There’s a lovely scene in Crocodile Dundee where Paul Hogan’s character, Mick Dundee, fresh from the Outback, leans out of a car window in Manhattan and introduces himself to a stereotypical, metropolitan business suit who’s clearly not at ease with the notion of talking to fellow human beings, particularly ones he’s never met before.
“I’m in town for a couple of days, probably see ya around,” says Mick, with a wave. We laugh at him and — I guess — at ourselves. We’re all the same, at least in towns and cities. On the train or bus to work we might stretch to a flicker of a smile and say ‘after you’ before returning to the comfort zone of our smartphones. On my last working day in London, after seven years commuting, I walked to West Finchley train station with the intention of entering the carriage and greeting my fellow inmates with a cheery, valedictory ‘hello there’. But I couldn’t do it. There was an outside chance someone might actually punch me; and I’d be lucky to get to King’s Cross before the men in white coats boarded the train to drag me away.
Out in the Great Outdoors, things couldn’t be more different: like-minded people, unshackled by the abnormal social conventions of urban living, hail fellow walkers like old friends. Or at least they do most of the time; the more I walk in the countryside, the more I’m puzzled by the etiquette. Who should you greet — and who not — while wandering lonely as the proverbial?
Thankfully, there are some straightforward scenarios. If I’m walking with my wife and we meet another couple, the hellos are freely offered, a signal that we all buy into where we are and why we’re there. I always acknowledge farmers, and most of them reciprocate. I’m more picky about fell runners and mountain bikers: I’ll greet them if they’re showing off — for example, by sidling up Skiddaw. Let’s see if you’re fit enough to respond, I’m thinking, or will the effort draw out your last twitching breath?
But if I’m walking alone, the rules are more ambiguous. I’ve come to dread meeting a group walk coming the other way. Just how many hellos do they need? One for each of the party? Should I skip the grumpy looking ones? Couples will give me a smug, superior look, or simply assume I’m a prison escapee. “You just wait,” I want to whisper to her, “just wait until he marches you up Scafell Pike on an empty stomach.”
At other times, I realise I’ve entered into a game of chicken with the oncoming walker. Who’ll say hello first? At what point do you acknowledge them or make eye contact? Fifty yards away? One hundred? Greet them too soon and you’ll lock yourself into a conversation you’ve no appetite for. Leave it too late and they’ll get in first, leaving you feeling rather churlish. What usually happens is that one of you says, ‘hello there’ cheerily, with the confidence of knowing you’ve seized the moral high ground; the other replies a nanosecond later with a ‘hi’ that’s around an octave higher than your normal pitch of voice.
I’m guilty too of trying to decode a few things about other walkers. That couple I’ve just walked past. What shenanigans might be at play? He hailed me breezily enough, but she looked a bit shifty if you ask me. They just didn’t look right. Didn’t she cast her eyes down the hill to a distant tractor? Aha! A love-hungry farmer’s wife, momentarily checking her husband was safely ensconced in his cab, ploughing the potatoes…
Walking with children is easy. You’re free to smash through the conventions and greet oncoming walkers as cheerily and annoyingly as possible. And parents will often exchange knowing looks. A father with his kids in tow on Dartmoor passed my own brood, then turned to me and sighed, “See that tor, right on the horizon? My previous life is just behind it. Just out of view.” I know what he meant. And young couples: how many times has the woman gone all gooey at the sight of my children, unusually, behaving themselves? “That could be us!” she’ll say, a little too maternally, threading her wind-proofed arm through that of her beau. He’ll look away, appalled, as if searching for a cigarette and a blindfold.
Yet I still wonder why we do this at all. Solitude is high on the list of the many reasons why we walk in the countryside. So why the convention that we must greet someone coming the other way? Even in our shackle-breaking countryside, there are places where it appears not to be the done thing. Scafell Pike, in the Lake District, and Mam Tor, in the Peak District, spring to mind, though these are places where the routes to the summit often resemble a city centre train station at rush hour. If there’s a critical mass of people, then the convention of rural greetings can collapse — but what is that number?
If someone quickens their pace as they approach you, or marches past, head down, is it really fair to dismiss them as a socially inadequate misanthrope? I should declare at this point I plead guilty to the charge of hypocrisy. Aged 19, I walked the Pennine Way during my Catcher in the Rye phase, intending to meet as few people as possible. Near Shap, I took a diversion to avoid someone heading south. Others reciprocated along the route of the same walk.
Only last spring, on Lewis, in the Outer Hebrides, I was following a goat’s track along the top of a valley near the Uig Sands, where the Lewis Chessmen were uncovered. A lonely figure was heading across the lochs towards me on the same single track. When we were perhaps 200 metres apart, he clambered over an electric fence — I assume the current wasn’t switched on — and plodded through deep, sodden turf to keep me at a safe distance.
