‘If the mind like the feet works at about 3mph, then modern life is moving faster than the speed of thought, or thoughtfulness’ (Rebecca Solnit)
“Leave your bags by the door, don’t pet the cat, he’s a wildcat and doesn’t take kindly to strangers, and now, tell me you’re voting yes for independence? I hope so. You’ll watch the debate with me tonight”. I hadn’t even stepped through the door or uttered a word as I was welcomed thus at my first night’s accommodation. I was on a traverse of the Great Glen Way, an almost 80 mile walking trail in the north of Scotland, from Fort William and the Atlantic Ocean in the West to Inverness and the North Sea in the East.
I had always dreamt of walking, for days on end, not only the sense of adventure at the prospect of ending up somewhere entirely different from where I started, but the journey itself, the getting from A to B. When walking, or being in the outdoors in general, the practicalities of life are simplified, down to when to rest, what to eat and where to sleep. You start out walking, a bit clumsily at first, then strike a rhythm and your mind begins to wander in time with your step. In fact it becomes an almost meditative experience (as long as the blisters aren’t too painful) and you arrive at your destination, tired, but with a clearer mind. Time spent walking out of doors is uncluttered time. Unfortunately, such uncluttered time is becoming rarer than ever before, as increasingly, ‘time spent ‘meandering’ is deplored as a waste, reduced, and it’s remainder filled with earphones and playing music and mobile phones relaying conversation’ (Solnit 2014). So let us reclaim our uncluttered time. Walking is an antidote to the speed, efficiency and busyness of our post-industrial world, and it’s an activity that’s widely accessible. It’s simple, it costs almost nothing and for the most part it doesn’t require any special equipment, training or expertise.
At age 16, I made plans, together with a couple of friends, to walk the Pembrokeshire Coast Path in West Wales, but when one of our trio dropped out, our anxious parents forbid the remaining pair of us from going. I lost sight of my walking aspirations somewhere through the years of university, meeting my husband and starting a family. Until two summers ago. My husband offered to take our son away to visit his grandparents for five days, leaving me behind to give me a break (very welcome after almost four years of attachment parenting a highly sensitive child). I had been planning on heading somewhere quiet and taking it easy for a few days when a friend suggested ‘why not go for a long walk?’ An idea was re-born. A chance to honour the dream I had at 16. Unfortunately, the Pembrokeshire Coast Path would take two weeks to walk so I looked for something shorter and closer to home and decided on The Great Glen Way.
“You’ll be going with your pals then?” questioned my next door neighbour, “You’re surely not going… alone?! It’s not safe for a woman on her own, the world’s full of nutters…”. I forget whether or not I pointed out to my neighbour that it would be some ‘nutter’ indeed who would lay in wait somewhere several miles from a road in rural Scotland, in the rain, in peak midge season (if you’ve ever tried remaining in a single spot in a still, damp, forest in Scotland in August, you’ll know what I mean) on the off-chance they would happen upon a lone female on a long walk. His comments reminded me that we live in a ‘fear-gripped society’, as a friend of mine refers to it. One facet of this, fuelled by the media, is that we are collectively too scared to let our children, or come to think of it, even ourselves, venture out alone any more. It’s actually considered a little odd to want to spend time in solitude. I was frequently asked why on earth I wanted to walk on my own and wasn’t I lonely? For the record, no I wasn’t. As I heard someone say once ‘if I don’t like my own company, why should anybody else?’ Exactly! And anyway, such an experience offers a great opportunity to get to know oneself a lot better. Solitary experiences can be trans-formative, can increase real self-confidence, self-belief and self-reliance.
So, on a mild and fairly sunny day in early August I said goodbye to my boys, took a train North and disembarked at Fort William. Finally I was alone, for the first time in a long time and I felt at peace. Almost instantly I felt alive, refreshed and content. My first day of walking was no less than wonderful, along the tow path of the Caledonian Canal to the head of Loch Lochy, where spurred on by my sense of freedom, I strode into the loch for a refreshing (read: very, very cold) dip in my underwear. Not something, I might add, I would have done on an ordinary day back home, but I must have been spurred on by my new sense of freedom. (I also happened to be reading about the wild swimming adventures of Roger Deakin in his book Waterlog). By the late afternoon I had arrived at my first nights accommodation and after that initial welcome, I quickly warmed to my wonderful host. By the time I left the following morning, later than planned after talking together for two and a half hours at breakfast, I found I had disclosed more to this lady I had known for all of an evening than I had to some friends and family over the course of years.
These instances of social connection became a feature of my walk and the walks I’ve done since. There were parts of my journey when I didn’t see a soul for several hours. Yet, I was struck by the contrast between, on the one hand, the solitude of solo walking and on the other hand, the depth and intensity of conversations with people I met. There is an irony in travelling alone that you tend to be more open and inviting to opportunities to engage with strangers. A large backpack is always a good conversation starter. People are intrigued to hear what you’re doing, where you’re going, why a young girl like me is wandering about on her own in the woods… (I’m in my late thirties and a mother, but will take this as a compliment.) You tell your own stories and listen to the, more often than not, fascinating stories of others. I think sometimes it’s easier to open up to strangers, there’s no history between you and you’ll probably never meet again in the future, so the conversation exists in and for the present moment.
