When I was sixteen we lived in a rented house in the Gloucestershire countryside and I had fields, woodland and nature as my companions every weekend. For all the restrictions I may have had when it came to socializing with my peers, my parents always allowed me to roam across the fields providing they knew roughly where I was and when I would be back.
At the time I was going through a phase of reading survival magazines. Long before Ray Mears hit the popular consciousness or Bear Grylls inexplicably chewed off a snake’s head, I was fantasizing about the possibility of surviving from the earth and from my own wits. Then, one day, I had a sort of epiphany.
Six days a week, in the very early hours of the morning, come rain or shine, I would tramp around the village delivering papers to earn some pocket money. Occasionally some of this hard-earned cash would be spent on some publication that might aid my transportation from this world to another.
One weekend I picked up a copy of Trail Walker (now Trail Magazine). It was the first time I had done so. In it there was an article that I would re-read many times. The article covered a long distance walk through the Yukon.
The article described a one thousand mile trek from Alaska, in the footsteps of gold rushers along the Chilkoot Trail, and through the vast wilderness of the Yukon. It opened up a new world to me. For some reason it captured my imagination and I quickly abandoned my dreams of building shelters and took to the idea of carrying one on my back. I saved up to buy a "base layer" (as soon as I learnt the phrase). I got a sleeping bag from the charity shop where my mother worked, I bought a 40+ litre rucksack, I used to pack it in my room even though I was going nowhere, breathlessly, stuffing anything in just to fill it.
At the weekend I would go out alone, along the fields of sticky soil, across the sheep-cropped meadow, into the serenity of a beech wood or ducking into the dense pine woods to imagine myself in some vast and wild space. A greater contrast to the stupidity of the school playground there couldn't be. I would spend half a day imagining myself walking through some endless North American wilderness or some thick Scandinavian forest. Frequently I would romp across the fields with a full pack on my back, "testing" myself, even though I would be home for lunch.
The idea of being in such a wild place as was described in this article spurred me to convince my mother it would be a good idea for me to pitch a tent in the garden when snow was forecast. Under a couple of small pine trees, I erected a cheap khaki green ridge tent, shoved inside my second-hand military cotton-covered, down-filled sleeping bag and settled in. An owl hooted. I was in the wilderness. Half way through the night the canopy collapsed under the weight of snow. I like to think I remained there, layered up but shivering in a wet sleeping bag but I know myself and it is just as likely that I crept back to the comfort of my bed.
It was around then that it dawned on me I was just a couple of years away from independence, and the possibility of actually roaming the mountains to do as I pleased loomed large. I am sorry to say that my self-belief was not enough to think I could actually embark on some long distance walk. I am sorry because it is something that would have suited me and probably would have shaped me differently as a human, but nevertheless this Yukon article had woken me up. I would visit the alps for a few summers after my eighteenth birthday, but this time with my own agenda of exploring them on foot and with a tent.
When I was about twenty years old it was the memory of this article that led me to buy a Lowe Alpine bum bag as a supplement to my rucksack, to house items I might need to access more frequently. Nevermind the added weight, or the fact that I was normally only out for three nights. I had seen one man do it.
Sadly I have long since lost the copy of the magazine but I still remember the photos that accompanied the article. Photos that sadly do not appear in Walking the Yukon; A Solo Trek Through the Land of Beyond, the book of this trip, which I recently re-read. Across the years in which I discovered the true joys of being in the mountains and in which I then slowly abandoned the outdoors and drove myself into the ground with work, I never forgot the name of the author of that article.
Last week, on the wintriest of Scottish days and a mere twenty-six years or so after encountering the name, I had the pleasure to spend a day walking with Chris Townsend, author of more than twenty books, a man with a passion for wilderness and mountains and a history of long distance walks, including one particularly memorable one in the Yukon, which inspired me many years ago!
To most in the outdoor community the name of Chris Townsend is well known and highly respected. I have only recently come into the welcoming arms of this friendly and supportive community and I come from harsher climes so it was a joy and an education for myself (and my two closest friends; Dave and Dan) to spend time with someone so approachable and humble, someone I have remembered and revered over the years, even when I didn’t follow his trails.
We met in the Mountain Café in Aviemore and Chris briefed us on the options, given the inclement weather. We bowed to our guide's advice and embarked on the Meall a'Buachaille Circuit; a good introduction to those new to the Cairngorms, so they say. On this day, above the forest, it felt like a windswept arctic tundra, rucksack straps rapping like a machine gun as snow and hail relentlessly pelted our stinging faces. Well, I wanted more excitement didn't I?
Dave, Dan and I tried to remember the questions we had compiled the night before over a few beers, a bottle of wine and the obligatory dram - questions we had vowed to ask Chris the following day. I am not sure I did a great job of it, consumed as I was by the unfolding adventure and a starry-eyed glee at being where I was. For a start a good portion of the walk was in silence as we huffed and puffed our way up the mountain, buffeted by wind and sinking into the deepening snow.
But when the weather allowed, in the lee of a slope or the calm of the woods, Chris chatted freely and happily about his life and travels, sharing the knowledge he has gained through years spent communing with nature, and experiencing various types of wilderness from the Himalayas to the Sierra Nevada, and most recently in the waterless wastes of Death Valley.
From his memories of trip planning in the pre-internet age to his advice on carrying water in the desert he spoke eloquently of what he has learned, which seem to have been garnered not just from trial and error but also from a humility that ensures he listens to his surroundings, to his body and the rhythms of nature. This constant learning has enabled him to get where he is today; his passion remains his work after all this time. And this is perhaps the greatest lesson for me as I try to redesign my life.
So as Chris spoke we grinned and we listened. I was still grinning hours later having parted company and as the glasses built up on our candle-lit table in the Old Bridge Inn. They say you should never meet your heroes. "They" are talking rubbish.