I knew where he was coming from. Two years ago, in Glen Coe, in the Scottish Highlands, I arrived at the top of the magnificent pass down to Glen Etive, at the exact moment someone clambered up in the opposite direction. It felt like two cars bumping into each other at a fork in a quiet rural lane. We both knew, just by being there, that we’d inadvertently spoiled the experience for the other. As an ice-breaker, I said “worth the admission fee” and nodded towards the valley views. Silence. With a withering shrug, he plodded on.
On the whole, though, we British are consistently generous with our greetings. Anyone reading this who hopes to be offended on geographical grounds will have to be disappointed: I’ve not seen much evidence of a snooty South-chatty North divide; generally, it’s an urban-rural thing. Yorkshire walkers generally belie their county’s taciturn reputation, perhaps because they’re so passionate about where they live. It took me twice as long as planned to walk along the riverbank of the Swale near Richmond in North Yorkshire because of so many pauses to talk. Likewise, I got chatting so often on the South Downs Way National Trail I felt as if I had to ration my time with oncoming walkers if I was ever going to get home.
I can’t help thinking that, as in so many aspects of life, a code of best practice would come in handy. Walkers’ group Ramblers doesn’t seem to have one, and I put the point to Dennis Kelsall, membership secretary of the Outdoor Writers and Photographers Guild, who’s such a gregarious walker that it’s best to give him a wide berth if you’ve a train to catch. He believes the humanity involved in greeting strangers can lead to greater things. “A kindly hello and chat has got me tea and biscuits and even offers of a bed for the night on more than one occasion,” he recalls. Even so, Dennis has quailed at the spectre of a huge walking group marching down upon him. “They all, every one of them, in a line a quarter of a mile long, will say hello. I have wondered about taking along a ready-made ‘hello’ sign that I can hold up as we pass. I could take it out as soon as I spy them on the horizon.”
Roly Smith, the prolific walking guide writer, has, I suspect, said hello to more strangers than the average travelling salesman. He thinks the whole greeting tradition says much about how walking simply slices through the class barriers and conventions of everyday life. “It’s always fascinated me how people will say a cheery hello and often have a chat when out walking, especially in the hills, yet they wouldn’t dream of doing such a thing to a passing stranger on the high street,” he says. “Walking is a great leveller. Everyone, whatever their background, colour or class, is equal when they’re out in the countryside; all the social and class barriers are removed and everyone is more relaxed and enjoying a moment of mutual pleasure. And I think that’s a great advertisement for walking.”
This is an attitude that isn’t always detectable overseas. A few years back, on a city break to Barcelona, my wife wanted to make the most of wonderful weather — and clear a hangover — by taking me on a morning walk in the Serra de Collserola above the city. We had no hiking gear — my wife was in a long dress and heels — only a guidebook and a packet of paracetamol. Half way up, we met a party of descending Bearded Mountain Men, apparently kitted out for a back-to-back assault on a succession of Himalayan peaks. They had the advantage of height over us, and the phrase ‘looking down your nose’ was never more pertinent. But we’d punctured their self-esteem. They knew it, and they knew that we knew. They passed wordlessly, eyes fixed straight ahead. That put them in their place.
While travel does of course broaden the mind, the way in which walkers from other nations conduct themselves — both with you and the environment they’re in — can sometimes reinforce national stereotypes in a slightly reassuring way. When I walked to the northernmost top of the European mainland, a place called Knivskjellodden in Norway, I found the point was marked with a tin box, inside which lay a walker’s logbook, where you could record your visit for posterity, along with a bottle of water, which was a nice touch. A few yards further on, and the Arctic Ocean was soughing onto the rocks.
I didn’t have the place to myself for very long. As I dawdled, others arrived at this hiking bottleneck. A French couple stood around loudly debating the significance of the obelisk’s design; two Norwegian walkers took perfectly sensible pictures of themselves and walked on; the Italians clambered on top of the obelisk. I and a couple of others nodded to one another, hands deep in our pockets; we just knew we were British. There was a cultural rather than a language barrier at play. In this remote place hikers simply kept to themselves. Fair enough, of course. Like me, they hadn’t walked here to share the moment. Yet there seems something inherently daft in keeping up the pretence that you’re alone, and at one, with nature, but shutting out the physical presence of others.
Kelsall wonders if this might, in our digitalised age, become more of a trend. “We were walking from our campsite in Pembrokeshire last year, and it was really noticeable that people did not want to say hello,” he recalls. “They went out of their way to avoid eye contact and would walk along an alternative path if there was one. You can’t put your finger on quite why, but maybe it’s because the people we passed were all used to being buried deep in their iPads and they just weren’t familiar with this wonderful, unspoken etiquette.”
I hope this isn’t the case. Generally, I hail people because it is a very human thing to do. Presumably our distant Stone Age ancestors did so because it was a useful survival tactic for our species — grunting monosyllabically on a hilltop and jabbing a finger to where the sabre-toothed tiger was lurking. It’s a world away from the tin cage of the London Underground, and it’s a world that most of us, most of the time, rather like.
Published in the April 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)