On our last morning in the UK I walk my dogs alone around the two fields near my caravan. I wonder if it will be the last time—ever? Or for some time at least… The long grass is heavy with dew, but still I can make out the well-worn path. My flip-flops feel cumbersome, so I slip them off and walk barefoot.
For me, there is nothing like that feeling of freedom from the ground up. It’s something I work hard to remain connected to—the surge of nature to keep me rooted to what is real. There is nothing more real than the solid world beneath our feet, is there? TV, books, social media—they show us things, inspire, but equally they detach us and allow us to simply become receivers of noise. The force-feeding of ideas and beliefs can play havoc with our true sense of freedom and so, as much as I long to stay connected, I ensure I remain disconnected, too. I try to remember to stand on the earth. Root down. Jump inside my body and mind and say, “Hey, Alice, what are you feeling? Deep down? Truly?”
What I’m feeling right now is discomfort—in this moment of walking barefoot; in this moment of life. I look at my dogs walking ahead and wonder if they too feel each sensation: each thorn, each soft spot. Do long lengths of grass wrap themselves around their toes (paws) trying to catch them out too? Do those same toes feel like individual ice-cubes as we step into the shade? For a moment I walk, feeling little sensation, only an all-consuming coldness and I ponder whether to slip my flip-flops back on. I persevere though, and as I round into the second field, I feel glad because this perseverance has connected me right down to that discomfort again; allowed me to get in touch with myself.
I know I am fearful. I sense I too have been pulled into the panic of this virus. Friends and family express their concern over our packing up and heading off for an unspecified time and I know the worries of my community—the world—have permeated me. But I can’t stop; something drives me forward. The other day I turned to my husband and declared, “I feel like I am sleep-walking into this next chapter and I don’t know if that’s a good thing or not.”
Things are strange everywhere right now and sometimes it’s hard to make out what is real—what will truly affect—from everything else and so, as focused as I am about following my path, don’t ever think there is not fear. Just as with everyone—choices are sometimes hard-won. The emotional and physical drain: heavy. And sometimes, it is only by walking barefoot—by reconnecting with the solid earth beneath—that the true way becomes clear. It’s not always well-worn or obvious. Sometimes it’s downright prickly and uncomfortable. But often it gives way to softness and moments of sheer delight and I’ll take that, because I believe there can be nothing true that does not bring both discomfort and pleasure.
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Portugal Green Heart
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and here is a little photo of us together back in 2013!
It’s 7am in the morning; dark skies and mizzly rain were not what we were hoping for. My husband, Scott, is rushing around in the stables with a headtorch on fishing out his toolboxes, our packed up awning, a chest of draws from my childhood and a table made by his Grandad, so they can be stored in our caravan that we leave here on this Buckinghamshire farm whenever we go away wandering.
Ideally the furniture would be in storage, but we can’t afford a storage unit big enough because already we’re taking money out of savings to pay for the small space we do have for our keepsakes. As tensions build and I get cross at Scott because he’s telling me to tip the sofa cushions up so he can pass things in - as if I’m not doing anything at all to help - I feel overwhelmed with our life and not for the first time, I imagine the simplicity of a 9-5 with a house and running hot water.
Our daughter, Isabella, is already nestled in our loaded car with the two dogs. At almost 13 and having spent her whole life packing up and un-packing to accommodate our travelling lifestyle, she knows now that the best thing to do in these moments is sit it out in the car. I trail back and forth, in and out, with last-minute bits, ‘I can’t fit this bag in the car’ I shout to Scott whilst simultaneously trying to slam shut the boot in frustration. I can almost look down on myself and see my eyes rolling, can feel the agitation that I’m directing towards him for no other reason than I’m tired and overwhelmed with the fact that despite supposedly being good at living with little, we still seem to have too much stuff. I want to stop myself, to slap myself and tell myself to stop being a petulant child trying to shove the blame, but there is nobody else to direct this frustration at. Our family and friends have no sympathy; this is the life we choose and rightly so, but when I think of all the delightful #vanlife and #simpleliving posts on Instagram, this scene is not what immediately springs to mind.
It’s hard being a travelling family, never quite staying put long enough for roots to take hold, never knowing where you might be from one month to the next, never knowing where your next pay cheque is coming from. The packing up and packing down is endlessly exhausting and at times I’m so angry at myself: angry for not being able to just get on, for the fact that I bore easily and never quite feel like I’m living if I’m not pushing myself to do something on the edge. As we finally close the boot and lock up the caravan door I know I should feel ecstatic relief, but instead I feel longing as we drive by the big houses in the village with warm welcoming lights on as people eat their healthy breakfasts before hopping in the car with their nice hair-dos and fancy clothes and going off to work. I want to feel release, but I don’t. Instead I immediately start outwardly panicking to Scott, reeling off the monthly outgoings we’re having to pay for, the storage, caravan, blah blah blah and knowing that my meager current earnings as a writer will only just cover this. ‘How will we pay for food? How are we going to live?’ I bemoan pitifully.
