Experience is a bastard. It takes all of the fun out of things. I almost remember what backpacking was like before I knew anything. I dimly recall a sense of adventure. Nowadays, as long as my body doesn’t fail me, I’ll get to the end of a backpacking trip, largely because many kinds of prior knowledge have guided me to choosing the right trip. Not knowing the outcome used to take long walks to a higher plane of experience than appears possible as I approach my dotage. I miss that sense of adventure.
On my first trip to Wales, I saw a footpath sign pointing to a place called Llywbr Coehyddus. Although it wasn’t on my map, I knew it was the right path. At the other of the path, at the next road, a signpost pointed back to Llywbr Coehyddus. I must have gone through the place without noticing. A couple of hundred metres along the road was another signpost pointing to Llywbr Coehyddus but it wasn’t pointing to the first place of that name. The penny dropped. Llywbr Coehyddus is Welsh for public footpath.
This trip, with an awful Campri external frame rucksack, which cut off the blood supply to my arms, took place in the days before I had heard of magazines such as Climber and Rambler. Guide books might have existed but even if I had seen one, I would not have been able to afford it. The cost of an OS map almost bankrupted me. However, I got full value out of that map in the many, excited hours I spent poring over it and planning my holiday.
The third footpath sign in Welsh pointed me up to the wild pitch I had picked out on the map. Bluet Camping Gaz heated my dinner and then it was time to bed down in my rectangular, hoodless sleeping bag, possibly from Woolworths. After dark, a noise kept me awake. I thought it had to be an animal, perhaps a hedgehog, scratching my tent. Sleep was impossible so I got out to check. No animal. I climbed back into my sleeping bag. Thank goodness it’s insulation could not be compressed as I had never heard of sleeping mats.
The scratching noise started again. I tried to sleep despite it, because I didn’t want to get out of my Marechal J3 again, but couldn’t. Out I went into what was now a cold night. Eventually, I found the culprit. Juncus. There is not the slightest chance that a rush could make me feel concerned for the survival of my tent with forty years more experience.
To an extent, hiking in a completely different environment can freshen the point of view. There was a brief moment of shock when I realised that tramping in New Zealand often meant using a river as a path. The first time a path took me into unavoidable water was in a swamp in the far north. It was on the second occasion, in a real river, that I realised New Zealanders hike along river beds when the forest is difficult to penetrate.
New Zealand’s tracks spend a great deal of time in forests, with occasional, welcome forays over passes. I became a bit bored and started racing along until the day Fergus Sutherland entered Dunedin Youth Hostel to offer a low price on a course with the Catlins Wildlife Trackers. In a single weekend, Fergus and Mary taught me a new way of looking at the bush. With wonderful, new things to find, I had fresh eyes once more.
Back home, the sense of adventure is harder to rekindle. My ride through a remote nature reserve did so and I imagine introducing children to backpacking must do, too. Taking risks might be an option if I was braver as not knowing what the outcome will be is crucial to real adventuring. Not knowing. How many times has someone said to me, “If only I knew then what I know now…” How misguided! Ignorance should be cherished. Is it possible that the drive to learn about the mountain environment is what kept me returning to Snowdonia, the Lakes and the Highlands. Has knowing taken away some of the pleasure?
If only I didn’t know now what I didn’t know then…