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Connecting with nature – a father and son’s epic adventure in the South Downs

Nebraska native John Lillyman and his son Dave recently walked the South Downs Way. Here’s John’s moving account of the 100-mile journey that was far more than just a very long walk.

Why would a father and son travel all the way from Kearney, Nebraska (right in the centre of the USA) to walk the SDW? “Connection” is the short answer.

 Connection with the past

Southern England is where I met my American wife 36 years ago, just north of Petersfield, and from where my mother’s family, the Rofe’s, immigrated to Australia five generations ago. In fact, travelling in the train from London to our starting point of Winchester the words popped into my head “you are home”. I have a hunch that generations of family heritage in one place carry associations into generations to come. Would this part of the world hold the same pull for my son?

Connection with the landscape

Along the trail, and at 3 mph, the brain is taking in a multitude of vivid images that stimulate the mind and then linger in the subconscious, stored away in the memory banks. They are friendly images, restorative images. For me I need to process this information by carrying a journal, writing and painting small watercolors. Objects, buildings and landscapes attach to me and shape me like happy relationships with people. As an architect, I feel I get my aesthetic tank filled up to over-flowing by the incredible natural and man-made beauty of this part of the world. You who live in the UK need to be reminded of the astounding heritage you have at your doorstop.

Connection with my son

Modern life is full of distractions and juicy quick internet interludes that often do not reap much nutrition for the soul. I long to know my dear son more deeply. He is now 25 and a busy PhD student at university in a city two hours from our home. We had often talked about a hiking adventure but I felt it had to be at least a plane trip away to be able to tear him from the books. My hunch is that people need extended time and a congenial space to connect deeply. Seven days alone walking provides adequate time to peck over a number of subjects and share memories and ideas. Dave and I may not always agree but we both long to be understood and grapple with meaning and purpose in a fast-paced changing world.

Connection with the unknown

The unknown is perhaps an unnerving element but a key ingredient for an adventure. True adventures are more than “pony-rides in May sunshine” as Bilbo Baggins remarked in The Hobbit. Dave and I are both adventurers at heart so we had to accept that walking makes us vulnerable and contributes to our frailty. Could we both walk 100 miles in seven days? Would inclement weather hinder us? Would our accommodation, (located through the South Downs website) be hospitable and comfortable? These were all categories we just had to launch out into and see what they made of us. Doing something hard and something risky made it more memorable. In fact, Dave probably winces a bit at the mention of the Seven Sisters descents close to Eastbourne and his knee tendon pain!

Final reflections

For the last 10 years I have taken small groups of men on simple, non-extravagant, 3 to 4 day walking trips into the local countryside around our town here in central Nebraska. I am convinced that many men will come alive through these outdoor adventures that have similar features to our SDW trek. I don’t consider myself a very rugged outdoorsman but, through the simplicity of walking, much is known. As someone has said “the way Is made by walking”.