There are squatters at my mother’s house.
As I open the gate, one of them screeches loudly and launches himself off the roof, aiming his yellow beak at me and opening it wide. Like snakes, seagulls have the ability to unhinge their jaws so they can swallow huge prey, so perhaps it’s not impossible that a 430g gull could consume an 87kg human being, if it was desperate, deranged or baleful enough.
Not today, though. It misses my head and ploughs into the enormous-leaved tree in the garden, flapping and whirling, momentarily turning itself into a seagull burrito before fighting its way back into the air. Then it circles overhead, hurling down insults and the occasional splatter of something more substantial.
Up on the roof, its missus looks down impassively.
Around her, anti-bird spikes fan out in all directions. Somehow her and her mate have wiggled through this formidable no-gull’s-land of razorwire and aluminium needles, and built a nest between the chimney-pots. Nice try, meatbags, but we’re like sand – we get everywhere.
It’s nice that my childhood home has occupants again, even if one of them is homicidally bent on ending me right now. The gulls will be gone in a month, but if all goes well, this house will support another family soon, maybe even before Christmas. It’s a good size for a family home: three bedrooms, plenty of weird little storage rooms we never quite worked out what to do with. It has lots of potential, this would-be home. Someone will love it.
But right now, for the first time since 1982, nobody else lives here. My mother died in March, my childhood home is emptied and boarded up, and I have no idea what comes next.
It’s a month later, and I’m 160 miles away, unsuccessfully trying to get signal on my phone.
Skiddaw House is the highest hostel in the UK. It’s 3.5 miles from the nearest road, surrounded by mountains in every direction, and profoundly, unnervingly offline. There’s no signal on any network up here. There’s no Wifi. There’s a trickle of electricity from solar panels that charge a battery that powers the lights, but you won’t find anywhere to top up your gadgets.
As I’m discovering, it’s the perfect place to spend a day with a friend, when you’re recovering from a decade of watching a family member slip away from you.
I have a notebook with me, so I try to write a few words down to this effect, but the sentences curl away from where I want them to go. I ramble about the weather, about how my feet feel, about how nice it is to be offline for a change, properly offline, not “My phone’s turned off, but I know I can turn it back on anytime”.
Awkwardly, in irrelevant details and trite platitudes, I waste a thousand words circling what I should really be saying to myself. A lot of my consultancy work is about taking other people’s story fragments and helping them put them together in a way that makes them (and hopefully other people) feel something important. I should be able to take all my own scattered thoughts and find the higher arc, the Why that goes with all these confusing Whats since 2010.
It should be easy. Doctor, heal thyself, and all that.
But instead I leave my bunk and go back downstairs to drink more tea and chat with the other hostel guests.
There’s a lovely sense of home here. Lovely, and surprising, because I’d never have defined home as “somewhere where there’s no internet”. There’s a big study-room with comfy chairs and a bookcase stuffed with Wainwright-era books about the outdoors (as you’d expect in a hostel in the Lake District). There’s a little shop, and if you ring the bell and wait a few minutes, you can buy groceries to make the kind of stodgy, homey meal you’re allowed to eat in a landscape like this, because you burn it off in no time. The bunks are warm, even though the rooms are unheated (it might be rather different in the winter) and there are hot showers in bathrooms with wooden floors that creak delightfully.
There are also people. Along with my friend Suzi, there’s a young Belgian couple, and two teachers overseeing a Duke of Edinburgh camping expedition (the participants/victims are setting up tents outside, and I have a dizzying memory of being one of them twenty years ago, looking through the door flap of my badly assembled tent and across to the window of a farmhouse, where a teacher was sipping tea and watching us with what I felt was punchable smugness).
There’s a guy from Northern Ireland, 6 foot of spandex and sinew, halfway through a make-it-up-as-you-go tour of the highlands of the west coast. He’s trekked down from Scotland, and is now heading for Scafell Pike, England’s highest mountain. He knows what his story is. He’s here to suffer, but proper suffering, the kind you endure silently because it’s the toll you pay to get to stuff you really care about and really want to shout about – the sunsets, the freedom, the fact you’re not at work.
He’s not a fan of travel bloggers.
