Erik Wilkinson’s 70th birthday hit him hard. He celebrated, but cannot remember the occasion. However, one sentence came to mind. “Pregnancy of death,” he says. “The words jumped out at me. I thought, ‘I don’t know how long I have left.’ And this sentence kept coming to my mind.”
It began to dominate his thoughts. “As with any pregnancy, you need certain inputs. Because you’re going through a transition,” he says.
So, at the age of 70, Wilkinson decided it was time to try his hand at camping. As a thinker and planner – he is often referred to as a thoughtful tactician – he took preparation seriously. He and his wife Norah pitched a tent in the backyard. They slept away for the first time during lockdown.
“Our tent opened for Norah and I to hear the strange rustling of animals, the flapping of moths, and the soft colors of the sky… and the tent stayed put!”
Did Wilkinson want to camp as a kid? “Not at all!” he says. “The thought was terrifying. It was too demanding.” At Cubs and Scouts, he declined all invitations. “I wonder why,” he muses.
Perhaps he wanted to know beforehand how things would continue? “Probably yes.”
I’m trying to make the journey from “this is awful” to “this is an adventure”.
Wilkinson spent most of his working life, from his late 20s to his 55s, in the National Careers Service, which is ironic as he didn’t really know what to do. He was seeking reassurance after two years of traveling — himself trying to “crack the whole thing, that lower-middle-class kid goes to college, gets out and goes into a bank.” He set up a self-funding assessment center in Wiltshire using psychometric tests for career guidance. In a way, at 72, he’s now consulting himself on his own best path forward.
After the night in the garden, Wilkinson continued his camping apprenticeship with Norah at Stroud, then in Carmarthenshire. He saw the fires of other campers and bought a collapsible brazier. He adapted his Citroën Berlingo to take a camp bed.
Then in June, after visiting family in Scotland, Norah caught the train home to Gloucestershire and Wilkinson embarked on his first major solo adventure – ’10 Days on My Own in the North of Scotland’.
On his first night, he slept in the van by the sea after mosquitoes drove him away from the campsite. But that was great, he says. “It’s the things that go wrong, the problem solving, the people you meet that take you out of your comfort zone. It doesn’t get you out of life.”
Another night a storm blew down his tent in Durness – and that was okay too. “It’s there as a reminder. It shifts it from “This is awful” to “This is an adventure”. That’s the journey I’m trying to take.” Perhaps he’ll try to make the same change as he hits his 70s.
Camping or adventure is just one aspect of Wilkinson’s “pregnancy” preparations. The line is so lewd that it makes me wonder if he and Norah have kids, but Wilkinson says they decided against it and “it wasn’t a big deal.” He lists other “pillars” of this pregnancy as practical (fixing a will, accepting death, developing relationships between generations), but he says there is a spiritual element as well.
Wilkinson says he’s worked too hard his whole life. Even volunteering for local retired climate groups felt like a job. Speaking of his “pillars,” that “pregnancy,” which can span decades, sounds like it activated his work ethic, albeit in a liberating way. “I’m very in my head,” he says. “That’s why camping is so good.”
It fits with his post-university experience. “I wanted to travel,” he says. He went to India and Israel. “And that was the best thing I’ve ever done.” Not least because he met Norah on a kibbutz.
There are times, especially when he’s having breakfast around the campfire or sitting there in the evening, between eight and ten when the light is fading, and enjoying “that meditative aspect” of the flames, that he really appreciates camping – “to give me a way like that.” to be healthy and positive as possible for the people I love”.
Tell us: Did your life take a new direction after 60?