Fred Rennie on hiking the globe

On the Road September 30, 2015

Why do we do it? Because it’s there.  Because we can.  Because we don’t want to wait until we have retired to do it, when there’s no guarantee of making it to retirement.  But why walking? Why not just have a really good holiday, lie on a beach in the sun and read a book?

I bumped into Fred and David on my last day on the West Highland way. They were walking across England. I felt fortunate to share some pints with them when we arrived at Fort William (me trying desperately to keep up with them both on the trail and in the bar). Turned out Fred wrote an amazing piece on her blog about her need to walk and was kind enough to let us publish it on ours.

Fred and David Rennie_03 Fred and David Rennie_04 Fred and David Rennie_05

Why do we do it? Because it’s there.  Because we can.  Because we don’t want to wait until we have retired to do it, when there’s no guarantee of making it to retirement.  But why walking? Why not just have a really good holiday, lie on a beach in the sun and read a book?

I’ve been thinking about walking.  I love walking, especially from point to point.  The journeying, travelling, getting from here to there just by taking one step  at a time is hugely satisfying.  And it’s a very simple way of life. I carry everything I need: food, water, shelter, maps and all I have to do is walk, what could be simpler?  I have no distractions. No complications. And I am happy walking for 6, 8, 10 hours a day without listening to music or a book. In fact, listening to to the radio is a distraction, I feel like I can’t concentrate. But what do I need to concentrate on, like I said, it doesn’t get much simpler than one foot in front of the other?  Sometimes it’s a safety issue, I need to be able to hear traffic when I am walking down a road.  Sometimes I need to be able to talk to Blokey.  Even the distraction of navigating gets in the way.  What am I doing or thinking about when I walk that I need to concentrate so hard on?  I don’t have ground-breaking thoughts that I rush to record at the end of each day, but I’m not thinking about nothing either.

What I am doing when I am walking is experiencing being in the moment.

I am taking notice of seeing what’s around me – on the horizon, perhaps it’s a mountain I will need to climb or a bridge to cross, or a summit to take in the views from, or a moorland that stretches as far as I can see.  I look at where I am heading, I look for danger, I look at my next step and the ground beneath my feet.  So much to see, to take in, to enjoy: the bird that follows me along the trail; the plants; count the butterflies; the lizards scampering that I have disturbed; the cows, the sheep, the deer, the horses.  The slugs will tell me that the wet weather is here to stay.  The road kill tells me that although it is just us on the road right now, sometimes vehicles come along at speed.  There are views to be taken in, absorbed.  Stones and rocks to be avoided.  Water – is it small enough to jump, shallow enough to wade? Buildings and people, I see leaves dropping, caterpillars inching across paths, extraordinary engineering that has changed people’s lives and left an indelible mark on the landscape, new born calves and lambs … so much to see.

Fred and David Rennie_01 Fred and David Rennie_07 Fred and David Rennie_06

I am hearing as well.  The wind can be deafening and demanding and distracting.  The sound my feet make as they squidge and squelch through bog and mud.  Is there a car coming up behind me, a tractor, a lorry?  What is that bird I can hear?  Is the rustling in the bush the wind or a small animal?  Will that dog i can hear barking come to chase me, can it get out if it’s garden?  People speaking: snippits, words, salutations; a quick exchange of information – look out … go around … stay clear … ignore,.. be careful… worth the effort… this was amazing.  Or some common ground to mull over, a break for both parties, some storytelling.  My footsteps on the path, across the bridge, round the dry field, crunch, bump, scrape, trip. It’s never silent.  There always something to hear: wind through the trees, distant traffic, owls hooting … my husband snoring!

I’m feeling when I’m walking.  Each step gives me contact with the ground.  I feel the breeze on my face, the sun on my skin, the rain.  I touch the corn ears, pluck them, I disperse  with my fingers.  I feel my clothes against my skin; the weight of my pack against my back.  I feel the miles building up the strength in my legs.  I feel the fatigue – the achy hips and shoulders at the end of a 28 mile day.  I feel the pain of stinging nettles, brambles and the fern that wraps around my ankles and trips me up.  I itch where I have been bitten and stung.  My body telling me to rest, to stop.  I feel the warmth of my sleeping bag; the release of my shoes coming off at the end of the day.  The warmth of my husband as we ‘spoon’ in the tent. From the tips of my toes, to the top of my head, I feel when I walk.

I smell the manure piled up, out of sight, behind the hedge.  The smell of the freshly harvested crops.  To goats with the milk souring, hidden up the hill, out of sight.  I smell the chip shop as we pass through owns, the return cigarette smoke that has been absent for so long.  I can smell the change from fresh air on the moors to traffic laden towns.  I smell the freshness in the moment after rain; the stale stench of bog and peat.  I smell the fires already lit at the camp site as we approach.  I smell my self; no longer doused in artificial, chemical smells, masking and hiding my own unique smell and as the days and weeks advance the smell of me returns. I am uncomfortable.  I am embarrassed.  I am disgusted.  I do not smell.  But there is no shame in my natural scent.

Taste plays less of a role.  The taste of water, heavily laden with peat – the colour of white wine.  The taste of local ice-cream, and cream teas in Devon.  The taste of food from Land’s End to John O’Groats – some pleasure, some disgust,mostly of no particular interest or merit. Food eaten out of necessity, eaten in a hurried corner of a field, eaten luxuriously sprawled in the sunshine; eaten hiding from the rain in church porches.  Pies, pasties, pasties … ice-cream, cake, chips.

Slowing to such a pace that I have time to watch and consider the late caterpillar inching its way across the road in September.

We search for and find the start of a river.  Is that really a river?  Surely not.  An unremarkable puddle on a mountain plateau, filled with unremarkable boggy puddles.  Listen carefully, is that a trickle?  Can you hear it under the roaring wind, or am I just imagining it? Such a tiny sound that the wind seeks to erase.  Nothing to see here, nothing to hear, pass on by.  Does it go East?  Follow it East.  An intermittent trickle becomes a muddy stream.  Not really a stream, a watery, muddy gauge in the earth.  Still following it East, it becomes a tiny a stream.  Brown water skips over rocks, still small enough to clear in a single leap, still shallow enough to cross without getting my feet wet.  But growing all the time.  Each day we follow it, it grows.  When does a stream become a river? Where to the fish come from?  A river now with men standing waist high in it, waiting patiently for the fish to bite, for the glory of the catch.  No longer possible to cross without swimming.  Trickle, bubble, flow, stream, rush. What a privilege to follow a river from it’s birth until it is fully grown and flows into the sea.

Why do I walk?  Why put up with the midges, the rain, the cuts and bruises – where’s the pleasure? For me, it’s about re-connecting with nature, experiencing, putting myself back together.  The discomfort of a traffic jam, the skin drying air-conditioning; imposed, artificial targets and time scales … all of this disappears, become irrelevant.  I am more whole, more me, more complete.  I am experiencing the world around me, every inch of me, every sense of mine – breathing, living, being.  Calm.  Peace.  Joy.

Photos and text by Fred Rennie
Edited by Rebecca Rijsdijk

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