Nature is an easy concept in theory – it’s beautiful and wild, exciting and full of life. There’s not much you need to do with it, you just go there and be.
But in practice, I grew apart from it – I grew up in a world of concrete buildings and small patches of green, play stations, game-boys and then finally computers. Nature grew around me, close enough for me to know it’s there, to occasionally visit and stray just out of sight of the picnic table, but not really close enough. It was there, and I was somewhere else.
I suppose that’s the reason for the crappy result of my first attempt to do a little hike on my own. It all started well enough, the route wasn’t supposed to be too hard, I had a little map – I was set to go. Except I wasn’t, because it’s been so long since my last encounter with nature that I forgot all about food and water and the fact that one needs to have a healthy supply of those in order to stray away from civilization. But that hadn’t even occurred to me until later. There I was – just outside Belfast Castle, ready and excited for my very first hike of the trip. A viewpoint of Belfast from up the hill awaited, and I set forth, following the marks along the trail. Just me and the trees and the wind and that man who was walking his dog at the beginning of the path – so far so good.
It didn’t take long for things to change. And by ‘things’ I mean ‘me’, because nothing changed other than the thoughts in my head. There I was, cracking the fallen leaves with my shoes, walking between the trees, looking up and getting dizzy from looking up so much, looking around in awe of all the different trees and bushes and flowers, the wind making branches dance all around me – and slowly it started to sink in. Fear. Because there I was, alone, ill-equipped, going god-knows-where (and the little map, but I didn’t trust that too much). Fear was joined quickly by loneliness, because even though I knew I wasn’t far from anything yet, being there with nothing but your own thoughts and the sound of the wind suddenly grew incredibly lonely. I don’t know, maybe it’s just me, but fear and loneliness tend to feed off each other until they grow bigger. So not long after I started – and after thinking that people originally gathered in tribes because of this same fear I was feeling (I do have a touch for the drama) – I turned back in shame. I have come to explore nature, and I have failed. I don’t think there’s anything quite as disappointing as not doing something out of fear.
When I came to the Lake District shortly after, I came initially terrified – I signed up for a week of nature, all nature and nothing but nature, before I knew how scary nature was. Before I knew that I’m so easily scared, scared of being alone, scared of my own company and scared of nature. But I was there and there was no going back.
I tried to avoid it on the first day; I went down to the lake where there were restaurants and some houses, piers and lots and lots of birds and above all – a waterfront. Not a beach like I have at home, but a waterfront – something familiar and thus not scary. But there’s only so long a girl can sit and look at the birds and the water washing up on the shore, so I moved on.
I have to do something, go somewhere, I decided. I picked the trail that started closest to the hostel I was staying at and started walking. I had a much better map this time, and for most of the way up I followed a couple with their dog. They somehow made everything better. Part of the way I was behind them, part of the way ahead (and then I would find reasons to stop to let them pass), but at no point did we talk. It still made everything better, because even though we weren’t together – I wasn’t completely alone. Until the point where they turned back and I kept going – through sheepfolds where I got absurdly excited over all the sheep, past the rare farmhouse and over tiny streams of water. I was alone again, but somehow this time it wasn’t so bad. It wasn’t bad at all. I don’t really know what made the difference – maybe the open field instead of the tall trees, maybe it was I who changed again.
Another day started with new fears – where to go, what to do, how to pick a hike that won’t be too scary or too long, so that I won’t have too much time with myself, so that I won’t have the chance to get scared again. A solution presented itself in the unexpected form of an invitation by a dorm-mate to join her hike, it was going to stay low-level, she said. So I said yes and we went, three of us in the end, for what could have been a horrible hike had I made it on my own, but turned out to be an amazing hike in our little group. I wasn’t in any shape at all, but just having them there to follow kept me going where otherwise I’d sit down for a rest at best or turn back at worse. They were my little tribe, in a way, company that kept me going, that left no time for fear or loneliness. There was just the mountain, the trail and us – often walking in silence to save breath, sometimes talking and making jokes and passing the time. Alone, I couldn’t have faced the hike, and if I tried, I’d probably be blown off by the wind and into the river and possibly die and become sheep-food. Together, everything seemed possible, even when I was so out of breath I didn’t know how I’d ever take another breath, things still seemed possible. I could go up that other hill, and down to the tarn, and across the ghyll. If they led the way, I would have probably followed higher up, cold, frozen and breathless, but I would have. Having said that, I’m glad we didn’t go any higher.
On the third day, they sun came out. I’d like to think it did that just to make my solo hike as amazing as possible. That was the day of truth, really, where I would go out on my own again, to tackle something pretty big by my standards, not just a little trail up the hill and through sheepfolds, but a proper climb up (well, as proper as I’d even done, anyway). I quickly grew out of breath again as I was climbing, and had to stop every couple of minutes to actually get some air into my lungs, but every stop was worth it, because with every stop the view grew better and better. In the end I’d made it up to the tarn – which was where I was planning to go. There was higher up to climb if I wanted to, but I didn’t. Maybe if I had my little tribe with me. In fact, probably if I had my little tribe with me (or any little tribe with me, for that matter), but I was alone, and there are still limits to things I would do alone. Somehow, this fear didn’t seem so disappointing then.
I had done something I didn’t believe I could. I’d done it alone (although not lonely, as there were many people doing the same thing), and I’d done it well enough to be proud of myself. I’d set a goal and reached it. Stepped out of my comfort zone, got over a certain level of fear – I felt strong. I wasn’t really strong, and I didn’t do anything that was really special (coming down, I passed by a ~5-year-old girl and a grandmother climbing up the same way), but it didn’t matter. Because it’s not what I did, it’s how it made me feel. Later that day, walking up a different trail among the high trees and without a soul around for half of it was like walking through the park, only better. There was no fear, and my own company wasn’t that bad anymore.
And now, back in the real world, all I want to do is go back to that nature. Go back to a life that is simple and yet fulfilling. Get up, eat, walk out and start walking. See new places, explore, do something I didn’t think I can. Not something very drastic or impressive, not something no one has ever done before, just something that is better for me. Walk that much further, climb that much higher. Feel strong.
I know what you’re going to say – I don’t need to go back to the Lake District to do that. I can choose to do something like that every day right where I am. It’s easy, you’d say. But it’s not, because this is the world of concrete buildings and computers, and while you are right that I could theoretically find new horizons right here, you are wrong in thinking that it’s easy. It’s an easy idea – that much is true. But in practice, this is a world that is completely detached from the other one. They exist simultaneously, one along side the other, but they don’t merge. To go into one, one must leave the other. I don’t know if it’s just for me, or whether there are other people out there with the same problem, and it doesn’t matter, because it doesn’t make it any less sad.