Tuesday, December 9

Backpacking: The Curse or The Cure?

(I'd held this piece over in order to protect the privacy & activity of the individual involved)

I dropped Dawn off deep within the New Forest on a cold but sunny Friday. It was a quick return to the area for Dawn after her previous visit a few weeks ago. Well some areas just seem to cry out for further exploration.

Perversely, despite 20+ years of living on the edge of the National Park & hundreds of my own wanderings I've never been a big fan of the area. Too flat for the hill loving instincts inside me. But it works for others, on a number of levels. Selah.

The night before had been one of continuous heavy rain. Local farm footpaths, as I'd discovered earlier that morning, were flooded in highly unusual places. The winterbourne streams living up to their name as they rushed by carrying dirty brown flood water. A marked comparison to the dry beds this time last year. Not the ideal portent for a weekend's wild camping - particularly as Dawn was once again bivvying.

We stopped far from any villages. Just the occasional white painted cottage blinking from amongst the trees. Dawn kitted up. Nearby a herd of cows, thick winter coated, lay lazily in the weak sunshine watching this free cabaret of getting-the-gear-sorted. Nearby trees all bare of their leaves. But high in the branches above one tree, catching most of the low winter sun, was festooned with new white buds. All clearly framed against the backdrop of the cloudless blue sky. A heart lifting sign of Spring yet to come, even whilst the winter cold was nipping at we two ground dwellers below.

Dawn shouldered her pack, and moved off. A solo trip due to my own prior commitments. She walked off down the shale track with my parting advice on the lie of the land and tips to avoid the suspected results from the night's deluge.

As I started the car to leave I watched her wander off, already settling into her weekend solitude. Smiling at the pleasure of a long circular route following wherever the forest tracks & paths led.

On the way back home a thought popped unbidden into my head - had I just taken a lone woman deep into the New Forest, and left her miles from human assistance? Now there are probably quite a few people who I could happily do this for; Not in a well intentioned way. But if it was a family member or friend I would have questioned my own motives & more worryingly the intentions of the potential strandee.

This can be a Good Place To Get Lost, especially if that's the intention. Whilst many tourist spots teem like a disturbed ant-hill there are still remote areas of the Forest, away from the popular paths, where one can simply disappear. The renown New Forest bottomless bog may be mostly myth but it is all too possible to wander into one of the muddier areas and become stuck fast.

But as to Dawn's fate on the forthcoming weekend? I reflected guiltless, confident that two days later she'd pop back up at the coach stop, ready for a homeward trip.

I've heard it whispered that the Backpacker's Club is for people who don’t join clubs. My own infrequent meetings with various BPC members doesn’t corroborate that. But I have noted a certain tendency at times for …..well …….certain eccentricity.

Whilst most will have career, family and the usual day to day interactions expected from any socially adjusted human in today's society, there is a common difference. I'm not talking about the higher than expected average age of the club membership (although that may be an indicator of some sort, or a symptom)

All enjoy the outdoor world. Not just the quick jaunt around the car park for a couple of hours, but a driving desire to get out into those wilder places far from human activity. To be with the natural world.

It seems to me to be a common character trait that is continually demonstrated across most of the backpacking fraternity.

Self Reliance.

I don’t know if backpacking attracts those already having this characteristic, or whether it develops a latent potential. Whatever the impetus drop a backpacker in a challenging outdoor situation and you'll usually get a positive reaction quietly getting on with the basics of survival, and maybe even enjoyment.

Now is this the response you’d expect from the majority of Joe Public, stranded miles from easy mobile phone reception & coffee shop nutrients and clad in designer flimsy wear?

It’s a character attribute that seems to be rarer these days, especially amongst our youth. Those so carefully protected and closeted from various bogey-men dangers of growth to adulthood. Then, for many, seemingly unable to take personal responsibility for their action and continuing existence.

OK a sweeping generalisation.

However I offer this up as reflection of an increasingly common trend during the past twenty years or so. That self starting drive to get up. To go off. To do something requiring personal initiative despite likely physical discomfort. Something not necessarily flash, fashionable, or popular with the peer group. But something that answers the eternal call from the real world around us.

I woke Sunday morning to the heaviest frost of the year so far. The temperature had not risen above freezing point since dark fell the previous day. Thick hoar frost covered the grass and trees for most of the morning. In the afternoon, despite bright sunlight, shadowed places kept their frozen pools of thick ice.

I gave Dawn a quick thought in consideration of her night out in such bitter conditions. A long night sleeping on the ground. An early and bone chillingly cold start to the day. Completion of her wandering across the frozen landscape.

I bet she really enjoyed it.
Edit: Dawn's own report here

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Bless you John and thanks. Life events these days have driven me to often avoid people. Animals I can get on fine with. My tendency out and about is to hurry on by when I see other people about. There have been a couple of occasions when passing car parking areas I have been wary. One was on the Friday evening as I walked through the car park just before I stopped. A van passed me with the passenger window down. The passenger, with can of beer in hand made a few choice comments. My reaction was to step in to the trees and disappear. It is having the confidence that I can do that and have the ability to move quieter and faster in the woods that gives me the edge. Someone once remarked on me carrying a knife. Yes, I do, however, it is as a tool, not a weapon. It would have to be desperate and last resort before I used it in my defense. Yes, I prefer being on the hill, however the New Forest gets me out of allow me to get out of the prison called London.
Really enjoyed this one, John. Fantastic!
Have you ever thought of writing a book? I love your style. I think you're a great writer. Maybe you could compile your blogs into a book of some sort. I know I would definitly buy it. Thanks for the insight into UK hiking.
Glad it hit the spot with you.As for a book - it'll ruin the day job at the mo'
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