At a recent Stranger event I was asked what I would do if I had more time. Walk, was the surprising answer that burst from my mouth. Not read, or see friends, or travel, or any of the many things I might have expected to say. But walk.
Cue a timely reading of Neil Gaiman’s Ocean at the End of the Lane, in which I found the delicious assertion that: “Children use back ways and hidden tracks, while adults take roads and official paths.”
Now there’s a launchpad.
The urge to explore more
I started to think a little more about my answer to that initial question. And what I discovered was that by ‘walk’, what I actually meant was ‘explore’.
As a child I was great at queues. Whenever we went to a theme park I had an uncanny knack of avoiding the herd mentality and taking the path no one else did. The trick was spotting the ‘in’. Then you could walk past hundreds of confused faces. It wasn’t queue jumping, just effective path choice. And it felt great.
As a teenager I would deliberately get myself lost, first on my bike and later by car. I’d follow random roads until I no longer recognised anything. Then, in a time before Google Maps – in fact with no map at all – I’d proceed until I spotted a familiar sight that meant I could find my way home.
Back ways and hidden paths, then, had long been my friend. But I had forgotten their joy and neglected them in time-strapped adulthood.
It was time to change.
From hidden beaches in Cornwall to abandoned fortresses and Minoan palaces in Crete, I’ve been making time to walk more, explore more and try out those back ways and hidden tracks.
Here’s what I found.
1. The direct route is usually the quickest…
The official path has been put there for a reason. It gets people from A to B. Most people will take it and it’s probably easier underfoot. But that doesn’t mean it’s the only or best way. You’ll need to find more time to explore less travelled routes. It helps if you can give yourself enough time not to have to worry about it too much and that’s why I did some of my exploring while on holiday. But don’t do what I did and ignore the time so effectively that you almost miss the last boat home!
2. A to B you’ll see what everyone else sees.
Follow the herd along the official path and you’ll get the overview, but not the detail. When we visited the now uninhabited island of Spinalonga in Crete, the clamoring tour groups didn’t get to see inside the houses and the way the buildings were constructed and used. They missed the impressive inside of the main tower fort. They bypassed numerous beautiful views, different angles and hidden buildings by not climbing secret stairs or following paths that led deeper into the story.
3. Take the right equipment
Wear comfortable shoes and sensible clothing, it helps when you’re clambering around. A waterproof coat is also a good plan. No one wants to get caught out in the middle of nowhere and get a good soaking than have to walk back drenched. Trust me on that one.
4. Sometimes you’ll find nothing but a dead end.
Everywhere is a potential part of the adventure. Nothing is off limits unless there’s a sign or a fence that says it is (think curious eight-year-old, not kamikaze toddler or flashbrash teen). Unfortunately sometimes there is a bureaucratic ‘private’ sign, a fence or a dead end to thwart you. It’s annoying. But it’s going to happen sometimes when you take a risk. Learn from it. Don’t take that path next time.
5. But by exploring you’ll discover more and see things you never expected.
At first, opting for a different route felt clandestine. Even rebellious. But after I’d been doing it for a while I began to notice how the lack of concern for following everyone else it freed me up to take more time over what I was seeing, hearing and smelling. To stand and stare. And to see and experience some wonderful things that other people completely miss.
The physical act of fathoming less travelled roads, then, has a striking similarity to the creative thought process.
The boat back to the mainland from Spinalonga was where this all slotted into place. As I looked back at the island I could see the whole thing; made up of the places I had seen taking both the official paths and the back routes. Observing one part of the puzzle only revealed a part of the whole. But exploration of both the better and lesser-known parts allowed me a more complete understanding of the whole.
Finding time to explore and to experience different angles gave me a much more complete and detailed picture. I’ll be taking that knowledge with me to my next work project.
And my next walk.
If you make any exciting discoveries by taking more time to explore back roads and hidden tracks I’d love to hear about them: @suziecunliffe