Is it possible to be shyly hopeful at the dawn of a new year, and yet simultaneously terrified at what the next few months might bring? Before all of this, I might not have believed it could be.
We are a few weeks into 2021 and, under our second lockdown in Scotland, life this year doesn’t feel much different to last. The weekdays blur into one another, staring at documents, tweets, screens; I blink and the weekend has gone.
It’s easy to fall into a mindset that matches the January skies. What at the start of the pandemic we were calling the ‘new normal’ is now just ‘normal’. It’s difficult to imagine a return to before, an expansion of life again, when it has shrunk so much.
The memories of weekend adventures that so often involved packing a rucksack and driving north have withered through the winter. Instead, we boot up and from our front door begin another wander over the small hills behind our home.
We have been on trails in or around this one little ridge over sixty times since last March, when Scotland’s first lockdown started. Yes, I counted. It often goes like this: Take the path up through the muddy tunnel of trees, then hurdle the stile. A meadow opens up before you. Jump the fence or the massive puddle and then follow close contours up onto the hilltop. Breeze, views, open skies — there is still a world beyond.
We are incredibly lucky to have some green space close to home. That should go without saying. Yet on bad days, which we all have, it does take effort to not resent the repetitiveness. Pre-pandemic, repetition was limited to the nine-to-five and scrolling on our phones. City breaks were booked on a whim and moments broadcast to Instagram; Friday nights spent jumping from restaurant to bar just because; there was always something new to do or aspire to.
Yet even though life has changed in lockdown this one small, now-so-familiar landscape on our doorstep has been a saviour. We have been observers through the seasons, seen the trees turn green then gold, watched wildlife and heard woodpeckers, stepped on parched and stodgy and snowy ground. And despite the signs of careless people — litter, patches of wasteland, poo bags abandoned on branches, broken fences — this place, and our repeated walks here, have taught me things.
One, there is always something to discover. I can’t believe that, before this, I was ignorant of many of the trails on my doorstep. We had only ever bagged the peak of the brae but as Scottish nature writer Nan Shepherd said, “To aim for the highest point is not the only way to climb a mountain” (or any size of hill, I now think).
Instead, through 2020’s endless time and our own tested patience, we have found a network of tracks — even just worn lines of grass, the ‘desire paths’ of passing animals — criss-crossing the countryside. They connect little lochs, faraway fields, tired towns, crumbling cottages, and clumps of gorse down to the coastline. They were all there, yet unknown to me, until we were forced to embrace the hyper-local.
Two, adventure can be a mindset. This is challenging, sometimes impossible. But on good days, even the mundane can be magic. Go with an open heart on your walk and the field or the street or the ruins or the strandline will give back to you. You will be rewarded if you take the time to notice everything, anything.
Because even if your footprints are tracing the same tracks as the day before — or the week, month, almost year before — your surroundings will have changed in minute ways. Leaves unfurling. A different bird call, high above. The clouds, spinning, or the clearest of skies.
Three, you learn that you don’t need much. That is, you don’t need bucket-list holidays and enviable Instagram snaps to find inspiration. You can unearth it closer to home. I like to take a flask of tea and some chocolate in a rucksack, lock the door, and head off on foot for hours like I’m on some sort of expedition.
It doesn’t matter so much to me now that I can see our home from the few vantage points I reach. It’s about being outdoors, seeing the sky move, knowing that whilst the seasons keep speeding by there must be some kind of hope to hold on to.