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 is 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

On Adventure

July 19th, 2022

On Adventure

On a rest day in Ullapool, when hiking the Scottish National Trail, I found myself talking with a man clearly familiar with outdoor life in the Highlands. He had been in the same hostel bunk room as me the night before but had gotten up very early, I presumed because he was off on some adventure. Turned out the combination of being a light sleeper, some heavy snoring, and a mass of midges making their way through an open window had driven him from bed. He was up making coffee in the hostel kitchen, preparing to continue a mountain bike tour of the area.

In conversation it emerged that both he and his wife had long worked as guides in various adventure sports—hiking, canoeing, mountain biking—but now, having settled to raise a family, he had taken a job with a company that does corporate leadership training. While they use many traditional techniques— psychological testing, a range of exercises that can be conducted in a conference space—they try to frame their practice around the concept of adventure, taking their clients into the wild. As I described to him the many exploits I’ve had trekking on most of the continents, we fell into a discussion of adventure, particularly as it relates to risk and planning. That conversation has stayed in the back of my mind since. If I think over my last decade trekking, the moments I felt most adventurous (some detailed below) were those where risk—real risk to body—played a significant role. But clearly the dyad—risk/control—works on multiple levels. It is dialectical, but also situational and perspectival. One person’s risk is another’s control.

A folk etymology of adventure could be something as simple as “to go out, then arrive,” but according to a number dictionaries, it has almost always been associated with chance or risk:  “1200, aventure, auenture “that which happens by chance, fortune, luck,” from Old French aventure (11c.) “chance, accident, occurrence, event, happening”.” Buried in that list is “event,” the one word that anchors the others in a specific moment and place. Adventures, for all their chancey, accidental, ephemeral qualities, do take place as event— in a place/time—which materializes the experience. So provisionally, one characteristic of adventures is material, they take place, seizing it.

The etymology of adventure includes chance and uncertainty, but also danger: “Meaning developed through “risk; danger” (a trial of one’s chances), c. 1300, and “perilous undertaking” (late 14c.) to “novel or exciting incident, remarkable occurrence in one’s life” (1560s).” What is interesting in these formulae is that a specific body is being put in danger—“one’s chances” and “one’s life.” “One” is a nebulous pronoun, but it designates yet again a material substance— an actual body now not just at risk but also in danger. In a sense adventure is a way to assert and articulate the presence of a body by endangering it. The body—the one—is known to be itself, a body, wholly body, by being in danger. In other words, an adventure is a way to guarantee Being and perhaps to incarnate it.

It’s a strange world we currently occupy that so fervently celebrates adventure, even though, for them to be meaningful, many must at minimum produce mishap and some, disaster. But to try to think adventure, to make it a question of philosophy and not psychology, demands patient uncovering, feeling through the constant wavering between control and risk and a host of other oppositions.

The purest notion of risk I can imagine demands a body—one capable of fear and of being hurt— but we also often speak of “intellectual risk,” where the adventure does not necessarily bring physical pain. Alfred North Whitehead wrote a book with a title that seems to celebrate non-embodied risk—The Adventure of Ideas. In the preface, he opens with a dual notion of adventure: “One meaning the effect of certain ideas in promoting the slow drift of mankind toward civilization.” This makes problematic my earlier sense that an adventure requires a body as, in this sense it’s not clear it even needs a mind. These ideas seem to float above any individualization, manifesting in a cloud of history. The adventures that are ideas are not so much danger as they are chance, marking moments when the virtual possibilities of a human history—the formation of a form of civilization—are framed and at least partly directed by ideas. Civilization in this formulation participates in the adventure, perhaps is the adventure, left open to the chance that some ideas will be taken up and others ignored by history’s actors.

He goes on “The other meaning is the author’s adventure in framing a speculative scheme of ideas which shall be explanatory of the historical adventure.” This version brings us back to the adventurous individual, in this case Whitehead’s own adventures with his own ideas in relation to a received philosophical tradition. His second meaning indicates the usage where people are taking what might be considered intellectual risks— a frame that seems to perpetuate the bifurcation of mind and body and confound any sense of what adventure might be. But perhaps Whitehead who probably inadvertently re-introduced such a bifurcation might also point to a way to think adventure philosophically, on its own terms rather than through an impoverished received tradition.

