Walking Home

reveries of an amateur long-distance hiker

On Boredom

July 31st, 2022

On Boredom

A scene from Gus Van Sant’s film Gerry is a three and a half minute tracking shot of the profiles of the two main characters, both named Gerry, in tight focus as they trudge across a vast and empty desert. While the audience might marvel at the technical virtuosity, they also feel and partially experience the utter boredom of the walk. In filming the tale of two young men lost in the desert for several days, Van Sant stages the pure boredom of wandering in large, seemingly empty landscapes. Similar to Sergio Leone, that other desert auteur, he serves up huge, painterly spaces, and, at the same time, stretches time to a point where it feels as if it must break. The experience of the characters (and the audience) is both intense and empty, concentrated and vast. In a word, boring. Long-distance trekking is both physically and mentally challenging, and one of those challenges is boredom. Hikers face day after day, week after week, waking, packing up, and walking nine, ten or more hours sometimes in spectacular environments but more often in tedious sameness. Appalachian Trail hikers often disparagingly call the path “the green tunnel.” In a sense, boredom is the mental ground of walking.

The literature of walking as well as actual walking must ultimately contend with the fundamental boredom of the practice. A frequent element of everyday life, the actual experience of boredom seems to be something humans want to push off, to eliminate completely if possible (hence the very notion of entertainment), so it is puzzling that a segment of the population—trekkers—seem to put themselves willingly in boring situations. Looking to philosophy for some guidance, we can turn to Martin Heidegger‘s Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics. It’s a strange book, as it seems to be two separate paths. The first is a long discussion of boredom as the fundamental attunement of the 20th century, and second half contains his famous but problematic assertion that the stone is worldless, the animal poor-in-world, while the human worlds. The second half of the book has long been a fundamental text for people working in animal studies and in 21st-century environmental studies in general, but first half has remained, at least for me, a puzzle. 

On returning to it to gain a perspective on the question of walking and boredom, I was struck that in the first chapters, he develops a fairly sophisticated form of affect theory avant la lettre. First he sets out his notion of attunement, noting that there can be both individual and collective forms. Individual’s have moods, but so do groups. We speak of a happy room or a pessimistic population. Staying consistent with his ongoing philosophical project of understanding Dasein as throwness into the world, he claims (and I am generalizing here) that we notice the exceptional moments— happiness, anger, basic well-being, etc.— but, as we are always already in an attunement (throwness in the world), the fundamental attunement(s) go unnoticed. He goes on to claim that there is no universal attunement. Instead he sees it as historical or epochal and that the fundamental attunement in the 20th century is boredom.

Most of the boredom section maintains a level of abstraction familiar to readers of Heidegger, but he does offer a few material examples, including the scene of waiting four hours for a train in an empty railway station. He details a number of strategies to drive off boredom that are familiar, including idly drawing in the sand or walking back and forth on the road in front of the station, all the while regularly checking his watch. Given his rather querulous relation to modern technology, it is perhaps not surprising that he sees boredom as the fundamental 20th century attunement. His railway example is telling, as would, I think his inclusion of a range of entertainment technologies that occupy the herd, serving as a temporary and probably unsatisfactory way to stave off boredom. (From that perspective, I suspect that such boredom remains foundational in this century, given the efflorescence of media forms whose primary purpose in to drive off boredom. In that sense, the current generation of smartphone users is perhaps the first in human history to have never actually experienced fundamental boredom.) Predictably, across the book he makes many fine-grained distinctions which are a little arcane for this essay, but his distinction between superficial  and profound boredom can provide some insight. The first we try to eliminate rapidly through a range of distractions (detailed in his railway station example). But the other he suggests we should let approach us: “not to resist straightaway but to let resonate.” This latter notion can be read productively through the lens of walking. Rather than seeing profound boredom as something to be “driven away,” I want to claim that not only should it be sought out by preparing the ground for it, but it should also be embraced as a significant form of being. 

