It's amazing how things develop. After all, this blog started out as a news section for the rest of the website. With encouragement from readers, it has become a place for relating my countryside wanderings and musings about the world of outdoor activity. Walking, cycling and photography all are part of what I do out-of-doors and, hopefully, they will continue to inspire me to keep adding entries on here. Of course, there needs to be something of interest to you, dear reader, too and I hope that's the case. Thanks for coming.
In a previous post, I mentioned Ken Burns’ magisterial The National Parks: America’s Best Idea and even wrote a few words about this documentary film series. Not living in the U.S.A., I found this quite accidentally when reading an article on either the Outdoor website network (probably the Backpacker part but I am not sure now). Both are part of the same media group and I became a subscriber to Backpacker magazine in 2020. In Canada, there is Explore and they perform much the same function for that part of the world.
Before this, I was inclined to do long trawls through guidebooks for acclimatisation and awareness. This can work but it is not just time-consuming but also can be trapped within one’s own predispositions. After all, America’s National Parks are known by many around the world so it can be easy to gravitate towards them but there are other kinds of public lands that are amenable to exploration, some of which abut conurbations so they can be easier to reach. Here, I am thinking of what lies on the doorsteps of San Diego in California, Portland in Oregon or Phoenix in Arizona. Two of these came to my notice in a serendipitous manner, the first from a tragic story on the Backpacker website and the last from a Wanderlust webinar.
There also is the usefulness of a more gradual approach taken with an open mind. A concerted effort can and does help but the slower accumulation of insights and possibilities is how I got going in hillwalking in the first place. It happened so naturally that I hardly noticed what was happening and this also brought with it a growing cultural awareness. The same approach might help to restart nascent explorations of North America yet.
All this highlights background realities regarding the scale of North American wilderness as well as equipment choices offered by brands that are not so pervasive on this side of the Atlantic like Canada’s Durston. There are times when you need to watch for product placement though and Backpacker’s online webinar series from 2020 was a case in point, especially given they erred on the side of overdoing just that at the expense of conveying an experience of the wild places that were featured.
Still, knowing the cultural side of things remains ever useful and that returns me to the feature film series mentioned at the start of this piece. The history of the American National Park system was not that well known to me, even if I was well aware of the influence of John Muir from my reading of his writings during the winter of 2017/8. What happened after him and the issues surrounding the various contradictions of a motto like “For the Benefit and Enjoyment of the People” became plainer to me as I watched the film series.
The tension of high visitor numbers is very clear to us now and it always has been a problem as has allowing people to visit using their cars. That there has been road-building in otherwise pristine areas is part of this, even if that was curtailed in Denali National Park in Alaska by a persistent campaign by one of the park naturalists. The conflict between conservation and having visitor services like hotels and other amenities pervades today and that is likely to continue. Even so, there has been progress too with a different attitude to wildlife meaning that we now need to keep away from wild creatures rather than mingling among them as once was the case.
There is much to learn about another continent half a world away and doing this one morsel at a time makes things stick better. The more gradual approach also allows for added serendipity so you get to find out about places that do not come to light from a concerted effort.
It is too easy for me to think that autumn is my least favourite season but it is also the one when many transformations happen and when it is possible to think ahead to the next year. The hours of daylight are shorter so there is time to think about other things. Admittedly, the ongoing pandemic stalled any forward-thinking but these still were times of change. 2020 saw me begin to learn new computing languages while 2021 saw me embark on spiritual explorations. Both journeys are still ongoing.
2019 was the last year when thought could be given to a future even if that was devoted to continuing my freelance consulting business. Until that was more assured, I could not think too much about overseas journeying and then the pandemic intruded. A possible trip to Colorado became unthinkable in July 2020. Going to Vancouver, Canada in July of 2019 became a reality because of reading undertaken during the autumn of 2018. The next steps that I took in my career during 2018 were made possible by a career break that itself began in August 2017. The rest of that autumn was taken up with decompression and healing before I could do a rethink at the start of 2018. This necessity was brought about by fatigue after heavy work done at the latter end of 2016 to fulfil my late father’s will.
In between the more weighty matters of 2016, much thought was given to mid-winter sunshine escapades that took me to Mallorca in 2016 and Tenerife in 2018/9. It may be tempting to think that a year is done for when you get to its final quarter so that there is an overflow to the following year only for surprises to come. Thus, mid-winter walking trips to Arizona, Malta, Madeira or the Azores can be kept in mind should an opportunity arise.
