From the closet to the hilltop, how hiking helped me heal
Annual reset walks, exploring the great outdoors and how being out as a gay guy can mean more than bars, clubs and afters
words Ryan Cahill
Screaming along to Charli XCX, drinking shots, dancing, being packed tightly amongst a sweaty crowd with condensation dripping from the roof - I’m all for queer hedonism. It’s a rite of passage. As a 28-year-old fast approaching 30, I’ve been on the lookout for other outlets, the kind that don’t present days of hangxiety and a sizeable dent in my bank balance.
The pandemic offered the opportunity to search for that. With clubs closed and socialising off limits, I was given the chance to explore other avenues, both metaphorically and literally. Within the confinements of Hackney, I set out on walking routes I’d never taken, from streets lined with grand Victorian houses to leafy canal paths. The marshes were a particular source of comfort, with their wide open landscapes and broad walking paths offering a rare moment of freedom during a time when my world felt so small and confined. For the first time in my life, I discovered the joy of walking.
Growing up in West Yorkshire, I had an abundance of walking routes on my doorstep. Breathtaking landscapes, rolling hills and picturesque views just a 10 minute walk from my house, but instead I chose to live out my childhood in my bedroom. I was silently battling an internal struggle around my sexuality and essentially wishing away my homosexuality within the four walls of my room. I was badly bullied at school, but in the streets it got worse, with people both young and old shouting homophobic names at me.Home felt like my only safespace, so I stayed in Instead spending the time escaping into TV shows like Charmed or in books like A Series of Unfortunate Events. Anything that would deflect from thoughts and feelings surrounding my sexuality and the sense that I was somehow cursed or wrong.
But since the pandemic, my relationship with the outdoors has taken a shift. Walking has become a cathartic experience, a form of therapy for me. Beyond the scientific reasons (30 minutes of walking, running, biking and swimming can significantly increase the serotonin levels in the body), walking has offered a sense of clarity. Unplugged from social media and emails and comfortably away from the irresistible pull of my TV, I finally have an opportunity to think. Wherever I hike, I find myself revisiting the past, recalling experiences from youth and playing out certain moments in my head. I lead a pretty busy life, and my head is often filled with work troubles or social situations, so my walks are my one opportunity to actually reflect on myself. With the benefit of hindsight, and in an entirely developed and more comfortable headspace, I think about how differently I’d approach things. I’d speak up more, stand up for myself, spend less time resenting the person I was born to be. And this isn’t about regrets or wishing I could rewrite the past, but more about acknowledging how far I’ve come. Each kilometre offers a new sense of clarity about my own self-acceptance, each physical mile leading to a metaphorical mile in my own personal growth.
Admittedly though, I still love to explore spaces with fewer people. While large cities can sometimes offer the opportunity to blend in amongst the dense population, smaller towns still make me uncomfortable, triggered by the complexities I experienced in my own small town – and so I find myself heading for the hills. With no-one around, I can fully relax. One particular walking app has been a godsend in that respect. I’ll often go on a mini-break with my boyfriend to small towns in Kent or Surrey, and can plug in my location and it delivers a long list of hiking routes as suggested by fellow walkers.
Walking with my partner is also a unique experience in itself. It gives us the time to properly check-in on our relationship and discuss the things that we might need to work on. While we have various walks peppered throughout the year, our annual December hike has been a key date in the diary for the past six years. We plan an extended hike somewhere outside of London and spend the time reflecting on the year gone by and looking ahead to the future, sharing our plans and ambitions both personally and as a couple. Together, we’ve completed major walking and hiking routes across the UK, including climbing Mam Tor in the Peak District and exploring the Surrey Hills. We’ve also climbed Mount Etna in Sicily and Sljeme in Croatia. The Perambulations Walking Guides to Modernist Houses have also come in handy on quiet Saturday afternoons. These walks feel fundamental to our relationship, bringing us closer together with each new route and helping to create new memories, ones that aren’t blurred by the effects of a double spiced rum and coke.
Given the smallmindedness that I’ve often experienced in smaller towns, there’s a common misconception that queer life only exists in big cities, and within those cities, it thrives in queer clubs and bars, where alcohol and drugs are at the forefront. But in an era of self-care, it’s important to realise that the gay village is not the only place that queer joy exists. Within groups of friends, with your partner or even solo, there’s clarity and comfort to be found on an amazing hike – whether it is 10 minutes or 10 hours. Unlike the gay village, it’s also affordable, and while you might have a pair of aching hamstrings, it won’t give you days of unwarranted anxiety. But if that isn’t enough to sell it and you’re still craving a taste of queer hedonism, you can always shove on headphones and do it while screaming along to Charli XCX…
This article has been brought to you in partnership with New Balance, which is working to get people on the move with its 2023 TCS London Marathon range.
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