Heidegger sees attunement as a hybrid figure, emerging from—becoming unconcealed—personal or collective interaction with the material world. A book as thing cannot be boring because that can only emerge from human interaction with it. So profound boredom as fundamental attunement is necessarily a dense and complex set of interactions with people, history, ideas, and things. Trekking boredom is just such a hybrid attunement:  I wake in a forest—not a forest, more a large copse—where I’ve wild camped near the English Ridgeway (“the oldest footpath in England”). Nothing boring about getting up early to avoid detection by a landowner or gamekeeper. Dressing and packing quickly, I soon gain the path and safety from the charge of trespass. I soon meet another early riser, an old man walking his dog who tells me his version of the many historical tales that layer over any time spent on this literally storied path. Then I’m off for a long day crossing the midpoint of the trail— an anticipated 20+ miles walk to a campground and a legal night’s sleep. The southern half of the Ridgeway is almost all up on a ridgetop, not usually the best place for a path, but on the rolling chalk downs of Wiltshire it is perfect. In the second half of my day, the path descends to the river and follows the Thames through small riverside villages almost to Wallingford (an extra mile off the trail to get there).

The Ridgeway is perhaps not the best choice for a trail to discuss the notion of profound boredom (see Walking England’s Oldest Path). Coming in at 87 miles, it is not really a long-distance path. Its length does not prompt the attenuation of calendar time that characterizes hiking boredom. I choose it because it is the most recent path I have walked so the details and sensations remain fresh, and it was where I thought through this essay (and therefore is a partial exemplification of walking-thinking). In addition, like the Appalachian Trail (which it in no other way resembles), the Ridgeway is unusually well-marked, so its walkers rarely experience the navigational anxiety provoked by such topologically and cartographically challenging trails as the South Island of the Te Araroa, or my recently completed Cape Wrath in the Scottish Highlands. Days on the Ridgeway are punctuated by occasional encounters with other walkers, beautiful agrarian landscapes, and remarking the deep history of the region: barrows, Bronze Age forts, and both ancient and modern white chalk land art. The path surface is well maintained, the hills are not steep, and walking the rolling downs is at times soporific. The lack of distraction helps reveal a foundational, perhaps even primordial boredom. 

While walking we may seek to drive off superficial boredom through distraction. There are technological distractions. Heidegger constantly checks his watch in the railway station, and 21st century trekkers constantly monitor GPS via a range of devices (I usually carry several, though for this walk in a tame countryside I left behind my emergency beacon). Calibrating time and distance are some responses to facing a day where for many hours there will be little that one could call distraction. This is not to say walking is not an exhilarating experience as, on some level, the days are full, but, as long-distance trekkers know, there is that moment about an hour into the day where you have settled into a rhythm. You have inventoried your body, adjusted for various aches and pains, consulted your navigation aids, and perhaps eaten a breakfast bar. Then it hits that you will be doing what you are doing with minimal difference for the rest of the day.

This is where profound boredom diverges from the commonly felt superficial version. Long distance trekkers enter willingly such an attunement, seek it out not as something to drive away through experiencing the spectacular but rather to be embraced. For trekkers, profound boredom as fundamental attunement is a ground for Being. Heidegger is correct that attunements are hybrid, composed of multiple materialities and affects. The path, the walk, and the walker enter into an attunement that enables different thinking. It comes in stealthily, in a sense unbidden unless one remembers that the whole process is a bid to experience differently. It goes something like this: over the first hour the logistics of the day recede. Then the immediacy of thought connected to the quotidian— recalled snippets of conversations from colleagues, a task that remains undone, a recent encounter recalled happily or with anguish—also recedes. The sheer physicality of the walk itself, while staying on with some level of awareness, is dampened, as is any navigational anxiety. And, at least on the Ridgeway, anxiety regarding dangerous wildlife is absent. Then the path itself enables thoughts, not fully formed but rather stray bits, affects of the space, odd juxtapositions, a chaotic flow. In a word, walking-thinking commences. As Walt Whitman says in his “Song of the Open Road”: “Allons! the road is before us!”

Profound boredom empties out the quotidian but the walker does not then become empty. Heidegger sometimes characterizes boredom as emptiness, but after all, we are always already in an attunement, so instead through boredom we are differently filled. Walking-thinking is enabled by this foundational attunement but is not directed by it. The empty is an absence of guideposts or blazes—both literal and figurative. It is thinking that does not strain toward truth, understanding, absolutes, or mastery, but instead marvels at and revels in its own aimlessness, obscurity, and creativity. To invoke the thought of another early 20th century philosopher, Alfred North Whitehead in Process and Reality articulates the occasional need for vagueness in thinking in images familiar to walkers: “in the vagueness of the low hum of insects in an August woodland, the inflow into ourselves of feelings from enveloping nature overwhelms us; in the dim consciousness of half-sleep, the presentations of sense fade away, and we are left with the vague feeling of influences from vague things around us.” These are the affects, the attunements, of experience where there is thinking, not completed thought. This directly parallels the experience of walking across a day which, at either end, is goal directed and therefore structured by external exigencies, but the middle is in the milieu (in Gilles Deleuze’s sense— see my Pointless Essay Hiatus for a discussion of milieu and William James’s “specious present”). It is a vague middle embraced rather than driven away. In can be interrupted by the spectacular or the technological but is just as easily recovered because of the vastness of space and time that makes up a long day’s trek. 

