I went for a walk with Ursula, AKA One Woman Walks Wales. She’s just under halfway along her chosen 3300-mile route, walking every established long distance path in Wales, some not-at-all established ones, all of the major rivers and anything else that lodged in her mind on the fateful day last spring when she made her plan.
We’d only been walking together a little while when she said something like, “I’ve been thinking about auras. Or maybe the spirit. I think that perhaps when you’re outside, your spirit expands to the furthest reaches of the horizon. It grows to take up all of that space. That’s why it’s so traumatic when you get on a bus…” We discussed awhile and settled on the idea that it wasn’t ego, but more like identification. While walking you just are part of the landscape. You are the landscape.
We were walking together largely because her crazy route (it looks like one of those old psychology experiments where Nasa scientists
gave speed to spiders) was passing nearby for the second time just as I really fancied a bit of fresh air. She was freaking out a bit, being on the stretch of the route that required her to climb all of the meanest peaks of Wales, one after the other, often not on any sort of path, just at the same time as carrying more autumnal kit, contemplating winter, and being in that really difficult ‘not even halfway’ stage. I was freaking out a bit because my tiny garret was feeling a bit too tiny. Rhys is away, my bed is only two steps away from my desk, the blind is down so I can see the screen and sometimes it’s hard to find ways to distinguish day from night, and work from play. Ursula and I decided to bring our grumps together and see if we could neutralise them.
And we were the landscape! Ah, it felt good. Papa Engelkamp gave me a lift to meet Ursula at the 400m-high abandoned mining village of Dylife. It has the bare, romantic, practical pluckiness of every high pass or frontier town I’ve ever been to. A handful of houses, an inn with 17th-century bits that keeps the grateful hearts beating, and a stripe of asphalt heading down in both directions – northwest to Machynlleth or southeast to Llanidloes.
We walked off the asphalt amongst sunbeams, discussing our spirits, mine soaring despite my heavy backpack that I was not at all used to. We agreed enthusiastically with each other about the peculiarities of being a guest for months on end, and conducting adventures via social media. We discussed practicalities (she carries more socks than pants, I’m the other way around). We puzzled together about the walkers (like Ursula’s current favourite, Carrot Quinn) who charge along with unimaginable mileages. What’s the point of walking like you want to get it over with? We made ourselves feel better about being slow, and reminded ourselves that we are both all for slow travel. Funny that the world’s obsession with speed just keeps seeping into us anyway.
I thought I might be talking too much, spoiling her stride. “No – it’s always a pleasure to have company!” said Ursula, magnanimously. She said that every now and then people asked wasn’t she lonely, and it was only the question, the suggestion, that made her even wonder if she was.
Then we sat on a bridge where I appraised her constantly evolving bag of trail mix – a surprisingly tasty fusion currently including both apricots and bombay mix.
Thanks to Ursula’s route, she’s in the process of seeing every landscape from every angle. We walked for a while along a bit of the Glyndwr Way that she’d done in April, and then crossed a bit of bog that she’d waded through on her very first day’s walk at the beginning of March. Up there, on the broad and marshy plateau of Plynlimon, we passed the source of the Severn and the Wye, and visited all of its several summits, cairns like nipples in the mist.
The mist became fog, the fog became drizzle, the drizzle became wrap-around rain. It’s been dry on the British Isles for a long time, and it was a bit of a surprise – I’d almost not bothered bringing my jacket. By the time we called it a night in the mossy lee of a young forestry plantation we were both wet through and chilly, and put up our tents with dumb, rubbery fingers. I asked what Ursula would have done if I hadn’t been there – we were camping in real lonely wilderness. “I’d definitely be worried about bears, if you weren’t here,” I said. “I am a bear,” she said. “Little bear – that’s what Ursula means.” She’s pretty tough, that One Woman.
But she is worried about winter. She set out at the beginning of March, dividing her route by her intended timescale and coming up with an ambitious goal of 19 miles a day. She soon abandoned that, but has no intention of modifying her journey, and will keep walking right through winter – she expects it will take her until March. She’s been bivvying until now, and our wet mountain was her first proper night of real fierce rain, and of sleeping in a tent. She found it a bit of a faff.
I was worried for her too, but remembered from this time last year that the reality is rarely worse than the anticipation. Sure enough, after spending the night fretting about everything being wet, the next day dawned bright, and we dried it all off as we walked. And Ursula, being untroubled by a donkey, can make the most of launderettes and leisure centres along the way. She’s already slept in a church, a bus stop and a giant plastic pipe. She’ll be fine, little bear.
My next challenge
I went back – doused, aerated, refreshed and with crampy calves like rocks – to the desk. I finished draft one of the book at the end of August, and it’s been with the editor for a few weeks. I’ve been really highly-strung, the only way to sort myself out was to jump in the sea every day; it took me weeks to realise it was because I was so on edge about what the editor would say. I sought favour. I felt like a pupil again, submitting work for approval, waiting powerlessly for the judgement.
And then last weekend my annotated manuscript dropped back into my inbox, and I stared at the little icon for a long time and realised I’d been nervous about so much more than just approval. Would I believe in this editor? What if she was critical, but I didn’t agree with her opinion? What if her advice was good but vague and I had to work out how to translate her general directions into changes to the dauntingly massive pile of words I’ve made over six months?
With the document in my inbox I sat down and got up and made coffee and flapped about a bit, and then I took a deep breath and read a few pages of her notes, and… And ahh…
Bliss. She is brilliant, a total pro. Sweetly flattering, masterfully gentle with my tottery ego, but tenacious in running down all of the overworked paragraphs, every self-conscious bit of puff, all of the glib bits that need more explaining and the bloated bits that need less. And best of all, her suggestions are solid and the manuscript she has returned to me is like a map to follow. She even puts little ticks in the margin next to passages that she particularly likes. I’ve never met her, and all she knows of me is from these 140,000 words that she has pored over. I suddenly have a sympathy for people who fall in love with their therapists…
And so, like Ursula who will soon be turning around again and seeing the same landscapes from yet another angle, I am embarking on another path of my adventure too. The snipping and polishing bit. And, without having realised that I was feeling at all lonely, the delight of having the editor join me, wading into the marsh, extending a hand, is superb. So superb that I’ve allowed myself a little while of just enjoying the fact of it, the patches of clarity from a misty mountain top.