Since retirement, I have clocked up several thousand kilometres in my walking boots. As a celebration of retirement freedom and my new relationship with Time, I walked the 800-kilometre Camino de Santiago in Spain and became addicted to long distance walking. For each of the six years since, I have spent a month or so plodding the planet.
As a solo long distance walker, I am often asked whether the vast swathes of solitary time in my days provide an opportunity for me to meditate, perhaps? Or come to terms with a major emotional event? Or think through personal issues and reach solutions? Or plan my future? Initially I had expected this would be so and thought this offered a useful justification for my wanderings. In fact, once, when walking from Florence to Rome through the Apennines in Italy, I enrolled in an online course in spirituality offered through Gratefulness.org, happily anticipating the learning and thinking I would have plenty of time to reflect on very pertinent questions and to formulate responses. I expected to be a star student. But it absolutely wasn’t so …
For one thing, I hadn’t taken into account how very beautiful my walk would be and how much of my attention the landscape would claim. Not only did I want to be 100 per cent present on my journey, it was also important that I be very mindful of my external world: alert to waymarks and less literal signs of warning. I found that online study was too annoying a distraction. The inner journey offered by my course also required wi-fi connections, which are often elusive or unreliable in remote locations. I quickly came to resent the encroachment on my time and experience and sensibly postponed the effort until my walk was done.
When I walk, I find I have no head space for anything other than the job at hand: looking for waymarks. There is no distraction in welcoming the easy company of loved ones: family and friends, both living and lost. I can summon them easily, with just a fragment of memory, and they walk with me in my shoes. Often it is my dad who takes each step with me. We walk as one and we simply resume our long-ago relationship, sharing this series of present moments: we marvel at the landscape; we spot waymarks together; we consider options, should this niggling knee pain persist, or should the storm hit or should there be no room at the inn … Whichever kindred spirit walks with me, I am reminded of my adequacy, encouraged when my spirits flag, helped to see the humour in a predicament … and there is always someone to share my celebratory glass of wine at the end of the day and smile with me in my contentment.