Last weekend I went on an acoustic walking weekend run by the Plas-y-Brenin outdoor centre in North Wales. If you’re like me (luckily for you, you probably aren’t) then your first thought on reading this might be “what on earth is acoustic walking? That sounds a bit weird, maybe something that hippies would do.” Don’t worry, I’m not about to go all New Age on you. The Big Acoustic Walk is simply an event run a couple of times a year where you walk during the day and play, sing or listen to acoustic music in the evening. People bring along their instruments (guitars, banjos, accordions, ukuleles, and even a violin), form ad-hoc groups, and get involved (or not). If you’ve ever been to an open mic night, it’s pretty much like that. If you haven’t, all I can say is that it’s more fun than it sounds, as long as you’re prepared to tolerate a wide range of abilities and tastes (I’m not very good at that last bit, but more on that later).
As I sat on the train at the end of the weekend, still buzzing from the adrenalin, and having eventually given up battling the Virgin trains wifi connection which was slow enough to make your brain rot, I pondered what I’d learnt over the last two days. One of the first things I realised was that not only does walking during the day and music at night fit together very well (other than perhaps for the hardy souls who were still drinking and playing at 4am on the Saturday morning before getting up 3 hours later for a day on the hill), but also that this weekend was about getting out of your comfort zone for many people in a variety of different ways. There were different grades of walk on offer – from art and photography walks to gentle strolls on the coast to full-on proper mountains, and with small groups and expert leaders it was a fantastic opportunity for some to push themselves onto a tougher day out in the hill than they might be used to.
For many of the musicians, it was a terrifying chance to sing or play an instrument in public to a bunch of strangers. And for others, it was a chance to go away for a weekend to a place they’d never been to where they didn’t know anyone, be forced to socially interact with a bunch of strangers (potentially sharing a bedroom with a mad axe murderer), and spend a day getting cold, wet and muddy in the outdoors instead of sitting at home playing Scrabble with their cat. Handy tip: if you don’t have a cat to play Scrabble with, you can play your left hand against your right hand; however, it can be tempting to cheat and favour one hand over the other in order to get a high score. Not that I’ve ever done that. Ahem. But as usual, I digress.
So what did I learn from the weekend? First, let’s talk about the music. I have an extremely high intolerance of bad music (stuff I don’t like, which is quite a lot, but also out-of-tune singing, in particular, feels like nails down a blackboard. Not that I claim to be a world-class singer myself – indeed I am not – but I can spot a rogue flat note at 100 paces). So listening to a bunch of amateurs is always a bit of a risky business. I don’t play any instruments that are useful in this kind of context (piano and bassoon, in case you were wondering), and while I do sing (and have sung in some amazingly talented choral groups, as well as some slightly less talented ones) I don’t know the words to anything and am far too shy to get up and perform except after a lot of practice and a lot of gradual building up to it. I realised that there were many people in the room who felt like this, and in fact a number of people had been to this event several times before plucking up the courage to actually get up and perform themselves. There was even a lady who recited some of her own (mostly very funny) poems (the ones that weren’t funny weren’t meant to be funny). That always takes some bottle. At the bar, I spotted a number of swift shots of whisky being consumed just before a performer was about to go on stage for the first time. I don’t blame them. I’m working on the “confidence about singing and playing music in public” thing because, like dancing and speaking foreign languages, I’m terrified at the thought of doing it in front of other people, but do actually enjoy performing once I can get over that. It was interesting seeing people at varying stages of the confidence spectrum, especially those who after a few drinks, a bit of encouragement from the audience, and after seeing others perform, gradually managed to build up their confidence to get up and do whatever it was they could do. And everyone was very encouraging, because they’d either been in the same situation themselves once, or wished they had the bottle – or ability – to perform themselves.
