Saturday 19 August 2017

Outdoor Thoughts from the Past

On the Continental Divide Trail in 1985

Thirty years ago at the end of my first book (see this post) I wrote some thoughts on long-distance walking and backpacking and how they were part of my life. I hadn’t reread these for many, many years. Doing so recently made me realise just how prescient they were as to the path my life would take. So here, thirty years, many books, and many walks later, are those long ago thoughts. I’ve edited them slightly, including leaving out sentences relating to the rest of the book and the proposals for long walks that never took place, as I think this strengthens the overall sense of the piece. I’ve resisted the temptation to rewrite sections though – I’d use different words today - and have let the language I was happy with back then stand. 

When I walked from Land’s End to John O’Groats to John O’Groats in 1978 Tom Waghorn, writing in the Manchester Evening News, called the walk the ‘dream of a lifetime’. I’m writing this in July 1986 the day after giving a slide lecture on my Continental Divide walk. ‘A dream of a lifetime’, one of the audience called it. This turning of a particular walk, the ‘dream’, into something separate from ‘life’ is, however, precisely what I am striving to avoid. Travelling in the mountains, in the natural landscape of the earth, the world which sustains use and allows us life is not for me a ‘dream’, a tiny capsule totally cut off from my ‘real’ life that I can take out and look at every so often. Rather it is my life, it’s what I do, what I think about, what I live for. A time when I am not planning or thinking about another backpacking trip does not exist. And the next weekend’s adventure is just as important and exciting as the next six-month one. 

My first love is long-distance mountain backpacking and as my wilderness treks are not one-off ‘dreams of a lifetime’ I am planning several more …. the start of a never-ending list of places I’d like to visit, wildernesses I’d like to explore if I have the time and the chance.

On my 1000-mile walk theough the Yukon Territory in 1990

Being ‘escapist’, ‘selfish’ and ‘unable to cope with the realities of everyday life’ are some of the criticisms aimed at backpackers and other regular explorers of the natural world. Yet our modern detachment from nature, from the force of which we are a part, our futile attempt to prove ourselves separate from and superior to the ecological system that allows us to live, our view of the world as an enemy to be conquered, and a bottomless treasure chest to be exploited, are the very selfish and escapist attitudes that have led us to the brink of the abyss of annihilation on which we are poised. Re-establishing our place in the natural scheme of evolution and the real world is essential if we are to have a future. And this cannot just be done intellectually, the process must go far deeper. An intuitive understanding of our oneness with the life of the earth and the forces of nature, with the rocks and rivers, mountains and deserts, with the other animals and plants must be the starting point for a return to the earth from the remote ivory towers of the so-called reality we have imprisoned ourselves in.

Backpacking is my way of doing this. Every trek through a wilderness, every night in the mountains under the stars far from roads, cars, bright lights and the other trappings of civilisation releases the tensions and pressures of our false and stressful lifestyle. Of course I know that I carry the products of modern society on my back but then I am not advocating a denial of tools. That would take me back beyond the Stone Age! Humanity is a tool-using species and tools are essential to our life but in modern society the balance has become such that it seems more as though humanity’s purpose is to provide a market for tools rather than tools being produced to improve humanity’s way of life.

Wild camping in the Cairngorms earlier this year

So when the confusions become too much and I feel locked into an unnatural life of concrete, forms to fill in, and sterile logic, I pack up a rucksack and head off into the hills to pitch my tent, gaze at the sky, feel the wind and rain on my face, the rocks and earth under my feet and bring my life back to the only thing that exists, the present.


  1. Hi Chris; I was revisiting The Great Backpacking Adventure the other day after seeing your post of 24/7/17;(my mum had bought it for my birthday in 1988,my 35th!). It's a great read, my copy is full of underlinings and question and exclamation marks; the postscript as apt today as ever; keep up the good work/walk; all the best Mark E.

  2. Spot on Chris. Having been inspired by yourself and numerous others (many of whom have opted to pack in their 9-5s and 'live on the trail'), I've chosen to follow suit. Its no longer a holiday, but a way of life, or as you say "my way of doing things". I think I'm not being presumptions in saying that anyone who chooses to and embraces this "way of doing things", will regard any criticisms of 'selfishness' etc. with a wry smile? And as for the 'realities of everyday life', I'm sure we enjoy the excitement/retrospective pleasure to be had negotiating/surviving an epic thunderstorm, or assessing avalanche risk - doesn't get much more real than that!

    Being in the present - an enviable trait in nature. Coincidentally today I high lighted a passage in Edward Abbey's Desert Solitaire relating to this:

    (animals)... " They do not sweat and whine about their condition,

    They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins..."

  3. "Well, you're back to normality now" I hear that said a lot when I return from a trip. But, like you, I see backpacking and camping as normality.
    Dave Porter