Whitehead is a thinker dedicated to refusing simplistic binarisms and his work can be seen as a toolbox for such efforts. An exceptionally handy tool is his notion of “prehension.” One formulation is in Science and the Modern World where he notes: “The word ‘perceive’ is, in our common usage, shot through and through with the notion of cognitive apprehension. So is the word ‘apprehension’ even with the adjective cognitive omitted. I will use the word ‘prehension’ for uncognitive apprehension: by this I mean apprehension which may or may not be cognitive.” Prehension then is a form of experience that does not begin with or require cognitive processing—via a mind—in order to be an experience. It is fully embodied and perhaps is a basis for thinking adventure as a process that requires a body in a risky dangerous world. Experiencing adventure does not depend on a disembodied mind or historically cloudy ideas, but instead is always a series of decisions (apprehensive and prehensive) unfolding through encounters with a dimly understood but non-bifurcated nature. Whitehead offers various formulae for the “bifurcation of nature.” In The Concept of Nature, “Another way of phrasing this theory which I am arguing against is to bifurcate nature into two divisions, namely into the nature apprehended in awareness and the nature which is the cause of awareness.” Though more nuanced than this, one can read this as a rejection of the Cartesian mind/body distinction.

In Process and Reality, he evokes the prehensive experience of just such a non-bifurcated nature: “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.”  Given the precision of most of Whitehead’s concepts, I find it refreshing to read this celebration of vagueness, particularly as that vagueness is of risk, of danger, a celebration of that which is beyond control: a celebration of adventure as pure experience.

So how does adventure figure in an unfolding of being— what contours can it take, and how or why do we seek it out? I want to argue that while adventure can invoke a sense of community—Whitehead’s book, The Adventure of Ideas was pitched to a community of scholars who lined up to either support or critique it, but regardless, jostled intellectually in relation to each other—but instead adventure as event. It takes place in a specific place and time and is a form of individualization while, at the same time, multiplication. The pleasures and anxieties of Whitehead’s vague hum of the August woodland are felt by an individual body with affective responses to those specific circumstances. Adventure is both a seeking and seizure of being in the field of danger.

A way to flesh out such an assertion is to draw from walking experiences.  As my conversation with the leadership adventure person took place in the Scottish Highlands, one place to turn is Nan Shepherd’s classic book on the Cairngorms, The Living Mountain. Most of that text is devoted to her personal relationship to the massif and her intense scrutiny of its many forms in relation to her own senses. But she does bring in anecdotes about other people’s experiences on the mountain, including some who died when the weather changed abruptly. She has a curious response to those events and their relationship to control and risk: “They committed, I suppose, an error of judgment, but I cannot judge them. For it is the risk we must all take when we accept individual responsibility for ourselves on the mountain, and until we have done that, we do not begin to know it.” This comment is in the context of two adventurers who put themselves as risk and died, but they also put a number of mountain rescuers lives at risk. Shepherd says she cannot judge, but the judgement is implied— the adventurers did not take proper precautions and their adventure spun out of control, putting others (Shepherd’s friends and acquaintances) at risk as well.

Shepherd seems to be placing self-knowledge above personal responsibility, though for her that knowledge is not psychological (know thyself) but rather is knowing the mountain and the complicated world it contains. Her goal is to try to know the mountain (something she regularly acknowledges as impossible) through some form of pure experience—embodied prehension if you will. Perhaps a key to her risky onto-epistemology is that knowing is emergent— not a body placed in a space, but a body always already in situ. Adventure is co-produced by intense interaction.

