Picture by P K Nirvana (creative commons)
This was the very first question that I asked the internet girlfriend I’d not yet met and who would, eventually, become my wife. She replied ‘Journey’, without thinking. That was ten years ago and her answer seems even more relevant now. The longer we live, the more time we have to think about our purpose on Earth and the greater the opportunities evolve to document our every move. With this in mind, it seems increasingly important how we do things rather than what we achieve.
The developed world enjoys fantastic standards of living. In Scotland, tap-ready drinking water largely keeps within the hundredth percentile when monitored for 46 pathogens. Meanwhile, the Power Track app will inform you of electricity outages down to postcode level and, whenever you’re ill or injured, you have a 95% chance of being seen by A&E within the NHS target of four hours. There’s just no comparison to equivalent services in sub-Saharan Africa now or in Britain two hundred years ago before the start of welfare movements.
So what? Well, I argue that it’s actually a big deal that almost all risk of harm in day-to-day living has been taken away. First, as a people, it becomes harder to take responsibility for our own actions when we can point to the measurable failing standards of others. Second, the expectation and reality that we’ll be germ-free and spared from inadequate services weaken our natural resistance and adaptability. Third, a growing disconnection with nature impairs our spiritual health. It’s this, or rather the point that a reconnection can help us significantly, that I will expand on today.
Let’s go back to the opening question in the context of my subject, the Outdoors. Destinations are physical points: humans do not have to be involved. Journeys are different. They require effort and the adoption of responsibility because doing anything with your time and energy outside your comfort area represents a risk. We have to be creative and push ourselves physically when something doesn’t go to plan. Finally, they let us work with new environments that can be artificial, natural or a mixture of both. We are led by them and they change us.
I’ve done lots of journeys – overland by bus and train to Kyrgyzstan and back, across the Alps on a push bike, trekking through British Columbia’s bear country, not to mention the hundreds of days climbing in Europe or hill running in Scotland. Like Paulo Coelho’s Santiago in The Alchemist, on each of my travels I learned something new about myself and the world. On one jaunt in the Highlands, I started to see the similarity between rocks and people. Sedimentary strata such as sandstone were like those who consolidated their lives quietly; volcanic granite reminded me of entrepreneurs with explosive genius. And my mind began to fill in the gaps with everything else. Yes, I was starting to spend too much time on my own…
One of the greatest uses for the outdoor journey is its power to change. I’d like to mention my favourite charity, featured in The Scotsman last week and recently shortlisted for a national award.
Venture Trust concerns itself with giving disadvantaged young people skills and confidence, offering programmes for carers, ex-offenders and those affected by drugs or abuse. The centrepiece for most participants is a journey in the Highlands, but there are prior activities, such as outreach referral and getting to know others on the course before it starts. There’s also follow-up to consolidate development and celebrate achievements. It’s a formula that works and is replicated by other charities in the UK as well as overseas. In some models, counselling is conducted en route, parked for certain times of the day or left out completely.
These initiatives develop, motivate and integrate participants far beyond what might be expected. They don’t have to be long nor halfway around the world. From conversations with Venture Trust and other organisations, it’s the reactions of participants that make it worthwhile for staff, with comments like ‘I’ve started to believe in myself’ or ‘Now I don’t feel so scared’. There’s a strong moral case that our society should guide everyone to become the best they can. Meanwhile, the thick-skinned can look at the costs of those who slip through the net: the rounded-down per annum overhead for an unemployed person is £15,000 (Euractiv.com); for those in jail it’s £32,000 (SPS.gov.uk); and for those needing permanent care the bill is a staggering £125,000 (Fassit.co.uk). I’m not arguing that everyone can be helped by an outdoor journey, or that all career advisors, prison wardens and social officers must switch trades, but that a bit more prevention might help us all.
To me, there are three reasons why outdoor journeys work for those with chaotic histories. The first is that journeys are very deep, sensory and symbolic because they challenge through situations of perceived risk in unusual environments and deposit you in a new physical place. These combine to develop creativity, resilience and the sense of achievement as small hurdles are presented, deliberated and overcome. The second is that times are shared with others with similar misgivings and guided by significant others. There’s a reinforcement of positive behaviours that resonate sharply in a small group. The third is that these journeys are done in nature. Not only are the limiting classroom walls removed, but the Outdoors never judges on appearance or background because its laws are those of physics, biology, chemistry, geography and maths. They are blind. Instead, the Outdoors demands respect and will punish everyone equally. The table is suddenly level for people who’ve been dealt rotten cards all their lives.
Although previous personal difficulties won’t go away, an experience like this creates a powerful positive memory that can help dull or put into perspective past traumas. The more this is repeated, the greater the potential for change. On the first such journey for some, it might feel like the only situation where something has gone right for them, their only success, the only time they’ve been praised. It offers hope. So, if ever I ask the question, whether it’s more important how you travel to where you’re going, rather than the place itself, I hope you’ll also pick journey, every time. You might just get to your destination without noticing.
Nick Williams may be known best for his Pocket Mountains guides to the Highlands and Islands, but he has also trained as a mountaineering instructor and has thirty years of experience climbing all over the world. He organised the first international expedition to post-Soviet Kazakhstan and written a memoir, Jagged Red Line, which describes adventure and trauma in the Caucasus. In his professional life, Nick works in corporate communications and information strategy. He speaks French, Mandarin and Russian.