Thomas Hontelez: Walking as a natural state of being (interview)


At the end of March, I walked a part of the new pilgrimage route Roads with Blessing with Thomas Hontelez. Thomas (1989) was a member of our board for seven years, the last few years of which were chairman. He said goodbye and is walking the Pacific Crest Trail with girlfriend Marit, a 4200 kilometer long trek in the U.S. A farewell interview.

Photo: Thomas Hontelez


Although I have known Thomas for seven years and interviewed him for his book Walking to Wisdom , he has always remained a bit of an enigma to me. I usually look for a compelling story or driving emotion in people and then sniff them out with my questions. I have rarely been able to wrap Thomas in such a story or emotion.

Thomas Hontelez

I remember how excited I was when he joined our board: a young guy who went to Trinidad after high school, then studied Religious Studies and had just returned from a pilgrimage to Istanbul. I saw strength in his eyes. Here was someone in touch with his body, I thought, a pilgrim free from the clichés of the Camino to Santiago. Someone who, like me, was looking for new forms of spirituality, beyond the traditional stories from Christianity and other religions.

But no matter how much I questioned him, long discussions never really got off the ground between us. His answers were almost always short, averse to speculation. Maybe I’m an old man myself. Anyway, he intrigued me. He still intrigues me. Let’s see if I can get a little closer to him in this interview…

St. Steven's Church by Thomas Hontelez
St. Steven’s Church by Thomas Hontelez

You like to make long, multi-day trips. What do you actually have to do with walking?

“I’ve been thinking a lot lately: why do I want to do this? Many people say that our thinking and empathizing with others is what makes us human, but I think walking is also what makes us human. When I’m walking and I’m doing well – I don’t have any pain or discomfort – it feels like a kind of natural state of being to me. I recently read about this in On Foot by Shane O’Mara. He writes about the neurological side of walking and how walking upright has shaped man. With relatively little food, we can travel great distances. That is a unique characteristic of the human being. When I walk, and especially when I walk long distances, I can identify a bit with the primitive man who also wandered and walked for days, weeks, months.”

I then get images of tribes from Africa, who wandered over all continents. They did that on foot, of course. Do you have the feeling that you are continuing that primal line when you run?

yes, well, I don’t know. When I walk, I feel: this is what our human body is made for. I never have that when I’m sitting somewhere. Our body is for walking, not sitting.

What happens when you get into the cadence of walking, do new thoughts come up or none?

“Maybe I don’t have any thoughts. It is precisely that unity with body and mind that it is for me. That you are not busy with things that still need to be done, things that you have to think about or decisions that you have to make. That whole machinery of work that actually goes just a little too fast for what you can keep up with in a good way with your thoughts and being. I don’t have that with walking. There, everything goes at the pace you walk. That’s so good, that you… Yes, that you want to go through life that way. “

Rebecca Solnit writes about this in Wanderlust. Our brains, our minds, are actually made for the pace of walking. If you go on foot, you can record and process everything around you, while that is already more difficult by bike and even more so by car. Then you don’t get everything and you have to process more information than you can actually handle. “

Shed on the way

You teach philosophy of life and studied Religious Studies for four years. Do you believe?

Laughing: “My students often ask me that, like sir you have studied for four years, what do you believe?! I think that for many people, religion is something that you connect your identity to and get your social contacts from. I do believe in God myself, but I never know exactly what, and how? I feel like I find it difficult to really open up to that. It takes something to surrender yourself to that, to put your trust in it. In the end, I come to William James’s definition. He writes about religion as that moment, or that bond with God that you feel when you are alone, in your loneliness, without all the noise around it of what religion often is in terms of social agreements and constructs.

Thomas Hontelez

“Believing is a feeling you don’t have to and can’t rationalize.”

Thomas: “How’s that for you Damien?”

To me, all religious language is human language. For me, God is a word of experience, a sound of awe and hope in the face of the bewildering reality. As Harry Kuitert writes: all truth from above comes from below.

“Then God is a human construct for you.”

Yes, but when I think about who man is, I sink through the human. We didn’t make ourselves.

No. We didn’t make ourselves. Well, maybe it is. I didn’t make my existence, but how I formed afterwards did. Through my choices, I have made myself who I ultimately am. The talents I got for that are just nature to me. I don’t know if that has to come from something or someone, or if it just IS. I find it difficult when you recognize that there is something behind or above it, then that also means something for how you stand or should be in life. How are you going to determine what that is and to what extent can you focus on it? You have to make choices, but that’s where human language comes in. It is so diverse that you can go in many directions with it. Which side do you choose and on what basis?”

That’s why you talked about trust.

Thomas Hontelez
Thomas Hontelez Pacific Crest Trail

“Yes. In the end, I’m looking for the truth. But it’s different for everyone. Why should mine be worth more than someone else’s? It’s always subjective. By definition, that cannot be the truth. Then I often think ‘what is the value of my search?’ if I can never come up with a universal truth anywhere. Or should I fall into such a philosophical trap that I say:The search is worth it, even if I can’t find it?” No, in the end I come back to William James: believing is a feeling that you don’t have to and can’t rationalize. I think that feeling is especially genuine when you experience it while you’re alone. You find your own way without others having to think or say anything about it.

