Walking the coastal path - A meditation
FROM A DISTANCE - Veronica Pedrosa (The Philippine Star) - August 17, 2019 - 12:00am

BUDE, England – Alone and at peace, I stand between sea, sky and land. The vast ocean carries my gaze to the horizon; a bright silver light gleams where the turbulent sky has let slip a molten glimpse from the nearest star. The wind has picked up speed and is blowing strongly enough for me to check the rootedness of my whole feet on the ground beneath me, am I heavy enough to remain? Waves crash on cragged jaggy dark rocks. Seagulls circle the waters below and the skies above me; on the edge - clear distant horizons on all sides.

This is the third of a five-day walk I’ve chosen to do as a “summer break,” while everyone else has gone off with their own plans. Making the arrangements to do the trip have been completely different to the actual experience of walking. I’ve done all the usual things of considering maps, distances, accommodation and transport options; counting, measuring and naming. This is a section of what’s now known as the Southwest Coast Path, which was used to keep an eye out for pirates that used to hide out with their smuggled goods, dicing with death against the treacherous conditions to hide in the many inlets and coves on the coasts of Devon and Cornwall. It’s also a place of legend: a cleric in the 12th century, Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote that King Arthur of myth was conceived in a castle on this part of the coast in Tintagel (there’s no evidence to support his claim). Cornish and Breton writers associated the area with the legend of star-crossed lovers Tristan and Iseult. But the real attraction for me was actually in the act of solitary walking itself in an area of immense untamed natural beauty.

What is this part of our consciousness that bears witness to my thoughts and actions? Who is it that is noticing that I am not looking at the map as much as I was when the walk started, nor the watch? That notices the effort it takes to clamber a few centimetres at a time up the almost vertical path, my boots slipping in the mud. There is no one around to help, taunt or encourage; to measure or gauge my progress. I am accountable only to myself. This being here, now is an act of sheer will and unforced but persistent presence.

“Time is the substance I am made of. Time is the river which sweeps me along, but I am the river; it is a tiger which destroys me, but I am the tiger; it is a fire which consumes me, but I am the fire.” One of my favorite quotes. Written by Jorge Luis Borges, it’s this overwhelming awareness that I make and use up my own existence, that I alone am responsible for what I do with it that has been something of a mantra since I entered middle-age and tussled with cancer. Mortality is what I make of it, so planning what to do with this gift of time, unencumbered by considerations of others must be well-considered. It feels like true freedom and responsibility.

This area of England is a favorite summer destination for families with young children. I was warned not even to bother to come in August because of the traffic and crowds. But in fact they don’t seem at all interested in the coastal path. I counted maybe 10 people on the second and hardest day of my walk from remote Hartland Quay (where there’s no actual quay!) to Bude. The guides were very clear in their warnings that this bit is the hardest of the entire 630 mile path and described the terrain as “Severe”. The maps showed that if the going got too tough, there were no places to come off the trail and reach a main road with transport options.

“The first step is the hardest,” a friend’s word echoed as I set off. It was pouring with rain already and it would have been so much easier to sit with a cup of coffee listening to the old 80s music in the cheap and cheerful hotel. “Love Plus One,” warbled Haircut 100 encouragingly. It felt very light and effortless to walk into the unknown and climb high up on to the edge of the cliff that morning.

“You won’t regret it!” The words of another friend who had done the whole coastal path soon popped into my mind as I trudged up the steep path the fifth (or was it sixth?) time. When it got to be more of an effort I wanted the crutches of normal life much more. I consulted a map, took photos, checked the time, looked for some suitable music I could listen to on the trudge.

Walk the path, this path that is here and now. Not the map, not the clock, not the playlist. There is a practise to presence. The seagulls whirl above and below and remind me of a poem about wild geese crying:

“Whoever you are no matter how lonely,

the world offers itself to your imagination,

calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting -

over and over announcing your place

in the family of things.”

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