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reveries of an amateur long-distance hiker

Walking to Cape Wrath, Day 35, June 14, 2022

June 15th, 2022

Walking to Cape Wrath, Day 35, June 14, 2022

The ends of long trails usually have a certain drama, none perhaps more than the obligatory Katahdin sign pose at the end of the Appalachian Trail.

The Te Araroa begins with a lighthouse at Cape Reinga but ends at a less impressive signpost at Bluff.

The Camino de Santiago ends in the embrace of St. James, or, even more moving for me, at the waves crashing on the rocks at Muxia.

The Scottish National Trail, in its last days following the Cape Wrath Trail, ends at a lighthouse above crashing waves at the most extreme northwestern point of Scotland. And given you have to cross a Ministry of Defense live firing range (which included climbing a couple of barbed wire fences, which definitely reminded me of my childhood), the drama is even more elevated.

The guidebook I have been following took me first to Sandwood Bay — a remarkable inviting beach— with the end scheduled for the following day, but that same guidebook has been throwing 29-30 km days at me for a week, so when the weather remained ugly, I opted to push on to the end—grateful I did as I avoided a logistical problem I’ll detail presently. I had slept at the Old Schoolhouse Hotel the night before, a comfortable place a mile or two above Rhiconish, so the morning hike already had me ahead of the game. It was an interesting walk—unlike most I’ve had before— as the road wound up through the peninsula and rather than shift to empty pasture land, I continued to pass cottages set out in the landscape facing the ocean that appeared at every turn. An inviting place in the summer.

After a few miles, the path to Sandwood Beach appeared and was also well-graded, so I covered the entire first section by late morning. As it was the last day, I did marvel at the landscape— less imposing as the hills are much lower, but still ripped by the constant winds, and today some rain mixed in. The run-in to Sandwood included some ruins which are now beyond connection by roads and so just deteriorate, but I could imagine life in one crumbling house which was at most a quarter mile from the huge beach. And of course, there were sheep grazing all the way to the ocean. Pressing on the (I thought) last 7.5 miles, the walk changed completely. The landscape was not challenging except a lot of bogs, but the path disappeared for almost all of the section, so navigation was all via GPS. Part of me appreciated that final bit of navigational difficulty before hitting the road and walking the last mile or more to the lighthouse and the Ozone Cafe.

Ends of trails often present logistical difficulties. On the Appalachian Trail, after summiting Katahdin, you have to find transportation to Millinocket (Luckily for me and Bennett, my son Tom came up from Boston, climbed Katahdin with us, and drove back to civilization). I remember I had to hole up for a day on the Tasmanian Overland Track to wait for transport. Cape Wrath is served by a minibus service— the only people who can drive into the area—and I had arranged for transport on the 15th.

https://www.visitcapewrath.com/about-us/

Arriving a day early I expected to have to stay over in the bunkhouse, but soon learned that the ferry would not run on the 15th. One reason I try not to plan too far out is that it is easy in the bush to lose a day for some odd reason, but, because of the train strike, I had made a series of reservations that a two day delay would ruin.

Already waiting in the cafe were three trekkers. One, a man from Switzerland, had just finished the Scottish National Trail, the only person the entire trek I met who was hiking it. The bus arrived almost full of tourists, and they had three empty seats—I was #4. I begged the driver, Stuart, for transport, but he could not accommodate me on a full bus (regulations). Then, what on the Appalachian Trail you would call “trail magic,” he exhibited that amazing Scottish hospitality I have encountered since Kirk Yetholm. The ferry was 22 km away, and he had an hour before he had to bring his load of passengers back, so he drove me out 30 minutes, dropped me. I walked hard and fast toward ferry while he returned to pick up his load. Some time later he passed me, dropped his crew at the ferry, then returned, picked me up and, after our ferry crossing, drove me to Durness from the pier (it was raining hard so that was much appreciated).

I remain dumbfounded by his kindness. In some way, that is the fitting end to my journey. Not some celebration of perseverance and fortitude, or another notch on a trekking pole, but instead a deep appreciation of a people and a culture who for the last 5 weeks have repeatedly astounded me by their kindness, generosity, and just plain human compassion. I will miss Scotland.

