Monday, August 2

The semi-solo hiking gives me the gift of time alone and the joy of finding myself | Walking holidays

OROn my 13th birthday, my sister gave me a pale pink card with a cat playing the harp. There was a halo above her head and the words “My sister, the angel.” I smiled and opened the card to read the message inside: “Always insisting on something.”

I laughed because it was true: he was a talkative boy. In fact, that same day, a different sister gave me the same card. Two decades later, I’m still talking. I love to spar, debate, gossip, and joke around. I solve problems by talking about them, be it the intricate plot of a movie or a thorny personal matter. This works perfectly when I have people to talk to. However, under lockdown, I’ve only had my partner, Peter.

In 2018 we moved from London to Yorkshire for better access to nature and lost our social circles. As a result, we not only live, work and travel together, but we also socialize together. Under the UK’s first blockade, our already close proximity began to feel stifling. As I spoke to Peter, I could see his attention drifting, sometimes to his phone, sometimes simply to the window, drawn by the flash of a coat or the distant bleeding of music. It was apparently the least interesting thing in the room.

For the first time in our 10 years together, we needed to be alone. I tried to fabricate this by going for a walk on my own, but a short walk to the local park wasn’t working. I really wanted to venture into the valleys, but was reluctant to do it alone. I have walked all over the world (Patagonia in Argentina, the Dolomites in Italy, the Semien Mountains in Ethiopia), but always as a couple or in a group. The specter of “stranger danger” means I’m not entirely comfortable alone in remote spaces. I considered my options and came up with an idea: the semi-solo hike.

4. Peter and Kia before their semi-solo walk at Reeth, 2020
Peter and Kia before their semi-solo hike at Reeth

Could Peter and I go on a circular walk but walk in different directions? I could walk clockwise and him counterclockwise before meeting at the starting point. This would give us the space and peace of a solo hike while minimizing risk. I would never be far from Peter, I would always have phone reception, and if necessary, he could track me via GPS. It felt like a promising commitment, so I pitched the idea to him. He thought it was completely silly, but agreed to try.

We begin with a four-mile loop from Reeth, a village in a natural amphitheater of classic Dales views: patches of green valleys with veins of dry stone walls, hillside fields filled with barns, and grazing sheep meadows. At the trailhead, Peter and I parted ways, laughing at the absurdity. At first, I was very aware of our proximity, which somewhat clouded the appeal. Walking is only meant to offer freedom, isolation, and anonymity, but here I was with my boyfriend close to me. However, as I gained ground, I found myself very lonely.

The first thing that struck me was that I could set my own pace. Peter is a keen nature lover (he has climbed four of the seven peaks) and I often struggle to keep up with him, catching my breath only when he stops to take a photo. On the flanks of Harkerside MoorI decided to take my time.

I sat on a mossy rock and let myself exhale. That moment, with its dozens of subtleties – the faint sun through the clouds, the breeze blowing through the makeshift ponds, folding the surface of the water – struck me as extraordinary. I was born and raised in London and had never imagined leaving until I met a nature lover. Now, my previous life as a city girl felt excessively frantic. Remembering what I had won, I felt the tension leave me. There, in the freezing air, he no longer needed to speak.

Under the threat of rain, I stopped and continued the circuit. I didn’t see Peter on the way, but we met again where we started, both embarrassed but pleased. The semi-solo hike provided us with a shared experience with additional room to breathe.

Shortly after closing, we tried a more ambitious hike: Ingleborough, which, at 723 meters, is the second highest mountain in the valleys and one of three peaks in Yorkshire. He had risen to the top with Peter before and knew he could do it alone. In the meantime, I would take a more challenging route and we would descend together.

The author walking near Malham Cove.
The author walking near Malham Cove

I set off up the steep incline, negotiating strips of limestone pavement and several cavernous potholes. Unlike the Reeth loop, this time I ran into several other hikers. I was attracted by curious glances, a colored woman walking alone in the English countryside is sadly a novelty, but I never felt bad. Invariably, we exchanged a friendly greeting or a regular complaint about the weather.

At the top of Ingleborough, I found miles of spectacular views stretching all the way to Lakeland Fells and Morecambe Bay on the coast. Hiked to the north edge of the plateau to see the Ribblehead Viaduct on the Settle-Carlisle rail line. There, I found Peter waiting. She smiled crookedly, half embarrassed, clearly convinced by the semi-solo walk.

In the months after, we hiked Malham Cove and Buckden Pike and planned to try Whernside next. The semi-solo hike is certainly silly in theory, but for me it has been a lifesaver. He has given me the gift of time alone and, in a year of constant proximity, the joy of finding myself again.

Kia Abdullah is the co-founder of Atlas and boots travel blog and author of Take it Back and Truth be Told (Posted by HarperCollins)

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