And here we move onto the theme of this post, which is all about camaraderie and confidence. It takes bottle not only to push yourself out of your comfort zone, but even just to admit that you’re not as tough as you might outwardly appear to be. Unless you’re a psychopath (and probably even then too) you almost certainly have something you worry about your ability to do, whether it’s to interact socially with strangers, to sing in public, to walk up a mountain, jump out of an aeroplane, or even to find your way to the toilets when you’re visually impaired. Or all of the above. And on the flipside, if you see someone struggling to do one of these things, you almost certainly want to help them achieve it. Of course if you’re a psychopath and you see someone scared to jump out of a plane, you might be tempted to push them out, but that’s slightly different. I always worry a little bit when I go on active trips about how people will respond to the fact that I have numerous issues which make walking up (and down) mountains challenging. Not to mention the fact that I often find walking into a bar on my own terrifying, especially since I can’t recognise people even at point blank range and don’t know if I know them or not, even if I’ve just spent the whole day with them. It sounds silly, but it can be desperately embarrassing (or lonely, or both at once).
But it turns out that on almost every active trip I’ve been on, there’s someone else who has issues of some sort too. Some people worry about their lack of experience, some have physical limitations of all shapes and sizes, some just have inadequate kit and struggle with the conditions, some have social issues. I find people are often nervous to even talk about their fears or limitations until they discover that they’re not the only ones with a body that doesn’t work properly. But the corollary to this is that the person who isn’t very fit might still be able to help me find the right route on a tricky scrambling section. I might not be able to see very well, but I can help the person with a dodgy leg over a tricky rock manoeuvre, or even point out a handy foothold I found on a rock that they didn’t clock. Or I might save them from falling in a bog by falling in it first and recommending they don’t follow me. Hot tip: there’s no better way of making someone who’s feeling a bit awkward or inadequate feel better about themselves than for them to be able to help someone else.
At this point, I must say a word of thanks to Plas-y-Brenin and the organisers of the weekend – it was something a bit different and definitely more fun than sitting at home playing Scrabble with an imaginary cat. Our group had two splendid walks in some interesting weather conditions (rain, hail, snow, sunshine, bogs, high winds and a lot of mud), with an ascent of Moel Siabod on the first day and a traverse of Tryfan on the second day (hastily rearranged from the original plan after the weather conditions deteriorated). Our guide Dan was superb in adapting to the weather conditions and the needs of the group, and in managing that perfect but hard-to-achieve balance between making sure that we were safe while still letting us also do our own thing in our own way and challenging ourselves appropriately.
I’ve written before about why you would pay to walk up hills with a bunch of strangers when you could do it for free. I love the fact that not only do I always seem to have a great time, but I also learn a lot. Whether it’s something about myself, some useful tip, or something totally useless but interesting. I’m sure I learnt some useless facts on this weekend, but I appear to have forgotten them all. On the other hand, I learnt a useful tip from a cardiac nurse: if someone’s having a heart attack on a hill it’s best to remove as much of their clothing as you can, even if it results in them getting hypothermia, as being cold slows their heart rate down and increases their likelihood of surviving. Even if they lose a limb from frostbite, it’s better than dying. Which results in another top tip: if you’re going to have a heart attack on a mountain, it’s better to do it in Snowdonia in winter than in the desert in summer, for the same reason. Disclaimer: if this advice is wrong, don’t blame me, blame the person who told me. And finally, I also learnt that it’s a good idea not to pause after the word “fat” when watching someone go through a narrow gap and commenting that it would be tricky to fit through if you have a fat rucksack. This is what happens when you have a reputation for speaking bluntly and not always thinking before you speak. Still, nobody got stuck, so it was all OK.
So my final word on comfort zones for today. If you’re struggling to think of a way to push yourself out of your comfort zone, and playing music in front of strangers isn’t for you (or you don’t want to wait until the next Big Acoustic Walk), you could always have a go at the Will4Adventure Challenge4Charity in April and see if you can walk 50 miles in 24 hours (spoiler alert: you don’t have to walk it all, but I bet you’ll be surprised how far you get). More on that in another post.