I’ve recently returned from a one month ‘solo’ walking and camping trip from the midlands to Cornwall, carrying all of my belongings in my backpack, with the aim of visiting as many sacred, ancient sites along the way. The obvious question is, ‘Why on earth would I want to do this in February?!’ It is a good question indeed, and one which I will try to answer here!
The desire to do a solo walk has been brewing for a while now, probably since I saw that wonderfully inspiring film, ‘Wild’, on the plane on the way back from India a few years ago. I am a firm believer in the benefit of time spent alone, especially when also immersing yourself in nature – to me these are essential components of any healing journey. There is a quote I love that comes from a seventeenth century mathematician and philosopher, Blaise Pascale, who said, “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” Aside from his negligence of womankind, which I’m sure was purely a generational oversight and if he was around today then such a wise man would certainly have expanded his wording to include men and women (!), this strikes me as a very true statement indeed.
Anyway, whilst on a road trip around Pembrokeshire this January, with my beloved partner, Chris, where, I might add, we were having a lovely time together, this background yen for solitude in nature nevertheless grew and grew until one day it spectacularly exploded out of me and I wailed, ‘I need to be alone!‘. In the end, the catalyst was the unbelievably fantastic book, ‘This Changes Everything’, by Naomi Klein, which I can’t recommend highly enough. It is about how our current corrupt capitalist system is directly at odds with preserving the planet and therefore is nonsensically leading to our own self-destruction as, sadly, we are so disconnected from ourselves and nature that we seem to have forgotten that we cannot possibly survive without the health of our planet! Anyway, it is ultimately an optimistic read and has such a power behind it that it’s hard to read it and then just go back to your normal life, without making any changes (I guess the clue is in the title!). Certainly, for me, it incited a huge need to ‘do’ something positive to help the world, whatever it was. Raw emotions of pain and betrayal at how poorly we are treating ourselves, each other and our planet, which had been building up inside me for a long time, suddenly poured out of me with a tremendous power – it was seriously intense, almost like grieving for humanity’s loss of soulfulness and connection. I know I’m an emotional girl, but this was something else!
So, the potent combination of feeling the need to be on my own for a while, combined with the long-held desire for a long-distance solo hike and a strong urge to somehow pour my pain at humanity and mother earth’s suffering into doing something concrete (an interesting turn of phrase for nature immersion!), led to me gate-crashing the rest of Chris and my planned campervan trip around the UK with this walk. Chris, bless him, supported me all the way, despite his initial confusion at what was going on with me, and indeed I was confused too! I am truly blessed in that department… 🙂
So, what did I gain from the walk? Well, not at all what I thought I would, as is usually the case!
I thought the walk was about solitude and having time alone to think and work out what I could do to help ease our planetary suffering. Also, if I’m honest, there was a perceived need within me to prove to myself and others that I could cope on my own as a single female. On the first night, after an arduous day’s walk where I realised I probably should have done some training, and I was far from any campsite, I had to wild-camp in a wood. I hadn’t been able to find a farmhouse to ask permission, so I just found a spot close to the path and hoped for the best. I had barely put my tent up when the land-owner appeared and asked what I was doing! Luckily, he was really lovely and also had an interest in stone circles and wildlife and, after a friendly chat, he wished me well and left me alone with his permission to stay. I felt buoyed by his kindness and realised how happy I had been to have a conversation with someone after my day alone, and this was my first inkling that the walk wasn’t to be quite how I imagined.
My second wake-up call literally came when I woke up the next morning to a ground frost, after a terrible night’s sleep due to being so cold. I was aching all over and frustrated at not being able to even sit-up in my tent, yet alone stand up. Somehow I had managed to get what I suspect was badger poo over most of my belongings – whatever it was it stank! And it felt horrible not being able to wash properly too. After a rubbish breakfast of oats and water, I set off again, feeling pretty emotional about how much I HADN’T enjoyed my first night in the wild, at odds with my naïve preconceptions of how I would relish the independence and freedom of being alone in nature. From then on, I decided not to wild-camp. I soon realised I had nothing to prove to myself or anyone else, and this felt like a huge relief! So, onto Plan B…
Before I left I had sent out a message to all my facebook friends, asking if anyone along my proposed route would be happy to put me up for a night, as I noticed most of the campsites along the way were closed over winter. The response was overwhelmingly positive, which was beautiful and humbling in itself, before I had even left. And now, without wild-camping as an option and with a scarcity of campsites, I was ready to take up as many of these offers as possible – so much for solitude! So, in brief, what followed was a beautiful lesson in the innate goodness of humanity. Some of my hosts were old friends and some were people I didn’t know well at all. But every individual or family that took me in blew me away with their kindness and hospitality. After attempting to pay for the first couple of nights and being firmly told to put my money away, I soon realised that people WANT to help. And, when I thought about it, I too would be very glad indeed to host a passing walker for a night. It is clearly an innate human quality, to want to provide shelter, warmth, company and food to those in need. And this is a beautiful thing to consider… 🙂
Furthermore, I also fully appreciated the wonders of, again, the innate kindness of strangers. So many people took great interest in my walk along the way, and I had some really lovely interactions with locals, all of whom were keen to help in any way they could. One example was a wonderful lady that I met at a campsite who, seeing me putting up my tent in the descending evening frost, gave me a big hug and gifted me with some home-made cashmere leg and wrist warmers that she had made, and a hot water bottle. Even now, when I catch a whiff of her perfume, still lingering on the cashmere, I feel immense gratitude towards that lady!
And then of course there was my absolute delight in seeing Chris, who faithfully came to see me most weekends in our campervan, stocking me up on fruit and veg and love. I soon banished any feelings of guilt that I was being rather less hardcore than I had planned – the walk was showing me how much I value the beautiful people in my life as well as how much I value time to myself.
So, rather than being about solitude, this walk was actually about connection – who knew?! And this, of course, was the best theme for me to explore, particularly in today’s turbulent world, where we are hit with endless stories of division, hate and war and there’s a depressing sense of the flawed nature of humanity. Instead, it’s good to remember that people are innately good, people are kind, we want to help each other when it comes to it.
I learnt so many things on my walk, and I did indeed enjoy all that time alone in nature and feel that I have yet to appreciate all that it gave me. I aim to share more of my insights as and when they occur but, for now, the big revelation is that solitude is rather an illusory concept. We can never truly be alone, we always remain connected to others, even if it’s simply through having to source our food and shelter from others. But, actually I think it’s something more, I think we are sociable creatures at heart that need company. Solitude is wonderful, but only when there’s a known end to it. Then, once the solitude is broken, the smile of another and the prospect of sharing food together or swapping tales is all the sweeter, as the solitude merely reminds us of our intrinsic connection to each other.