David Charles is a writer fully committed to living an adventurous travelling life with a twist: no aeroplanes. Far from shrinking his horizons, No Aeroplanes has inspired David to travel more and with much greater imagination. In his latest book, David examines the creative phenomenon of such positive constraints, giving up not only aeroplanes, but also mobile phones, money, English and even walking. “You Are What You Don’t” examines the psychology of why we do what we do and how we might get more out of life by trying something different.
I’ve shuttled many times between Cholsey and Heathrow, en route to many of the 77 aeroplane flights that I’ve taken in my lifetime. I’ve made the journey by car, train and bus, but never on foot. So I leave behind Terminal 5 and all the Christmas travellers who are leaving Britain behind. By the time I get to Cholsey, they will already be settling around the family table in Los Angeles or Hong Kong.
Ahead of me is thirteen and a half hours of trudging, tramping, traipsing, 38 miles of country lanes, paths and bridleways, foxes, crows and cranes, sunlight to starlight. All of that could be skimmed over in just four flying minutes. I used to spend longer fiddling with my seat belt.
Those 38 miles were the beginning of my experiments with No Aeroplane travel. I never imagined those experiments would become a psychogeographic exploration that ended with me walking into a transcendental state of awe.
Awe is described by psychologists Keltner and Haidt as being “in the upper reaches of pleasure and on the boundary of fear”. We feel awe when we encounter something so strikingly vast or complex that it forces us to change our understanding of the world – and sometimes the course of our entire lives.
I have had awesome experiences before, of course: cycling to the Sahara, the birth of my niece, climbing Ben Nevis, the death of my grandmother. I just wasn’t expecting it to happen in the middle of a deciduous copse in Hampshire, during a hundred mile walk to Winchester.
By this point, I had been walking for two days straight, mostly in the dark because midwinter happens mostly in the dark. I couldn’t see where I was stumbling and there were no signs to follow, only the dimly scuffed path, trodden clear by hundreds of years of rambling footsteps.
Then, out of nowhere, I felt for a moment that there was nothing between me and the path beneath my feet, the trees brushing past and the stars looking down. In that split second, I could not distinguish myself from the rest of the universe.
I stopped in my tracks and revelled in the feeling of awe that enveloped me.
I should say now that I’m not normally the spiritual type, I hadn’t taken any LSD and nor had I flown thousands of miles to visit some mystical ancient monument from a tourist brochure. I was just walking through Hampshire.
You Become the Path You Walk
When I first made a commitment to No Aeroplanes, in the summer of 2010, I was expecting to travel less, not more. How wrong I was. In the last five years, I’ve cycled thousands of miles around Britain and Tunisia; hitch-hiked to Scotland and through France; sailed the Jurassic coast and, of course, taken my three Christmas pilgrimages.
I was certainly not also expecting life-changing revelations. I’ll try to explain.
From your aeroplane seat you see the world from 35,000 feet; you’re skimming over the big picture. Walking, by contrast, grinds into your soul, step over step. By moving through a landscape with such implacable slowness, you have no choice but to forge a closer connection to nature and begin to understand your place in ecology, history and the universe.
Each step you take moves you one step closer to where you will end up. That much is obvious, but that step doesn’t take place in an inert geography: the landscape of the path exerts its influence on you too. I am now the man who walked to Winchester, with all that entails: muscles straining and strengthening, lungs drinking in the frozen air; mind soaring over a wide open sky.
In some small but significant way, you become the path you walk. The way that we do things becomes who we are. If we choose to use aeroplanes, then we must also realise that aeroplanes will influence who we are becoming. In all their A to B, 500mph, recycled air glory.
I’ll leave it up to you to think about whether that influence is, on balance, positive or negative, but I would urge you to also explore its opposite: No Aeroplanes. You literally don’t know where you will end up.
“You Are What You Don’t” is currently crowd funding with Unbound, the publisher where only you can make books happen. Pledge from £20 for a special first edition hardback. Plus: Until midnight GMT on Wednesday 4th November use the code AUTUMN15 at the checkout for a £10 discount.