I have no idea what I need for an overnight stay or a day hike. I’m so used to having everything. I forget my toothbrush when I stay with old mates Dave and Poppy. I leave early, setting out for home on foot. The first time I’ve managed to move since I came back. I equate country lane with gravel road but the traffic is heavier than some sections of State Highway 1. I drop my phone. The camera lands on the corner of a stone. On the bounce I notice the damage. I carried it the length of a country, no trouble. My first outing at home, I’ve broken it. I pass through the village of Kingsclere, the jaunty angles of walls that have been in place for centuries. Brown of hatch, red of brick. The mast at Hannington is the tallest thing for days. The rolling hills of the Kingsclere Downs hardly climb at all. With the landscape this flat, I don’t need to get much altitude to see even further. From the ridge top of the chalk hills I would swear I could see the sea. The bright glow of light beneath the distant cloud. What else could it be? I begin to read of British adventures. Of following chalk streams, walking across chalk downs, witnessing those vast, mysterious chalk figures on the hillside. I day dream too, of crossing fields of green wheat, passing through sparse copses of narrow trunked trees. I gorge myself on Roger Deakin’s Waterlog, allowing ideas of adventure to lap over me. The navigations of the Rivers Test and Itchen make a reasonable loop of Hampshire from home. The tidal pull of the South West Coast Path gathers strength. The old trail seems to ask “where have you been, when are you coming back?”
I go for my first run in almost a year. I wasn’t sure how I would get on. Having walked the length of a country I was reasonably confident I could run 5km without stopping. I know the roads here, the footpaths. When one is closed I know how to get around. In this way, coming home is easy, comfortable. I don’t have to work at it; it is home. I finish with a sub-30 minute time and tell myself, “not bad.” Then I download a 10km training plan to my phone. Keep moving forward. The trouble with coming home is the familiarity, it’s all too comfortable, too easy. Going for a run after a year is easy. Putting together a job application after four years is less so. The desire to close the lid on my laptop, lie facedown and scream into a pillow is strong. I find I envy those trail friends who were able to slip back in to old lives, return to former employers as if they’d never been away. I sit and I work at elaborate verbs, actioning things I did but don’t remember. If only I could apply the confidence of a man who has walked the length of a country to something so far removed. Some days it feels like nothing has changed. 7 years since I last lived here. The past fitting neatly in the blink of an eye. A journey of less than half a year drawing further away, lost on the horizon of time. A whisper, a dream. Even when I could still reach out and touch it, Te Araroa didn’t feel real. People keep telling me this, whatever this is, is reality. So why doesn’t it feel like it?
The occasional crush of anxiety in my chest. Lungs failing. Let go. Take the time that needs to be taken, even though I want things to move faster. How long life takes is no longer up to me. I understand now why they make you wait until you’re over 60 to retire. Once you’ve had a taste of what life can be like without work, why would you want to give that up? I don’t have the luxury of choice. I have to resume the exchange of my time and effort for somebody else’s money. Especially if I’m to follow up on any of these slow-burning ideas of adventure. I’ve got other things to do too. The little money I have is being spent on trains. Dropping in, catching up. Seeing what has changed and what hasn’t. The pitter-patter of tiny feet, I’m thankful, belong to not quite kittens and still just puppies. A few new homes, those new pets, a couple of new partners. Nothing really is lost when anything at all is a gift. Life carries on. Nothing means anything. There is no scoreboard, prize, point for anything. Everything I do, something or nothing, is measured the same. Time passes. It would be helpful if I could start exchanging the tick of the clock for the clink of some coin.
I went from walking 30km a day to barely hitting that minimum threshold of 10,000 steps a day. Within 6 weeks of finishing I’d almost regained the weight I’d lost. There’s still muscle tone in my calves. More than anything I think about going for a walk. Not just around the block, or through the grounds of some local National Trust property. A proper walk. Multiple days. Big distances. When am I going to be able to go again? I explore the old streets and old footpaths. Cracked slabs of concrete. The spray of water from hosepipes drifts over garden fences. Pollen hangs in shafts of sunlight, like summer’s snow. The skins of vegetables crisp black over burning coals. A cheap pork sausage bubbles, threatening to burst. The scent of meat and onions rise on wafts of smoke. The empty blue sky fills with the smell of summer. The still air so hot, sweat pools in my hollows. The first heatwave of summer. Parched grass and hot nights. I think about planning my trip along the South Downs Way and immediately talk myself out of it. What’s the point in having a plan you can’t fulfil? My time is being spent on something else. I accept I have to try and enjoy however long I end up being unemployed for. Moving forward each day, making the most of it, just trying to feel good about it. Doing a little is always better than doing nothing. I might be disappointed to find I’m barely doing the bare minimum of walking but at least I can still do that. When I’m out of action for 8 hours or more a day I’ll start missing that 10,000 steps milestone as well.
Black skirts of rain curtain a seemingly infinite horizon. Hills only begin to bubble up around Leicester. The one thing that remains shocking to me in the UK is how flat the South is. There’s absolutely nothing for scale. I notice too, as the train pulls further North, the dialect shifts broken up by smatterings of European and other languages I can’t identify. The train is full. Only in this country have I found people be utterly confused by a reserved seat. Passengers shuffle as one says “excuse me, you’re in my seat.” Countryside flashes by. Golden wheat, green grass, hedgerows, stonewalls, and copses. Dark canals and murky rivers flow beneath bridges. This is the first time I have travelled any great distance by train. It would have taken as long to drive, and I would have had to drive. At least I wouldn’t have been subject to the tin rattle of someone else’s secondhand music. The only indicator of the train strikes are the occasional crowd as we depart a station of the Midlands. Further North yet and the rain draws closer. Of course it does. On the outskirts of Sheffield the countryside begins to break up. The promise of good times with old friends draws close. I can take another two days to forget about the future and enjoy the moment. I wait in the rain for Jon. I don’t remember what anyone drives. Did he sell his car in the end? It doesn’t matter. I can see him through the windscreen as he turns in to the drop off bay. We grab some burritos for dinner in the city and head back to his home, which has changed. Away from the Peak District, away from the centre. Jon is one who’s life has changed the most in the time I’ve been gone. In the time he was stuck indoors, he’s acquired a new girlfriend, a new home, a new job, and a dog. I join them all in the living room of their 19th Century town house and sink a few brews.
In the morning we walk Edith over the nearby nature reserve. The site of former coal mins. A place of poison returned to the wild. Back at home Edith and I bond over a blanket. I wrap it around her jaw and box her ears. She keeps coming back for more. Jon and I jump on the bus in to the city and on to church. Caroline runs a choir. The downside to choral music is that it tends to sound quite good in a church. I’m all the way out of my comfort zone. I jacked up Jesus hangs from a cross, muscles rippling in his suffering. Almost 10 women sing beneath him, not once mentioning him or his cult. I stop thinking about it and settle in to the rising wails of song, realising at some point I’m enjoying myself. At the end, the priest of pastor, father of nobody can’t help himself. Thanks must be given to his own father in an unspecified and all locations at once. Later we’re in a pub with not actually all that old but rarely seen mate, Mike. Last time I saw him he had a new girlfriend and now they’re proud owners of a human baby. The three of us drink like we’re in our late 20s. Mike’s round of Espresso Martinis doing me no favours and yet I find I’m content. Fuzzy with alcohol, in good company. At home. These moments are fleeting. Cloaked in the time consuming struggle; finding a job.