Staff blog: The Spirit of John Muir with Alastair Humphreys
John Muir Award Manager Rob Bushby reflects on an evening spent with some inspiring modern-day adventurers
The Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh provided the prestigious venue for the John Muir Trust’s second Spirit of John Muir event in early November. In the context of Edinburgh’s New Town it has a fairly innocuous narrow frontage, only hinting at the scale and architectural grandeur inside.
Likewise, Alastair Humphreys is deceptively unassuming. Far from a traditional adventurer archetype, he’s youthful and fresh-faced rather than gnarled and rugged; winsome rather than brusque; more willowy than brawny. (This whippet-thin physique is due in part, we hear later, to reliance on grade-one level violin busking skills to sustain a recent walk across Spain). He’s beardless, in possession of all his digits, and doesn’t – as far as I know - drink his own urine.
But what an array of adventures to share – from cycling around the world to rowing across the Atlantic, from dragging a trolley across the Empty Quarter desert to circumnavigating the M25 on foot – besides creating a new sub-genre with a prefix of micro-….
Evening of adventure
This second event in an annual series explores and celebrates the relevance of John Muir, through contemporary figures that capture and exemplify facets of Muir. Last year, the Trust’s inaugural Spirit of John Muir with Chris Packham event in London focused on Muir the naturalist. This year’s theme was adventure.
From youthful ‘scootchers’ on Dunbar’s roofs and castle walls to being wind-blasted in treetops, from solo rock climbs to 1,000 mile walks – a lifetime of adventure underpined John Muir’s writing and campaigning.
The evening is bookended by two short inputs. We kick off with some youthful inspiration from Zeki Basan sharing his Yosemite exploits. There's a striking clarity and articulacy to Zeki before it becomes apparent that the adventure he's describing (and the extract from his first film In the Spirit of Muir) was done 18 months ago as a 15 year-old. His current project is focussed on the John Muir Way, with support from the Trust’s Bill Wallace Grant; next up is Alaska. He’s one to watch, young Zeki.
Maude Tiso set up the Tiso outdoor shops empire with husband Graham in 1962, was a founding member of the John Muir Trust in the early ‘80s, and is the very definition of ‘adventurous spirit’. Post-interval, a short film (also an online blog) opens with “I’ve always had a passion for life and a curiosity about the whole world, and I do like to make things happen.” Not a single audience member doubts a word of it. We're enthralled. Respect and recognition for a remarkable lady.
A good cry
The main event is an hour packed with entertaining, amusing, self-effacing fare from Alastair. “Ranulph Fiennes’ expeditions don’t start with him having a good cry” sets the tone, the first act of his own 4,000 mile four year global cycle.
A couple of themes emerge: adventure is right here, closer than you think, if you choose to make it happen; and once you step out, the overwhelming kindness of strangers is universal.
These strands reflect two things that set Alastair apart from many of his contemporaries: he’s done more than anyone in recent years to dispel myths, to address barriers real and perceived; and – through intelligent use of social media, blogs, talks, and books – he’s extended that generosity found on the road and trail to anyone who wishes to access his hard-earned expertise, promoting the accessibility of adventure for all.
After an initial absence of Muir in Alastair’s narrative (though not of event sponsors Tiso, along with Mountain Equipment, regularly referenced having been the source of Al’s first oversized Goretex trousers), the Victorian conservation pioneer becomes increasingly prominent.
By “turning to the internet for wisdom” Alastair discovers the inspiration of Muir and – for the purposes of this talk at least – offers an inverted contrariness to Muir’s pithy slogans:
- Mention of ‘dirt paths’ prompts a trans-Atlantic rowing adventure...
- “Money was scarce”, says Muir, so here’s an Arctic expedition costing over £1,000 per day...
- “Only go a few miles to be happy” leads to a solo walk across India.
Busking across Spain
We then get two personal re-interpretations of adventure from Alastair. “I got quite good at being miserable and suffering," he says. "It became my comfort zone.”
So, to reinstate that sense of discomfort, nervousness, and fear of failure, Alastair re-creates a busking trip across Spain described in Laurie Lee’s As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning. The only problem is that he can’t play the violin, his instrument of choice. He really can’t. And he demonstrated this during the only bit of the evening that he was nervous about – his first formal public performance.
Despite this, he scrapes enough Euros not to starve. A sachet of MacDonald’s tomato sauce became his energy gel, a bag of pork scratchings found in a bin a rare treat. It's a true adventure.
“If it feels like an adventure to you, it’s an adventure.” Alastair vividly demonstrates this with "the dullest adventure ever" travelling on foot around the M25. "It was brilliant! It made us appreciate the small things, the comforts in life”.
What stops people having adventures? Time, money, location, equipment, kids…these are all convincingly dismissed. Never mind 9 to 5, what can you do between 5 and 9? "What would you rather be doing on Tuesdays? Spreadsheets or building a raft? Let's be more child-like when saying yes to adventures."
There's a widespread buy-in, lots of nods, very little scepticism in the room.
Alastair signs off by premiering Wilderness – a new short film, made mostly on John Muir Trust properties with filmmaker Tem Doran. A project that began as a string of adventures - camping, running, climbing, canoeing, skiing, cycling - has become a meditation on wildness based on a narrative formed of Muir’s words. It’s reflective, poetic, intimate, majestic, stimulating.
It's only an hour since we saw Alastair stepping out of his front door with his bike. Through his rich tapestry of adventures, he's established a deep appreciation of the legacy of outdoor pioneers and their stories. And here is someone, very much in the spirit of Muir – communicating the value that wild places offer as the backdrop for rich experience and the importance of their stewardship – who is finding his own place among our great adventurers.
Find out more about Alastair Humphreys. And hear a wide ranging interview with him on Mountain Podcast here.