“How little we understand about life as it is actually happening”
– David Szalay (All that man is).
Out in the early spring lanes, our first training hike of 2017.
I have lost track of the number of times I have started this blog post, re-drafted it and scrapped it again. Sometimes I tried to write about something and decided I couldn’t, at other times, what I wrote seemed artificial and disjointed, the words and my meaning would not flow. More often than not, I would start with a thought and it would become so convoluted and unmanageable that I would give up. These unpublished blog posts were not a waste though, because the process of writing them was useful in helping me to work through the turmoil of thoughts in the months since we stopped hiking the GR1. It is sometimes hard to find the right balance of how much to share on a blog like this, how much of the personal story to tell, because although hiking itself is simple, the reasons for hiking are not. In fact, my motivations are complex and personal, and the fall-out in the months following those 1500 marvelous miles across Spain has also been complicated. I am aware that the hiking blogs I enjoy the most, including my favorite Carrot Quinn, are those that are honest about the personal challenges and questions that are inter-twined with the hiking life. This disclosure does not come easily to me and I think that is partly why I have found it so hard to figure out what to write lately and how to write it.
A couple of days ago I was reading a post on another blog I follow. The blogger in question, Brown Girl on the PCT, finished an epic 2650 mile hike of the Pacific Crest Trail last year, and has also found it hard to readjust to regular life again. She made a comment that really struck a chord with me. She said, “I found what I was getting by being back in society was so much less than the price I felt I was paying“. It was reading her post that finally prompted me to write this one. The memory of our time away on the GR’s 11 and 1 has become almost a source of grief at times, which is a measure of how special the experiences were, but also how disorientating the transition back to ‘real life’ has been. At first I just wanted to resist and push back against all of it. Brexit, followed by Trump was not exactly conducive either. Living in such a simple, free and fulfilling way gives a powerful change in perspective on how we live, and it can be hard to know how and where to fit back in afterwards, or even if we want to. Months spent hiking left me feeling un-anchored when I returned. I felt like a boat that had broken free of its moorings and drifted far from shore; the things and rituals of everyday life seemed unreal and pointless, and my mind revolted against most of what I saw. The difficulty of finding a way to fit back in, and the potential depression of the post-trail period, are quite well known in hiking circles. The vacuum left by trail life is also the reason that many hikers return again and again to long trails, it is hard to find what else will salve the loss and replace the simple sense of purpose.
Perhaps it was a bit naive, but I hoped that by taking time-out to do these long hikes, we’d have time as a couple to figure out what we wanted and clarify our direction. This was important after we had to leave our home in wild Orkney and had an unsettled year in Cambridgeshire. More personally, I wanted to find a way to transform my trail experience into something positive and longer-lasting afterwards, to keep it alive in some form by using and sharing the knowledge and skills I had gained. Despite these hopes, the reality has been more difficult, and I should have predicted that long distance hiking would leave us with more questions than answers. The problem was not helped by our ‘re-entry’ into regular life, the boundary between the highs of trail life and reality back ‘home’ was abrupt, there were few people to share our thoughts with or who understood what we had done and why. I think the chance to talk about and process the aftermath of the hike with like-minded people would have made a big difference in staying more positive, but instead we mostly suppressed it and got on with looking for work. The inspiration from our hiking adventures is still very much there though, I am still here blogging after all, and I believe that clarity and direction will come, perhaps just more slowly and less obviously than I thought. There is no doubt though, that on the inside, we are changed by what we have seen and done.
My two trusty wildpilgrim companions, out bird watching and hike training.
