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the path

Many attempts to better oneself, or some part of oneself have been called ‘a path’, or even ‘the path’.

I wonder if these metaphorical paths started as real paths, a real way you had to follow to get somewhere. A test which, among other things, involved walking.

Over the years attention has congregated around the rewards of following such and such a path. So much has been said or written about these religious paths that the original impulse has, perhaps, been overlooked.

Instead of looking at metaphorical paths why not walk real ones?

Ordinary paths go somewhere, or promise to. Some paths are straight, others windy. But when you are on the right path it is always straight, so to speak. The best paths, from a walker’s point of view, neither rise nor fall but follow a ridge line or, even better, the side of a long ridge, so that one has uninterrupted views of the valley below but do not have to pay for them by strenuous climbing or getting blown about on a ridge line. A high path, straight, but not straight up.

You can make up your own route. I’ve done this a few times- in the desert it’s easy- just point and walk. In the country in Britain or France you can cobble together a likely route by linking up paths, tracks and roads. But often it’s more fun, and certainly easier, to follow a set path- a national long distance route or a Grande Randonnee.

The adventurer in me is troubled by this, or used to be. Surely following the packaged route is a cop out, less of an adventure? Maybe. But following the designated route is a path, a bona fide path and therefore a pilgrim’s route of sorts.

For a start you can plan your days, work out your miles and likely stopping places. They’ll be sign posts so you won’t be nose in map the whole time, which always means you see less. They’ll be other walkers to meet and swap notes and stories with. Because of the ease of route following you can drop down a gear in vigilence and go into the deep meditative state that allows you to solve problems in depth, think things through without a hitch. Wordsworth used to prefer tracks to rough ground for walking because he could think up poetry so much better when he didn’t need to watch every footstep. Something similar is true of the long distance path.

It isn’t always obvious which is the right path to walk, the right one for you. It might be something well known that you have always wanted to do like the Pennine Way or the South West Coastal path. For me a strong attraction was the chance to walk through places I had been to as a child. The path as perspective on personal history.

Of course it’s nice to see wonderful views, they are a bonus, guaranteed usually on a well known walk. Wildlife too is always welcome. But making the miles is more important than either. That doesn’t mean one has to be in a rush. You can go as slowly as you like, but you have to make the miles. Otherwise you’re not paying your way, you’re just strolling, a civilian not a pilgrim. Making the miles means you aren’t just consuming the countryside. It’s a ritual like praying at certain times of the day. The ritual defines the day and leaves holes for other stuff, important stuff.

Carrying your own gear and food seems important too. I was not surprised to discover that the marathon des sables insists on each runner carrying his sleeping bag, clothes and food for six days- but not water. It’s a race so why impose this extra weight? I think because this desert marathon is also a kind of rite of passage, a pilgrimage of sorts and pilgrims carry their simplified life with them, on their back like a tortoise’s shell.

Walking the path is about simplifying life so much that things you don’t usually notice have a chance to break through. You create enough silence, shut down enough static, that, over a sustained period, you begin to relax deeply, go with the flow, the flow of the path.

It isn’t just about living in the present either- though that is always very welcome. Somehow, while walking day after day, one’s sense of the future also becomes expanded. One has the leisure to make endless plans. And our sense of the past is expanded too, lots of time to digest things that happened to us, put them in perspective- nothing ever seems so pressing and overwhelming while walking.

When we expand our sense of past, present and future, time slows down- psychological time. We no longer feel life is rushing past. And when it is over you’ll remember the days or weeks of that walk for the rest of your life.

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