Solo walking: Learning to love the lone path

Catherine Mack enjoys walking alone but believes it is important to give her and others their space

“Ah, the lone walker!’ a man unknown to me exclaimed loudly as we crossed paths on a windy and otherwise empty beach. I didn’t know how I was meant to respond but then realised I didn’t need to, as he kept walking and didn’t look back. His words seemed to echo across the beach still begging a response somehow, but I was stuck for words. I was also stuck in the sand and felt as if it was sinking beneath my feet, the words lone, lone, lone, booming all around me to the rhythm of the waves.

It was probably the cold wind but my face started to sting as if I’d been slapped. I wanted to run after him and ask him what he meant. But my legs were still locked. I went over the moment in my head: he wasn’t smiling when he said it, he didn’t even really look at me. It just felt like he’d spat the words at me as if to say, “you have been noticed”, but his superior stride suggested there was no sense of care or empathy behind them.

Did he know that I was having a coastal retreat to get my head around the fact that I was grieving the end of a marriage? That, a year on, I still ached with sorrow, anger and fear of, yes, solitude. A friend had offered me her beach house for some time on my own. Yes, on my own. And she was right, because it was doing the trick, the sea always does. But who was this man to question my being alone, then walk away leaving me feeling slightly invaded and, ironically, even more alone?

That was about five years ago and I’ve had plenty of time to get used to the idea of walking solo in life since. Celebrating it, even. Yet lockdown has brought the L-word back into the limelight for me and many others. One way I have looked after my mental health during the pandemic has been by walking. A daily supplement of 5km a day, or doubling the dose on weekends, has kept me sane.

I nearly always walk on my own, with additional social supplements from time to time to give me that vital boost of friendship. However, I must admit, I am loving my lone walker look now. I listen to music, podcasts, sometimes I up the speed and run and other times I just dander. Walking brings me peace, so I was not surprised to read in Shane O’Mara’s excellent book In Praise of Walking that science has proved “moving is medicine”.

Space for solos

There has been one fly in my healing ointment though, and that has been from people who are not walking solo in life during the pandemic. We’ve been at this distancing thing long enough to know that we need to give people space. And yet, when I’m walking on a narrow footpath towards a couple, family or bubble buddies they rarely separate to give us solos our space. It’s as if we’re invisible and are forced into the puddles or mud. And yet I stay Zen. Because I don’t want to ruin my love affair with walking and I refuse to go back to a place of feeling that being solo is all about being, literally, ditched.

One of the joys of walking is that I always feel like I could just keep going. I remember, a few years back, looking at the coast stretching out in front of me on the Wales Coast Path. I felt as if I had become a headland addict, wanting “just one more” before bedtime. Same goes for walking on the waymarked ways of Sheep’s Head, Beara or lesser known Seven Heads Walk of west Cork, to name but a few. Walking just makes me lust for more wandering.

Scanning the horizons

I am not a hardened explorer and don’t have urges to tick off the great summits of the world, but walking helps me to step out of my comfort zone. I find myself Googling Grandes Randonnées (France’s long-distance trails) or wondering if I can tackle the Tour du Mont Blanc. This is a 170km trail through three countries and the seven main valleys surrounding the prestigious peak. I find renewed joy in being transported virtually to walking trails that have been there for centuries and will still be there on the other side of Covid.

It’s unlikely I will tackle these giant routes on my own, I am not that brave or mad, but I am going to keep walking on my own from time to time when this is over. O’Mara studies the science of walking in depth in his book and discusses how it doesn’t come to us that naturally. As babies it takes us up to a year or more to get on our own two feet but, as he points out: “Once we’ve learned to walk, we walk upright, heads up, leaving our hands and minds free, allowing us to scan the far horizons.”

I feel sometimes as if it has taken me more than just one year to start walking this way, to fully scan the horizons ahead. However, I can honestly say that I am proud to be me these days, solo and strong. It has taken work, but I got there. I may have to step into the road to give couples their 2m but, when I see another person walking solo, I always give them their space. I also give them a smile, to acknowledge that if their journey in life is also solo, I see them and salute them.

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