“I walked the Camino, and I read a lot of travelogues about it first. They were all about how hard it was. I don’t get that. It’s just walking. None of this is hard, you don’t have to do it. It’s not hard when it’s your fault you’re there! No, I’d rather read about the places, I want stories about the places, you know? Travel blogs, no, I’m not a fan. Get over yourself, people.”
For the rest of the evening, I carefully refer to myself as a “journalist.” (Don’t judge, please.)
It’s a nice way to spend the evening. Talking, I mean. I’ve missed easy talk, the kind that meanders pleasantly for hours and hours with no pressure to get anywhere or say anything terribly important. Talking how I like walking, in fact.
I haven’t talked much since I got back to the UK at the end of March, leaving my rented house in Costa Rica and making plans to reunite with my girlfriend in Barcelona when the dust had settled, knowing that the worst had happened and it was now time to put my wants and needs aside for a while and do my duty as a son. At first, it was easier to not think, partly because I didn’t have any room in my head for it. The shock of hearing my Ma had passed away in her sleep meant I arrived back in East Yorkshire like a battery that’s lost its ability to charge.
My aunt and uncle took me in and gave me a spare room, and I got into a cycle of working through the endless to-do list of death duties for 3-4 hours a day, and sleeping through the rest of them.
I didn’t think. I just did. I kept busy and I ticked things off – always a great avoidance tactic.
When the fog started to lift, the weirdness kicked in. Well, damn. I’m actually homeless now, not receationally homeless, travel-homeless, pretend-homeless. My childhood home, from 1982 to the time I went to university, was abandoned and increasingly empty, bag by bag, tip-runs and charity-shop runs, via Facebook Marketplace ads, Gumtree, ebay. My Mum’s stuff and my stuff, finding new homes for themselves because their owners had moved on.
It was upsetting – but it felt oddly manageable.
Then I realised why:
Videogaming used to be an excellent trigger for shame. Oh for god’s sake, Mike, you’re [somewhere in your twenties/thirties/forties] and you’re still playing games? Get out and get a life. Then gaming culture created most of the internet and I started making a living selling stories on it, so that didn’t feel like a legitimate reason to feel embarrassed anymore.
But shame always finds a way. If you take away one reason, it finds another. And for the last ten years, my shame has been about how much I’ve had to lie to the people who read my work.
Woahhhh sir. Steady. That’s dangerously close to being honest, Mike. Back off. Tell another nice, uplifting travel story! That’s the safe thing to do here.
Anyway, here’s a nice, uplifting travel story about sleeping in a waterlogged field near Hadrian’s Wall as the rain comes down on you.
(Maybe “uplifting” is a stretch. But bear with me.)
So, it’s the middle of August 2018, and you wake up at 4.30am in your bivvy bag, and it’s raining on you. Because of *course* it is. It’s been raining all night – but that’s fine, your bivvy bag is spectacularly waterproof (thanks, Alpkit) and you’ve make a kind of anti-rain shelter using your fold-out umbrella, which nicely covers your backpack and the hood of your bivvy bag. Your hammock is useless – no trees, see – but you could use that as another laying to cower under, if things get worse. Happily, that’s unnecessary. You’re snug and dry, even though it’s belting down.
So you lay there, and wonder why you keep doing stuff like this.
There are the public-friendly explanations. The Outdoors is amazing! There’s so much to see! It’s good for your health! All true, all worthy of turning into an Inspirational Quote on Pinterest, but not the heart of it.
Then you realise it’s about stuff you’d never confess openly (say, in a public-facing blog post). The fears you’ve spent most of a decade struggling with. Fear of family-related disasters. Fear of running out of money, because you’re permanently torn in too many directions to focus on your work. Fear of letting people down. Fear of not being taken seriously as a writer. Fear of being taken seriously, then having to grow up, then realising that growing up was the worst thing you could have done for your career. Fear of sounding self-important, pompous, insensitive (especially when using phrases like “sleeping rough, for fun!”). Fear of not knowing what life has in store. Fear of hoping for anything, because maybe it’s easier to be a pessimist? Fear of finding the right moment to do what you’ve always wanted to do, and finding you’re not enough.
Fear of telling stories that hide all these things from your readers, making you…what? A hypocrite? A liar? Pragmatic? Just like everyone else?
That’s when you realise what bivvy bagging is. It’s immunizing yourself against fear.
