CUTTING TALL GRASS | Sophia Hembeck solo-hiked the coastal path – and discovered the risks and rewards of existing alone in nature.
by Sophia Hembeck
It was the summer I couldn’t pay rent and went hiking instead. I wasn’t homeless. I had an address. I had a passport. I wasn’t living on the streets. Not a social case. Not looking for pity here. I just didn’t have enough money. That’s all.
At first it was a joke. I didn’t mean it when we were sitting in the pub, pints in front of us. It was funny. It was meant to underline the fact that I had hit a wall. That I should be looking for a job. A paid job. Money. Anything. Really. And then it became true, I think, as I’m standing in front of the white sign with black letters spelling: Coastal Path.
The rain is dripping on my neck, my dog Filou looking at me the same way I feel: miserable.
It hasn’t stopped raining in days. I take a picture of him and the sign for later, when I’m home again and able to pretend that somehow this moment was worth taking. That I am fine. That it was in fact fun, something you can post on instagram #nature #breath #exploringthewild. But for now I am not sure.
My shoes make squirting noises due to the fact that they are soaked with water. I guess trainers are not really appropriate footwear for hiking. I guess hiking boots would have been appropriate but also too expensive at the moment. This is going to be a cost-cutting action, I had to remind myself browsing through the shop earlier this week looking for a raincoat. Nature is free. If we could afford fancy hiking gear this would be a nice holiday trip. If we would have made better decisions in the past we would be home enjoying take-out pizza and some reality-show. But we are not. We are here. Just you and me Filou. He snorts in agreement.
The first night I sleep on a cliff. I wonder if it’s dangerous, if I should know these things instinctively, if my body should tell me automatically in which direction to pitch a tent, like how it knows how to breathe. It doesn’t. Not really. All I sense is: Maybe not so close to the edge.
As I lie there listening to the rain, making note of any unusual sound, Filou close by my side, I try to avoid thinking about men. Because somehow I’m really not afraid of any women entering my tent. I pet him, always repeating in my mind that he would tell me if someone was coming.
I think of the knife I brought with me. I put it beside my head. Just in case. I remember I have some wire with me too and start to tie the zippers together so the tent can’t be opened from the outside. I watch the zippers for a long time as they rattle along in the wind and I start to worry about what might happen if I need to get out really quickly. If there’s a fire for instance or murderers, rapists, thunder storms, being struck by lightning, rapists, rapists, rapists-murderers till finally my brain shuts down.
Nothing has happened. That’s my first thought upon waking. I know the night has ended. And for that all my fear is somehow gone. As if nothing bad could ever happen in broad daylight. I untie the zippers and look at the sky. It’s still quite dark but there’s a glimmer of sunlight at the bottom of the horizontal line. I sit cross-legged in my sleeping bag enjoying the change of light from orange to pink to violet and blue. It is worth the fear at night, I think as I pack up. Following the coastline looking at the sea carrying wave after wave.
Wandering narrow paths gets you questioning. Blisters on both feet keep you grounded. And a phone battery that’s slowly dying keeps you going. It’s hard to describe what is actually happening when you’re walking.
Every now and then I’m wondering about my flat, which technically isn’t my flat, as I’m just renting it, which technically makes me renting it out to other people a thing that some people might call ‘forbidden’ or ‘illegal’ but I try to avoid that thought. Especially now that it’s already done, I try to have more constructive thoughts. Like: This is beautiful. Or. This is even more beautiful.
“I try to avoid that thought. Especially now that it’s already done, I try to have more constructive thoughts. Like: This is beautiful. Or. This is even more beautiful.”
I notice the changes of the landscape, I try to remember the path with as much detail as possible. I try to be as present as possible, soaking in the beauty of it, but I cannot stop thinking of my own narration. How I will tell the story later. How I will say this was an enlightening experience. How I want this to be about overcoming fear, how I feel calmer the second night I lie down, but I don’t.
I set up my tent right next to the rocky beach, on a small patch of grass. The beauty and secludedness of this place is beyond anything I’ve ever seen. I make a fire using almost half of my notebook paper but then I get anxious of the fire burning down my tent at night or attracting other wanderers so I put it out again. My fear kills all romance.
I lie awake as I try to figure out a way not to be afraid. I try to be rational about it. I try to tell myself how I don’t need to be anxious before anything is even happening. That I should be anxious when I hear something or if somebody is actually presenting themselves as a threat. I repeat it over and over in my head without any resolution but eventually I pass out and again the next morning as soon as the sun rises I feel fine again.
I wonder, as I walk into the next village to get some breakfast, if I should just accept the fear at night as part of this journey. Like the fact that the bakery isn’t open before 10 o’clock which leaves me very hungry and restless, continuing my way along the coastal path. I could have stopped, I hangrily admit to myself as I approach the national reservoir, with no food on me and miles away from any form of supermarket.
High up the top of a cliff where there’s a beautiful lighthouse I sit down and watch the seagulls shrieking like my hunger. I’m angry at the other people with their light bags, just out for a stroll, for a Sunday wander. I’m sure they had plenty to eat this morning. I hate them. I hate them so much. It’s not their fault, obviously it’s all my fault. I start crying but nobody can hear it because the seagulls are way louder. Filou isn’t even paying attention. He just wants to continue walking, pulling on the lead, so I give in.
Six hours later my mood has gone from angry to desperate. I cut through a golf course. Apparently that’s not allowed or whatever but everyone is too polite to say anything. I follow the signs to the city centre. I check every five minutes on my phone which way to go, even though there is really only one street to the restaurants (plural!). Choice is too overwhelming at the moment, I just want to eat, so I collapse on the nearest seat. I wait forever (?) for the waiter to come to my table because I cannot risk any friction with him. He who has no idea why this young woman is ordering so much food but I have to make sure that there’s enough and fast.
All the food arrives at once and I feel like praying.
I bite into the white bread with butter, topped with tomato and basil. I dip it into the garlic olive oil sauce of the shrimps. I order more butter because it’s not enough. And mayonnaise because he forgot to bring it. The fries taste hot and oily and salty and I cry. I am so happy. My phone freshly charged, I get a message from the Airbnb App. Another couple is asking if they could rent the flat for next week. I make a pause and look up at the other tables; the Sunday walkers and the families with their half-eaten plates carelessly leaving them for the lingering seagulls. I look down again, click accept, get my things and leave nothing.
Sophia Hembeck lives in Edinburgh and is the founder of the Edinburgh Storynight. She studied playwriting at the University of Arts in Berlin and has published two graphic novels.