Scott stops me straight, he’s always good at that. I’m a blatherer, a day-dreamer, I get myself in an anxious tizz quite easily when it comes to mundane everyday stuff and he’s my leveler. ‘Look’ he says in a calm but firm voice, ‘we’ve made the decision to do this. We’ve made the decision not to get jobs and buy a house, not to get another boat. We’ve made the decision to keep going with this life and to go on this adventure, so let’s try and enjoy it, not talk ourselves out of it before it’s even begun’. I feel reprimanded, but know that he’s right. We had sat together and said we’d rather take money out of our savings pot to do something that feels right - right now - than take the safe option and try and do something a bit more settled.
Walking 994 miles to Portugal was a mad idea that I had back in December ‘why don’t we just walk back?’ I said flippantly as we talked about perhaps returning to a little village where we had recently spent a month in our camper, ‘we’ll walk back and rent a place and see what happens’. It all seemed so easy then, to just say it and then suddenly the dream takes shape and all the reasons why we want to do this snowball like; we might not have another perfect time like this again. Our older dog might not even want to be pushed in a buggy in another year, Isabella may want to stay put to study for something and and and… so we said sod it, we’ll spend the money and we’ll have an adventure! But right now, right here in this car, I’m thinking of how the hell we’re going to do it. It all feels too big, too scary, too unknown and whilst I’m trying to believe and listen only to Scott’s voice, my inner voice is panicking and I know outwardly I look frantic.
Then out of the piles of dog blankets and bags and food in the back of the car, pipes up Isabella in a funny long drawn-out voice, ‘all we need is each other’ and I see the white star glint on her teeth as if she’s in an American advertising campaign. We all laugh hysterically and it’s enough… It’s enough to remind me that life is short, that we are going on an adventure, that no – it’s not perfect and that yes, it would be nice to have a bit more money or less crap to store, but we’re doing it. We’re going on a walking adventure and we’re all together and we love each other and that after 12 years of wandering as a family in campers, caravans, narrowboats, volunteering and working and learning and growing, we’re taking it to the next level. We’re challenging ourselves even more and we’re going to find out how nice or horrible people are and we’re going to get to know ourselves even better and we’re going to delve deep, we’re going to connect and it’s true, we only need each other.
994 miles doesn’t seem like that far, when you break it down…
As a writer/researcher for a travel guide – way back when – I walked everywhere and would plan for around 1 mile every 15 mins. So, by that reckoning (and maybe my maths is bad)…
994 miles divided by 4 (4mph) = 248 hours.
Divide that by 6 (average hours walked per day) = 41 days.
But given the fact I’m now in my mid-40s, certainly less fit and therefore probably can’t keep the pace of a mile every 15 minutes (and my husband falls into that category too), plus the fact that our 12-year-old daughter won’t want to keep that pace… and then add to that our two dogs – one of whom is nearly 14 (and when not walking will be pushed in an adapted mountain buggy) and the fact that we’re not planning to walk continuously every day, my thinking when I woke up in the early hours back in December consumed with the idea of WALKING… was that we could probably walk the 994 miles between Vimoutiers (the town in Normandy, France where we will leave from) and Penela, (a little town in Portugal that we’ll be aiming for) in around two to three months.
One foot in front of the other… slowly… how hard can it be?
I have dreamt of doing something like this for so long I can’t even remember… since I first read about Laurie Lee, who one sunny day in 1935 left his Cotswold village to walk to Spain, or Patrick Leigh Fermor who walked from Rotterdam to Constantinople in 1933, or Robyn Davidson who walked across Australia in 1977.
The list goes on.
For me there is something so freeing about just walking. It’s time for the mind to uncoil, the body to unwind and feel connected: to landscape; to those we walk with.
It’s liberating to have nothing but a tent to sleep in, a small fire to cook on and a stream to wash in… but alas, I act as if I know about this day after day, night after night, when I don’t – and that’s the problem. I don’t want to not know anymore… I want to understand what it feels like to walk across a whole country, I want to soar with the eagles in the Pyrenees instead of just driving through the cuttings made by humans and I want to push myself through difficulties and feel real achievement.
I want to truly live in this present moment.
There is never a right time, I’ve come to realise. There is always something that isn’t quite right… but I just can’t wait another year. My husband is up for it, my daughter – on the verge of being a teenager – is eager to go on an adventure and considering that back in October I found myself crying because she was growing too fast and too far; it seems like a gift to spend this time together, doing something utterly life-changing.
