I have done a fair bit of walking lately – in the hills of Cumbria and Derbyshire and along the rough coast of north Cornwall – variously in the company of acquaintances, friends, loved ones and one or two strangers. I have walked for the purposes of companionship, exercise and the simple pleasure of being outdoors. Not once have I walked out of necessity and I know that some people consider this to be eccentric. I can recall opening a conversation with the words “I was climbing Snowdon the other day” to which my friend responded “Why?” I have asked myself that same question, from time to time, ever since.
"Walking is also an ambulation of the mind" according to one writer: the physical exertion equates to stimulation of the brain; the open horizon to the endless creative possibilities of thought and the open air to the dissipation of stale ideas. All of this I can see, but there are times when nothing creative happens on a walk - especially a long and tiring one which has reached the point where exhaustion overcomes stimulation, automaton-like movement replaces physical fluidity and a corresponding lack of mental activity sets in. Tiredness has dulled the brain; the allure of the horizon has turned to menace and the senses have been over-dosed with fresh air. Under these circumstances I have known my mind to become detached from its present situation and fixated instead on imagined places such as cosy bars, candle-lit dining rooms, steamy bathrooms and comfortable bedrooms. At times like this the question "Why?" becomes unavoidable.
When a small party of us tackled Crinkle Crags recently, my partner and I decided to walk over the shoulder of the main peak rather than take the direct, vertical route. "See you on the other side" we called as we parted company from the others. But a hill tends to obscure whatever is beyond it and, without a direct sight-line, the exact whereabouts of the "other side" became less apparent the further we walked. Before long we ended up lost, disorientated and concerned that we might not see our party again that day. This provoked a disagreement between us as to which way to go. As usual, our exchange began politely, then escalated into semi-hysteria, before eventually culminating in a truce as we realised that argument would not lead us to the path.
At this point we followed some age-old advice -"When all else fails, read the instruction book" - and reluctantly pulled out our map and compass. It was, without doubt, the rational thing to do but wilful resistance to take such action is a human instinct, born of impatience and the urge not to stop and take stock lest we discover things we don't like. It may be further resisted, as in this case, by the inconvenience of having to take off our gloves, find our specs, dig out the compass, unfold an unwieldy map, locate our exact position - and all in cold and windy conditions. While there is a certain carefree cachet to the slogan "Not all who wander are lost", at times like this it can seem rather glib.
There are ways in which walking can be made easier, less fraught, less tiring and less dangerous. You may choose to walk only well-marked paths, not to push yourself physically, to devolve responsibility to a guide, to go out only in fair weather and so on. But there is something to be said for eschewing these more comfortable options - and if all this is beginning to sound like a metaphor for life, it is. "Mediocrity" said Balzac "can be trusted always to be at its best" and that, I suppose, might be an answer to my friend's question.