The Highs and Lows of Hiking
When Felicity and I first met we used to talk about all the adventures we were planning; they started off small but quickly escalated from hikes around the neighbouring countryside to more ambitious plans connecting different cities on foot, walking great distances or great heights, whilst exploring whole areas of the country we had never visited before. We hold an absolute belief that walking is good for mental health. It not only gives a much needed change of pace but it also allows for some perspective in life, it allows you to feel small and to see that everyday concerns are not all that exist.
I was never a sporty kid at school; I was a constant unengaged disappointment to my PE teachers. For years I presumed I hated physical exercise, and yet when I discovered hiking and how good I was at it, I fell in love. I presumed that I could continue walking indefinitely, that no distance was too long and no backpack was too heavy. I had an image of an outdoor life built up from Instagram, made up of the clear views from the top of a peak rather than the hard journey up the mountain. I was good at walking, so I was constantly under the impression that even the biggest challenges were easily accomplished, with no more than a little ache in the legs and loss of breath on the way up.
Felicity is the most inspiring outdoors person I know, she has incredible ways of designing routes from one place to another, and meeting her acted as a catalyst for planning many of the adventures I would end up going on. Back in 2014 Felicity set off across Wales on foot, starting along the Beacons Way. I text her as she made her way across this stretch of land, hearing about how far she had travelled until the day she had to stop; her feet had swollen and stopped her going further than Carmarthen. Not to let an experience like this get in the way she quickly planned a new route from her new home in Trowbridge to her old home in Brighton, this time combining sections of established trail, along with some ad hoc route planning. I began to dream of walking similar long distance routes.
In September 2016, my partner Curtis and I set out on a 14-day hike across the country from the Irish Sea on the west coast to the North Sea in the east, walking through three national parks on the way. We’d been planning this trip for two years, and I’d spent hours captivated by all the different pieces of advice Felicity could offer on walking for multiple days at a time. Curtis had spent the last year suffering from massive levels of anxiety which had had a huge impact on his daily life. I set off full of naive optimism; we would be ok, we were more than capable of walking across the country. I hadn’t paid any proper consideration to us encountering any problems.
The first hill I reached on our first day of walking wore me out; I remember being surprised at how slow my pace was as I crawled up this grassy hillside with the weight of 15kg on my back, and we hadn't even reached the mountains yet. On the second day, Curtis’ anxiety was adding a whole level of underlying strain to his journey east, while the rain clouds gathered overhead and proceeded to rain on us solidly for two days. It rained so hard that at one point we were warned our path might be washed away by the various waterfalls it was meant to cross. It turned out this journey wasn't going to be all blue skies and smiles after all, and I wasn't prepared for it. By the end of day four, we stood on a bridge in the dark and discussed the possibility of ending our journey there, forgetting about this ridiculous dream we had both shared and heading home.
When I woke the next day, I was mentally prepared to pack up and head to the train station. Curtis turned to me with the inevitable question: “so, are you ready to walk?” I was overwhelmed by his determination, and our journey began once more. Our walk east was full of moments when it looked like we may not be able to continue, yet each day we’d pack up and be on our way. The pull of a path ending at the sea was too much for us to turn our backs on. The rest of the trip was not without pain and joint aches that wouldn't go away until we got home, huge blisters that started to take over the whole of my foot, a diet consisting predominantly of Peperami, and days where I almost lost the map or disappeared into the soggy depths of a peat bog. However, something had changed. The hardships were just there, it was painful and tiring, there was no escaping that, but we’d come so far, so why not continue? As the physical pains took over and our accomplishments were marked in the small steps we made towards our goal, Curtis was learning more about managing his anxiety. We took every day as it came, knowing that our journey could end in an instant but accepting that this was out of our control. All the pain suddenly became worth it as we surrounded ourselves with sights that could never be replicated; valleys we would fall in love with, mountains we would one day come back to, tiny glimpses of far away mountain tops that were visible for a second as the clouds parted for a brief moment. Our journey ended not with a feeling of elation or relief but one of sadness at the realisation that this journey had to end.
I’ve spoken to many people about my experiences walking the coast to coast, people who have been on similar journeys, and what always strikes me is a general feeling you both share. An ‘enlightening’ feels like too strong a description, but that's exactly how it felt. I gained a better understanding of distance, time, my own strengths and, more importantly, the fragilities of which I’d previously been unaware of.
A hike represents life; there may be days when everything goes wrong and feels incredibly hard but generally most things are out of your control, and there are always the most incredible moments of happiness just around the corner. There’s something quite comforting about actual pain or tiredness and something good for the brain to be aiming at such a simple task each day; it’s tangible and feels a world away from the stress and anxiety of the everyday. This feeling is not only achieved by walking vast distances, I’ve had the same feeling at the top of mountains, a day hiking in the sunshine, or a stroll to the sea to stare out at the horizon.
On our walk when Curtis’ anxiety was bad he would stop and meditate. We stopped once at the foot of a mountain, sitting there on a rock in the pouring rain at the start of our path up. I think he was worried stopping would frustrate me or get in the way of our journey. I remember sitting there and thinking the exact opposite, that I was so glad we had stopped, that I should slow down more often in life if only to take in the amazing views.