Back in December I purchased a lot of camping gear. I wanted to make myself self-sufficient for my next cycle touring holiday (most likely to happen in September). I was also aiming to use that same gear for overnight microadventures. I planned several ones between January and now but I somehow always found excuses not to go and my camping gear laid unused, neatly tidied away.
Last week, as Alastair Humphreys once more promoted microadventures, I finally decided it was time to stop delaying my first bivvy night and just go. I spent the week doing my best to ignore swarms of butterflies swirling in my stomach and building up the stamina to go. I kept busy planning, thinking over and over of what I would need, of what could go wrong, of how brilliant it would be. But I kept silent too, not daring to mention my plan to anyone in case cowardice got the better of me and kept me home.
I carefully chose a spot on Google Maps that seemed attainable and suitable for sleeping outdoors on my own for the first time. It was a good two hours walk from my home, next to a village I knew to be surrounded by wilderness (so that if my choice was bad, I could always try to find another spot) and most importantly situated next to the same rail line that passes under my window. It felt reassuring to know I would still hear the faint noises of the same trains going by in the distance.
Friday finally came and it was time to go. I prepared my bag, packing more than I actually needed. I knew this as I closed it with difficulty but I didn’t want to let anything go. I was seeking reassurance in knowing I was ready for various scenarios. Things could go wrong but it didn’t matter because I had the power to make them right.
I finally took the first step out of my home and onto the roads. I wanted to walk because it was slow which meant it would be harder to go back once I had reached my destination. I walked on along a main road. The cars rushed by me, their roaring numbing my thoughts and in doing so helping me forward. I could not hear my fears anymore. I just wanted to be away from the cars and the only option was to move forward.
I crossed the M25 and was out of London. My home was behind a shield of speeding cars and I could not turn back. I had reached the first threshold. I looked ahead, the village so close now. I grew impatient as I reach its first streets. I wanted to leave this urbane area for the wilderness I knew was so close.
A few minutes later I reached the last road, a cul-de-sac with my chosen field behind it. I felt on edge as I walked this long path, looking like a criminal on the run from the police. I was afraid people would spot me – an outsider in the midst of their community – and stop me from going further, but the residents that were out didn’t even look my way as I walked by.
As I slid under the barbed wire marking the end of the street I reminded myself that nobody was looking through their windows observing life go by. I wouldn’t be seen walking in the middle of a field that was not my own. I forced myself to slow down, to enjoy the dirt under my feet and the sun on my face.
I reached the end of that first field and looked ahead to the neighbouring one and smiled. I had in front of my eyes my chosen home for the night. I had been lucky and chosen a very good spot. It wasn’t a cultivated field but one left to run wild, grass spurting in all direction and a massive tree growing tall and proud on its own, inviting me to spend the night under it. But first I had to cross a small brook. There was barely any water in its bed and it really wasn’t difficult to get on the other side but it felt like I had overcome an obstacle. I had passed the final threshold and reached my island. I was safe there.
I waved at the rail line greeting it as an old friend and settled under the tree. I leant against its trunk waiting for some form of elation to rise inside of me but I remained numb. I wanted to be excited and feel special. Instead it all felt rather safe and normal. I shrugged, giving up on feeling special and set about cooking dinner. I ate it quietly half observing the sunset, half reading a book.
It was only seven o’clock when I tucked into my sleeping bag. It was dark outside and cold. I read for a bit longer, sheltered in the warmth of my bed but soon I closed my eyes and fell asleep.
I had expected to spend a bad night, woken up by every sound and touch but nothing happened and I only woke up once because I was cold. I tightened the hood of my sleeping bag and promptly fell back asleep. I only really awoke when my alarm clock rang. I opened the hood to find that it was already bright daylight outside. I sat up and smiled at the view before me. I had made it. I had spent my first night outside and it had been great.
I finally felt excited and special. I was chuffed with myself for having overcome my fears and most of all for the feeling of normality that had invaded me the night before, allowing me to remain calm and unworried throughout the night. I had come some way from my first long microadventure when I had been scared of unknown noises in the dark. All those hours spent outside had unknowingly worked on me, reconciling me with nature and making me understand there was nothing to fear there.
I ate a quick breakfast, packed up, and went back home a huge smile on my face confident that next time I could go bivvying further away, with less planning and much less gear.