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.
A decade gone, a new one to begin and somehow it feels far more momentous than I had even really given thought to… to look back over ten years and think ‘what has it all been about; what will it all be about’ is quite something and it feels important to note down where I went, what I felt.
I remember back to the start of 2010 when, after returning from travels we sought to find a new way of living in the UK. We bought our first boat, renovated it and lived on the fringes glowing in the happiness that was discovering a world within a world. It was the year I first explored my local home-ed community, taking my then three-year-old daughter to a meet up where teenagers and toddlers played together, sloshing around in a muddy pond, talking with passion and liveliness and I thought, ‘we could do this’. We travelled to Norway to stay in a remote cabin with a four hour round walk to the shop, we camped our way through Germany, Belgium and The Netherlands. We spent sunny afternoons lounging on the towpath and the coldest winter I can remember, frozen in from November to January with no water and just the sound of ice cracking around our beds.
2011 was the year that felt tightened, where we bought a camper for trips around England to temper my flighty spirit. I tried hard to stay put and for a while it was important and necessary, to care for my best friend, but once she was better the familiar flutterings couldn’t be tamed and by the beginning of 2012 I was driving to Italy with my daughter to volunteer on a farm in the Appenine Mountains. It was here that I first began to explore my journey from vegetarian to vegan as I saw things up close and personal. It was here that I knew I simply couldn’t settle for just one kind of life.
In 2013, with a need to get away, to switch off, to inspire myself, I turned to my husband and said ‘I want to ask my Dad to go on a trip with me’ and he replied, ‘then do it, you might not get another opportunity’ and when I now look at my aging parents, I understand the preciousness of that experience. Me, my six-year-old daughter and my 74-year-old Dad, a plane to the bottom of Spain and a journey across and up by train and bus into Portugal… Notebooks filled with scribbles about life and loss and love and all that good stuff that is the fabric of a person that if we don’t write it down now, will unravel and be lost forever.
That trip led to the taking off once again of a family in a van… we travelled the UK, we travelled south: to beaches and forests, mountains and olive groves. We lived in a cabin near Carcassonne until we realised that for our daughter, it wasn’t enough and so 2014 became a tale of two halves… of trying to balance a life between another boat in the UK to suit her needs and the open road to suit all of us. It was driving north to south and back again, it was sleeping in our car in the Pyrenees, it was travelling by boat from Milton Keynes to Wales and back again, it was dusty tracks and watery roads, it was the nurturing of friendships and the blossoming of hearts.
By 2015 we had found a place to rest in Portugal - our quiet quinta - and so we continued the back and forth never knowing quite where we belonged or if we even needed to. It was chestnuts and horseriding, wild Welsh beaches and cityscapes, cooking on fires, here there and everywhere and then it was the longing for water again and by 2016 we were travelling from North to South on a narrowboat that had once been a floating hotel, to re-connect with our own country, our own people. Ourselves.
2017 saw more camper travels but hiccups and drama meant tiredness and apathy for our wandering life – it seemed the road was against us at every turn and the exhaustion pulled us down. We sold our dream in Portugal, breathed deeply in Andalusia at a place that is so special to us it’s hard to put into words and than in 2018 we ran back to lick our wounds in the UK close to those who needed us; and whom we felt we needed. The North York Moors became my blank page, where I could walk barefoot and write out endless sentences in my head without a soul to cloud those words. Where I could explore the meaning of family, the meaning of rootedness, the meaning of home.
2019… well, that’s just been about the journey within. It’s been – without my even realising it – the launch pad to a new decade. It’s the year I focused on yoga and healing whilst friend-hopping around Spain and Portugal with my daughter. The year I finally lived in the Scottish Highlands and it's the year we took a few months out in (another!) motorhome to recover from personal summer struggles and health issues, seeking out old friends and sharing many healing meals around many tables. It's the year we stumbled upon an amazing community in Portugal, a place we see ourselves going back to, but overall, 2019 has been the year that I made bigger decisions about my life, about who . I . really . am.
Sometimes you have to go to places you don’t want to, uncover truths that are painful, to make decisions about what you really need and so I’ve let people gently fall away from me this year and I’ve sought out those who I know nourish me, reaching out for their love, support and encouragement. I’ve realised that blood is not always thicker and that that’s OK.
I’ve realised that I am OK.
So a decade… what does it mean? I’ve lived in France, Wales, England, Portugal, Scotland, Spain; in boats, caravans, campervans, cabins, cottages, tents and houses. I’ve taken myself away to be quiet, to reconnect. I’ve been in the thick of it, laughing around tables, sharing food and conversation. I’ve watched the most bouncy, fun-loving happy little girl evolve into an-almost-teenager who has an untameable spirit and an unstoppable passion that I know I helped ignite and I’ve never felt more proud of anything in my life. The dog that turned four in 2010 is now almost 14 and that makes me sad, but also incredibly lucky and of course, I’ve become Mum to another little pooch, sent to shake things up a bit I reckon. I’ve realised that I can commit, to a man I have loved for 16 years and that; THAT is home.
