OUTDOOR WOMAN’S VOICE: Michelle of Walking Two By Two

The blogging world is enormously filled with a mix of various adventure-seekers and travelers.  But from time to time, you make connections with people who share similar passions.  Michelle is one of the few who shares my affinity towards mountains, so much so, that she actually did a solo hike in Australia – a trek that earned her the recognition of being the first person and first female solo hiker to complete the long distance trail called, Lavender Federation Trail in Southern Australia.  She did this trek unsupported, which you’ll know more about as you read on.

What struck me about Michelle’s passion for the mountains is that in her world, trekking is an endless and timeless endeavor.  At any given age, we all can hike, even if it means just next door to where we live.  We can stop and start hiking whenever.  There’s no reason to feel afraid of starting over again after years of being absent from the trails due to various life circumstances including having kids, which was true in Michelle’s case.  It’s a thrill for me to share with you her story which I know resonates with many of us who love the mountain trails.

Feature Outdoor Woman’s Voice

Michelle Ryan was born in Sydney New South Wales, Australia and grew up in sunny Perth Western Australia.   Off the trails, Michelle has had her own set of adventures such as working as an artist, prawn trawler, teacher, travel writer, and of course as a mother and a wife.  Currently, she dedicates her time to travel writing and developing her website, Walking Two By Two.

On the trails, Michelle loves long distance trails and has hiked in various parts of the world including Norway, Scotland and Italy.  She’s currently planning her 620 mile bush hike for Spring of 2017 so to follow her, make sure to check out her social media accounts at the bottom of this feature.  As you can see, and by her own admission, Michelle is a “hiking addict” who prefers wilderness trails as they afford her a sense of peace, harmony and freedom with nature.

When did you first start hiking?

I have always spent time growing up out in the bush as I grew up in an outer suburb of Perth, which is situated in hills of the Darling Range. We would always just explore and make our hidden forts and just spend hours doing so as long as we were home before dark.  My memory of my first short walks was with my Grandma. She would take us out behind where she lived and we would explore the bushland.  

As I got older I joined the Brownies (Girl scouts sort of) Girl Guides, Rangers and went on to do my Duke of Edinburgh where hiking was part of it. When I had kids, I didn’t do much for a while until the youngest was around 11 (2007) and I started heading back out for short trips like 1-2 nights which became 1-2 weeks.  My first hiking trip overseas was in Alaska in 2009 for 4 weeks! From there, I haven’t stopped!

What do you like the most about hiking?

I love the feeling it gives me – the sense of being free and strong; to have the world around you to be so quiet but at the same time so loud with life. The feeling it gives me when I look back on the day, week, month and see where I have come from and think, “WOW! I walked that with my own two feet!”  This makes me proud of myself. Then, there is the love of trekking in a foreign land and exploring it in a way most wouldn’t. You can really get the feel of a place and the culture when you are walking through it. You meet so many amazing people and sometimes they might not speak the same language as you but when you are on a journey like this it doesn’t matter and you tend to find a way to communicate.

Michelle shares with us 3 of her favorite trails.

Cape to Cape Western Australia

This trail is an 83 mile coastal bush/beach walk.  It starts at the Cape Naturaliste Lighthouse and ends south at the Cape Leeuwin Lighthouse. There are campgrounds along the way or you can arrange to get pick up from the trail and stay in accommodation. My parents live down there so it was a great way to visit and get a walk in. I have walked the length of this trail and many times more. The vistas are amazing as you get to see the incredible rugged cliffs and coastline of Western Australia (WA for short).  There’s also some beach walking and coastal bush involved.  It can be a challenging walk in some sections including a 6 ½ mile of soft sand walking on the last day, but worth it.

Lavender Federation Trail in South Australia

This is a little-known trail but a very beautiful one.  It’s around 131miles  but it since has been extended to 152 miles of country walking, mostly over farmlands. I was the first person (and female) to do a thru hike, unsupported (without vehicle support or bag transfer).  It starts in a small riverside town of Murray Bridge and meanders its way north through farmlands and wine country. I stayed in a mix of B&Bs, motels and private residences which require having to walk off the trail to get to any as you really don’t walk through towns.

The Great Ocean Walk in Victoria

This is a stunning trail I would recommend to any overseas hiker to do (or anyone for that matter).  It shows the best of the rugged southern coastline, rainforests, bushland and farmlands.  It is a 65 mile walk with campsites along the way though it is well set up for you to be picked up from the trail and taken to B&Bs along the way. There is plenty of wildlife including many koalas and wallabies to see and a lot of history especially along one stretch of beach called Wreck Beach (the name says it all).  

