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Christopher Gortner Talks With Brandon Wilson, author of ALONG THE TEMPLAR TRAIL

Mr. Gortner is the fascinating author of The Secret Lion.
His latest book The Last Queen, a tale about Queen Juana
la loca of Spain, debuted in 2008 from Ballantine Books.

(interview used with permission from Historical Boys: Historical Fiction for Men and Women)


Christopher: I'm breaking the mold here at Historical Boys to feature my friend, Brandon Wilson, an amazing world traveler and writer. Though Brandon isn't an historical fiction writer, history permeates his work and I've reveled in his thrilling accounts of his travels through some of our planet's most fascinating places, where the past and the present often collide with unexpected results.

Congratulations on the publication of ALONG THE TEMPLAR TRAIL. It's an honor to have you with us. You've written two previous books about your incredible travels (YAK BUTTER BLUES and DEAD MEN DON'T LEAVE TIPS) but ALONG THE TEMPLAR TRAIL has special significance for you. Please tell us about how this marvelous story came about and what inspired you to take a journey of seven million steps to peace?

Along the Templar Trail new cover

Brandon: I have been infected with wanderlust for years now. It’s my “sweet addiction.” In 1992, during a walk across Tibet, what began as purely an adventure transformed into a journey with greater meaning. In Lhasa, once my wife and I learned that Tibetan people today are forbidden to walk to their sacred sites in Nepal, we vowed to make it in their stead. Walking across the Himalayan Plains became a transcendent experience. I was hooked on slow, deliberate travel, or travel with a purpose. Since then I’ve been fortunate to have the chance to walk many of the early pilgrimage routes across Europe. These trails provide a chance to wallow in history, art, culture, and cuisine. They also nourish a sense of brotherhood, connectedness with nature, physical and mental growth, as well as a Zen-like link to the spiritual.

In 2006, I was surprised by an invitation from an old pilgrim friend. Would I be interested in walking to Jerusalem with him? Although it was an odyssey much longer than I’d ever attempted, I instantly knew the answer. The historic path would take us over 2600 miles across eleven countries and two continents. Our route would follow that of the First Crusades and the first Knights Templar.

From the very start, I was determined to make the trek not only as a personal pilgrimage, but also as a walk for peace. I wanted to talk to folks along the way about the necessity of solving our problems in a more enlightened manner than resorting to war as we had the past millennia. To that end, I eventually hoped my book would re-launch this historic trail as an international path of peace that others could walk in brotherhood, regardless of nationality or religion, much as they follow Spain’s Camino de Santiago.

Eventually thousands will walk this same path each year, sharing blisters, food and conversation. Once they walk together, they’ll discover a connectedness, a personal peace. They’ll return to their families, jobs, communities and countries with greater tolerance and belief in our commonality as human beings. They will embrace the ideal of cooperation on our increasingly fragile planet.


Christopher: You've traveled to some amazing places that most people have only heard of, and your books are full of the wonder of discovering new places, as well as the travails of finding yourself in situations you were totally unprepared for. Of all your experiences in your travels, which has left its biggest impact? What challenges were the most difficult to overcome? What surprising or interesting historical facts did you discover?

Brandon: Each journey leaves its mark. They have all been transformative. I never return home the same person. Walking across Tibet and doing what the Chinese authorities called “Impossible,” changed my outlook. It enabled me to never again give up—even while pushing the limits of survival. My wife and I were shot at, trudged through a blizzard, slowly starved, never knew where we would spend the night—or if we’d be taken into police custody. Yet we learned to have faith, faith that the Universe would provide, that we were meant to be there, that there was some greater purpose to it all.

More recently, walking from France to Jerusalem brought us into contact with thousands of ordinary people. Many have struggled for centuries with the devastation of war on their doorstep. Its challenges were plentiful, even though the setting was more “civilized” on the surface. The basic necessities of eating, drinking, and sleeping were always in question as we tried to follow a thousand-year-old map. Weather varied from freezing snow to weeks of rain to months of shadeless terrain with temperatures hovering near one hundred degrees.

Politics turned out to be the greatest unknown. By the time we arrived in Serbia, Israel had bombed Beirut Airport, southern Lebanon was being evacuated, there was a bombing attempt on the US Embassy in Damascus, and Western travelers were gunned down in Amman, Jordan. Oh, and an Ebola-like virus raged in central Turkey.