For 2023, Scotland again offers multiple possibilities and North America also looms again after my watching Ken Burns’ monumental documentary film series The National Parks: America’s Best Idea. While I probably was after the scenery that was shown, the series mainly was about the history of the National Parks and was just as fascinating for that. Learning about the efforts of John Muir and other actors was as intriguing as seeing the learning journey where lessons that we now take for granted had to be learned on the fly with no precedents for guidance. That the winter of 2017/8 saw me reading the works of John Muir only helped things to resonate with me. It also helped that there was enough scenic footage to restart dreams of Yosemite, Glacier and Rocky Mountain National Park visitations, to name but a few, and the soundtrack was as alluring as the footage.
All in all, I am rethinking my appraisal of autumn. It no longer might be a season of mourning the passing of summertime and springtime, or indeed the year itself, but could be a time of inner growth and expanding horizons. That is how it is starting to appear now. Work for 2022 continues with there being some asset downsizing in progress but time flows ever onward to bring whatever comes our way.
We live in stormy times and stormy weather has been our lot in recent days. There also is a wintry feel since snow is falling in places as I write these words. Often, I have written here about the storms of life with the understanding that being out in nature is so restorative.
That has been the refrain from John Muir and so many others. We hear in the outdoor press about those who are unhappy in their everyday life and then leave that after them, at least for a while, to take on an outdoors challenge. That also features in the stories of people like Elise Downing who ran around the coast of Britain and became a Silver winner in The Great Outdoors Awards for her book Coasting. Some even have followed this kind of endeavour by changing their whole lifestyles.
The subject of soothing solitude has been mentioned in my writings numerous times and is one of the motivations for my excursions into nature. The landscapes may be human-influenced in so many ways yet it is their present-day emptiness that draws me. It might my introversion but I relish being away from others for periods. It certainly has drawn me out in wilder lands in Scotland and England but it also has its limitations.
Dependence on incursions into emptier lands still does not eliminate dependence on others. First of all, they need to be conserved but there are other things too. Political developments can affect them and my reverence for the Scottish Highlands and Islands made me emotionally vulnerable in 2014 when Scotland was debating its constitutional future. That led me to look elsewhere.
Unfortunately, that too can be bedevilled by global events like the ongoing pandemic and geopolitical tensions in different places. Developments like Britain’s exit from the European Union can unsettle as well. In many ways, this demonstrates the problems with having oases and havens outside of oneself. Going elsewhere for peace and healing can be forestalled by other intrusions all too easily.
At the start of 2020, I was reading Anthony Storr’s Solitude and the enduring lesson from that book was the power of interior self-efforts. That certainly has for me been an ongoing effort in life when solitude allowed me to heal enough during a career break to go back to working again and get through an emotional period in my work life. The same could be said for dealing with grief, loss and upheaval since the passing of my parents who thankfully were spared the travails of the pandemic and other intrusions.
It has taken interior efforts to deal with the fear and restrictions of the pandemic too. Initially, I was left floundering and a heavy withdrawal from caffeine consumption lasted several months but has left me sleeping more soundly nowadays. It took me a while to find again the relaxing effects of outdoor wandering and I will not forget the benefits of a circular stroll from home in May 2020 that took in Croker Hill, Bosley Reservoir, Bosley and Gawsorth in what was a wider sweep than I recognised at the time.
Books feature in interior journeys too and they certainly do in my case. Peaceful, evocative descriptions of nature have been mentioned in other postings that you will find here but there has been another strand to this over the last twelve months that may make some readers feel awkward. That has gone along the paths of faith and spirituality. Authors like John Barton, Karen Armstrong and Edward Feser have been on the left-brained portion of this reading ramble but it has taken a more mystical turn with authors like Richard Rohr, John O’Donohue and others that I have yet to read. This is experiential reading with a little more than what you might find in nature or travel writing.
That is not to say that I have abandoned nature writing because it deals with bodily sensing but that it has taken more of a backseat for now. There is a whole body of writing that awaits experiencing and brings its share of helpful peace, healing and meaning. To mention this is to bare my soul a little yet it could influence how I approach my wanderings and show them in a different light. The wonder of nature and the way that light falls on a landscape remains attractive for me but this may be encountered in a more holistic mindset.
