JOHN MUIR –
“I don’t like either the word [hike] or the thing. People ought to saunter in the mountains – not ‘hike!’ Do you know the origin of that word saunter? It’s a beautiful word. Away back in the middle ages people used to go on pilgrimages to the Holy Land, and when people in the villages through which they passed asked where they were going they would reply, ‘A la sainte terre’, ‘To the Holy Land.’ And so they became known as sainte-terre-ers or saunterers. Now these mountains are our Holy Land, and we ought to saunter through them reverently, not ‘hike’ through them.”
The Easter break kindly delivered on the weather front this year making for a couple of perfect days hiking, or should I say ‘sauntering’ in our beloved Mourne Mountains. We didn’t summit a single peak but thoroughly enjoyed two days wandering around Slieve Binnian, Buzzard’s Roost, Wee Binnian on day one and along the trails surrounding Pierce’s Castle and Batt’s Wall on day 2. As you would expect with the holidays and the super weather, all the best-known routes were extremely busy, so in order to avoid the crowds, we stuck to the lower pathways a lot of the time, enjoyed lunch in peace and quiet and even managed to practice some barefoot walking in the hills.
One of the main reasons we return to the Mournes time and time again is to switch-off from our busy daily lives in the city, to reconnect with one another and our natural world and generally just enjoy being outdoors together. With the climate crisis stories reminding us on a daily basis of how fragile a state our beautiful planet is in, we wholeheartedly believe it is vital to bring our children, the inheritors of this world, into the great outdoors as frequently as possible in order that they learn to love her and want to protect her for future generations. For of course it becomes natural to care for that which you know and love so much.
So, over the break we decided to go nice n’ slow, kick off our boots occasionally and let the boys take the lead, meandering along trails we hadn’t before trodden and really savouring the quality time together as well as our surroundings. Naturally, we weren’t disappointed – the sun shone, the views were spectacular and the fresh air and physical movement did us all the world of good!
I don’t know if you have seen any of the Pilgrim programmes on telly recently. We have watched 2 series – one where a group of well-known people walk the Camino de Santiago through Spain and one where another group walk the Via Francigena through Italy. They are not religious programmes, but take a handful of people from various walks of life, some religious, some atheist, and some unsure to undertake these sacred journeys. As they journey along the long trails of religious Pilgrims from long ago they discuss how it makes them feel, how it challenges them, their views on faith, their outlook on the world, their relationships and so forth. Some take a very personal journey inwards, some experience a profound connection with nature as they walk, some experience healing from past hurts while others process grief from having lost a loved one – the complexity of the emotions and experiences is intriguing to watch and we really enjoyed the programmes. It’s fascinating stuff and well worth a view on catch-up if you get the chance and much of what was being said really resonated with me as someone who walks in nature regularly.
I personally love the physical aspect of walking, especially uphill! I love to push myself and I am really feeling my body growing in strength and confidence once again after a few health setbacks in recent years. But, I also experience a deep sense of peace, self-assurance and self-acceptance when outdoors, and particularly in the mountains where I am surrounded by awe-inspiring vistas and impressive terrain. It is the place I feel most like my true self, if that makes sense? Sauntering along the trails over Easter this year I was pondering the above quote by John Muir and I realized that I understood something of its essence.
For me, walking in the mountains over the years has been instrumental in supporting my mental health as someone who has suffered from postnatal depression as well as anxiety. It is on that terrain that I have laughed and cried, quaked with fear as I pushed myself out of my comfort zone, trudged in rotten weather wondering ‘why?!’, watched sunrises, sunsets, shooting stars, been inspired, watched my boys grow, nurtured my marriage and had the best conversations with my husband, walked barefoot, swam in freezing cold rivers, led other families on first-time hill walks, screamed with frustration, learned to love life wholeheartedly and to live it with passion, courage and sincerity! A lot can happen in the hills it appears!
My point is this, that while walking, sauntering as a saint would in my own personal Holy Land, I have come to know myself, my beloved landscape, my children and my husband intimately. There’s something precious and magical that happens when we go there. Is it God? Is it truth? Is it joy? Is it wonder? Is it the universe speaking? Is it simply a connection with the earth from which I came and to which I will return? Does it matter? All I know is that it’s pure, it makes me smile, I’d say it makes me a kinder, nicer person to be around. It makes me hope. It inspires me. It makes me look around, notice and care. It makes me want to live in a way that reduces the impact I make on our natural world, to be more mindful and considerate. It’s a powerful thing and not something that is easily expressed in words despite my best, sleepy Sunday evening, back to routine tomorrow efforts!
It doesn’t matter that we didn’t summit a single mountain during our two days of sauntering. I’m competitive, I love to reach the top of a mountain! But sometimes, that’s just not the point. Sometimes, just being there, pausing awhile to drink a flask of coffee while overlooking a stunning valley, watching my kids roll down a slope, whittling a stick, walking barefoot in a stream, listening to the birds call, having an unhurried natter about everything and nothing is enough. The more I walk in the mountains the more I realize it’s about allowing yourself time to stop, to inhale, to hear, and just be present in life. That for me is the essence of sauntering in the mountains.