Amy McCulloch told her story to producer Anne Marie Awad for an episode of The Daily Rally podcast. It has been edited for length and clarity.
After living this independent life, suddenly I was back in my parents’ basement, without a husband, without a future, without a marriage, with all my possessions in boxes. And I’d actually just gone out and bought the hiking boots, bought a new backpack, and just landed in Ireland the next day. I couldn’t really face being at home because it was too familiar. It was almost too painful to be somewhere that was so familiar to me because it felt like such a step backwards.
I am currently in London, England, in my home. I was actually born in the UK, but I moved to Canada when I was young.
I am a novelist. I write thrillers for adults and also science fiction and fantasy for young adults. I have a real passion for walking and mountaineering, in particular for high altitude peaks, and also all sorts of endurance events, and have sort of become addicted to running after not really being able to climb during the pandemic.
Probably the biggest challenge that sort of led me into the outdoors was the end of my marriage. I was in a long-term relationship from when I was 21, and we were together for ten years. I really felt like that was going to be the relationship that would define my life. That was the path that I thought I was gonna be walking, thought we were going to start a family. But one year into our marriage, it all kind of fell apart.
I arrived in Canada all of a sudden, on my own with all my stuff in boxes, and just having no idea what I was going to do with my life from that point on. I was looking into the future and really couldn’t see a path for myself.
I realized at that point that I was going to have to make some kind of significant change. I was just really lost. My first thought really was that I needed to get outside of myself to try and do something for myself that would take my mind off what was going on with me, but also allow myself to process this monumental shift that I was suddenly facing. And that’s when I decided to go on my first long distance walk. I’d never done anything like that before. I’d always been a big traveler, but I’d never really been that active of a person.
I kind of was this introverted kid, a shy kid who always had a nose tucked in a book. That kind of person didn’t enjoy running or pushing themselves physically or getting sweaty. All of those things, that kind of internal narrative, I’d convinced myself was true. I think when my marriage broke down, what I was realizing was I had to question a lot of the stories that I told myself about who I was. Is that really who I am, or if I just push myself a little bit outside of my comfort zone, push my boundaries a little bit, could I be capable of more? Could I find myself enjoying something different? Could my life look different now?
So I booked a one-way ticket to Ireland and decided to walk the Kerry Way. It’s a part of the Irish coastline that juts out into the Atlantic Ocean. That’s where the Skellig Islands are, which is where Star Wars was filmed. The end of the world place where Luke Skywalker ends up living out the rest of his days. The Kerry Way is very clearly marked, but it was completely out of my comfort zone at this time. So it was quite daunting to think about.
It’s a mixture of wild ocean, forest, farmland, and it’s the location of Ireland’s tallest mountain. It was very challenging for me as the first long distance walk that I’d ever embarked on.
I can remember really distinctly showing up at this bread and breakfast in County Kerry, and just looking around at the other tables and they were filled with couples or families or friends who were either coming back from finishing the Kerry Way, or about to start, or going on a road trip around Ireland. I had this really distinct feeling that I was there all on my own, and I really had to rely on myself to get to the next destination. I had something like 18 kilometers to walk on that first day.
There were so many times when I found myself completely on my own. I was walking slightly in the off season. So there weren’t that many other walkers around, but there were a lot of sheep, a lot of lambs. And I found myself quite often, to entertain myself, I guess, and also because I was processing quite a lot of really big emotions, just screaming at the sheep, crying in front of sheep, like singing at sheep. Those sheep really were my only witnesses to the kind of emotional rollercoaster that I was going on.
The mantra that I used in order to propel myself forward is that I only had to take one more step. Just one more step, one more step. It was very, very simple, but that’s what the walking did.
When I was at home back in Canada trying to process the emotions, I was so distracted by the internet, by looking things up, by always being on social media, and just wanting to kind of wrap myself up in a duvet and wallow. But when I was out there and walking and just putting one foot in front of the other, that was the only thing I had to do, to concentrate on. Giving myself the time and the peace in a way to just say to myself, All you have to do today is put one foot in front of the other, and reach that next destination.
What that first journey really taught me was that I was so much more capable of doing things, of doing physical things, of doing hard things, than I ever really thought was possible. It gave me that confidence and that belief in myself, that I was also capable of change. And that maybe even after ten years of being in the same relationship routine or in the same life routine, that things could be different. It really opened my eyes.
I went on such a rapid journey after that into the world of mountaineering, the world of walking, the outdoors in general. And that was something I would never have accomplished had I not gone through that total reset of what I thought my life was going to be. When I look at how far I’ve come in five years after that time, I’m both unrecognizable to myself and yet also so much truer to who I know I really am now.
Amy McCulloch is the author of Breathless, a thriller based on her experience climbing Manaslu, the eighth highest peak in the world. She has also written seven young adult books, and has a new novel, Midnight, coming out this summer. You can find her on Twitter @AmyMcCulloch.
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