On Monday, for the first time in four months I was able to go somewhere besides my local walks.
Those local walking paths have served me well during lockdown. I got the fresh air, some space, daily processing of all the thoughts. But I missed the freedom to get in the car and go far away - far, far away with the silence of the everlasting hills, to get more space for my head.
My head comes with me on the walks, of course, but when I get out into the vastness, it’s like all the swirling thoughts within my head are set free. They can roam for miles and miles, soaring away above the mountains while I walk, before they return refreshed, to settle more wisely back in my head.
Instead of crowding. Pushing. Stirring each other up. Leaving me feeling heavy and confused and struggling.
The very fact of driving many miles, and walking many miles, and going up hill and down dale and through water, helps me FEEL like I’m getting some distance. I didn’t realise until lockdown how much the physical space helps process what’s in my head.
So I went to my favourite place on the mainland, Glenfinnan. It sits in a valley surrounded by hills, the steam train goes chugging along the viaduct (the ‘harry potter bridge’), and to me it feels like all the beauty of the Isle of Mull but without having to take a ferry to get there.
It’s normally crowded in summer. The ‘Harry Potter bridge’ draws hundreds of thousands of people from all over the world. I get that, of course. If I didn’t live nearby I’d want to visit it too - and I love taking friends here. But it gets really, really crowded with the classic ‘tourist’. Big buses, people pouring out with cameras and ill-chosen shoes, constant chatter, so much noise. Hurrying. Rushing to the bridge, taking a few photos, climbing a little ways to get the better view, hurrying back.
The defining characteristic of the tourist is hurry. “The tourist sees what he has come to see; the traveler sees what he sees.” (GK Chesterton)
I don’t mind all the visitors - and I love knowing this place well enough to have some idea of when to go (even in busy times) so there are fewer people. Early in the morning, or on a day when bad weather is predicted.
When the five-mile restriction was lifted last week (for the last four months we’ve not been allowed to go further than five miles from our home, except for work, emergency or medical reasons), I knew just where I wanted to go. And I hoped for some space - for my head, and all around me. Maybe a few travelers like me, but not too many tourists, I hoped.
So I woke up early on Monday. Left the house by 5am and was in Glenfinnan by 8am. It was glorious. Blue skies, white clouds, slight breeze, green everywhere.
And no one but me.
This is rare anytime - I even passed a number of people there on a snowy day in January - but in July it’s almost unimaginable. I stopped to chat to a man who works on the estate, and then after that I didn’t see a single human soul for six more hours. I walked, and walked, and walked. I climbed. I crossed the river, many times. I sat and looked out. I stared into the sky. I watched little flitting birds chirp and twirl, and watched big soaring birds move slowly and with great wingspan.
And my thoughts did what they do when set free: they did their own thing while I did mine.
I felt like I didn’t “process” anything massively. Just walked, and let the thoughts go in, and out. Sit, and move. Whatever they wanted.
And yet when I got home, I found myself moving forward with some things I’d been thinking about for a long time. I’d been considering them, doing small steps, having conversations and sending texts and processing, but they sort of...came together. Like arranging to watch my adopted niece once a month, rather than randomly, because I want to be intentional about family and arrange my time around people instead of trying to fit them round my work and life. Like getting an appointment with the kitchen company to help me see the options to sort out my wonky cupboards and countertops, which I’ve been meaning to do for ages.
None of it was a sudden decision or a big realisation of any kind. I just walked, and thought, and sometimes didn’t really think much at all. But the pieces were coming together.
When I got home, and walked in the front door and dropped my backpack and all my walking accoutrements and moved into the kitchen, I thought “I feel really tall”.
I thought it was because I was still wearing my hiking boots, but they’re not actually that high. Not so significantly that I’d feel taller than I’ve felt in months.
Then I realised I’d spent the whole day in so much space, with me so tiny within it. Soaring mountains and rolling hills, pounding waterfalls and huge boulders. Seeing birds flying far, far above me and realising they must be absolutely massive if i can see them and their extended wingspan even from miles below. (I genuinely think they may have been eagles, but I’m not too up on types of birds.)
Coming back into the house my head was so close to the ceiling, comparatively. The ceiling of the sky doesn’t feel like a ceiling at all, because it doesn’t restrict. It just keeps going.
I’m aware reading this could be hard, if you haven’t been able to get to your favourite place yet - whether it’s a wide open space or a normally crowded space you quite enjoy. Everyone’s lockdowns are different, and they open and close, start and stop. I loved being able to get to Glenfinnan, but I’ve got newfound appreciation for the fact that this isn’t guaranteed, anymore. Restrictions are a part of our life right now, and holding plans with an open hand.
Yes, the places we love - and even need - are right there waiting for us when we can get back to them.
Especially the wide open spaces of creation: to them, four months is nothing. The plants grow and the water rushes (or danders) and the clouds move and the hills stand, and I imagine in all their patience they didn’t really notice I wasn’t there.
But people do notice.
My little niece is growing and standing and smiling and babbling, and whether she realises it or not, she notices when I’m around, and when I’m not. My nephews in the States were crushed to find out my flights in September were cancelled. My time in the quiet of the hills wouldn’t be much use to me if I came home to a world with no people in it. With thoughts that just swirl and never land anywhere.
Without actions to take and things to do and ways to live out what’s in my head.
We need both.
We need the rest and the quiet spaces - and we need the people and the community. Both have been restricted, and both restrictions are starting to lift.
Maybe, when I go to these quiet places I’m not escaping people and community and noise and movement and work.
I’m just getting the head space to put all the thinking about them in their proper places.