When they hear about this sleeping-outside stuff, people say, “I could never do that.” What they mean is, “That sounds terrifying.” At first, it definitely is. Then it’s alarmingly weird. Then it’s just…there, and you’re comfortable with it.
Then one afternoon you’re walking along Hadrian’s Wall, and it gets dark much earlier than expected because the weather is just foul, and you realise you’re not going to get to that woodland you planned to hammock in overnight, so you start hunting for alternatives. Unfortunately there’s not much. The land around Hadrian’s Wall is privately owned and everything has barbed wire or a wall running around it, making it crystal-clear you’re tresspassing.
After an hour of staggering along into the growing dark, the rain spraying on your shoulders like someone’s chasing you with a hose-pipe, yelling every time a rivulet of rainwater finds its way under your jacket and races down your bare back, you find a roadside field overgrown with weeds and lined with a crumbling dry-stone wall. Someone’s using a corner of it to dump rubble in. It’s your best bet.
So you find a corner of the wall that looks unlikely to fall on you, you quickly and efficiently slip off your sodden clothes and crawl into your rain-proof breathable condom of an abode for the evening, you make a kind of shelter for your possessions with a rain-cape, a couple of bin-liners and an umbrella, and you settle down for the night.
As wild camping goes, this is about as miserable as it gets. You’ve been colder or wetter, but this is spectacularly dreary. Hashtag #fuckmylife. It’s really horrible.
But because it’s awful, you start to feel better about everything else in your life right now. If I can take this, I can take anything.
You guess this is just what aversion therapy is, but for whatever reason, it helps. Not just the fear of sleeping outdoors, but all your fears.
Fears are bullshit. 99% of them never come to pass, and the ones that do – well, you handle that situation just fine, somehow, and then you move on. Every fear feels like it will end everything for you, and it’s always a lie, because here you are, still standing.
Even the really bad ones that have haunted you for half a decade:
What if my poor Ma, who has spent years in an increasingly confused state that has unravelled so much of her life and the lives of those nearest to her, because it’s just impossible to deal with – what if that process continues to its logical end, where none of us have anything left?
The only way to teach yourself it’s always a lie is to get into a few of those situations and prove to yourself that when something awful happens, when it’s finally happening instead of that crushing, dread-filled waiting that’s always so much worse, you’ll muddle through just fine.
And later, whenever some new fear kicks in, you have an analogy.
“Oh, this feels exactly like when I was dreading finding a place to kip on Hadrian’s Wall, and I ended up sleeping in an open field and ha, it was HORRIFIC when I had to put my cold, wet boots back on in the morning, but basically it was fine in the long run. So this will be fine too. I see you, fear. I feel how real you seem to be. But you’re just a lie I’m telling myself. And wow, you are SO full of crap.”
So that makes sense to you. And at 5am the rain stops, the sky lightens, you get up (it’s cold, and your legs ache) and putting your warm feet into your cold, sodden boots is exactly as bad as expected, but then you get everything onto your back and start walking down the road, and the sun comes out and you start to dry off, so when you get into Hexham five hours later, everything is fine.
Then later, you’re having a curry with your friend James, and you’re explaining how you spent the night outdoors. He just looks at you, and the old pressure to explain yourself – the fear of looking *too* weird – reasserts itself. So you tell another of those lies:
“Oh, it’s because the Outdoors is amazing! There’s just so much to see out there. And….and, it’s good for your health! I feel great!”
I have a lot of loose ends to pick up. It’s still a struggle to balance everything already going on and everything I want to be doing. I have a sense of home to completely redefine for myself, wherever I end up. And I want to get back into writing the kinds of stories that might even appeal to fell-running, travel-blog-hating adventurers from Belfast. So, you know, temper the self-reflection, Mike, and crack on back to that coal-face.
But whether I talk about it or not, I feel all that dread finally ebbing away, all those fears I learned to manage but could never beat until the worst happened (or didn’t happen – nice try, fear, you lying wretch). I did my best and rode it out, and now I get to see what’s next.
I can’t think of anywhere else I’d rather be.
My friend Flora has been dealing with the death of her father, and writing heartbreakingly well about it. Read her letter to her family home, and her post about losing both her parents before her 30th birthday.