Returning to the preparatory remarks in The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics where he develops an analysis of boredom as the foundational attunement of the 20th century, Heidegger historicizes (or makes epochal) four thinkers (Spengler, Klages, Scheler, Ziegler) who explore the spirit/soul binary. Heidegger then attributes the structure of those arguments to Nietzsche’s Dionysian/Appolonian opposition. I find it interesting that in this section on possible foundational attunement, Heidegger reads The Will to Power as articulating the Dionysian as the ground on which the Greek Appolonian impulse was built. In other words, he doesn’t offer up a simple dialectic but instead uses the Dionysian as the ground that must be revealed. He quotes Nietzsche’s notes: “Dionysos: sensuousness and cruelty. Transitoriness could be interpreted as enjoyment of productive and destructive energy, as constant creation.” So we are led to ask if this triad—sensuous/violence/(productive/destructive) creativity (plus time: transitoriness) —is somehow foundational to boredom, is the ground of a fundamental attunement.

Throughout the book, Heidegger is at pains to avoid causal explanations for any attunements, particularly boredom, so we should resist the overly simplistic idea that the Dionysian impulse springs from and is in some way an antidote to boredom. Seeking excitement would of course be a distraction in the superficial sense, but how would the Dionysian participate in, be foundational for, profound boredom? Rather than looking toward the orgiastic, we can seek an answer in walking. Of course “answer” is the wrong term. Rather walking can provide a glimpse into the Dionysian elements of profound boredom. As Heidegger’s scene at the railway station makes clear, boredom is both about time and a way to think time, and it seems clear that anything that claims to be a fundamental attunement must have a temporal structure. The Dionysian as  attunement is fundamentally about time, bringing an understanding of different experiences of time. Dionysian revelry, the world turned upside down, is a revealing of just such multiplicity—orgiastic vs. industrial time. In a way quite similar to the profound boredom of long-distance walking, the Dionysian puts in stark relief the quotidian, which can only be thought by literally stepping outside it, into a different attunement. As Heidegger makes clear from the outset of his discussion, attunement experienced as mood (individual or collective) is something clearly perceptible and lived, but if we are always already in attunement, the foundational attunement is rarely experienced as such. The temporality of profound boredom can come into view through a different experience of time— the Dionysian time and walking-time are of a piece in effecting that unconcealing. 

The first two terms in the Nietzschean Dionysian are sensuousness and violence. In other words, it is a profoundly embodied experience. The Dionysian demands a body capable of feeling— feeling intensely— as well as one capable of both being violent and having violence inflicted on it. One immediately thinks of various versions of Sadomasochism as example, and indeed that line of understanding and experience is likely the most fruitful approach, but it is important not to diminish other experiences of embodiment, violence, and pain. To put it bluntly, outside of sexual experiences, there are few activities as sensuous (and as painful) as long distance trekking. As mentioned earlier, every day begins with a bodily inventory— an inventory is  ongoing if at times repressed. Trekkers are constantly questioning what a body can do, what its affordances are, and experiencing both the exaltation of accomplishment and the profound pain of failure. The latter is a common experience as trekking is ultimately a world of pain. Trekking is a productive/destructive violence we do to ourselves (a point made poignant in the violent ending of Van Sant’s film).