So, that’s it. I’ve said it out loud. To myself, to my family, to YOU and that means it’s a dream set in motion, that I can’t now not go through with it and so I’m thinking of that number ~ 994 ~ and wondering what might happen in there - in those miles underfoot - and I’m excited and terrified and inspired and sick with fear.
But I’m going to do it, because life is so damn short and I can’t stand the thought of not trying, of not having a go.
I’m going to (attempt to) walk 994 miles to Portugal.
Driving the road we felt ourselves lean into each bend and curve, felt our ears pop as we edged higher and higher… me and my girl, journeying to find the end of the road. I needed to find the end of the road because for a change, I wanted to be somewhere. No onwards, no through, just the destination.
When we reached the silent village teetering between mountains I immediately pulled a chair outside the front of the tiny schist cottage we were renting and let the sun warm my face. I could hear nothing but the tuneful bells that rang every hour and the sound of a breeze blowing through the pine trees.
Shortly, an elderly lady strolled by in a black shift dress, jumper, wellies and a hat pulled down firmly over her sun-darkened face. A bucket of greens swung in her right hand and her mouth sang a happy “Boa tarde”.
I smiled and thought, ‘this is just what we need: Silence. Gentleness. Simplicity.’
When you live at the end of the road it seems that nothing else matters because all life is where you are, and why go backwards? As I watched daily life unfold I wondered if I could live in such a place; if I might ever find myself contented at the end of a road.
One evening by the light of the Wolf Moon we opened the door to traditional singers who sang happy words whilst thumping a paper drum, holding out a cloth bag for pennies. Neighbours leant out of top floor windows to shower down coins and we stood, mesmerised, watching and listening as they trailed through the village along the narrow cobbled streets.
The following afternoon as we walked our dogs around the surrounding hills we came across an old lady dressed all in black walking up the winding road back to the village, a two-foot pile of cabbage leaves tied to her head. We walked together for a while and with our combined Portuguese and Spanish abilities I discovered that she was 82. When I remarked on how fit she was she told me it was the mountain air that kept her strong and stopped in the middle of the road to do a sprightly little wiggle, arms and thick-fingered hard-working tanned hands outstretched, her face beaming.
As I look around I see people that are always striving for so much more: more belongings, more speed, more space, more likes, more filling-in-of-time and so many of us are always pondering as to if we – and our life – is enough.
It seemed to me during my time in a village that the map told me was the end of the road, that enough is that which keeps us sprightly, makes us smile, and it seems that perhaps it is found when the road reaches its final destination and we stop, look around and say: ‘this end of the road will do for me.’
In an olive grove in Extremadura, the winter sun warming my face, the Serins and Sparrows chirping around me, playfully darting from apple tree to persimmon to olive, the undulating velvety green hills in the distance… I sit, motionless.
Time drifts over me like air, thoughts come and go gently and I bask in the stillness of it all and yet, all-too-soon, I become aware that I am not doing anything, not even reading. I berate myself, inwardly battling with needing to do more than simply sit and yet reminding myself that I came here to sit. “Yes, Alice, you came here to meditate, practice yoga, study chakras and, ultimately, manifest your dreams for the coming year, remember?”
This ping-ponging of thought continues for a while as I acknowledge the enormity of recognising the need to shut down my everyday life for a while and I feel blessed that I have constructed my lifestyle in such a way that I can do this. Life can feel so loud, busy and overwhelming and yet so many of us solider on, forgetting what stillness feels like, forgetting what our inner voice sounds like. I don’t want to forget for I know that here – within – is where the truth lies and that if I let it spin away from me too fast and too far, I may never be able to grasp that truth back.
So, I continue to sit and I tell myself it’s OK to have a break, to have time to focus on me. I look around, soaking it all up, listening and dreaming, understanding that no day can ever be lost. That even these slow silent days that seem somehow self-indulgent, go towards many other days that are not, allowing us to be the best person we can be so that can happen.
It’s the lying back… it takes a while you see; to truly trust the sea. For me it happens slowly – inch-by-inch – that relaxing my body into salty water. As it gently laps against my face I am still aware of a tension in my neck, conscious that I am holding my head defiantly; resisting ultimate conclusion.
With a desire for harmony, first I stretch out my legs and watch my toes float up. Keeping my arms gently waving at my sides I stay there for a moment… half fighting, half giving over, knowing that I desperately want to surrender but never finding the right moment.
After a while I know it’s time and as I let my neck relax fully, all pressure releases and I float backwards into the water. My ears begin to fill; slowly at first and then in that final release – that ultimate giving over – completely, until there is a soft muffled pop and I am there: total and utter release, pure silence, serenity.
