Author of upcoming release The Slow Traveller, Jo Tinsley writes about how walking long-distance paths can afford us the space to connect with ourselves and with nature.
Walking is the most successful way of moving slowly through a landscape. The simplicity of putting one foot in front of the other gives us a sense of freedom like no other form of movement, allowing us space to connect – with ourselves, with people from all walks of life, and with the landscapes we’re moving through.
After all, we predominantly live indoor lives, spending so much of our time sitting still. To move through a landscape, to cover distance under your own steam, is such a freeing thing to do. Slowing down in this way, forgoing the nine-to-five working day for a while, gradually loosens the pressure to be productive and allows your mind to drift. It frees up space to finish a thought and clears room for new ideas.
The joys of walking solo
I find walking alone to be a particularly transformative experience. Walking with others can mean you are following someone else’s pace, being jostled into conversation when you are in more of a contemplative mood or forced to stop on other peoples’ schedules. Alone, you can not only set your own pace, you can also have moments with the landscape completely to yourself.
Walking solo allows you to connect with the landscape in a deeper and more meaningful way. Without the distractions of others, you are free to observe the landscape slowly and constantly, as you move through it. This deepens your experience by making the landscapes familiar. Seeing a ridgeway or the shape of mountains through different lights and weathers – sometimes vivid and pin sharp, other times obscured by mist and ethereal – lets you soak up the scene and relish it.
Plus, you are never truly alone. Once a sense of stillness settles on your mind, you are free to open up a dialogue with yourself. You can give yourself the space you so desperately need, but don’t often take: to daydream, to compose or to finish thoughts. For me, there’s something about following a path that does this, the way it extends into the distance, leading my thoughts on.
Finding your flow
Walking on your own also allows you to find your own innate rhythm and pace, your natural cadence, which is much easier to achieve when you are not falling in with someone else’s stride. You know when you have found your natural walking rhythm when you feel a lightness in your step and an easy propulsion forward. It’s as if your feet find their balance without you even thinking about it. You also get a feeling of renewed energy, like you could carry on walking for days.
Whenever you reach this natural rhythm, something miraculous happens. As your body loosens, your mind quietens and almost floats in a way I can only compare to meditation. As your sense of time falls away, your thoughts begin to unspool. You might come up with solutions to problems, untangle a challenge that has been plaguing your mind or simply find new perspectives.
Tuning in to the wonder of nature
Following long-distance trails means being outside for days, weeks, sometimes months at a time. You are more likely to experience a sense of wonder in nature. For a start, you get to see the glorious tail ends of the day: the dawns and the dusks. You might experience enormous starry skies, watch brooding weather fronts move across an empty plain or ocean, or experience those precious end-of-the-season moments such as the feeling of winter sun on bare skin.
On long-distance walks, I have experienced many such moments of wonder – watching a meteor shower over the silhouette of sea stacks, walking through a valley peppered with glow worms and watching a thunderstorm roll in over the summit of a sacred volcano (before hastily making my way back down).
Walking also helps you to tune into the subtle sounds and sensations of nature. I particularly love sensing approaching rain. Firstly, there is a subtle temperature change, then the wind picks up and often changes direction. Bird calls fall silent. Then you hear the patter of raindrops on distant foliage, drawing closer until you hear them drumming the hedges right beside you; all of this, even before you feel a single drop.
Connecting with other people
Of course, choosing to walk on your own doesn’t have to mean forgoing the security and comfort of others entirely. In a small group you can walk at your own pace, gradually detaching from one another along a path, before regrouping at rest and lunch stops. For many, this companionable solitude presents an ideal balance that pairs the benefits of solo walking with the comfort of company.
Plus even if you set out walking alone, it’s not uncommon for you to fall into a group somewhere along the way. If you walk at the same pace as someone else, you often find yourselves walking together for a time – you become incidental friends, joined by a shared experience. You can often learn as much about yourself from interactions with these consequential strangers, as you do while walking alone. Walking side by side for a time allows conversation to flow freely, for you to meander from topic to topic. There is more ‘space’ than in a face-to-face meeting, more pauses, more opportunity to listen or to allow your thoughts to wander.
Yorkshire Moors, UK. Image credit: Daniel Alford
However you choose to walk, whether alone or in company, a short jaunt or long-distance trail, it always pays to set your own pace. After all, journeys on foot are not about how far you travel, but how deeply you connect with the landscape and with yourself along the way.
Jo Tinsley is the editor of Ernest, a journal for enquiring minds, and author of The Slow Traveller: An intentional path to mindful adventures (published 15 June 2023 by Leaping Hare Press). https://geni.us/TheSlowTraveller
A few of Jo's favourite things
A favourite quote or book
Grounded, Ruth Allen
As a travel writer, I can capture and describe a landscape, experience or journey but I’ve often envied friend and long-term collaborator Ruth Allen’s ability to so eloquently reflect on how a landscape makes us feel. Her book Grounded unveils another layer of our relationship with nature.
A favourite song
Message To Bears - Wake Me
Just a beautiful soundscape with which to begin a journey.
A favourite place
Scotland, in particular the west coast and Hebrides. I used to go once or twice a year, but I haven’t been since our daughter was born (she’s almost three!). We’re planning a trip in autumn and I couldn’t be more excited.