Like many others, my response to feeling low and lost after our hiking adventures was to start planning to do it again, and I have done a fair bit of daydreaming about this over the last few months. In more rational moments, I have also been wary of this knee-jerk response, and have felt a little guilty about it too. Should I feel guilty about wanting to go back hiking again? I know it is not a long term solution to how to live, and any answers it might hold are not immediately clear or to be relied upon. Hiking for months on end is also a privileged and individualistic thing to do in a troubled and wanting world. Are those months of wandering too self indulgent? Does the act of hiking have any value beyond itself? Is is enough that I love doing it more than anything else? Why do I need to justify it? Some might say that to keep returning to long distance hiking is escapist, a form of running away, and I’ll admit there might be a grain of truth in that.
I have never see long distance hiking as solely an end in itself, I believe there is something that seeps-out from the experience that is valuable, even if it is intangible. The act of hiking long distances, and how it is done, embodies certain values for me, and when I hike, I live a message about a way of being in the world that I believe in. I see something inherently good in walking that goes beyond the obvious things, although I am reluctant to try and explain what it is for fear of muddying the waters. Also, if hiking is a form of running away, it is also a running toward something- something that inspires, rewards and animates me. The concept behind starting ‘wildpilgrims’ was always underpinned by a certain philosophy about walking as a way to reach something better, to understand more about myself and the world, to gain a new perspective on it. I try to stay honest about why I hike and to proceed with as much self knowledge as I can. Ultimately though, I do not fully understand why I seem drawn to it so much; by turns it can feel like a path to joy and a harsh test, a way to grow and a way to forget. Most of all I like the way it always feels like a quest, and there is still much more terrain I’d like to explore, both out on the trail and in this blog.
Barry has been much better at keeping the faith and dealing with uncertainty over these post trail, winter months of finding work and somewhere to base ourselves. He takes everything in his stride, doesn’t worry, and has a longer view, which is probably what makes him such a good hiking partner…and partner in general! We have both been conflicted and frustrated at times, but if walking 1500 miles has made anything clear to us as a couple, it is how to work as a team. The market for environmental conservation jobs is a tough field these days, but we have supported each other a lot and have at last come through with a shiny new job each and a quiet place to park our campervan in Sussex. Having a routine and a structure to the months ahead is very grounding and I can now work towards tangible objectives, among which are getting the blog going again and thinking about how to make the most of our holiday time this year.
With Spring peeping over the hemisphere, we did our first training hike of 2017 yesterday. With the rucksacks loaded to 12 kg, we walked 11 miles along muddy lanes in the pale sunlight, trees still bare, but reassured by the daffodils surging in clusters from the verges. Slipping into that familiar lightness of mind, hiking poles swinging, pack-weight rooting me to the earth, it felt like the most natural thing in the world. By early afternoon we had walked from the coast to the foot of Chichester cathedral, but in the last few miles, old injuries from the GR1 had come back to plague us. Barry had painful feet and my knee and hip tendons were protesting loudly. It is disappointing how much form we have lost in the winter months, be we have time to build our strength again and will be out hiking and exploring the local area most weekends. More than anything, being back out walking with a purpose lifted a weight within me, the winter ice cracked, and I think that’s why I could write again today; with the joy of hiking and the rising spring light, a thaw has begun.
Arriving at the Cathedral, Oscar was the only one of us in decent shape as we hobbled to get the bus back home.
Looking toward the coming year we have been considering how to make the most of our precious leave time. Top of the list for both of us is the GR5 ‘Grand Traverse of the Alps’. With some inventiveness we should just be able to squeeze this into the time available, although it will be a challenge, and we’ll have to be ready to hit the ground running in terms of fitness. Before that we are planning a 100 mile hike along the length of South Downs Way – if our feet and tendons allow. The South Downs is now our local long distance trail, it is scenic and good underfoot, has some decent hills to test our legs and will be a great chance to measure our progress and shakedown our gear ahead of the GR5. I will be blogging in the lead up to this about our planning and any gear tweaks we will make to walk even lighter this season. So there is lots to look forward to in 2017, and although the bigger questions we have are not resolved, life has stabilized, and as always, we’ll try and work as team to find the right way forward together.
Stay tuned for our South Downs Way planning and more on the GR5.