Being Here Now How Local Adventures Help You Travel Better

January 12th, 2024
Being Here Now How Local Adventures Help You Travel Better

A week before Christmas, I stepped outside on a cold, grey, windy day and walked to the train station. It’s a route I’ve now taken well over a hundred times since moving to this seaside town in Western Scotland - and so I saw none of it. My thoughts were elsewhere: worries about squeezing work deadlines in before the holidays, about particularly tricky presents still to get, about this and about that. Mentally, I was everywhere but here.

And then, in exactly the same not-here state, I get on the train. Where I’m getting the rest of my Christmas shopping is around an hour up the tracks - but around fifty minutes in, I notice something strange. My face is warm. Why is that? 

My awareness snaps back into the present. While my mind’s been elsewhere, the world has changed: the rain’s gone, the clouds have dissipated, and the sun is shining into my cabin with all the force it can muster at this time of year. It’s suddenly a bright and sunny day, with glorious views of the Scottish landscape…that I’ve almost entirely missed.

When this happens in everyday life, it’s an annoyance. When this happens and you’re travelling somewhere new, it’s a tragedy - a wholesale negation of the whole purpose of visiting somewhere new. And it can happen, at any time and in any place. It may be less likely when you’re surrounded by novelty, but it’s still easy for your thoughts to draft away - especially when you’re distracted by one of our new-fangled tech devices that follow us everywhere these days. It’s easy to look up from a screen to discover you’ve missed everything worth being here for.

Edinburgh, the capital of Scotland, is worth focusing on.

Edinburgh, the capital of Scotland, is worth focusing on.

What we need is training. We need to teach ourselves to be a little more present in the “now” around us, so we can take that skill and use it to its full potential when travelling, so we miss as little as possible.

This is of course the subject of countless schools of philosophical thought, hundreds of self-help books and also quite a lot of travel writing. I very much hope you’ve discovered some of it already, so you don’t need my help and can stop reading this, perhaps because you want to pay attention to what’s around you right now. Bravo, if that’s the case!          

But if like me you still struggle with all this, here’s what I believe the youngsters call a “hack”. 

During the first Covid-19 lockdown in Scotland in 2020, we spent months only being allowed outdoors for maybe half an hour at a time. Consequently, that time became extremely precious. How could we get the most out of it, when we clearly couldn’t go very far?

Then I started asking myself these questions:

  • Can you get some of the serendipitous thrill of travel when you have to stay home?
  • Does a pandemic lockdown really have to be so boring?
Some surprises, such as the Scottish Thistle, will impress you

Some surprises, such as the Scottish Thistle, will impress you

So I set myself one of those “lockdown challenges” that were proving so popular at the time (along with Netflix). Using an online mapping tool, I drew a circle a mile wide around the apartment where I was living, and began hunting for serendipity within it. I’d go for a walk, I’d pay close attention to everything I could see, and I’d try to “overhear” something new about the world around me – usually triggering a question that I could research online when I got back home.

At roughly the same time, British adventurer Alastair Humphreys started doing the same thing - using his rural corner of southern England as a place for discovering things he never really saw because they were over-familiar to him - and therefore outside the realm of his attention span. As the year went on, he extended his reach to cover the entire Ordnance Survey map he lived in the middle of - and now it’s the subject of his latest book, Local, released this month:

“After travelling the whole world, can exploring a single map ever be enough? 

Adventurer Alastair Humphreys spends a year investigating the small map around his own home. Can this unassuming landscape, marked by the glow of city lights and the hum of busy roads, satisfy his wanderlust? Could a single map provide a lifetime of exploration?

He discovers more about the natural world than in all his years in remote environments. And he wakes up to the terrible state of British nature, land use, and freedom to roam the countryside. 

Slow down and savor the moment with mindfulness.

Slow down and savor the moment with mindfulness.

This is an ode to slowing down and the meaningful experience of truly getting to know your neighbourhood.” 

It is a fun way to learn something new about the world on my static-but-always-changing doorstep, and it gave me all sorts of ideas for this newsletter, so I’m going to keep doing it.

If this idea sounds fun to you, you certainly don’t need to spend a year doing it. Here’s how you can have a go yourself.

  1. Draw Your Circle 

The online tool I used is this one. You may find something much better.

If like me you’re living on the coast, choose a circle bigger than normal to counteract all that inaccessible sea. Or if your neighbourhood’s dense with stuff to get curious about, go smaller - how much you could discover within a city in a half-mile radius?

  1. Get Specific

It’s hard to motivate yourself to do something with an unclear outcome. For this reason, don’t “go in search of serendipity,” because failing to find something interesting enough will feel like a failed quest. Instead, set yourself a clearly-defined outdoorsy task, like “walk to the top of that hill and back” or “walk right around that wood”, or “sit at that place for twenty minutes, watching and listening as hard as you can”.

Also, take a notebook and a pen – or if you prefer, use your phone to take audio notes (just make sure it’s not distracting you with the clamour of notifications from the outer world. Be here, not there.)

  1. Share It


This is most definitely optional, because social media can be such a distraction from the present, but - if you’re comfortable with Instagram or Facebook or some other platform, use that to share what you’ve discovered.

And if not - how about teaching it? Set yourself the challenge of finding something amazing that you can excitedly share with friends or family. That process of having to teach it - to translate experience into understandable sentences - will solidify that memory even more, and help it to stick in your mind a lot longer.    

Sharing with family and friends brings happiness to both sides.

Sharing with family and friends brings happiness to both sides.

So - now you’re in training. This is prep-work for the real thing, wherever you’re choosing to travel this year or the next. You’re building attentional muscles to do the heavy-lifting required for seeing everything in your future travels, and for staying in the moment, drinking it all up in a way you’ll never forget. 

Best of luck! 

Further ideas for local exploration

  • Back in June 2020, travel writer Tim Hannigan explored a 2km-wide circle on Ordnance Survey Ireland sheet 46, centred on his home – the furthest that lockdown would let him travel at the time.

  • Photographer Steve Marshall is finding out what’s within 1000 steps of his front door.

  • If you insist on putting your feet up for the next few months (fair enough!), please read this brilliant book about exploring city blocks in New York - the best on local exploration that I’ve ever read.
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