire. He is a poet, essayist, and novelist who taught philology and creative writing, mainly at Bowling Green State University, for more than forty years. he tells us in Walking to Extremes that, for him, thinking in language and walking a trail are the same thing:

May I come to know myself through language? Partially, I suppose, as it serves as matrix of certain of my thoughts. But language is more important (serving as that habit which will eventually be reified by a trail) as the vehicle by which I explain myself, most importantly as I understand its limits.

A prolific writer, McCord has produce more than three dozen books and chapbooks in his long career. "The Arctic Desert" was one of these, released by Stooge Editions as a separate small book in 1975. His 439-page collected poems appeared from Bloody Twin Press in 2002. Perhaps his most successful and best-known book is his novel The Man Who Walked to the Moon (McPherson & Company, 1997), which won the Nancy Dasher Book Award in 1999. The Man Who Walked to the Moon also concerns a solitary walker, a man well schooled in guns and tracking, who knows he is being followed by a stranger into a dry, remote, and rugged canyon. The book besides being full of marvelously skilled observations of a particular landscape, finds a perfect literary balance point between a meditation on solitude and a sort of thinking person's thriller.

Of the four essays in Walking to Extremes, two are very long ("The Arctic Desert" and "Jornada del Muerto" weight in at 56 and 54 pages, respectively), and two are very short ("The Apache Kid" and "On Top Again," each under ten pages.) The reader has a delightful choice between a short walk or a rigorous hike.

"The Apace Kid" tells the story of McCord's search, in the company of two friends, for the grave of the "Kid," a member of Geronimo's band who escaped a prison train in 1886 and took refuge in the mountains of the Southwest. McCord allows that "as with most histories, it is probably safe to say that if things didn't quite happen this way, they happened in some similar way, maybe." That is whether, or not his retelling is a tall tale is up to the reader; either way, McCord and his friends clearly regard their jaunt as another in a long line of fine adventures.

"Jornada del Muerto" finds our author walking ninety miles across central New Mexico, "as if the Iceland I had wandered years ago had been continued at a different temperature." McCord introduces the reader to his world, and also loops back in history to others who also traversed this unforgiving ground in the 1840s, 1850s, 1910s, and the 1940s. McCord, part historian, part chronicler, is clearly proud to count himself among people who have faced and survived something difficult and sinister:

The desert is essentially clean, simple, pure, and uncomplicated, and totally devoid of metaphysics...In the desert, God is dehydration, and ultimate ionic chaos. The human is a delicate chemical process, akin to making both bread and whisky in the same vat, along with cheese and blood. All the recipes sour with the wrong proportion of water.

By the time the reader reaches the final essay, "On Top Again," McCord's stamp is clear: he does not shy from challenges of destination. Curious readers will enjoy the challenge of going with him, up a "great and imposing tooth of granite which was later to be called The Wedge. In those days it had no name and we were young." Had he and his climbing buddies been less lucky, or had they had a climbing rope, or carabiners and pitons, the story would have lost its edge. But like boys everywhere, they didn't worry about the details when they bolted the confines of summer school in 1950. Then, thirty-four years later, they decide to climb The Wedge again in an unabashedly sentimental journey. As McCord says,

In is only in those days in which love is rediscovered, or when a child is born, or by a single gesture reveals itself most precious and special, when some sudden insight dawns and life is momentously joyous, that I find comparison to those times on mountaintops.

McCord's desire---no, need---for remote places has nurtured a lifetime of offbeat adventure, and in Walking to Extremes, readers will be glad to travel with McCord, as long as they don't mind a bit of wandering hither and yon.

Kate Dernocoeur is currently pursuing an MFA in creative writing at Western Michigan University focusing on creative nonfiction.



The Man Who Walked to The Moon
Kingston NY: McPherson & Company
Binding: Paperback
Pages: 128
Size: 5 x 8"
Pub. Year: 2005
ISBN: 0-929701-78-X


"I loved the technicalities of geology, landscape description, climbing, hunting, weaponry and the allusions to Wittgenstein, Chaung Tzu, Kierkegaard, and especially the several references to the science of physics. And I like Gaspar although I would probably feel uncomfortable in his presence...not from fear of harm but from the in-tensity and complexity of his being. His belief in unbelief (a kind of faith in itself) is convincing, barely arguable....Finally, Gasper is a man of right instincts and he is spiritual because he believes in things unseen, and his instincts arise from a kind of inscrutable and irrational wisdom which is nonetheless moral, whether he recognizes it or not."
-- Professor Lawrence Gunter



"This first novel by poet and short story writer McCord mixes suspense with amoral observations on life, death, fate, and the human psyche. [It] may be too fantastic for mystery readers and too cynical for fantasy fans but could become a cult classic."
-- Library Journal

"This is serious fiction, with a keen intelligence obvious in every sentence, every allusion and every trenchant observation".
-- Washington Post Book World and International Herald Tribune