My first meaningful encounter occurred not more than 6 miles from where I started. I’d stopped for lunch at a picturesque spot and taken the last picnic table, which a couple in their late fifties on bikes were also making for. They asked to sit with me and we struck up conversation, that was still in full swing an hour later. We discussed ‘island hopping’ in Scotland, writing children’s books, post-natal depression and their second marriage. It was refreshing, the in-depth and sensitive conversation it was possible to have a couple who, an hour earlier, were complete strangers. I never fail to come away from encounters such as these feeling uplifted. After a conversation, those ‘strangers’ (or possible ‘nutters’?) became individuals, no longer belonging to something ‘unknown’. I think of all the conflicts that could be resolved if we only took time to listen to the human-scale stories of our ‘enemies’ and if they listened to ours.
I also met people who inspired me, the young woman from Toronto who had been travelling and hiking for the past year with nothing more than her 40 litre rucksack, the family; mum, dad, a girl of about 13, her younger brother and two dogs, all walking the Way shouldering huge packs, the retired couple who were trail walking veterans and the solo male, new to long distance walking, who had 9 years ago sold up and moved with his young family to Eastern Europe where they stayed for 5 years.
Walking inspires a sense of connection. There’s the connection with others and ourselves, but also a sense of connection and continuity with nature, landscape, culture and history. Parts of the walk followed old drove roads, used to herd livestock from the Highlands and Islands to markets in the south. Long distance walks often follow historical monuments or an historical idea or figure and as you retrace an ancient byway your mind starts wandering back in time. What did the landscape look like, who were the people who populated this terrain? What happened? Why did they disappear? The Great Glen Way passes canals, old canal side houses, locks and bridges, dismantled railways, military roads, castles, burial sites, whisky stills and abandoned croft houses.
The final day was the most tiring of the trip, and the longest distance. I had read that about half way through the day I would come across a café, and after a few hours of walking I crossed a narrow road and came to a sign ‘Café 1 mile’. I followed it up a narrow, winding, single track path through a new woodland plantation and at steady intervals, haphazardly painted on long slivers of wood were signs reading ‘ bovril’, ‘ovaltine’, ‘real teas’, ‘coffee’. I’d certainly worked up an appetite, (though not for bovril), by the time I reached a clearing and the small jumble of hand-built buildings. Rustic, eccentric, off-grid and guarded by four husky-crosses, a brood of chickens and an overly friendly free range pig. There were a few tables joined in a row under a makeshift roof, attached to the house the owners built themselves around the windows which had been given to them. It was certainly a great spot for meeting other walkers, after all, you would have had to have been walking to even stumble across the place, and here I met a lady from Orkney, a couple from Copenhagen and two young men from the Netherlands, the latter who had just completed a traverse of the West Highland Way, a longer and more challenging hike, and had decided to just keep walking.
It was on the final few miles that the pain and exhaustion really started to kick in, just as the end was in sight. The final descent into Inverness seemed to take forever and I hobbled along in a trance. I have to admit, the moment I reached the castle and the official end to the walk, it felt a bit of an anti-climax, no fanfare, no one waiting to congratulate me, but then this wasn’t about pomp and ceremony, it was something altogether deeper, and anyway I was hooked on this trail walking lark and couldn’t wait to plan my next long(ish) solitary walk.
So what attracts me to solo walking? The serendipitous experiences, facing the unknown, the new perspective, the self-reliance, the freedom, the chance to air your thoughts as well as exercise your body, the almost meditative state of being when you find your stride. During and after the walk, I felt contentment, satisfaction, a sense of personal achievement and an overall feeling of gratitude. It was sacred thinking time and a pause for contemplation and reflection. As Robyn Davidson, who trekked 1,700 mile track across desert the Australian desert, put it, ‘I had dredged up things that I had no idea existed. People, faces, names, places, feelings, bits of knowledge, all waiting for inspection. It was a giant cleansing of all the garbage and muck that had accumulated in my brain, a gentle catharsis. And because of that, I suppose, I could now see much more clearly into my present relationships with people and with myself. And I was happy, there is simply no other word for it‘. Yes, I was happy too.
And so I’ve just returned from a short stroll down by the river near where I stay. The air was fresh, the snow lingering and not a soul was about, just the sounds of the gurgling river, the calls of the birds, the crunch of snow under my boots and the faint sound of a car motor. I’d been sat at my desk and needed to clear my head, to see the wider picture. I didn’t need to walk 80 miles to find that quiet peaceful state. I would welcome the opportunity for longer solitary walks but with a wee person at home, they will be few and far between. Yet, a day walk or the short snatches of time where I’m able to head off for a walk alone are treasured as opportunities to clear my mind of the constant chatter inside my head and the constant chatter of a little one and I let my thoughts wander unhindered.
Solnit, Rebeccah (2014) Wanderlust: A History of Walking
A version of this article was originally published in Starflower Living Magazine Issue12/May 18, 2015