If there is one thing that all three of us have learned after hiking hundreds of miles, day after day for months on end, is that it's not a physical challenge, its a pure mental challenge.
Your physical fitness and strength might get you (us) through a few miles, but it will not last long, and then it tests your mental resilience. For me and Sarah, it has nearly broken us on more than one occasion.
Being autistic is only part of the mental challenge for both Eve and myself, as most people who try to do what we do every day (live outdoors, hiking, etc), will inevitably have their own struggles. Autism just gives us a different perspective and a more intense set of feelings and emotions.
Autism is a spectrum of traits that can manifest in struggles but also provide strengths in specific areas or interests. Eve’s strength is being outdoors and to an extent so are both Sarah's and mine. Eve wants to climb Mt Everest one day and is definitely not a domestic child!
The reason last year's and this year's adventure is not a physical challenge, is that we don't push ourselves into the zone where we’re fighting to put one foot in front of the other. We hike within our comfort zone and only push ourselves when required, usually for safety reasons.
Hiking and being outdoors is how we live, it is not just a hobby or a temporary way of life. It doesn’t have a pre-prescribed end enforced by events outside of our control such as; winter coming, closure of a trail, or the most relevant to the majority of people, having to go back to work. It is how we live day to day. Then outdoors is our home.
However we are not constrained by only hiking, next year we will not be hiking, we are doing something totally different, with one precondition, all three of us, Sarah, Eve and I will be doing it together.
Public transport is something that I would really like to be able to manage and always have wanted to be able to deal with, as without it, it is so restrictive and it can also open up so many more possibilities if I could 'deal' with it better!
I have been asked a few times about public transport and my issues with it, so here it is as simple as I can write it...
"Imagine being on a rollercoaster that you know is going to crash. You can’t get off and there is no escape. Every single noise, smell, and vibration is being pumped directly into your head so much so you lose depth perception, and everything you see is a blurry two-dimensional image that is so 'loud' even closing your eyes doesn't block it out or help as it just makes the noise, smell, and touch even louder and more intense. That's before we add the other passengers... If a person touches me, brushes past me, or even if I feel their breath, I totally close up and just can’t deal with it. I have to and I will get off, one way or another!!! If people get close I can still feel them and smell them later on, even when away from the place it occurred and it still feels like it is happening. I can't always tell when something has stopped.
Welcome aboard the National Express, we hope you have a pleasant journey!
Then there’s the dentist... but that's for another day!
I don't often talk about Sarah and her challenges.
Sarah still works and has to manage the emotions of her husband and daughter being outside, walking in all weathers, meeting and talking to people not to mention the publicity of being recognised and more recently being filmed for a documentary.
I do sometimes try to write about the emotional and practical challenges that Sarah faces, but it's tough to write because it feels wrong to try and interpret her feelings for her.
The best analogy I can draw is for me as a male, to try and describe the feelings and emotions of menstruation and the practical challenges of bleeding every month. I might witness it and occasionally be on the receiving end of the emotional roll coaster of hormones, but to try and draw a conclusion about the experience from the female perspective is impossible. I hope that makes sense.
The one thing that is easy to see, is that Sarah is finding it much harder this year than she did last year being parted from Eve and me. Why is this year so much harder than last year? I don’t really know. What I do know is that this year Sarah feels she is missing out, which she is, but most of all is simply missing being together as a family.
Sarah cried when she left us at Balmaha the other day on the West Highland Way.
It’s heartbreaking, but we are strong and we have dealt with worse!
The fact is, for Eve her life is outside and being adventurous.
Our charity adventures, facts, and science don’t care for feelings or emotions, despite how people might like to think they can change facts and science to meet their own personal beliefs and interpretations. Removing the whole charity part of what we did last year hiking JOGLE, one of the biggest motivators was to give Eve a unique experience that only home-educating Eve can allow.
But hiking JOGLE meant Eve and I would be doing it on our own, despite how much Sarah might have wanted to. Sarah really wanted to walk!
So, why could sarah not walk?
The reason Sarah couldn't walk this year or last was because of cancer that she had a few years ago.
Sarah had the most aggressive and lethal form of Melanoma and it was forming on her feet. Sarah is lucky to be alive and even luckier to not have had at least one foot amputated. The surgeons had to remove so much flesh and to such a depth that walking any distance is painful and can affect Sarahs walking for days after. The scars else wear on her body from the skin grafts can be even more painful than her feet! They took grafts from her groin!
So now you know a little bit more about why Sarah can't walk with us and why it upsets her so much that she can't.
For me, this creates a huge emotional tug of war between managing Sarah's emotions of wanting to do all this 'stuff' with Eve's need and a deep desire to live outdoors and have adventures, including hiking, wild camping, munros etc
Obviously, Eve has to come first and be the priority.
My opinion of parenthood is that children should be an addition to a committed loving relationship, where a parent's responsibility is constantly to be letting go but ready to support as needed. Making the right decision is not always the easy one!
Please let me explain my thoughts on this…
from the moment a baby is born, they need absolutely everything provided for them, but slowly you let go as they are able to fulfill their own needs. The letting go, however, only gets harder as they grow older.
Our job as parents is to prepare them for what is to come. For example, we potty train children, and eventually you have to let them do it on their own and mop up any mistakes which inevitably will be a lot harder than just doing it ourselves for them.
That's the easy stuff, then comes the first time they walk to the shops or go out with their friends. This is even harder as the risks are so much greater.
Eve is autistic and struggles with so much of life that most people take for granted or even excel in. Putting Eve into a school would not work, and keeping Eve indoors is a recipe for disaster.
For Eve being outdoors is where she learns best and can prepare for the world that one day she will have to learn how to manage and navigate on her own without Sarah or I being there to support her.
Hiking is one of the best ways, within our (my) confidence and skill set that we can think of to get outdoors and confront some of the challenges that she will be presented with and struggles with, from social interactions to toileting, the list goes on.
That is where the emotional challenge for me comes in and for Sarah as a bystander when we are out on the trail. I have to do everything, make every decision, and constantly be making dynamic risk assessments all from the perspective of being autistic myself.
It's seriously hard, emotionally exhausting, and mentally challenging, not to mention relentless. Being outdoors there is no rest bite, no let up, it's constant with no end except sleep which I struggle with at the best of times.
That’s why it's emotionally hard for me. I feel such a sense of responsibility for Eve's care and safety as well as for the trust Sarah is putting in me to support and guide Eve through the infinitely complex journey of life.
On top of that, there is everything else that is going on. On the West Highland Way, for example, we are being recognised 10-15 times a day, by different groups of people all of which want to stop and talk even to just say "HI". I want that to happen, in-fact I encourage it.
For one reason, social interaction is a huge aspect of life that Eve is going to have to learn how to do in one way or another. It would be arrogant to think or to expect everybody else to change in order to accommodate me and Eve and the huge spectrum of differences autistic people can present with.
I see it like a relationship, there has to be an effort from both sides if not the relationship will fail. Relationships are only hard when one side is putting in all the effort.
Maybe that's old-school thinking, after all, I am an 80s child, but society is so complex now and is getting even more complex.
Sarah and I need a heart-to-heart talk about how we can proceed with this year's adventure.
As soon as we have a plan I will update you.
Ian, Sarah and Eve