The Clarity of the Trail

Just back from a long weekend of backpacking and as my thoughts start to settle on another successful trip, I am reminded of some musings I’ve been meaning to set down on this subject.

This weekend’s trip was what many would consider a bit of countryside rambling, involving no mountains, dramatic vistas and the like. Indeed the route topped out at around 215m above sea level – a height above which many more (generally considered) epic routes would only just be starting.

But that’s not the point here, and this isn’t a treatise about the relative merits of upland or lowland walking. It’s simply about being out, and the benefits of a long walk with purpose.

On my everyday “leg stretch” type walks local to home, I find I largely switch off from the environment around me. Familiarity means I don’t need to give concentration to navigating, for instance. I just need to manage the time, and keep alert to the everyday hazards such a walk involves: crossing the road, shared use paths, dog shit etc. On those walks I tend to zone out, and it becomes my thinking time. But not deep and insightful thinking: more the problem solving type thinking such as mulling over route options for an upcoming (proper) trip, or the relative merits of this piece of gear versus that piece of gear (usually tents). They’re not the sort of walks for proper inspiration, and trying to force them to be is counter productive.

The longer walks where I remove myself from normal life for a period of time, are a different matter. A bit of challenge helps too, as that means I focus more on the walk, and getting it done, and less on other things. It means any great insights or thoughts that do occur are more valuable, but sometimes it is the end of the walk and looking back that brings that clarity.

This weekend I tackled the Darent Valley Path from Dartford Marshes to Sevenoaks/Chipstead (I did both of the alternatives at that end), and tacked on a good chunk of North Downs Way for good measure. It resulted in a 37km walk one day, and a 36km the following day, both of which are long distances for me – in fact the 2nd and 3rd longest distances I’ve walked in a single day.

Usually, a distance like that wouldn’t be followed by another of the same magnitude, so this walk was probably the longest/hardest 2 day walk I’ve done. All of my thoughts were taken up with the practicalities of the walk: navigation, how far is it to the next place I can get water, where to camp etc.

It felt good just being able to focus on the one objective.

At the end of April I spent 6 days on Dartmoor doing an improvised route based around animal-themed tors, and I didn’t get the same buzz, except on the last day when it became a bit of a mission to get me back from the south moor to the car in Okehampton.

A bit of purpose and challenge makes the walk.

I’ve known for a while now that circular walks just don’t cut it. It’s too easy to cut short or chicken out of doing bits if I’m feeling lazy. But every linear walk has given that buzz.

The Pole to Pole walk across Dartmoor in 2018; the day I walked to Southend; this weekend’s walk; and of course my 3 TGO Challenges, to name just a few.

These linear walks bring much more of a sense of achievement than simply ending up back where you started. There’s more risk involved, as you become more fully committed to the endeavour. But there’s more reward in the landscape too as by definition you end up somewhere different and so pass through a variety of terrain, rather than just see the same terrain from different angles, like you do on a circular.

And not just any old linear walk: it needs to have some form of purpose. A reason for doing the walk, be that it’s an official trail, it joins up places of significance, or whatever.

On Sunday, there was much joy in sitting on a slope on the North Downs for 2nd Lunch, knowing I’d banked enough distance already that day to make me pretty sure of getting to the end in the planned time window, coupled with the knowledge that I still had plenty still to do and couldn’t let up.

Indeed, the mere fact that 2nd Lunch was a thing was a joy in itself. On the trail, instead of the typical 3 meals a day, I have (up to) 6: 1st Breakfast, 2nd Breakfast/Morning Coffee, 1st Lunch, 2nd Lunch, (Afternoon) Tea, Dinner. The exact combination varies by trail, who I’m with and on a daily basis. Sometimes I don’t even decide which meal it was until afterwards! The routines of a long walk are themselves a key part of the fun.

But I digress – the point is that a long linear walk or trail has a rhythm all of its own, and that rhythm seems to be really do wonders for my mental state.

The revelation this weekend, though, was that such a benefit could be got from a (relatively) local walk: usually I would do a local trail like this in sections. Yes, I might sometimes do a 2 day section in order to get a camp in, but never have I done a local trail with more of a “thru-hike” mentality.

It felt so good.

I need to do this more.

I returned from the walk, not so much with minor problems settled, but certainly with some perspective that I could bring to things that have been floating around inside my head. And I’d got that clarity having not actually spent time thinking about the issues.

Lockdown and the extended period of time working from home has created a lot of opportunity to fill moments of boredom with looking at gear, and thinking about gear, and buying and selling gear. It’s an escape when you can’t actually get out, in a similar way to walking around an outdoor store in one’s lunch hour. Making my own tent recently and thinking about tent designs and features as a result, has made that worse.

At times you obsess about the stuff. I don’t think I’m alone in that – you only have to look at some of the crazy prices that gear (especially tents, and especially Hillebergs) have been going for on ebay and the social media selling groups, to see that simply possessing gear has become some sort of surrogate for the activity of using it. Actually getting out and using some of it brings so much perspective on how much of it you need versus want.

But it works for more weighty issues too. Not thinking about a problem can mean a point comes when the answer just appears, or when you simply make a choice. Or maybe, that deep down you always knew the answer, and you just stop fannying around and make the call. Perspective reframes the problem, and removes nagging doubts about whether you’re making the right decision.

Being on the trail itself, of course brings decisions that need to be made, so maybe that warms you up to decide other things too when you’re done.

But sometimes you just need to remove your conscious thought from a problem, by distracting it with some other work, and the clarity just appears afterwards. Even when it’s just about your gear.

Part of that clarity in this case, is that I need to do more walks like this.

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