T. Hugh Crawford

Walking to Cape Wrath, Day 23, June 2, 2022

June 5th, 2022

Walking to Cape Wrath, Day 23, June 2, 2022

SORRY— this one is out of order, too many days out in the glens

A day of two passes, divided by some time in a pub. It rained a bit in the night, just enough to give each blade of grass a crown. As I wanted to time today’s trek to get lunch at Cluanie Inn, I lingered in the tent, watching the morning sun—itself a surprise—gently lift the water from the fabric, getting a late start. The walk out was along a squtichy boggy path first up the Glen then up and over a pass in the gap between Creag Liathtais and Creag a’Mhaim (I missed that turn, adding 20 minutes to my day). The landscape remains magical, particularly in the bright morning light. Soon I was up and over, slowly descending to a well built road which historically was part of the “Road to the Isles,” which is now defunct because of hydro-electric projects. It made for a quick final 5km to the Cluanie Inn. There the proprietor let me hang out in the pub charging my devices (something I’ve become obsessed with given the frequency of encounters with civilization). Soon they opened for lunch, and I gorged myself, then lingered out front in the sun sipping yet another pint delaying my afternoon which was, in many ways, the mirror image of my morning.

On leaving the Inn I found the track into the An Caorann Mòr, a long gentle climb on a land rover road which, on giving out became in indistinct path even boggier than the morning. After several hours of slogging about I finally sighted the Affric river beyond which I could see the hostel, my end point. I gratefully forded the river in the last 1/2 km, happy to wash away the day’s accumulated muck before settling in. The Glen Affric Hostel (run by the Scottish Hostel group) is an isolated off-the-grid establishment frequented by mountain bikers and Munro baggers. Initially there was a mixup with my reservation, but it was soon resolved, and I spent a toasty evening by the fire (while it rained outside) talking with a whole crew of hard-core outdoors aficionados.

T. Hugh Crawford

Walking to Cape Wrath, Day 4 May 14, 2022

May 14th, 2022

Walking to Cape Wrath, Day 4 May 14, 2022

In hiker’s parlance, a zero day is a rest day— walking zero miles (or kilometers). A Nero is short for “nearly zero.” After the last three long days, today was pretty close to a Nero— officially only 12 km. Of course since I was in Innerleithen, the actual trail was already a few km away, and because I got (sort of) lost, it might not qualify as a true Nero. Still, the whole point was to rest my weary bones.

I’d thought I’d have a quiet cup of coffee before setting off, but time in the northern latitudes wakes sleepers early, so I was ready to walk long before the cafes opened. Trusting my usual luck though, I passed a wonderful bakery which supplied me with a sausage pastry and coffee. Hiker’s tip— a meat pie is always preferable, but while walking, a sausage  pastry can be held in one hand with no chin gravy. With the streets empty, I made my way out of town, heading back toward Traquair, finding a short cut to the Traquair house, part of which was originally built by 1107 and is the oldest continuously inhabited house in Scotland. I was there long before the doors opened but was able to wander a bit in the silence. An impressive place.

Unlike the last few days which have been on well-established old tracks—the St. Cuthbert and South Upland Ways— today required point to point navigation with little to no signage (which accounts for a number of missteps). Fortunately the destination was always clear— due west along the River Tweed to Peebles. I guess to provide some variety, the path-makers decided to take me up a ridge above the river through an old forest, past on old slate works (a geology lesson in itself) where I flushed a deer (reminded me of home). The tough part came when the path markers gave out. I think Storm Arwen has forced a rerouting of a number of paths, and while some were probably re-signed immediately, others (like the one I was following) drifted off the map. By mid-morning I found myself on a well-made forest road that, according to my navigation software, was not where I was supposed to be. Fortunately I knew the river was down the ridge and there was likely a road there (hopefully on my side). I proceeded cross-country scrambling over down trees to gain a road that soon became my route. Never was a crisis, but was cause for some excitement in what was supposed to be a calm stroll to Peebles.

I was curious about a sign on a broken down fence I encountered in my perambulations: “Private Shoot.” I’ve been reading Nick Hayes’s Book of Trespass which tells stories of hunts on private land, so it was interesting to think my disorientation was somehow linked to some upper-class pleasure. My pleasure was gaining the paved bicycle path in Cardrona, then following it to city center in Peebles—a lively town full of Saturday wanderers enjoying the sunshine. I found myself in a Costa, sipping coffee looking out the window with the sun shining and people walking about. I felt I needed to get out there to walk around, then I remembered that’s all I’ve been doing the last 3 1/2 days. Spent the latter part of the afternoon in the Crown Hotel Pub watching Celtic take the trophy of the Scottish Premier league(and listening to drunken Scots argue over nothing). A day well spent.

T. Hugh Crawford