I was curious about Michelle’s preference in terms of solo versus group hiking. She noted that she enjoys solo for the following reasons:

I love solo as it grounds me.  It reminds me I’m strong and I can achieve this, plus I love alone time. I love time in my own thoughts. There was a time that this scared me but I now embrace it and I realized I actually like myself. I think I’m cool to hang out with.

I love that Michelle learned to appreciate herself more by hiking solo.  It’s liberating to get to a point when you don’t need to rely on anyone for company to enjoy the moment.  However, Michelle also enjoys sharing the activity of walking with others as it creates stronger bonds.

Walking with others is a very different experience. I do a lot of big treks now with my husband (got him in hook, line, and sinker) and we are very different walkers but complement each other well. I love having the chance to experience these amazing trails with him and I think it has bought us closer. Not bad after 25 years of marriage!  

Also, we walk with friends and sometimes I arrange groups. These are fun as you get to spend some quality time with people and share their joy on the experience. We just got back from an overseas trip where my hubby and I walked Norway, then went straight to Scotland and met our old friends who are new to trekking and we walked the West Highland Way for 7 days.  It was fantastic! We got to have real time with them – something in this crazy fast paced world you don’t often get. And, yes, we are still very good friends.  In fact, we have been on more hiking trips since then.

As to lessons from hiking, here is Michelle’s take on it.

There’s so many!  It must be the best schooling in life one could get. I have learned to appreciate nature and its extreme beauty. Not to take life for granted and let it just pass you by.  Go out and soak it up; experience it in the best way you can. I have learned to be strong – not so much as physically (though it does help sometimes) but mentally.

You learn to rely on yourself and to make decisions for yourself (funny enough this is a hard one for most people) and to follow through with the decision you made.  Also, you learned not to give up easily and instead to push yourself mentally and physically.  I have learned so much more about the world than I ever learned in school.  And mostly, you learn to love life.

In terms of women who are new to hiking, what advise would you give?

Just give it a go. Don’t be afraid to try. Take it slow at first and do a few small walks and then move on from there but don’t walk and think about when you will finish.  Don’t think about the fact you have 12 ½ miles to walk.  The number in the end doesn’t really matter. Take that first step onto the trail, then stop, close your eyes and breath deeply, pulling in the nature… and blow out the world you just stepped out of, then start walking.  This, in a way, gives your body permission to let go of your normal busy life and have a moment in nature where there is peace. When you walk, stop often to look around at the scenery or even just a leaf on a plant. Sometimes it’s the small things that really gives pleasure. From there, the rest will evolve.

Her last statement just resonated with me as it’s so true!  When asked what her most memorable trek to date was, Michelle gave it her best answer as it was a struggle for her to name just one.  

Now this is so hard to answer. People ask me all the time this question. All the trails I have hiked have all been different and the experiences were different. I will say though the answer will probably be  the Alaska trip.  It’s because it took me around 18 months to save for and it was my  first overseas trekking experience.  

I got to hike a multi-day glacier trek with my friend and a guide, then went to Denali and did a multi-day trek with just my friend and did a multi-day kayak trek through the icebergs! For an Aussie girl from a state that is so hot, this was very different and really cool to do. This tested me in ways I have never been tested before. The trekking and camping on the glacier were just incredible with the wild openness and grandeur of it. The sounds of the ice moving were fascinating if not a bit daunting, and the wildlife! The bears! I have a few stories there but in a nutshell met a few and I loved them!

Michelle, no doubt, is a brave hiker with all her accolades on doing long distance hikes on her own but I was curious to know if she has experienced any challenges as a “female” hiker?

Not so many, I would have to say. I am very aware of my surroundings. As I hike long distances, I would quite often end up in a town and stop for a drink at a bar. This at times does raise a few eyebrows especially as I’m a middle-aged woman with a backpack on. I never really tell people what exactly I’m doing if I can avoid it so as not to create an opportunity to attract unwelcome attention.   As I have a website and Facebook, I tend not to tell where I am exactly if alone on long treks.  When I was doing the Lavender trail, due to its remoteness, I would hide behind a tree or in a ditch if a car came by or I would keep my head low (hat on), try to walk like a man and raise a hand without looking to let them know I know they are there.

Michelle  then gave good examples of her “toughest” treks ever – one that entails mental strength, while the other touches more on being strong physically.  I quite agree that some treks require more strength in one area versus the other.