And finally, creativity—the third term in Nietzsche’s formulation and one that I hope the above discussion of hiking-thinking begins to open up. That would by no means be a naive celebration of the so-called “creative class” in 21st century economic discourse, nor an alignment with the supposed “creative destruction” of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs who might superficially be viewed as crude Nietzscheans but who are on the most fundamental level celebrants of neoliberal economics, something subverted by profound boredom and wandering/thinking without product. (Walking is not immune to neoliberal commodification as is demonstrated by all the walk-for-a-cause crowdsource funded treks flogged on social media). The Dionysian creativity can be better linked to the notion of the “Wild” developed by Thoreau in his short book on walking, a book that highlights walking-thinking: “you must walk like a camel, which is said to be the only beast which ruminates when walking.” Unlike the views of many of his readers, Thoreau’s “wild” does not refer to wilderness— a world empty of humans— but instead to the efflorescence of life around the edges of civilization. The wild proliferates in swamps full of marginalized wildlife, or at the edges of gardens where plants hybridize promiscuously. The wild is the fox I saw on the Cape Wrath Trail, but also the pair who tore into the garbage on the street outside my apartment in Oxford. A Dionysian wild is set up against the tyranny of industrial time, and against any limitations on the possibilities of what a body can do, including a rejection of simple notions separating pleasure from pain. Wild thinking is equally undisciplined, also always taking place in the margins or the middle and never concerned with completion or closure. The wild thinker—walking-thinking— never gets to the point, never concludes, and instead keeps on trudging: to be on a footpath is never to arrive (see Footpaths).  To unapologetically express this whole essay in a tautology: Boredom as fundamental attunement is the ground of wild thinking, embodied sometimes painful but patient walking/waiting for complex, obscure, chaotic novelty to emerge, and that practice is, in itself, profound boredom. 

T. Hugh Crawford

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.


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 33, June 12, 2022

June 13th, 2022

Walking to Cape Wrath, Day 33, June 12, 2022

Yesterday’s many crossings in heavy mist veiled a bit my awareness of a significant change in the overall terrain (though the rocks and my feet made me acutely if unconsciously aware of it). This glacial nature of landscape, the earth’s skin is scraped raw, exposing boulders prone to roll, massing in huge rock fields. My hike out from a sleepless night in that primitive shelter was still in driving rain, strong winds, and a lot of fog though there was some light low in the distant sky giving some optimism.

Much like yesterday, the trail was often indistinct and wound across several watersheds in what felt like a random pattern though the intent was clearly to take me close to Eas a’ Chual Aluinn, the highest waterfall in the UK. I stood and looked at it for a bit before I realized that was what I was watching. It is incredibly high, but was obscured by the rain and fog. Given the severity of the weather and the stress of yesterday’s trek, I opted for a trail taking me more directly off the mountain to the road to Kylesku, avoiding some navigationally difficult pathless bog trekking. The guides for the Scottish National Trail and for the Cape Wrath Trail all emphasize flexible route choice, so prudence won out over some sense of purity.

The skies did lift a bit, and occasionally I saw my own shadow, and the sheer scale of these rock-strewn slopes pressed hard. It is jaw dropping landscape that requires immersion in it— photographs are pale facsimiles. The other landscape feature— water—also asserted itself. I’ve never been on a mountain with water pouring out of seemingly every rock. It is impossible not to be walking in streams as the whole mountainside is more or less a stream. I followed that water from high loch to lower loch, to burn, to river, finally picking my way to the flatlands and the highway to Kylesku.

My initial plan was to push past the village to reduce tomorrow’s long trek a bit, but the ongoing bad weather and my experience yesterday prompted a revision. Two miles outside of the village, I passed Newton Lodge, a beautiful building sited on a bluff with signs welcoming travelers to their restaurant. As it was around noon and I wanted to get out of the weather and eat something, I turned in— only to experience yet another bit of that fabled Scottish hospitality. As I walked to the door, a woman working in one of the rooms said hello through the window, informing me that—common story across the region— the restaurant was closed because of staffing shortages. As I was about to turn and leave, she hastened to open the door and ushered me into the pub area, insisted I sit a moment, then went to get the manager. Soon a young man appeared, apologized for the restaurant closure, offered a cup of coffee, then checked with their sister hotel in Kylesku that indeed their restaurant was open and would take walk-ins.  He then offered to drive me there— I’m guessing I must have looked pretty rough to inspire such concern. I assured him I could easily walk the two miles to town, but thanked him for such hospitality. Both were such kind and concerned people.

Smelling the proverbial barn, I made short shrift of those last two miles and soon found myself at the Kylesku restaurant eating one of the best seafood soups I’ve ever tasted. The Loch here is an arm of the ocean so it’s a fishing village with seals and porpoises cavorting in the water. Just being out of the wind in a warm pub — just washing my hands in warm water—was the greatest pleasure. Realizing I was not going to walk further, I cast about for a place to stay, but, as I already knew, there were no openings anywhere. In wandering about, I found a nice small flat spot on a path above the hotel, just the right size for my tent. Pitched it, arranged my stuff, put on my dry town clothes, I returned to the pub, spending the evening talking to a number of people, particularly with a really wonderful couple— Andrew and Claire— who are fishers traveling about the area. They noted that the weather will continue bad through tomorrow and repeatedly offered to give me a ride to the next point, something given the circumstances I might consider.  It was another two part day—profoundly difficult morning, and an exquisite afternoon/evening. It was a day for gratitude.

