Hear and attend and listen; for this befell and behappened and became and was, O my Best Beloved, when the Tame animals were wild. The Dog was wild, and the Horse was wild, and the Cow was wild, and the Sheep was wild, and the Pig was wild - as wild as wild could be - and they walked in the Wet Wild Woods by their wild lones. But the wildest of all the wild animals was the Cat. He walked by himself, and all places were alike to him. RUDYARD KIPLING The Cat That Walked By Himself (Just So Stories)
I prefer walking alone when taking long walks or making long pilgrimages. Why is this? I've been considering the reasons. I'm not anti-social, nor some weird 'loner' (well, perhaps a tiny bit!) I like people. I enjoy conversation. Why would I wish to embark on a long, sometimes scary and hazardous journey, alone?
Well, first of all, there are some nakedly selfish reasons. The fact is, no matter how entertaining and sympathetic, lovely and beloved your companion, walking with another person over a long stretch of time and distance can become wearisome. I'm being brutally honest here. Alone you have total freedom: to go where you want, when you want, how fast or how slow you want. With a companion - delightful as he or she may be - you have to compromise. Yes - compromise is, of course, essential and right in so many parts of our lives, in our relationships, in our marriages, in our dealings with society. Compromise, give and take, the Middle Way are the oils which lubricate the smooth workings of a successful community, a successful relationship. But isn't it nice just to be totally free for a while, not to compromise, to do exactly as one likes?
Then there's the question of loneliness. People ask me: don't you ever get lonely on your solo trips? The truthful answer is: sometimes, yes! On my last pilgrimage along the Via de la Plata I met hardly any other walkers (no doubt they were all far more sensible than I, and hadn't even dreamt of tackling this route during the wettest Spanish winter in living memory). However I find that serious pangs of loneliness are short-lived. Normally there are other walkers to chat with and accompany for short distances. There are friendly shops and bars and albergues. Usually I feel 'alone' rather than 'lonely'. And that's no bad thing. Facing up to, accepting, enjoying our natural, existential solitude is actually, I think, an important, even necessary thing to do, and prepares us for bleak periods in our life (like times of illness, depression or bereavement) when a state of aloneness is forced upon us rather than deliberately chosen.
How many of us are completely at ease with our own thoughts, comfortably at home in own own minds and bodies? I know I'm not always in this ideal state. Far from it. So solitary walking gives me the chance to explore a little the murky depths of my own mind, to clear some weeds from the muddy pool of my unconscious, to sort out my ideas and beliefs, to shine a little light into my soul, to reflect on God and the nature of life, death and the universe. And, with luck, to meet up with some interesting people, and enjoy a few beers with them along the Way ...