Thursday 11 October 2012

Keeping the enthusiasm burning: seven years in retrospect

Autumn colours and cloud in Mickleden, 12th of October, 2005
Seven years ago, my life was very different. I was nineteen years old, and had just conducted a 'gap year' spent entirely within the United Kingdom, in which I worked at a garden centre, wrote prolifically, and went on several backpacking trips to the Lakes and North Wales. In September I started as an undergraduate at the University of East Anglia in Norwich. I studied Computing Science but was constantly thinking about the hills which were rapidly becoming a very important part of my personality.

In October I did the unthinkable. I looked at my timetable, noted the fact that I had lectures, but jumped on a train anyway and headed North.

My destination was Great Langdale in the Lake District, a valley I had visited that summer. I'd fallen in love with the place, and this appreciation would only grow over the coming years; in many ways it still feels as much like a second home as Glencoe. On that occasion I planned a hasty trip, camping at the National Trust site, walking for a day, then heading back to Norwich early the following morning.

Lovely weather!
The conditions were truly dreadful. I got soaked on my ascent of Bowfell, but nothing could dampen my enthusiasm as I strode up the rain-washed rocks, feeling like I had broken free from my timetabled existence and done something unexpected, even if it was just for a day. Looking back, this kind of enthusiasm--giddy, irrational, and obsessive--is something I can no longer relate to. It's surprising that the 26 year old Alex has changed to such a degree, considering how vividly I once felt about mountains and the outdoors, but perhaps I have simply grown up and developed a more balanced view of the world?

Would I now take a few days of unscheduled leave and travel hundreds of miles to climb some hills in the pouring rain? Probably not; even if I did it, I would feel cheated by the weather and I would think back to finer days on the hill. Back in October 2005 every mountain experience was sharp and new, and disproportionately valuable.

I think my relationship with the mountains has settled down. That initial fiery passion has swelled into a deeper but calmer love. I no longer feel the urgent need to spend every waking moment among the heights. I am content to admire them from afar, occasionally going back, content with my years spent in quest of that indefinable perfection I now try to capture in my writing.

We often think of passion for the outdoors as a binary thing, ie. one is either 'outdoorsy' or one isn't, but it's a lot more complex than that. Our enthusiasm and desires wax and wane with the years, mature as we grow, change over time. This isn't something my younger self knew and of course in 2005 I thought things would always be as they were then. Seven years from now my perspective will have changed again, but that's the beauty of it!

This changing relationship with landscape is something that I am trying to weave into my books. I don't think The Only Genuine Jones really captured it at all, because the main characters are young people and the story takes place over a space of only a few months. I explored other themes in that book, but in my current work, Alpine Dawn, and my planned future Jones novels, I want to explore the beautiful thing that is a lifetime spent both amongst and away from mountains--and the feelings we experience when we go back after an absence of many years.

The Only Genuine Jones, a novel about the triumphs and struggles of Victorian climbers, will be available from the 21st of October on Amazon Kindle. For more information please click here.

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