I’ve laughed, I’ve cried, I’ve screamed, I’ve fallen down, I’ve got back up again and I’ve FELT the beating heart of life all around me.
Some might say I’m scatty, unable to stick at anything, lost or just plain confused. I say I’m living. I’m just trying to find my way and when I sit here now; writing, reflecting, I think – how could it ever be any other way? There is a world out there. There are people just waiting to be met, experiences to be lived. How can I not have a hunger for it?
And so, 2020 is about clear vision. It’s about more adventures and whilst I can see what I’m aiming for with clear intentions, I’m not naïve enough to think I won’t be pulled off track along the way. And that’s OK… it’s all OK… because if I can reach 2030 with as much to look back on, as many smiles to re-live, as many great people to call my friends and with a continued openness to new ideas and willingness to work on myself, then I’ll take it.
Wishing anyone reading this a wonderful 2020 filled with amazing adventures and healing energies. May you have the strength to take leaps of faith, to try things and not worry about if they don't work out, because they ALWAYS work out as they should in the end. And may you believe in yourself, know that you are amazing and good enough for whatever it is you want to be or do.
May 2020 be the year we all strive for that which is important to us, without fear of anything at all.
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.
The rumble of noise dissipates. Bright lights, the seduction of all you are told you want or need spinning around; finally trails away. For a moment – in that moment – I had become briefly blinded as to how life can be but now, now the window is rolled down and the night air is warm.
I tip my face to the stars as our little rental car climbs and climbs and I realise that I am free again; that I can breathe again. I am aware that my lungs, recently so constricted with anxiousness, are instead open and infused with the scent of pine and eucalyptus. My ears, dulled by the din of expectation, are now alive with the sound of cicadas.
We arrive in the dark, following our host down a long and dusty track flanked by shadowy hills and grapevines and there is something unbelievably sweet about not knowing exactly what is out there, trusting only in our non-seeing senses.
Outside this simple home on a ranch in Catalonia we play cards and lounge on the swing chair until the early morning hours and those senses tell me to remember that this is how life can be and deep in my heart, I know that I have been away too long.
Wandering = Movement = Freedom. It is a stretching of limbs, and of mind. It is never standing still for long and yet, standing still long enough to breathe. Mountain, moorland, coast, forest, meadow… walkways, waterways, roadways; the life of a wanderer is a perpetual anticipation of next steps and new adventures.
Perhaps the attraction is in the new? The erasement of that which you do not want to remember because you find yourself lost in the absolute freshness of possibility. It is a running away; a running to, and I have a hunger for that lightness of step – that release – that comes, both physically and mentally.
The wandering life is lived deliciously simply, out of a bag… once upon a time (for me) on foot, but as a family: in a van, cabin, boat, cottage, caravan… shared houses; shared spaces – so many places and people found, so many adventures that have grown within us like a patchwork quilt and so many experiences we are endlessly glad for and yet, like any life there are periods of unrest… the flailing about on an unknown path without destination, the night-time awakenings given over to creatively developing ways to sustain such a lifestyle and then there are the waves of uncertainty, wondering whether the wandering life still works for the whole family.
On a practical level, living from here to there brings challenges… there is water to be collected, waste to be disposed of, laundry to be done with cold red hands – either from hand-washing or dragging a bag to the laundrette in mid-winter. Food must be prepared and cooked in tiny spaces and higgledy piggledy places while crafts, projects and colouring are limited and put out or put away to accommodate. Beds are endlessly made up and down whilst stepping over dogs – and each other. Pans and kettles are boiled for washing up… and washes, for showers can be taken only when there is enough solar power. There is paperwork in foreign countries; translations, invitations, conversations… a combination of sometimes wonderful, sometimes tiring things, because the tiny little incidentals can loom large when you’re out of your comfort zone… and there is the endless packing up and unpacking; forever losing and finding.
For ten years now as a family we have wandered. Sometimes standing still, but never for too long and for any hardship this life has presented, there have been more than enough joys to balance it out. For every irritation such as living without running water for weeks on end because the canal has frozen, there has been felt a sense of accomplishment for being independent and resourceful. For every night spent uncomfortable, tired and lost on the road, there have been ten heart-stoppingly beautiful stopovers that remind you why you do what you do. For every anxiety arising from living in a different country there has been a cultivation of pioneering spirit and a warmth from locals that restores your faith in human nature… for every mean person, there have been five beautiful souls and for every frustrated word (or ten!) flying around our tiny spaces and big dreams, there has been nurtured a deeper love, admiration and respect.
However, recent months saw our path edging into a different space and it has taken a while for us to navigate this changing route, to acknowledge our collective desire to stop, root down for a while, maybe even think about belonging somewhere for a while, in our own country. We don’t know for how long we will need this, but we know that finding ourselves in a house nestled in a village between the sea and moors of North Yorkshire, feels right. We know that for a while, having some comforts and space feels as exciting as running away. We know that the connections our daughter yearns for at this stage in her life are valid and that being close to our extended family is important and we imagine (hope) that having such endless and boundless beauty on our doorstep where we can seek out plentiful micro-adventures, will allow us to weave these wandering hearts into our new chapter of standing still.