Too often, I have felt that some frame outdoor activity too superficially and focus on their efforts to the point of disregarding their surroundings. That makes me look at the athleticism of some as being too shallow an existence when a more transcendental experience is possible. Certainly, that follows from the thinking of people such as John Muir and Henry David Thoreau as well as even the likes of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Physical condition and skillfulness remain important but they need to serve some higher purpose.
For many people, this involves being with others and adding the ambience of nature’s wonders to this certainly enhances that. That is good in itself but there is something about being alone in a landscape that it soothes and heals with its peacefulness. There are times when apparent absence is full of presence and becomes what is needed by a stressed and overwhelmed soul.
Over this weekend, I have been watching Life of a Mountain: Helvellyn on Vimeo. That meant renting the title for 24 hours at a cost of £7 and I have a copy of the DVD on order from Striding Edge too. The latter action was a result of watching the online version though I somewhat mourn the loss of SteepEdge where I used to buy digital versions of such wares.
The film was made by Terry Abraham and is the last of a trilogy concentrating on best loved Cumbrian fells. Scafell Pike and Blencathra have featured before now and I have copies of those too. The latest installation is long with a running time of nearly two and a half hours but it is packed with such visual delights that the length is deserved. This still feels a much tighter and less padded out piece of work. The others had me going back to The Cairngorms in Winter with Chris Townsend, Abraham’s first accomplished effort and he also has shorter films introducing parts of the Lakeland Fells.
The Helvellyn film re-uses contributors from earlier films like Alison O’ Neill, David Powell-Thompson, Stuart Maconie and Mark Richards but there is a host of other new ones like Peter Gibbs, Mary-Ann Ochota and Julia Bradbury among others. Even the Royal Air Force and Ordnance Survey get included. They all complement the backdrop of dramatic scenery accompanied by a stirring soundtrack, especially the action sequences involving the RAF, skiing down to Red Tarn from the summit of Helvellyn or paragliding off the same starting point. That the footage came from a time before the present pandemic was a reminder of how things should be.
The whole combination has re-ignited a desire to walk around Helvellyn that has lain dormant for too long. What that needs is determination and opportunity to accompany ongoing patience needed by the course of the ongoing pandemic. After all, I have visited Patterdale and Ullswater a few times now and they were so heavily featured in the film that I at the time wondered if it was about them and not very much about the mountain (that probably is what happens when you need include something on the lives of people living in the area). Nevertheless, 2020 did not involve a Lakeland visit for me so a return is not before time and having a lure to draw you through darker times has to be a good thing.
Things have been quiet on here since October but life has been busy for me too. Perhaps, that may be a lot of the cause for the online absence. During times of running in and out of pandemic lockdowns, I have a had a technical project to keep me busy: learning a new scripting language that could have a use in my line of work.
In some ways, that helped with getting through the autumn and early winter periods but I now realise that I could have done with more exercise even if that means encountering more people during risky times. Over the Christmas period, there have been more walks and so sodden and muddy is the landscape that I have been using wellington boots more than I otherwise would. For one thing, they certainly help to keep leg-wear cleaner and drier.
Having the extra cushioning of dedicated walking footwear on my now exclusively local strolls would bring more comfort but wellington boots have a certain convenience about them and even help when crossing the snowy surfaces that we have at the moment. The ongoing cold spell is set to continue yet that is not going to stop my outdoor recreation either, particularly should sunny days come my way.
My reading has been as wintry as the weather. It is impossible to avoid references to snow and ice when reading about Antarctica so finishing off Gabrielle Walker’s Antarctica became a sort of prelude to the ice and snow lying on the ground in my locality at the moment. Then, there is Bernd Brunner’s Winterlust that I spotted in an Explore magazine newsletter nearly twelve months ago and I am working my way through that too. Suitably enough, it adds a quiet muffle spirit reminiscent of its subject as it courses the world while doing so.
Travel is not high my agenda right now given the that things are going and I am not expecting so much of 2021 either. Its first few months may be occupied by an occupied by an ongoing lockdown if my sense is correct and vaccination will take a while to reach a level that helps us. After that, we only can hope that new variants will not outwit vaccines too readily.
Given that, it fills as if local walking and cycling will have a large part to play in my outdoor wanderings for a good while yet. Some will yearn for better while just dreaming and hoping seems safer for now. Taking each day at a time probably is the best way to proceed.