It had been a while since I’d last carried everything I needed for a night under the stars to some high and solitary place, then set up my tent and watched the light fade. A very long while.
Just like everyone else, I had to put the brakes on my mountain trips when the COVID-19 pandemic got going. My last trip before things ground to a halt was a very good multi-dayer over the Cairngorms in March 2020. Then came Lockdown 1. Then came the easing of restrictions last summer, but while everyone else was getting back to the hills I found myself too busy to go anywhere. This conjured up a lot of conflicting emotions. I felt frustrated and a bit trapped, but also guilty for feeling like this because many other freelance writers and editors had seen their work dry up. What right did I have to resent being busy? Gratitude warred with a feeling of uneasiness that my chance to get back to the hills would slip away.
My wife and I did manage to squeeze in a walking holiday up to the Blair Atholl area in early September. It was a great (and necessary) trip for us both, with some fine time for just the two of us up in the hills – including Hannah’s first Munro – but, much as I enjoy walking with Hannah, for me this is a fundamentally different kind of experience. My multi-day mountain routes are not really about hillwalking at all; they’re about extended solitary time in nature, realigning a mental landscape, reconnecting with my own thoughts. No amount of day walking can do this. It takes two or three days, with wild camps in between, for me to settle back into this internal state of mind.
My chance for a hill trip did indeed slip away. By the time I actually had a gap in my schedule that would let me return to the mountains for a multi-dayer, the second wave was accelerating and Lockdown 2 was imminent.
We all know how bad things got over the winter. I put thoughts of mountains and backpacking behind me, or I tried to. There were periods of bitterness when I found myself consumed by uncharitable resentment towards the people fortunate enough to have mountains on their doorstep. There were also spells when it all receded from the forefront of my thoughts and I managed to almost entirely forget about the mountains – sometimes for days at a time. I focused on local walking, on landscape photography, on looking forward to the upcoming spring wildlife photography season. But I couldn’t forget the hills entirely, largely due to the nature of my work. The wanderlust came crashing in like waves of floodwater. By the end of the winter my emotions were feeling frayed from so much thwarted longing, again mixed with the guilty sense that I shouldn’t be feeling like this, because there were far worse things to worry about in the world, and I should thank everything I held dear that I still had a job and that I got to do the work I loved.
But the work itself – the actual writing and editing words about adventure and the mountains – had become disconnected from the thing I loved. A sense of unreality permeated my working days as I penned thousands of words about backpacking in the Alps and edited books and magazine articles about adventures by other people. It was like a dream that starts out realistic and detailed but gradually dissolves into abstract unreality – a revenant mouthing words that it no longer comprehends. When I wrote about mountains it was as if I had to reach through a layer of fog to pull the feelings out.
The spring came. COVID cases began to drop. Restrictions began to ease. Thoughts began to turn back to the prospect of going to the mountains, but, instead of leaping into action and jumping on the next train north, I found – to my surprise – that I was reluctant to do so. I’d filled April and May with projects again, perhaps subconsciously to give myself an excuse not to go. I was unable to fully grasp the reasons behind my own reluctance.
I’ve waited this long, I told myself; might as well wait until I’m vaccinated now. But the truth is that I was worried about anticlimax, about disappointment. After such a long absence, how could my return possibly live up to the expectations I’d built up in my mind? The idea of returning to the mountains had acquired a significance that extended far beyond the physical act of rambling over a few hills. It would be a symbolic moment. I failed to come up with any ideas for a suitable route, or even an area to visit. There was a massive void that in any normal year would have been filled with half a dozen or more half-formed plans and plotted routes. I’d been planning big, grand adventures for the post-COVID world – crossing the Alps, that kind of thing – but when faced with planning a few days of bimbling in the British hills I came up with nothing at all.
In the end I ran out of excuses. My quiet week in early June approached; Hannah told me that I’d get my solo multi-dayer in the hills if she had to force me onto the train herself. I’d had my first vaccine dose two weeks before. This was going to happen, and I forced myself to overcome the hurdle of reluctance, told myself to stop overcomplicating things. I looked at the map, figured out that Matlock was easy and quick to get to by train, and booked a ticket. I’d go walking in the Peak District. Maybe it didn’t have to be a grand Return with a capital R after all.
The truly wonderful thing about time on the trail is that it’s simple. After all the fretting, all the highs and lows of emotion over the last year and a bit, all I had to do was put one foot in front of the other until the sun dipped low in the sky and it was time to look for somewhere to camp. Wild camping in the White Peak must be done with stealth; I found somewhere secret and secluded, high above everything and invisible from any footpath, but surrounded by a haze of flowers and the music of willow warblers. I sat on a rock and waited until sunset before pitching my tent. The mental silence, the clarity, didn’t come back – but then again it never does with my first night on the trail. Then I pitched my little Solomid and transformed this flat patch of grass into a temporary home. I settled down under my quilt, my body remembering all of the things it had forgotten: the specific little aches that only hills bring to the fore, the tinge of sunburn on the backs of my hands (with a white stripe for each trekking pole strap), the beginning of that general oiliness and trail grime that is a mixture of sweat and sun cream and dust. Perhaps the reality of it all, the physicality, was what I had truly craved throughout this long season of numbness.
It was never going to be perfect. It never is. But it’s a start, a first step back towards reconnection and regeneration.
Until next time,
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