What inspires you?

“People who do things that were thought impossible. Who dare to think big, who listen to their inner compass. For example, I recently saw the movie “the Alpinist”, a documentary about a free-spirited Canadian mountaineer who is completely ‘in control’, at one with what he does [DM hij klimt alleen en zonder touw]. Someone who does what he feels from the inside out and does everything to achieve his goal. That inspires, people who feel something in their deepest inner being and respond to it.

What’s so great about that?

Thomas Hontelez walks

“I think you need the guts for that. It rubs up against the story of faith. That you do what you believe in and have faith that it will work out. Sometimes you have to dare to take exciting steps in that direction.

What do you mean by that it’s going to be fine, that they get results?

“Hmm… That mountaineer is dead. He was caught in an avalanche. Still, I thought, but what would you rather have: lived the way your heart told you to live and turn 25 or 80 and spend your days in an office where you are not happy? I find it inspiring that people dare to make those kinds of choices and are not afraid of all the things you get worried about: whether you have enough money, food, a place to sleep…

You don’t really admire them for their success, but for the value they create in their daily lives.

“Yes, I think it is. That mountaineer is a hero in a way, a movie has been made about it, but of course there are more people like that where you just see that what they do is right. That inspires the search for how you can find that for yourself, because actually we should all make such choices. For example, I’ve been thinking a lot about my dad lately. He wasn’t happy in his job, stopped working and started doing something that brought him more happiness: making instruments. Even though he did have a family. That’s a great choice, I admire that.

Thomas hontelez and Marit
Thomas Hontelez and his girlfriend Marit

You can now also embark on an adventure with a trip of 4200 kilometers.

“Of course, it is a challenge and Marit quit her job for it. But I’m keeping it safe, because I haven’t quit my job, I’m going on leave. I will continue to pay my pension contributions and I prefer to keep our house. So I don’t know if there is that much inspiration from this tour. When I want to write for this for my website, I also notice that I have to try very hard to come up with something. I walked to Istanbul to process something. Now I walk because walking is the right thing to do. That’s why I don’t know yet what is behind this journey for a higher purpose or meaning. If there is one. I think I’ll have to find that out along the way.

Will that discovery be the meaning of your journey?

“I was in the Eifel this weekend and I always have that internal dialogue of: do I have to do this now, what am I doing it for? I find that battle with my own mind interesting. Because you can have big ideas in advance about what you want and why, but once you’re walking and every step hurts because of your knee… It requires you to look very carefully at your own motives and get to know yourself in them. It wakes up and it gives usefulness. That you wake up in the morning and think: Yes, this is what I do it for. I don’t often have that that I really want to achieve something. Life goes on a bit. My body and mind want comfort, to sit on the couch with something comfortable. But on another level, I abhor that and I want to be in touch with nature, with my body, with myself. “

Has your internal dialogue changed over the years?

By Thomas Hontelez
By Thomas Hontelez

“The last two to three years that I have been teaching has noticed that I have little time to develop that dialogue. I’m actually still on the theme where I ended up in my book about Istanbul. It was about the question of how to live your life. For me, life in running itself feels meaningful. But then, of course, the follow-up question is, what can I do with that? If I have discovered for myself that walking gives meaning, what can I take away from that in my daily life? I find that very difficult, because first of all I had a lot of problems with my knees, so much so that I wondered if I would be able to walk at all. It was intense, but fortunately it is getting better thanks to physiotherapy.

Then the next question becomes: how can I derive a right to exist from that walking, like a walking coach for example, that I earn my living with it? That would be nice for me: it’s my passion. If my books sell so well and my lectures are so well attended that I can make a living from it… At the same time, I find it difficult to focus on that and market myself in that way. That feels too commercial.”

Are you selling yourself?

“They are two different worlds. I really enjoy being in front of the class. But it also costs me a lot. It is at the expense of the internal dialogue and my development, and actually also of the peace that I would like to have in my life. On the other hand, I don’t really know what to bring to the table. And would there be a need for that? There are already so many initiatives. In that respect, I am very curious to see what happens along the way. I now make the choice to go. I don’t know what’s going to unfold there. It’s nice to go into that with an open mind. ”

Thank you for contributing to the Walk of Wisdom, Thomas. You never imposed yourself, but as chairman you were sharp and clear when you had to. We will miss your constructive, critical, calm and listening involvement. Have a nice trip to you and Marit!

Thomas Hontelez. Friend Marit on the Walk of Wisdom.

More about Thomas Hontelez

Check out Thomas Hontelez’s website or follow him on his Instagram. Thomas appears to have quite a bit of inspiration during his journey.

Thanks to Anja Strik and Jacky Versteeg for the transcription.