Goalless Walking

My time in the wilderness has taught me that the goal of not having a goal can be the best goal to have.

I mentioned previously that my long walk in Sweden had given me a new mindset on walking. So, what would that be then?

In the past I’ve always seen a walk as a kind of challenge: a list of places to be ticked off; a certain time to get somewhere; a set-in-stone quota of miles to be covered. This hasn’t been something I’ve done consciously as my main reason for walking has always been that it’s something I enjoy. But because I do enjoy my walks, I’ve always found it easy to get distracted. I’ll sit and gaze at an idyllic view for twenty minutes, then spend another ten minutes trying to take a perfect photograph of a leaf. Add in distractions like tea-rooms, old churches or obscure little museums and my walk can easily take twice as long as it’s ‘supposed’ to. Although I finish my walk happy, I’ll have a little niggle at the back of my mind telling me that I haven’t done well enough. On the other hand, when I have to rush to finish the walk to make sure I’m in time for the last bus or that the gates on the car park aren’t locked, then I don’t feel so happy. I feel like I’ve missed out.

It should be obvious really shouldn’t it? That I should walk with the intention of doing what I want, when I want and enjoying myself rather than trying to achieve some self-imposed target. However, it took a long walk in the Arctic with plenty of thinking time for me to figure this out.¬†

At first I was concerned that I wasn’t putting enough miles in each day; that I was starting too late in the morning; that I was taking too many gorgeous-view breaks. I justified it by telling myself I’d never be here again. If I don’t absorb the view fully, or camp at that amazing spot by the waterfall and enjoy pottering around in the sun the next morning, I’ll never get another chance. In the Peak District, I can always nip back for another look. In Swedish Lapland? Not so easy. Not when I have to take a plane, then a very long train journey, then a bus ride of several hours to the end of the nearest road, and then walk for a few days to get there. It’s easier to come back and walk a part of the trail I haven’t touched on, than it is to go back to the sections I’ve already walked just to see a bit here and a bit there because I rushed it first time round.

Once these thoughts started to sink in I began to relax and enjoy myself a lot more. I was learning to stop feeling guilty about something that there was no reason to feel guilty about anyway. I met lots of Swedish people, including some quite young ones. Although some were rushing along with only a few days to complete a long section of the trail, others were enjoying moving slowly and making the most of their time spent in the wilderness. Rather than rushing from target to target, their goal was to find a nice campsite, cook some good food and chill.

Swedes seem to have a different attitude to the great outdoors. From an early age, it’s quite normal to spend time walking, carrying a pack, wild camping and jumping in rivers for a wash. Have you ever tried walking with a five-year-old? If so, you’ll know how long it can take to even get a few hundred metres down the road. Everything is fascinating to them. They have to turn every stone, pick up every stick and sometimes sample every worm. Give them a backpack to carry and the chance of finding bits of reindeer antler in the stream beds and you’ve no chance of getting very far. This is fine. The point of the trip isn’t to walk a long way, but to enjoy being in the wilderness.

Once they hit their teens they’re chomping at the bit to get out there with their mates. No grown-ups allowed. And you know what? The grown-ups are fine with this. They walk a bit further than when they were younger, but still seem to get far more out of ‘just being there’ than they do for breaking records of distance or speed walked.

As adults, the annual trip to the wilderness is a time to de-stress away from busy lives in Stockholm or other cities. It’s quality time with family and friends, or time to be perfectly alone with no-one else to worry about. Yes they have targets; goals they want to achieve, but the targets are not the main reason for being there.¬†

So why do I always have this feeling of needing to achieve a goal? Is it a general British attitude to walking? There’s no point doing it unless you’re going to achieve something? I don’t think I’m alone in feeling this. Is it because we don’t have any ‘real’ wilderness to spend days alone in? Even the remotest parts of Scotland are not that far from civilisation. I could have driven to the Highlands three times in the time it took just for the train journey from Stockholm to Lapland. Does this mean we never really shed our city feelings of targets, goals and everything at a specific time? Is it because walking is an ‘adult’ pastime and so we never have the opportunity to learn lessons from five-year-olds about the joy of going slowly? I know some Brits will take their children on short walks, but I don’t know any who wouldn’t shudder at the thought of taking them into the wilderness for two weeks at a time.

My time in the wilderness has taught me that the goal of not having a goal can be the best goal to have. Of course sometimes it’s good to challenge yourself; to keep yourself on your toes rather than sat on your bum taking yet another gorgeous-view break. And sometimes there is no choice in the matter. Why do so many last buses depart at 5pm even in the long, light summer evenings?

So how am I going to apply these lessons now I’m home? I’ll still walk according to other people’s criteria, whether that’s people I meet (it only took us three hours) or what the guide-book says. Or, more importantly, what the bus timetable says. But I also want to walk without a plan or goal. To just wander wherever I think looks interesting. To stop when I want and where I want for however long I want. Will I achieve this goal? Or am I just setting myself another target that I’ll feel guilty about not achieving? Is it even possible to have a target of not having a target? Watch this space …

When your campsite looks like this, why would you be in a hurry to leave?

Author: Anne

Join me in my journey to live a life less boring, one challenge at a time.
Author of the forthcoming book ‘Walking the Kungsleden: One Woman’s Solo Wander Through the Swedish Arctic’.

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