Still, without exception, in every country, the people were curious and kind when they discovered the reason for our journey. Our message found great acceptance. The people are so very tired of endless war and some were moved to tears when they heard of our quest. Historically, we were reminded time and time again of our cultural connections. In places like Istanbul and divided Cyprus, we were told how Muslims and Christians had historically lived and traded in peace for centuries. Muslims would often add, “We are all descended from the same tree of Abraham, right?”

By the end of 160 days, I felt even more strongly that we all share the same dreams of health, education, opportunity, security, and need of a homeland. When we realize this, we release the fears and prejudice propagated by governments, corporate sponsors of destruction, and religious demagogues. It becomes more difficult to take up arms against each other. Every war becomes a civil war when all men are brothers.

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Christopher: You've encountered a series of interesting characters in your travels, in particular that madcap assortment during the first league of your African adventure. Indeed, I find when I read your books that I learn not only about the countries you've been in but also about the foibles and eccentricities of human nature. Whom have you met during your travels that you found most enlightening, and why?

Brandon: Mark Twain once said, “You never really know whether you love or hate someone until you travel with ‘em.” Traveling as I do puts you into close contact with people—sometimes too close. It wasn’t the Africans we found frustrating. Travel is an intense experience and folks travel for different reasons. We were ready to wallow in the minutiae of African life—while our companions would have been just as satisfied staying at home with cold beer and a warm bed.

Wherever I travel I truly enjoy meeting and sharing with local people and learning about their lives. Ordinary people enlighten me: former monks in Tibet, African villagers, or army officers and Palestinians in Israel. I enjoy sharing their lives however briefly. I am inspired by their strength, faith, optimism and universal hope for peace. If only we can re-channel that fortitude, we can reshape our society, re-prioritize our budgets, and wage a lasting peace. As many reminded me, only our governments stand in the way.

Christopher: Which country would you like to return to and why? Can you tell us about the country that proved most controversial for you as a traveler and writer?

Brandon: There are many countries I’d like to experience again. Even spending as much as a month at a time in one area, you only begin to scrape the surface of a culture before you move on. It’s always enlightening to go back and see how it (or you) has changed in the years since.

I would like to return to the Middle East, as it has such a vast history and culture. Although it is wracked by tension, it has such great potential to present a positive example to the rest of the world. On the other hand, I have hesitated returning to Tibet. Since the completion of the railroad from Beijing to Lhasa, millions of Chinese visitors have arrived, outnumbering the local Tibetans. Soon, Tibetan culture will become a vestige of the past. Who will be left to give the eulogy? Tibet was the ultimate challenge to me as a traveler and writer. It is disheartening that a nation can be so ravaged while the rest of the world looks away—or worse, is more concerned with making money by peddling soft drinks and hamburgers to a billion Chinese.

Christopher: How do you think your work speaks to today’s reader and/or how does it resonate for today’s world?

Brandon: I like to believe my books bridge the typical travel genre by infusing a place with adventure, history, culture, the mystical, and social conflict. I avoid using broad brush strokes to describe a place. Readers have grown tired of hearing about another beautiful sunset or charming restaurant. And I can’t blame them.

Traveling slowly, often on a small budget, I experience the good, bad and gritty of each destination. That often brings out the good and bad in people—as well as myself. At the risk of sounding like a terrible person, I strive to expose it all. I keep copious notes. That way, all the ups and downs are remembered, as well as the small triumphs and laughs that make each day unique.

In a world of constant sensory stimulation, I like to remind people about the small joys that still exist in our world. I like to share moments of magic and serenity in secluded places. I like to dispel prejudices by reminding readers how much alike we are when it’s all said and done. I like to inspire others to see the world for themselves without hesitation or fear. I like to challenge them to discover a personal peace, and as Gandhi once said, “To be the change they would like to see in the world.”

Christopher: Please tell us about your next project.

Brandon: I plan to walk the Via Alpina in peace, for 1200-miles the length of the Alps through eight countries, beginning in the summer of 2009.

To learn more about Christopher Gortner, a talented author of historical fiction, and to preview his books, please visit him at http://historicalboys.blogspot.com or http://www.leonibus.com/