From reading posts on the Long Distance Hiker website and Facebook group, it’s clear that trekking across the countryside holds many advantages for our wellbeing. The mind clears, the heart calms, the soul uplifts and the body benefits: the effects are both re-energising and empowering. So, when life smacks you in the face, it’s time to get those boots on and head out the door.
Sometimes, though, it’s not as simple as that. Sometimes, things happen that just don’t give us a chance to rely on our regular coping mechanisms. In such cases, it’s how we adjust to circumstances that matters. And walking can certainly play a part in that.
Our Dad passed away peacefully in early August after a few months of declining health. During the final few weeks, my siblings and I took turns in caring for him day and night. Everything else in life became very secondary. Then, when he passed away, having to deal with grief, sort the funeral and clear his home affected us emotionally in ways that we couldn’t have known before.
Up until this time, I’d always found that an afternoon spent in the local woods or walking along the Thames was enough to reset my mind, so that I’d come back a functioning adult. But time felt so compacted and also stretched in this period that walking and nature weren’t helping me process matters.
Then in early September, on one of the rare occasions I felt like reading, I came across a chapter in ’52 Ways To Walk’ by Annabel Streets that explained walking briskly each day during times of high tension is a great way to counter stress. The walk needs to be for at least twelve minutes as this allows the chemicals in the body to have the necessary effect.
Understanding this gave me a renewed purpose in my walks: suddenly what had been a routine walk with muddled thoughts through my town, now became a near-meditative experience that helped build resolve. Reading that simple and effective information formed the crucial moment in which I dealt with my grief in a more gentle way.
Soon, my body and mind were craving a return to the countryside, and, more specifically, to trek along bodies of water.
THE RIVER OF LIFE
Whilst I researched how to cope with grief, I came across the River Of Life. This analogy suggests that as we flow along in life certain events will throw us completely off course, e.g. death, unemployment and homelessness. The important thing is that we somehow keep moving, even if it feels like we’ve hit rapids, rocks or are heading for a waterfall. A person may feel endangered and in jeopardy, but movement is the key to survival.
I found this quote on www.sidebysideuae.com which I found quite consoling:
“We can all take wisdom from the river – it personifies that moving while challenged is at the core of what wisdom really is – No matter what obstacle comes my way, be it mental, be it physical, I’m going to direct my flow in the direction I want it to go.”
Again, something that I’d read had influenced me, and it was time to footslog along the River Thames again.
IN THE FLOW
Over the following two weeks, I completed a solo hike along the Thames and walked half of the Blackwater Valley Path with a mate. I often recited the above quote to myself to totally immerse myself on these river walks. I’m not totally sure how or why this approach to dealing with my grief worked, but being in nature and a change of mindset left me feeling I could begin to cope better.
Hiking provides substance and purpose. Putting one foot in front of the other has so much holistic value. These thoughts were the deeper wisdom that I’d gained, and it was only natural to expand upon them. In addition, by actually taking the River Of Life analogy and putting it into practice on hikes, I recognised that I was nurturing myself as a person.
With this clarity, I decided the best thing I could do to further my understanding was to pummel my legs into oblivion by heading to the coast for a few days. After looking at a few options, I found an inexpensive and highly-rated B&B in Torquay. When travel day came, I zipped out my front door quicker than a cheetah with its backside on fire.
My dad was a funny, uncomplicated Irishman who lived life by his own rules and didn’t worry about the future. These traits were how I’d conduct myself on this break: have a laugh, keep it straightforward, and plan nothing in advance. So, on the first evening in my hotel room, I wrote down the names of the four places I’d visit – Torquay, Brixham, Paignton and Dawlish – on four separate bits of paper and put them into a sock. Then, I swung the sock above my head for a few seconds, put my hand in and my first destination was revealed.
DAY 1: DAWLISH
After alighting at the train station, I marched along the stream at the heart of the town centre. I followed it’s course for a couple of miles before reaching a Norman church that marked my turnaround point. From there, I headed towards the terracotta cliffs. I pondered if the sharp climbs would exhaust my legs for the days ahead, but looking out to the gentle sea on this blue sky day was enough to resuscitate my pins.
The highlight of this day, though, wasn’t anything to do with hiking or nature: sitting on the beach, being still and munching on a homity pie overloaded my senses!
DAY 2: BRIXHAM
I didn’t venture along clifftops or a beach on this day, but instead walked along the bustling harbour and an impossibly long pier. By the end of my time here, it astounded me that I’d knocked up nearly ten miles from wondering around this harbour town.
DAY 3: PAIGNTON
Walking up and down the cliff sides of the South West Coastal Path, I checked in on how I was doing: calmer than I’d been in the last few weeks. I just allowed my mind to flow unhindered to where it needed to be. With Dad’s presence as resounding as the wave breaks against the rocks below, I realised that grief is a very personal journey, and very much as uproarious or serene as the sea itself. This comprehension was an answer I’d been looking for without knowing it. Accepting this further wisdom was key to me coping.
DAY 4: TORQUAY
The sea views calmed and mesmerised me. I understood that bodies of water played a central role to me dealing with my grief – and hiking underpinned that. Furthermore, I grasped that the importance of being by the sea, a river or a stream was that by observing the flow of water, on a deeper level I was keeping myself in the flow of life. This was another sprinkle of wisdom that I cherished in my heart.
Another ten-miler through the town’s hilly streets and along the beach left me more battered than the cod in a seafront chippy. A gentle Irish voice sang in my head: “Go to the pub, son. Go to the pub.” After a couple of pints, I’d recuperated and noticed the enduring lightening of my mood carrying on from the previous days.
And with this, I toasted my dad in the full knowledge that I’d found a way to cope with my grief.
My family and I travel to Ireland in December to lay our Dad’s ashes next to his mum’s grave. You’ll be home to rest, Dad. Every time I hike near water, I know you’ll always be close.
To anybody reading this, I heartily recommend a good long river or coastal walk the next time difficult situations arise. Hiking and spending time in nature truly have the ability to help us overcome adversity and the challenges of life, and help us to build fortitude.