T. Hugh Crawford

Walking to Cape Wrath, Day 32, June 11, 2022

June 12th, 2022

Walking to Cape Wrath, Day 32, June 11, 2022

The weather predictions for the next few days were foreboding and, given my experience earlier in the trek, I discounted the severity of what was to come. The first few weeks every day they called for rain, but usually it was just scattered showers, no need to break out the rain gear. This morning started with a light shower and an easy trek up an estate road. Apart from a boggy bit between the estate road and another (linked by a forestry road) it was a pleasant saunter up the Oykel river, a renowned salmon river that, owing to low water from the dry last few weeks, had been largely abandoned by fishermen. After passing the amazing Benmore Lodge (and greeting a pack of hunting dogs), the road began showing markers by the river— a number, small bench and parking turn-out marking a salmon fisher’s designated spot.

I’m afraid that was the highlight of the day, not because I didn’t have an adventure and see some amazing sights, but the weather came in hard with non-stop driving rain and often gale-force winds knocking me off the path (when there was a path). Even though I was a walking ad for ZPacks rain gear, I was completely soaked in no time (to be fair, no rain gear could have stood up to that weather). Navigation would have been difficult in clear weather, it was nigh impossible in the rain—I kept loosing the path or the line.

The trail took me up a number of watersheds, skirted the edges of others, before turning in unexpected directions— the mist made direction nebulous anyway. This area, while still boggy, is much rockier. Clearly glacial, the paths remind me of the Pennsylvania section of the Appalachian trail, though the mountains in no way resemble that state. I’m sure I passed some magnificent landscapes today, but they were all buried in the mist.

This leg was supposed to end in Inchnadamph, with tomorrow’s heading back up the same path for a bit. As there were no accommodations or facilities there, I opted to hike a bit into tomorrow’s leg— a mistake. I still felt strong and was comfortable with a couple more miles, but the alarms should have gone off when the path climbed quickly toward a bealach. Unlike most other places I’ve trekked, in Scotland once you are at any elevation there is almost no cover— no trees or steep stones to tent behind. The landscape is scoured by the winds with plenty of growth ankle high, but nothing that will break the weather.

Foolishly I decided to press on, hoping that in the evening the weather might calm down, or that a sheltered wild camping spot would miraculously appear, or the “small shelter” mentioned in the guide would be open and sufficient. All those hopes were dashed. The shelter was indeed open, but was a mere sod-covered roof over a 5’ narrow bench with some rocks chinked in the sides to form a sort-of wall. Disappointed in myself (and feeling the intense cold), it was there I decided I had to camp.

Trekking is supposed to be an adventure, which in some of its etymological history includes embracing chance and taking risk. My adventure today was tempting chance and was an unnecessary risk. Still we must make the best of bad decisions, so after shucking off dripping clothes and finding dry ones in my pack, I made a bed more or less on the narrow bench (I fell off once, hitting a rock and spraining my wrist). Crawling into my sleeping bag, wearing most of my warm clothes, I felt the warmth slowly return. The day’s exertions erased any appetite, so I choked down a few dry crackers, curled up in a knot (unable to stretch all the way out) and tried to sleep, all the while feeling my gear getting wetter and worrying that I might roll off onto a rock again. Still, I could not help but smile at all the day had thrown at me.

T. Hugh Crawford

June 9th, 2022

Walking to Cape Wrath, Day 30, June 9, 2022

ZERO day in Ullapool. Woke to a large cruise liner moored in the harbor, so town (the village) is a bit more crowded than before. The hostel here is well-appointed and well-run. My bunk room had 6 middle aged men from six different counties, and I ended up in a good conversation with a bicyclist who does leadership training via adventure. Fascinating man. Then, as my only real tasks today are replacing my lost bandana and laying in food for the final push to Cape Wrath (a stretch that still makes me anxious), I wandered town after an amazing breakfast of salmon hash at the Cult Cafe, followed by a long and wonderful conversation with back home, and then a no-exaggeration epic late lunch of spicy seafood soup and a dozen langoustines at a food truck—Seafood Shack— they were fresh off the fishing boat and could not have tasted better. My food tour ended at the Argyll Hotel for seafood stew (Cullen Skink) and steak pie while a trad band played— good way to finish evening in Ullapool.