Mentally, the toughest one would be the Lavender Federation Trail which I hiked solo.  It wasn’t my first solo as I did a trail in Portugal that was 420 miles long which at that time was the most challenging for me as I used it to help myself overcome severe anxiety and panic disorder.    So, why was the Lavender trail harder mentally?  
It’s because it was one where I didn’t see a soul while hiking.  It was just me and the cows.  Mentally, it was tough as there was no one to grab onto if an attack occurred.  In Portugal, I saw people all the time, even though I didn’t know them.  

Isolation and solitude combined together can be powerful to train your mind to overcome fears.  As to physical strength, Michelle shares the following treks that tested her the most.

My recent trek through Norway involved some tough sections and some outright dangerous ones that at some point I decided to abandon the trail.  That section had a landslide which had taken out the trail and it was very dangerous to cross.

Then, there was the Lakes district when walking the Coast to Coast in the UK. On top of one of the mountains, the weather turned for the worse and we couldn’t see past our noses or where the trail was. We had to negotiate our way down fast as the temperature dropped quickly.  We broke two pairs of hiking poles.  Though very tired, we were relieved that we made it out safely.

Another tough trek would be the Six-Foot track in the Blue Mountains in New South Wales Australia. The first day was quite physically demanding and to end the day we had to walk on a swing bridge (I hate swing bridges) that was very long and very, very narrow. It scared me out of my wits.

That bridge looks rather intimidating so I don’t blame her for feeling a bit freaked out by it.  To shift to a more pleasant tone, Michelle then shares what treks she still has on her bucket list.

I need more than a bucket.  I need a barrel! But I will say my top ones are Tour de Mont Blanc (Switzerland, Italy and France) which I will be doing in August or September of 2017; the Sunshine Coast Trail in Canada and the  Alpe-Adria (Alps to the Adriatic) Trail, which takes you through Austria, Slovenia, Italy and Croatia.

I’ve done the Tour de Mont Blanc and it is a great choice for any avid hiker.  The other two treks sound equally appealing.  Moving on, I was curious to know her favorite hiking gear to which she responded,

My backpack since when I’m on a trail it can be sometimes up to 4 weeks or even 6 weeks or longer and it is my everything!  It holds all that I own for that time.  When I wear it, it fits right. It triggers memories from other great moments in my life and each trip just adds more to the memory file.

Due to all these fun and amazing adventures, Michelle decided to start her own blog which evolved from a Facebook page that initially served to maintain connection with family and friends.  Michelle then took a travel writing course  that led her closer to the idea of blogging.  She fondly shares the backdrop for the name of her blog, which came out of the idea of a 4WD vehicle.  Akin to a 4 WD, getting around with two legs would mean 2×2.  Hence, the name Walking Two By Two, which she credits her husband for coming up with such a well thought out name.

On one final note, Michelle shares her future plans as to hiking and blogging:

Last year I wanted to really take the blogging to the next level and try to use my love of trekking to my advantage.  I want to make hiking my career and keep going as long as my body will allow.  I also want to inspire people to get out there and try and to feel some of what I feel.  My site is not only a blog of my journeys but it is also an information site so people can go on and learn about a trail and how to go about trekking it themselves.

I also have lots of “How to” sections to help people, especially the new ones wanting to give it a go, such as “How to choose the right backpack or boots”  or even “How to tie your laces.”  Yes, don’t laugh!  There are many ways to tie laces which can actually save you from blisters and sore feet.  I also send my stories off to many magazines and have sold a few (yay!).  I hope to sell a whole lot more.  I have in the past few months started doing presentations for functions.  I was asked to do one and then 3 more came up! I really love doing them.

Obviously, there are plenty of reasons to follow Michelle – from hiking tips/advise to all the treks she’s done which she documents in detail on her blog.  All the treks that have been mentioned in this feature can be found on her website so make sure to visit Walking Two By Two.   You can also find her on social media via her following accounts: Twitter, Facebook, Instagram.

In closing Michelle shared her favorite quote on and off trails:

Each moment of the year has its own beauty –  a picture which was never seen before and which shall never be seen again.

                                                            -Ralph Waldo Emerson

Michelle explains the quote as her way of viewing each day as “a new picture and that each trail is new even if you have walked it a million times.  It is never the same.”

Thanks Michelle for the inspiration and sharing your hiking life with us!   It’s been an amazing experience to connect with an avid hiker from Australia.  I’m sure we all want to do our next trek there now.  After all, the Great Ocean Trail truly looks amazing!

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Brown Gal Trekker is a nomad at heart who survives the mountains to inspire others to trek them.