As that ‘big birthday’ loomed I began to dread reaching 50. Mass media has created a new category of ‘the over 50s’ and I was just about to join that club. What would happen to me and how did I get to be that old?
My friends and I were determined not to be put in a box of being ‘older women’ without some sort of protest. We decided face our ‘later life’ head on with a personal challenge.
Reasonably fit and with a shared love of the countryside we were up for a good walk and were inspired to walk the Coast to Coast trail. Wainwrights famous 187 mile route starts from St Bees in Cumbria and takes you across the Lakeland fells, the Yorkshire dales and the North Yorkshire moors to end up in Robin Hoods Bay. The tradition is to take a pebble with you as you leave the beach at St Bees and throw it triumphantly into the sea when you reach your destination.
The journey seemed to symbolise how we felt about life at 50; leaving behind something beautiful but taking a part of it with us as we moved towards new horizons. And, just like moving towards retirement we often found that there was no clear path to follow and we got lost along the way, taking interesting but rather pointless diversions!
If, like me, you have previously only walked those neat circular routes that you find in walking books and magazines why not step out on a long distance path. There is something very special about moving forward everyday towards a new destination. With your route planned out, accommodation booked and a timescale to follow, there is no option but to get up and out each morning and walk. Whatever the weather, whatever your mood you need to keep carrying on. So you see the drama of hills and fells shrouded in mist and smell the earthiness of sodden, muddy fields. It may sound weird but I think we can become a bit blinkered by only walking on a fine, bright dry day. Seeing the world differently is part of the joy of the journey. The only danger of ploughing steadily forward is forgetting to stop and look back occasionally. The view is different from this perspective and makes you realise just how far you have come.
Like seeing the landscape from a new perspective, you may discover things about yourself that you may not know too. When you set off after a restless night’s sleep with painful blisters and feeling decidedly grumpy with your fellow walkers you need to dig deep to find that special something that will motivate you to rise above adversity and make the day a success. For me that motivation comes from being part of the team and feeling the need to jolly other people along so that we all reach the destination. For each of my friends the trigger is different; maybe the desire to achieve a personal goal; a love of helping others or a determination to follow the detail of the plan despite everything.
Reflecting on those days when the sun shone and you feel on top of the world (sometimes quite literally as you scale mountains and high moors) also helped me think about what I love and enjoy most and how I can build more of these things into my later life plan.
The Coast to Coast is stunningly beautiful and crosses diverse landscapes: lakes and mountains, rivers and dales, heather moors and of course rugged coastlines. The walking route is busy and we met many other walkers along the way but you still have an immense sense of space and wilderness. Walking through landscapes that existed and adapted over millions of years certainly put my own life into perspective. The wonder of nature made me feel quite humble and more determined to make the most of my relatively short life on earth.
Human nature is also fascinating and spending 24-7 with your fellow walkers is a real lesson in team work. You may think you know your friends well but sharing a bunk bed and blister plasters will reveal new sides to your relationship. Wide open spaces and a sense of timeliness often lead to deep and meaningful conversations (particularly if you are a group of 4 women!). We reminisced about old times; ranted about what makes us frustrated; cried about what makes us sad and shared our wildest and silliest dreams for the future. If you want silence and solitude then walk alone!
A long distance path helps you take time out from normal life; you will be miles away from towns and traffic and the pace of life slows to a few miles an hour. It is a great opportunity to reflect and discover new things about yourself and the world.
I expected that by the time I reached Robin Hoods Bay I would have my ‘later life plan’ all mapped out. My Coast to Coast experience did give me time out to reflect, to understand myself a little better and put into perspective my angst about reaching 50. If nothing else I’ve proved that this ageing body can walk nearly 200 miles up hill and down dale! But perhaps the most important thing I learned is that there doesn’t need to be a big plan.
Life on the Coast to Coast path happens every day. The act of planning, preparing, working together and dealing with what the day brings is totally absorbing, both physically and mentally. Making each day enjoyable and rewarding is about knowing what makes you tick and finding ways to use your talents and express yourself.
There are amazing long distance walking trails all over Europe with different levels of challenge. Put on your walking boots and go explore….