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Guest post: Ruth Wiggins, co-contributor to Waymaking

Tuesday, 4 September 2018

Ruth Wiggins exploring Vancouver Island. This was her first multi-day backcountry through-hike – a wonderful experience but quite the learning curve.

I was really happy to have a poem selected for Waymaking but now I've received my copy, I am delighted! To be a part of something so beautiful, timely and inspiring is a privilege. It has made me laugh; nod with recognition; shake my head in astonishment; ring girlfriends; hatch plans. And honestly? It has made me cry. It's just such an inspiring book. I started listing bits I particularly liked, but the list just kept on growing. I now think it would be impossible to single out specifics because there's something unique about the way it all hangs together. That's a real credit to the editors but also a reflection of the nature of the book itself. With so many contributors, a single project can run the risk of becoming fragmented, but the opposite has happened here. All the voices speak to each other and help conjure a whole world, one laced by trails and the women traversing them.

Something that emerges from the book is that there's often a significant person or event that prompted the contributor's first engagement with the outdoors. So I will just mention Paula Flach's drawing, She Collects all the Trees She Climbed That Summer. Paula really captures that sticky-out branch, the one that tempts you up the tree, offers you that first handhold, and I mention it because I can imagine this book will offer lots of new waymakers that same hand, to come outside and join us. Pick a trail; pick a hill! I know if I'd read a book like it, years ago, I would have got out there sooner.

There's a bit of synchronicity for me with Waymaking. Eight years ago I went on a writing course at which I met Anja Konig and Penelope Shuttle, both fellow contributors to this book. Anja and I have been friends ever since, perhaps because our friendship was immediately cemented by ditching the course and going on a long walk in the forested Shropshire hills instead. While Anja recited poems about sheep, I had to prove my (limited) map skills by getting us back in time for tea. 

I've always loved maps, perhaps because the symbolic language they employ has something in common with poetry, the way they can both conjure the hard contours of things, but also the human interconnectedness around them. Pam Williamson's pictures and poems, Walking Moses Trod, made me think about maps too. Moses Trod is a path I've walked parts of, but I never knew the legend about Moses Rigg smuggling moonshine over the Gables. This sent me back to my OS, and got me thinking about that word legend, 'a key to deciphering a map' but also, 'a story of plausible but extraordinary events', from the Latin legenda meaning 'things which ought to be read'. For example, this book.

I have foggy but cherished memories of being dumped as a teenager in a Welsh wood with a compass and a bunch of other kids, and being told to find our way back. And I have an even fonder memory of an occasion on which it fell to me to navigate, this time on instinct. I was about eight or nine, and together with my sister and our cousins, and prompted by a tantalising Keep Out sign, we sneaked down the back of a house, stumbled across a stream at the bottom of a garden and into the woods beyond with not a single responsible adult in sight. Just four girls, out in the woods – it became our legend. Other adventures were to follow, in a childhood spent mostly climbing trees and wandering off, but it wasn't until forty years later that, despite many days hiking and camping as an adult (mostly with my own kids in tow) that I actually went on my first ever through-hike. 

With a full pack, good boots and a map, I set off with my husband into the Vancouver Island back country. But as the day slowly progressed I got really sick. It was hot, and I just did not realise how dehydrated I was. I managed to reach my destination, but let's just say it's no fun throwing up in a tent and making delirious trips in the dark to a pit toilet, all the while terrified that a bear is about to jump you!! This might not sound like the greatest introduction to multi-day hiking, but I was determined that that hopeless, dehydrated woman shivering in a tent was not going to be the end of it for me. I've since been fortunate enough to hike thousands of kilometres, in many wonderful and remote places around the world, sleeping in tents, gers, huts and hostels (and the occasional awesome hotel!) and I'm not saying I've never again lain there staring at the roof of my tent, cold and wet and shattered, thinking, Remind me, why am I doing this?! But then I get back up in the morning, and I remember. 

Walking offers me companionship but also solitude and a place to think & feel, to re-inhabit my body, reconnect with the earth. That gorgeous exhaustion and hunger that makes you really eat, really sleep. The rhythm of walking helps me pace out my thoughts – my breathing shifts, my muscles start tingling, and the horizon opens up. There's something maddening about being indoors that only fresh air and an uneven floor can fix. I even love the idea of the trail, that broken line striding across the map. The fact that it is something kept alive by the simple act of walking it. It is history, geography, connection, politics, body, song, delight. 

And lastly, one of the things I've been most delighted by in my travels is just how many women there are out there! There are solo rangers schlepping great big packs; groups of students out for the weekend with good knives and fish hooks, or veggie trail food; girls in lakes; girls climbing peaks; go-fast, go-lite girls; old gals past their prime but still outpacing me. All sorts. And my poem in the book is dedicated to all of them, for sharing their tips, their stories, their cocoa, their company. And most of all for sharing the trail.

Ruth Wiggins


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