"Near the end of Howard McCord's novella, the narrator says his story is "a veritable account of a lucid insanity of long duration, an oblique confession, an apologia pro vita sum, a fantasy spun in a cold winter, or out of night." This serves as an apt description of a tightly squeezed, haunting tale told primarily by William Gaspar, a recluse whose voice sounds at times like those of Poe's insane, criminal storytellers. Paul Bowles's gruesome story "Doña Faustina" also comes to mind. Gaspar says at one point, well into the book, that he has killed 127 people. Only gradually, though, do we begin to learn of the narrator's vocation (besides walking, that is). This, in fact, is what in part creates the suspense. What is this man doing in the desolate regions of Nevada, obsessively climbing on a mountain called the Moon? He reveals, little by little, his obsession with guns. And we realize that he himself is now being hunted down on the mountain, by a "Palug cat," a hunter who seems to be a henchman of a hag-spirit-woman called Cerridwen whom he first met during a crisis as a soldier in the Korean War. Realism is gradually eroded by the delusions of a deranged mind. McCord skillfully portrays both the psychological terrain of his assassin-narrator and the physical terrain of the mountain. As in many of Cormac McCarthy's novels, the natural world seems completely indifferent to what we call moral considerations. A work of great imaginative force and sharp, penetrating prose, The Man Who Walked to the Moon leaves the reader on edge for days, thinking how many William Gaspars might be loose in the world."
-- The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Spring 1998

"It is a stunning achievement for a first novelist: a brief, brilliantly written philosophical adventure story that will endure."
-- Michael Perkins, Screw

"...all around the stars were bright, bitter lights in the night..."
William Gasper, obsessed with freedom, guilty of capital crimes in 23 countries, prefers walking alone to most other activities, and walk alone he does -- up, over, and beyond the Steen Mountains of Nevada. In this chilling tale of an assassin, Gasper admits, "I...could well have been the second gunman, the man on the bushy knoll." He learned his trade from the Marines, who taught him "to avert my eyes from nothing." Gail Henry, Gasper's friend and business associate, says he is "as solitary a creature as I have ever come across." Solitary except for the stealthy creatures that follow him: Cerridwen, with her misused magical caldron, and the sleuth-like Palug, a clawing "cat" in human form. Gasper met Cerridwen as a young Marine private on a reconnaissance patrol south of the Majon, but he has to keep her a secret because "when you start gassing off about cloak-clad ladies who disappear in a puff of light and whose faces are sometimes the moon, you are headed toward a Section 8." The first team of "hit men" arrive at Gail Henry's, searching for Gasper, who becomes both the hunted and the hunter, and while pursuing his freedom, observes with a poet's eye how "the spring flowers on the ridge whipped back and forth as though jerked by hidden strings." Only at the end does William Gasper show he is human, but by then McCord's hypnotic tale has convinced us otherwise.
-- Gretchen Geralds, Ohioana Quarterly

"Howard McCord of Bowling Green, Ohio, is author of more than 25 books of poetry and is a world-class hiker who has walked the Greenland ice cap, the Jornada del Muerto in New Mexico, and has tramped in Iceland, Lapland, Greece and India. He knows walking, and in this slim first novel, he takes the reader into the mind of a strange ex-Marine named William Gasper who lives in and tramps the dim trails of The Moon, a menacing mountain in Nevada. Gasper is a cold-blooded loner who admits to an 'icy mind,' who says 'I do nothing for a living but live, simply,' and who seems to have no avocation but walking and thinking. But he is more than he admits he is a trained killer and he is being stalked on The Moon by another killer, armed with a scoped rifle. McCord has an eerie, poetic touch in this offbeat cat-and-mouse story, and evokes some uncomfortable thinking about life and death and fate. The Man Who Walked to The Moon is a polished little gem of a story that would win a novella contest in a walk."
-- Dale L. Walker, Rocky Mountain News

"The mind and soul of an assassin are plumbed to a fare-thee-well on a bare Nevada mountain in this startling debut novella by poet and essayist McCord."
-- Kirkus Reviews

"A compelling and eclectic novella, The Man Who Walked to The Moon is a successful mix of mystery, fantasy, and philosophical treatise. It is a look at a human being both magnificent and flawed, supremely intelligent and coldly logical, yet still driven by instinct."
-- John Haynes, Illusions

"I found it a gripping, extraordinarily memorable read."
-- Jan Libourel, Gun World

Written by a Korean War veteran, marathon runner, and university teacher of 43 years' experience, The Man Who Walked to the Moon is the story of an ex-Marine sniper turned professional lone wolf. Set amid the mountains of Nevada, including one particularly imposing peak dubbed "The Moon", it follows the protagonist's tale of a life without illusions yet brought to the brink of a mystic spirituality, and denounces the decadence of civilization and over- reliance upon luxuries. Mystery, threat, and military reminiscence combine in this transcendental work of austere literature. -- The Midwest Book Review