Have to admit my anxiety level is a bit higher than usual, given the daunting task of 4 straight 30+ km days in foul weather and sometimes trackless trekking. That got driven home when buying food at the Tesco—counting out ounces of protein measured against days of strenuous hiking. Some good news is the first night out will now include a meal at the Oykel Bridge Hotel and a night in their bunkhouse, all because the folks who work there are such great people. Still, this last week will be brutal.

But today was a quiet wander, watching the tourists from the Viking Cruise liner moored in the bay, and picking up little odds and ends to make this last big push a little more tolerable.

T. Hugh Crawford

Walking to Cape Wrath, Day 26, June 5, 2022

June 6th, 2022

Walking to Cape Wrath, Day  26, June 5, 2022

Long distance walking always brings new sights, but after many years, usually not any real novelty about how to walk. Today taught a lesson. Having grown up in the  mountains of Virginia, I was early acquainted with wilderness paths, while at the same time, I became comfortable walking off path—bush whacking—in generally familiar regions. On leaving the Shenandoah Valley for long-distance tracks in different regions and faraway lands, I became more path dependent. The Appalachian Trail is perhaps the best marked path in the world, with white blazes nearly everywhere. The Camino de Santiago has its scallop shaped directional signs and the ubiquitous yellow arrows spray painted on sidewalks everywhere. Even the New Zealand’s Te Araroa, while often pathless, almost always has its orange plastic triangles or cylinders on fence posts which can be seen at a distance. This morning I walked out of the Bendronaig bothy with a well graded forest road for some miles up a glen. As usual, the higher the track rose, the more it diminished.  When at last it plunged into the bog, I assumed before too long it would re-appear. After deploying two gps programs which confirmed my general direction but refused to lead me to a path, I finally realized that the absolutely straight line one was showing simply meant walk in that direction and eventually (at least an hour or more) a path would magically appear. Of course I was walking up a glen with the burn to my left, so all I needed to do was continue slogging, but it took a good while to shake the idea that somewhere parallel to me a clear and somewhat firm path existed.

It was a strange relief to let go of the security of the path, trusting simply to legs and an obvious direction to follow. Paths are the material manifestation of democracy— formed and maintained by many feet over many years, defining direction and possibility (see https://walkinghome.lmc.gatech.edu/pointless-essays/footpaths/). Unlike many places, here it is not as if the paths had not yet been formed, or that over long periods of time out of disuse they disappeared (which is very much the case across Scotland). In this area, the bogs just swallow up paths— the democracy of paths is obliterated by a riot of growth.

After a struggle, followed by resignation, I crested Bealach Bhearnais, finding myself once again in the company of ancient and recent feet trodding smooth a place an direction. Those feet were soon accompanied by voices. High up the  peak I could hear, then see a couple of Munro baggers coaching each other across a treacherous part of their climb. I soon met their companions, two people from Edinburgh, hiking up to join them for the next two peaks. Then later I had to check my calendar. It was not June 21–the official “Hike Naked” day—but sure enough, an older man wearing only a backpack and a great gray beard was dressed as if it were. We exchanged greetings, and I passed down the mountain to Craig, the crossroads where I had initially planned to stay.

My revised plan had been to put in another hour or two, making the following day’s walk into Kinlochewe easier, but after a steep and difficult climb out of Craig on “the old pony track,” I found myself on a well-made (machine constructed) forestry road that would take me, more or less downhill, all the way to town, so I decided 33 km in a day that had a campground with a shower at the end was worth it, even in the blistering heat (unusual for this place for sure). Footsore, but showered and tented, I stopped for a moment to celebrate the Queen’s Jubilee with a glass of champagne provided by Sharon, the caravan park host, then made my way to The Stag for an excellent meal (and solitary celebration of a personal holiday), followed by a good night’s sleep, knowing all the while I do not have to walk any paths, marked or wild, tomorrow.

