Eighteen months ago, I made a routine phone call to the walking coordinator of the organisation where I volunteer as a walking leader to review the walks we had done between us and discuss plans for the coming year. I knew he had been unwell, so I asked him if he was ok. Expecting him to say he was fine, he replied, in a matter-of-fact way that he had cancer. An inoperable brain tumour. I was taken aback by the news and tried to keep the rest of the conversation as positive as possible. He was planning walks and trips and sounded like he was going to make the most of the time he had left.
Sadly, I found out last week he has finally lost the fight. Whilst we were never close friends, we always had lengthy chats about the outdoors, and would see each other four or five times a year for group walking duties. He was, however, one of the most important figures in steering my life towards the path I’m on now. We met through mutual friends, as he was looking for walking leaders and I was looking for volunteering opportunities, and his number was given to me. After a long chat on the phone, we met face to face and I began to organise and lead walks for his groups. That was 2011, and since then, I’ve carried on with my ambitions to spend more time outdoors.
See, in 2010, a previous voluntary opportunity had disappointingly wilted away to nothing. When this one presented itself, I fully took it. Steve took me on (probably because he was desperate) but I like to think I paid him back. Together we introduced a winter walks programme that operated in the off months when the organisation wasn’t so keen to put on any walks, but had interested parties. Numerous pub lunches all over the place, and great memories like the flighty pony that chased him down and stole his hat, which I then had to retrieve, despite having an 18kgs backpack on. I managed to get it, while he and everyone else hid in the next field (I couldn’t jump the gate – my bag was too heavy).
A great guy, as always, taken away too soon. His enthusiasm and energy will mean he will live on in the stories told about him.
On my last mountain walk, I experienced a very strange happening near the summit. I was thinking about other peculiar things that have happened to me when I’ve been out walking. Too many oddities have occurred to mention when I’ve been running or cycling.
I suppose the weirdest thing happened last last May. I was away camping and went on a fairly tough long walk. On the return leg, the footpath briefly joined a lane, which was banked on either side by high hedges. Being late spring, the leaves were really starting to cover the hedge, yet all of a sudden my eye was drawn straight to something that didn’t quite look right. There was a patch of hedge where the green growth was slower and the woody workings of the hedge inside could be seen. In the middle of the patch was a the tip of a thick piece of wood and I felt compelled to grab it. Sure enough, I pulled on it and it lifted right out of the hedge like a dagger out of its sheath.
In my hand was a staff, essentially. Probably three feet tall, and very smooth around the thicker end, presumably from years of use. Its texture and colour reminded me of a wooden chair that my nan used to have, which also had smoothed out tips of its arm rests. I walked with it for the last couple of miles of the day. I ended up taking it home and I still have it, although I haven’t used it since then.
Having an overactive imagination, I began to think up all kinds of ideas. Where had it come from? Who put it there? How old was it? How long had it been there? It wasn’t casually leant against anything; it had in my opinion, been deliberately placed there.
I have an idea that it was a walking staff of a well travelled man, who nearing the end of his days, left it there on a final ramble to be picked up again to give it a new lease of life.
Or it put itself there and has a mind of its own. I do know that I regarded it with suspicion for a long time and left it at the top of the stairs waiting to walk past it one morning only to find it gone. I did think about putting it back where I had found it, but realised that fate had brought it to me and fate must take it back again. I feel the story is only just beginning…
Steeped in folklore and adventurous tales, there is a valley. Overlooking this valley are hills and mountains, with lakes high up in the clouds and steep, winding paths. It was this valley where I decided to spend my last full day in the mountains.
As usual, the walk was well planned, maps studied, satellite images printed off and compared to the map. Having never been to this area before, I was apprehensive. As soon as I set off though, I could sense something special here. The first leg of the path took me to a long lake, higher up than the valley floor. It was surrounded on three sides by what felt like a rock-made amphitheatre. It almost did feel like a huge room. The path around the lake was calm, peaceful and sheltered. It was a shame to leave it behind, as I made my way up and over one of the sides, to be greeted by another lake much higher up. Looking down on all of this was the mountain summit I was here to climb.
I’ve always thought how walking, running or cycling hills teaches you a lot about yourself, and these hills were no different. You can draw endless analogies between life and moving uphill. Far too many to cover here. It’s true I think, that the outdoors provide pathways to answers to any number of life’s problems and questions. Maybe it’s the simple act of being outside, back to basics, facing the elements. My first day in the mountains this week cut some of my problems down to size, I can tell you that much.
Once at the top, the descent was along a gently sloping path, high up, but sheltered from the wind and by this point of the afternoon warmed up by the sun, radiating from the rocks. It felt very spring like and quite serene. It will have to be covered in a further post but I did have a strange experience up on this path. One of two strange experiences to recount from walking in the last twelve months I dare say.
It was the perfect end to the week and it left me feeling hungry for more, so it won’t be long until I’m back in the clouds once more.