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.
We left the UK on our migration south in a plume of noise… I find there is an exhaustion in this world that eats away not just at the physical self, but at something deeper and by the time we rolled our campervan onto a train to take us under the sea, we were spent. Thus, the journey south began in an agitated manner; senses were heightened, hearts were unsettled but, as is usual on our road trips, in time the charged air between us all began to quieten and as our journey took us onto increasingly-empty roads, the reasons for our exhaustion began to slowly work their way out in our minds and through our mouths allowing tensions to finally ease.
To us the world can feel too fast; it demands of us to look, like and listen 24/7 and yet… how many of us actually hear? In all the rush things are left unnoticed, compassion seems in short supply and the nurturing of important relationships is often a pastime squashed into well-managed time slots. Then there is the traffic noise that permeates every moment – even sleep – as cars rush from a to b and trucks relay back and forth with all the food, toys and stuff we apparently need to survive and before we know it, the constant stream of noise begins to buzz relentlessly around the body.
Perhaps some get used to it, make friends with that nervous energy… but it seems impossible for us.
Some might say we run away; well yes, we do, for what else are you to do when you find yourself full to the brim with no space to receive? In order to live, to breathe, to love, to create, we need space to receive. And so I long for the road, long for the layers that begin to peel themselves away as our wheels roll, allowing me to, bit-by-bit, re-emerge, and here now in this small timeless village in the mountains of Spain where we will rest for a short while, I feel a warming of senses, the sweet release of decompression, and the ability to once again, begin to receive.
I guess we all have our way of breaking away, finding that place where we feel able to balance ourselves and return to zero,be it through walking, meditation, exercise, the sanctuary of our own home or a weekend health retreat… for us it takes the road and the discovering of places where life runs at a slower pace, to remind us of who we are and bring permission to indulge in our dreams once again.
Perhaps our dream for 2018 is that the road will take us to a place where we can once again sink our hands into earth, root down; find a more permanent place to run to and not from.
I guess we’ll see…
Wishing you all a peaceful year filled with love, adventure and the running to and from, as necessary.
I am sleeping (or not) in my car, which is parked up in France overlooking the Atlantic. Everything I need for three months is in the car with me and the feeling of freedom this thought brings elates me from deep within.
The waves are crashing in the background; that and the sound of my family breathing are all I am aware of. I can’t sleep, I’m thinking of a friend who is very poorly… there is nothing like possible death to quiet the mind, make you truly consider what really matters in these moments that we are blessed with breath; with the opportunity to be who we want to be, to do whatever it is we dream of.
In this moment I realise it is what I am: a wanderer, gypsy, traveller, nomad… a seeker of life, a keeper of all things important, but important things that I can collect as I move, things that only take up space in my heart. When you live a nomadic life the only roots you have are those friends and family who mean the world to you… but always you are rooted only through holding their hands. We are flailing on the wind, tethered to our hosts and we thank them for always letting us run free whilst keeping a thread of our bodies pinned to wherever they are on the earth.
Our travels across France tethered us to friends, made as a result of our wayfaring lifestyle. We chatted and let the chickens out, we ran around the 3 acres of garden, we walked to the river and all sat on a beautiful bridge draped in autumn leaves, listening to the rushing water and contemplating life. My daughter chatted non-stop to fellow travellers from Quebec and Argentina… others just passing through. We, all together, threw her a Halloween party with recycled get-up, sparklers and a bonfire. As she wandered through the darkened gardens lit only by the most incredible starlight seeking out hidden pumpkins to crack the Halloween code, her laughter rang out and I felt overwhelmed with joy for the life we live.
Our friends packed us off in the early morning with fresh kale and herbs from their gardens and before we settled down to slumber this evening in the shadow of the Pyrenees, we ate raw kale salad on paper plates rustled together in a car-park. This made me smile and I thought how our friends would smile too at our creativity.
And so now we are on our way to Spain. To dryer lands, bluer skies, olive trees, emptiness and space to breathe… as peaceful as my watery life is, everyday stuff can still take over and become exhausting and always the desire to drive away, to stop the ride, to re-connect, calls. A desire to chase the light perhaps? Or simply the desire for more space than narrow water brings: to expand, shrink, grow… be both loud and silent. Or perhaps it is simply the desire to wear my sandals again.
I am not sure, but I do know that whenever I am called to the road, to a new place, to a new adventure, it is a calling from deep within my heart and I have found that the heart is the scariest thing to listen to and yet, it is the most exhilarating and powerful way to live.
There I go again, thinking of that friend… thinking of life.
How do we want to LIVE? is perhaps a good question to all ask ourselves from time-to-time. Today I want to live like this, tomorrow may play a different tune but whatever, I will be sure to listen with a keen ear and an open heart.
In February 2022 I moved my blog to Substack. There you will find weekly writings (with audio option also), plus you can sign up to have them delivered direct to your inbox.
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