T. Hugh Crawford

Walking to Cape Wrath, Day 25, June 4, 2022

June 5th, 2022

Walking to Cape Wrath, Day 25, June 4, 2022

I stopped briefly at a bothy this afternoon and had a conversation with Simon, a man walking part of the Cape Wrath Trail. He had settled in for the day while I was planning to push ahead to the next bothy about 8 km further on. A hot day tempted me to stay, but I want to get used to much longer days as the last week will be full of them. We talked about stopping in towns, and he took the familiar line used by most trekkers— a certain contempt for “civilization” as trekking takes you out in the wild and keeps you there.

That narrative thread is strong in most of the Cape Wrath Trail discourse— its draw is the wild. Of course I’m all for the wild— I relish the solitude of wandering in what seem to be empty spaces (one of the reasons I almost always trek alone see https://walkinghome.lmc.gatech.edu/pointless-essays/solitude/). And, for example, today I saw almost no one except Simon over a 30 km walk which took me via very steep and narrow paths down the side of one of the tallest waterfall in UK, Falls of Glomach measuring in at 113 meters. I walked around lochs, slogged through more bogs, and crossed several high ridges. In other words, I got the full wild experience.

But I also want to say a word for towns. I’ve had to coordinate maps, websites and guidebooks to see just how close the SNT comes to various towns— many it deliberately misses— in order to have the chance to visit them. For me, towns (crossroads, villages, hamlets— the maps have the full gamut of place names) can be every bit as interesting as an isolated mountaintop.

The Appalachian trail only passes directly through a few towns along its 2000 mile + corridor. Resupply usually involves hitchhiking down off the ridge to towns at some distance. Towards the end of my trek, I realized how much I enjoyed staying in decrepit motels near the trail. Mattresses lumpy, television often limited, the rooms had no real appeal except there was always an old lawn chair on the walk in front of the room, facing the parking lot, where in the evening you could sit, read, and talk to the people arriving. Hardly “exciting” but a real pleasure nevertheless. Since then I’ve hiked many trails, most with a similarly fraught relationship to towns. Of course there are exceptions— the Camino de Santiago winds its way through the main street of every town it approaches (primarily to afford pilgrims the chance to pray in each of the churches on the way). But by and large on most long trails, towns are viewed as infrastructure— a place to support the wilderness seekers— and not as another sight to be seen. Just a word for towns— they can bring such pleasure.

Today no town for me. I’m sleeping in the Bendronaig Lodge bothy— a comfortable estate bothy with a flushing toilet! (Of course you have to bring buckets of water from the spring). And tomorrow I will wild camp somewhere past Craig, a crossroads I should pass mid day.  But the following day brings the village of Kinlochewe, and another place to explore—a town.

T. Hugh Crawford

Walking to Cape Wrath, Day 24, June 3, 2022

June 3rd, 2022

Walking to Cape Wrath, Day 24, June 3, 2022

Quite possibly the most beautiful walk I’ve ever taken. Woke early as the Munro baggers were itching to get started and my bunk was just above theirs—had coffee with them later, a good lot. I was the only one walking out what for many is the last leg of the Glen Affric Way. I was expecting more bog hiking, but after a few kilometers was surprised by a well-benched track that held through the day, and what a day. I began walking up the watershed of the Allt Beithe Garbh, but so subtly, the flow changed to the west and I spent the rest of the morning descending with the Allt Grannda.

The wind had picked up in the night, coming in with the rain, so the early morning was brisk, cloudy, and damp, but it was clear the skies were going to clear, so I bopped along at a rolling pace. After a few clicks I passed a simple bothy and had a short but pleasant conversation with a couple who were finishing the Glen Affric Way that day. They were lingering over morning coffee before heading out.

Later in the day I encountered mountain bikers heading up the glen, and, closer to Morvich, the walkers were out in force. One part of the path crossed a cattle pasture with some highland cattle (or some hybrids I suspect) which included a glowering bull and many calves. I passed warily, but he seemed unconcerned, as he would be, given the place he gets to live. Later the path joined a land rover track that quickly brought me to the Morvich Campgounds, a short day earned by going long the previous two. Shower, laundry and a long walk to the Kintail Lodge for a huge meal and obligatory pints.

It must have been the combination of a well formed path, the beginnings of sunshine, the narrowness of the glen, the height of the mountains, and the non-stop waterfalls—each more impressive than the last— that turned the day exquisite. It is difficult to mark a tipping point, that move from a painful, difficult walk, to a tiresome trudge, to a lighthearted amble, to something that is close to pure joy—but that line was crossed today.

T. Hugh Crawford