I blame Trail. Or perhaps I blame Instagram. More and more people have more and more appetite for the outdoors. That is fabulous, of course. My social media feeds offer up ever more photographs of beautiful landscapes. But I have noticed a mindset that seems to be growing every year alongside this. The sensory bombardment of beautiful people doing beautiful things in beautiful places seems to dull the brain, even as it builds the appetite for adventure. Have you noticed, like me, that there are more and more pictures of fewer and fewer places? Everyone on the internet seems to be going to the same places and doing the same things. Adventure is becoming formulaic. (There are, of course, any number of people enjoying time in the mountains without caring a jot about social media, thank goodness.)
I have been pondering this phenomenon because I get a lot of emails from people asking ‘œwhere to go’. If I post a photograph online I know some of the comments will be asking the location. Years ago I consciously stopped mentioning place names on my blog. I do this partly out of worry about the detrimental impact of more and more people visting fragile places. But there is more to it than that. I once wrote a whole book of ideas for adventures without including a single map. The aim was to show that adventure is an attitude, and you can get it anywhere. Believing that you only have an adventure by heading for the Highlands will, for most of us, limit our adventure experiences to just a few outings a year. That is a shame.
Another downside of following adventure recipes is that one of the great joys in the hills are the moments of surprise. If I already know what a place looks like before I crest the ridge, I lose that pleasure. Even worse, because the online world is so carefully crafted and curated, I risk disappointment if the light is not quite as magical as my mind’s eye anticipated.
There is a pleasure in familiarity, in climbing the same mountain in all weathers and all seasons until you know it very well. Its unchanging constancy gives a way to measure yourself. The new details you notice on every ascent are a reminder of how enormous a single landscape is.
Yet, given a choice, I prefer newness. To climb a hill or follow a river that I have never seen before. It was the heady addiction of the horizon that lured me on for four lonely, hard, magical years cycling round the world.
But heading out without any research is an inefficient way of doing things. And I like being inspired by articles I have read or things I see online. By all means enjoy social media for your dose of vicarious adventure when you’re stuck in the office, or for whetting the appetite and getting you reaching for the atlas. But resist the temptation to copy what other people have done. Remember the satisfaction of researching and planning your own adventures, not just ticking off the same experience someone else has had. And, above all, adapt everything to your own situation. Wherever you live you can find wilderness and beauty, and as much challenge or peace as you are after. When people ask for specific routes that they can follow, I sense that my answer of ‘œjust go’ is not what they want to hear. They are after grid references and recipes. But I urge you to use your imagination, and try something new. Think differently and laterally about how you plan an adventure. The ‘œjust go’ response is important and simple and true. Adventure is only an attitude, and you can find that anywhere.
So why not try something new this month, shake up your hill routine a little bit? Add a wild swim to your walk. If you normally like to be alone, head out with a friend. Or vice versa. If you’re a day hiker, add in a high wild camp. If you’re a sworn walker, go for a bike ride. You might be surprised how different it all feels when you approach your adventures with a different mindset.
Finally, look out for the budding of the first oak leaves. Pick one that you see every day, and make a conscious effort to pay more attention to it over the course of a year. I began doing this a few years ago with a lovely swamp red oak that towers over my garden and have really enjoyed my heightened awareness of the passing of the seasons.
This piece originally appeared in Trail Magazine.