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Remarkable feet

Hiking the globe, reminiscing by the foot

I have a T-shirt with the slogan "Of all the paths you choose in life, make sure some of them are dirt." Good advice.

I like faraway paths and I like feet. My preference for feet isn't fetishistic but transportational. If it has wheels, I'm not much interested.

I like my own feet for walking trips: Coast to coast across England's green and pleasant land, for instance, when I dipped my hiking boot into the North Sea and drank champagne to celebrate, or hiking to the bottom of the Havasu Canyon in Arizona to discover the lush, near-tropical oasis of the Havasupai tribe's reservation, or climbing for hours in the dark to the top of Mount Sinai in Egypt to wait for sunrise.

And then there's the pilgrimage - walking to a place because of its significance. My pilgrimages tend to be literary: climbing ill-lit stairs in St. Petersburg, Russia, to see the desk where Dosteovsky finished The Brothers Karamozov just before he died; watching a play from the same stone seats Sophocles must have sat on at the amphitheater at Epidaurus in Greece; gazing at the plum tree in Hampstead, England, where Keats sat when he wrote "Ode to a Nightingale"; adding a pebble to the many on Kafka's tombstone in Prague, or walking five miles - after the bus dropped me off - along a country road in Ireland to get to Yeats' Tower. I love this stuff.

Everybody who walks daily - whether it's on city streets or woodsy paths - knows that walking shakes your thoughts loose, frees your focus. For long-distance walks, there is, of course, the self-congratulatory pleasure of "I did it!", but also the rediscovery of meaningful distance; 15 miles by car can take about 15 minutes, while 15 miles by foot can take most of a day. An old-fashioned pace gives you time for detail, moment by moment, step by step.

And step by step, I've noticed the feet of others on my travels. They're the feet of animals, but not humans, and they trigger memories that take me far away, once again.

Funniest feet: Ostrich

Oudshoorn, South Africa, claims to be the ostrich capital of the world. There I learned that you can stand on ostrich eggs without breaking them, that ostrich brains are smaller than their eyeballs - and that their feet look weirdly prehistoric. And, I discovered to my amazement, you can ride these huge, flightless birds.

You just sit right down on them, holding onto the wings (which are flat slabs of bone under the gorgeous feathers) and then they run around. If several other people are riding at the same time, with everybody shrieking and all the ostrich running in different directions, it's hilarious pandemonium. Not ideal transportation if you actually intended to get someplace.

Coldest feet: Dog

My week of dogsledding, "mushing" as it's called in Canada's Yukon Territory, involved a lot of feet. Twenty-four, actually. My two don't count since I was standing on the sled, guiding (theoretically) a team of six dogs, led by Junior, a retired Yukon Quest champion.

We flew through the magnificent glittering landscape above the 60th parallel, and each day the roads got twistier and the ice berms higher and slicker. I fell off, of course, but only my pride was hurt as the dogs tore away down the trail without me.

In the middle of the week, the dogs were given a day off, and so we went snowshoeing into the beautiful woods; the only footprints we saw were made by a caribou and a rabbit. Snowshoes no longer look like those cartoon tennis rackets, but they're still big and clumsy.

In a moment of comic relief, I did the classic pratfall: Stepping on my own snowshoe, I fell over backward into the snow. It is impossible to get up without two laughing people hauling you back to your feet.

Hottest feet: Camel

If you're lucky and you get to the Great Pyramids in Egypt when there are no tourist buses, you can see boys racing camels across the desert as they must have been doing for millennia. To ride a camel there is to feel part of that ancient hot and silent landscape, part of a world that is not entirely vanished.

But it was handsome Rajah, the camel I rode into the Great Thor Desert in western India, who won me over to camel riding. Everything in India is wildly, opulently decorated - people, trucks, buildings - and the camels wear pom-poms on their noses and bows on their knees.

After the alarmingly slanted moment when the camel stands up with you on it, then comes the nice, steady lurching of a long trek. Soothing to the mind, chafing to the thighs.

Biggest feet: Elephant

Riding an elephant in Africa is to discover the obvious: The animals are very tall and very wide. Their skin is covered with long, stiff hairs that prickle, even through jeans.

Sitting on Mikwa, a big bull elephant who had been rescued from the recent culling at Kruger Park, felt simultaneously thrilling and safe, a rare privilege to be so close to such majestic animals. Their enormous feet make absolutely no sound when they walk - surprising considering they weigh about six tons.

Unruliest feet: Horse

I joined the Great Australian Outback Cattle Drive for five days of its six weeks across the Sturt Stony Desert, following the 19th-century trail. My horse was named Ronny, and he and I were riding the range.

My equestrian cluelessness didn't matter much since we, a multinational bunch of city slickers along with 500 head of cattle and 140 horses, were all under the care of Ozzie's legendary drovers - guys who shoe horses, roll cigarettes, and dance with their hats on. And can they ever cowboy.

My favorite jeans have a hole in the left leg, torn when I was riding through the tundra on another trip, to Alaska, atop Herman. Sensing that I had no idea how to ride and that therefore he was in charge, Herman kept rushing off the trail into the brush to nosh on some tasty-looking bushes, and eventually he crashed through some undergrowth that snagged my jeans.

That hole is my best souvenir of a superb late afternoon ride, led by two Inuit cowboys through the dramatic landscape of pine trees dwarfed by hundreds of frozen winters.

The late playwright August Wilson once told me that when he writes "The End," he dpesn't get up - "I start the next play. So, 10 minutes after I finish a play, if you ask me what I'm doing, I can say, 'I'm working on my new play.' "

I have the same feeling about traveling. I'm no sooner on the plane home, then I'm working on the next adventure.

Where to next? And on whose feet?