As it says on my header, this blog is about “Survival stories of a directionally-challenged hiking hermit.” Although it comes rather late in the piece, this is actually my very first tale of survival. It is the one that began my life-long passion for the outdoors.
There are many reasons why I enjoy hiking. I often write about it being my escape from city living. This is not the complete picture though. The natural world is like an addiction for me. It’s been that way since I was a young child.
No-one has a perfect childhood and mine certainly had its challenges. I was the eldest of three children. My parents were intelligent and creative people but life circumstances contributed to them not being able to parent very effectively. One had an alcohol addiction and the other had a serious mental illness. We moved often. Life was unpredictable, chaotic and at times terrifying. There was violence. There were various kinds of abuse. It is something that many children experience and because they have little or no choice but to stay in their situation, they develop ways of coping. Some ways of coping are healthier and more successful than others.
When I see homeless teenagers and drug addicted adults on the street, my immediate reaction is to think, “That could have been me.” Why didn’t I end up there? It wasn’t because I was a stronger person or in some way special. I was just very fortunate that I had productive ways of coping and other supports available to me. One of these was exploring the natural world. I also had access to education and the magic of libraries. Since I was a good student, school was often my sanctuary and I had a few teachers who encouraged and inspired me. Many times I was able to escape outdoors or into the world of books to take my mind away from the dramas at home.
The natural world was extremely soothing and my curious mind loved exploring the biological puzzles around me. I didn’t escape with alcohol or other drugs because nature was my drug. It often gave me the highs and the comfort that I needed. It wasn’t perfect though. A traumatic childhood can leave you with emotional scars and limps that are invisible to the world. Perhaps if people could see them, as they can see a deformed leg or a missing hand, they would understand better. Some abused children are experts at hiding behind perfect smiling facades.
I still use hiking in the natural world as an escape and to soothe my mind. This is another reason why I am so passionate about making green spaces available to kids in the city. I cannot imagine how I would have coped without outdoor sanctuaries. Living in a built up area with no safe place to escape to would have made my life much more difficult. If I couldn’t read well and school was just another challenge rather than a joy, life would have been even harder. This is why I am also passionate about literacy. It opens doors for children who are in the same position as I was. Access to nature and a good education – they are two of the reasons I am not in the gutter.
Why choose to share these personal details on a hiking blog? I often read articles about the benefits of walking. It increases physical fitness, creative thought and job productivity. It can also give a sense of satisfaction as a person conquers a challenging environment. For many people though, it’s also a way of coping with mental pain. It can be a way to deal with grief. I grieve for the parents that alcohol addiction and mental illness stole from us. I grieve for the lives they took from my parents. I grieve for the grandparents they took from my children. And I grieve for the talent that alcohol and mental illness stole from the world.
Hiking can be about healing. Nature can offer unconditional comfort in a world that these days often wants payment for any service rendered. It may not be able to erase the past but for some people it can help to lessen the pain. I’m very thankful that I had access to this “drug” while I was growing up. It was an addiction that served me well.