My body motionless, my arms still, I am aware only of the gentle water, the deep heartbeat of the sea. We are in unity… and I am free.
Floating there I know that in life too I must remember to trust more, let things flow over me, for it is futile to try and control destiny. I ponder about contentment being achieved only when we become totally and utterly unafraid of the giving over of ourselves.
We walk, and talk. About being wild, being female.
We talk about wonder and love and pain. About falling down, grasping our way back up again.
We talk about nature, bounty, beauty… strolling slowly, pausing when a point needs to be made more pressingly. Munching blackberries, squeezing sloes, marvelling at oaks, silver weed soft in my palm, thinking about pilgrims.
I walk barefoot through a soft field and remember a book I love, about what it means to be a true ‘Nature Girl’, “wild and free, completely unattached, except for a love of life, animals, nature and a few of the right kind of people” (Juliette de Bairacli Levy) and I know that she is one of those right kinds of people.
Sometimes there are no photos; only words. Yet in a world that demands to see perfection created through endlessly compelling composition are words, anymore, enough?
Yet, can a photo really show you how the wind felt on my face ~ soft, airy and filled with fine grains of sand ~ as I sat against the grassy cliffs?
Can a photo tell you what I was thinking ~ freedom is to fly; to lose all sense of anything else around you and let this world we have constructed of noise, shopping trollies, bricks and wheels, fall away ~ as I tipped my head back to watch a white seagull soaring against a silent blue sky?
Can a photo really convey the look ~ sincere, compassionate, kind ~ as heartfelt words were shared, or how a hand felt ~ strong, safe, secure ~ within mine?
Can a beautiful photo of a beach, somewhere on the North Yorkshire Coastline, convey how it truly made me feel ~ humbled, centred, calmed, thankful?
There is no photo, there is no trace
for I left everything behind today
to simply lay
in the sand
and let my dreams take shape.
Silence. Stillness. Settling. A heaviness that, once you give yourself over to it, becomes lightness… Inside. And from that surrender there becomes a kind of freedom in the soul, as if there is no stone left unturned, no sense left unfelt, because you have allowed yourself time to delve deep, reach in, extract, and be true to yourself with what you do with that which you find.
“It is possible to feel as light as a gentle breeze,” I am reminded of when I am here.
I wake in the morning, the room darkened by wooden shutters. Opening them light streams in. There may be the odd rumble of someone going by below, probably to their allotment on the outskirts of the village, but otherwise there is no sound but birdsong, and my it is bliss.
My deepest fear was that this place I had reminisced about in the nine years since I left, would be changed somehow; would have lost its magic. When we first arrived and saw once again the desert landscape stretched out for miles around us, we wondered what had made us stay for five+ months. The scenery here can appear dusty and devoid of life and yet there is rawness, a realness that draws you in; there is a hunger to learn from those roots that can live so long without water.
In the absence of anything else to do we begin to walk ~ endless walking ~ and slowly I feel my heart releasing, easing, my thoughts starting to lace together into something coherent. We delight in the mountains changing each day… sometimes dry and uninviting, sometimes the deepest greens rolling like velvet, beckoning us towards them, sometimes even snowy tops. On other days a pale mist surrounds us hiding everything behind a white tinge… the olive leaves look frosted, the mountain tops hazy, and I find that I have fallen in love all over again.
There is no rush to the people here, they pass their time slowly and methodically, carrying out daily tasks with a relaxedness that I am envious of. In nine years it remains the same; tending olive trees, stopping for lunch perched on a stone, cutting greenery for animals, sharing a laugh or two. I remember with fondness the several old faces that have disappeared, but many remain the same and they smile and welcome us back with open arms and shining eyes and marvel at how our daughter has grown and at our dog; still with us, healthy and glossy (and now joined by another!).
I survey this place and say to myself that I must, once again, learn… and hang on to my observations for as long as I can. Wander slowly. Be more methodical and connected. Continue to nurture contentedness in simplicity… I arrived with a distance towards life, but I know I will leave with a deeper sense of closeness.
Pondering how our time here before also came at the beginning of a new adventure, having not long sold up our house in a city and given up a steady job to take our baby on the road in search of more freedom as a family, I wonder if this tiny timeless village in rural Andalucia will continue to call us back at important junctures. I hope so, because my love runs deep for this pocket of solace in a crazy world, for a landscape that encourages me to dig deeper within myself: to question, contemplate and ultimately… help discover our next chapter.
Words on Life
Here I simply share musings on my life of wandering, writing, home-educating & dreaming with my little family. Welcome and do please say hello!