Risk and Control: Three Adventures

In 2015 I attempted the Tongariro Crossing from the north:

https://walkinghome.lmc.gatech.edu/te-araroa-walking-south-with-the-spring/day-43/

“All advice is not to attempt [the crossing] in bad weather, and my morning started out cold (down at low elevation) and wet, though there were glimpses of sun, and the cloud cover did not look significantly different from a typical New Zealand morning, so off I set. My plan was to get up to the Ketatahi Hut which was about 18 km from the campground and a little over six from the car park. I figured to get there mid morning and would then have a sense of how the weather would play out. If it stayed bad, I’d sleep in hut and wait for morning. The hike went well, long road walk followed by well-designed and maintained paths. As I emerged from the bush and started hiking the alpine tundra the temperature started to drop as I expected, and the wind picked up. I could smell the sulfur from the hot springs nearby. Still, I was well dressed in wind/rain gear, ready for what I thought would come. The trail has been rerouted a bit since I last hiked this track (I’ve already done this stretch twice before, but in summer weather), so I was not sure how close the hut was. The rain intensified and the wind soon got to gale force. It at times actually pushed me off the trail. The last kilometer or two were otherworldly– horizontal rain, freight train wind, and no clear end in sight. Then it appeared (not a moment too soon). The first thing I saw when I got to the door was the hut’s redesignation as a temporary shelter, not an overnight site any longer (because of a recent eruption– after all, this is a volcano hike). I went inside, stripped off wet clothes, and with shivering hands made an early lunch. As I did not get appreciably warmer–the wind by now was bashing the sides of the cabin– I spread out my sleeping bag on the table and crawled in which soon got my body temperature to a better range. Soon the door opened and a French couple came in, also shivering in the cold. They just wanted to see the first blue lake which is a couple kilometers further. Eventually the man did go up, but his smarter partner stayed behind in shelter. Then some Department of Conservation people showed up to work on the hut, surprised to find anyone there in this weather and relieved that we had decided to return down the way we had come. I packed up, headed back into the maelstrom, and could feel the temperature creep up as the altitude decreased. In little over an hour, I was off the mountain and in the carpark.”

Many weeks later on that same trek:

https://walkinghome.lmc.gatech.edu/te-araroa-walking-south-with-the-spring/day-78/


“The trail took me past Lake Constance which rivals Blue in color and beauty though getting around it required some hard climbing and narrow ledge hiking. The last bit was on a gravel beach at the water’s edge which was magical. The waters coming into it came across a wide flat plain that the trail followed. It gradually narrowed to a canyon surrounded by high snow-capped mountains with not anything that looked like a pass in evidence. The trail markers then made a sharp turn and went straight up the side of one of the mountains which might have had a little bit of a dip in altitude compared to the others, but hardly something to name “pass.” The initial climb was on loose gravel so each step slid back almost as much as it went forward. After an hour or so, I got the the first leveling off, though there was much more altitude to gain. In mid-winter this is a high avalanche risk area, and I’m not sure what conditions reduce that risk in the spring, but soon I was crossing snowfields on the way up, and once on the top, it was all snow for about a third of the very long descent. Fortunately some people had been through in the last day or so, and I was able to follow their footsteps down. I’m not sure how deep the snow was, but I would sink to about mid calf on each step. With cold feet I finally got below snow line, followed the western branch of the Waiau River to where it met the eastern half, and (after 11 hours of hard hiking) I pitched my tent in a beech forest beside the river, built a small fire to dry out my shoes, and gratefully crawled into my tent and sleeping bag, ready for a hard night’s sleep.”

And recently (after my Ullapool hostel conversation) this happened on the Scottish National Trail in the days after the remnants of a hurricane hit the Highlands:

https://walkinghome.lmc.gatech.edu/walking-to-cape-wrath-the-scottish-national-trail/walking-to-cape-wrath-day-32-june-12-2022/

“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.”

In each, the dialectic of risk/control, responsiblity/recklessness pervades, as does the embodied nature of adventure—its eventfulness. How to reconcile such actions with a sense of responsibility in the manner Shepherd suggests? In each I was irresponsible as I could have needed some rescue, particularly because of possible hypothermia. In the past 4 years, I’ve begun carrying a Garmin InReach device which uses satellites to signal for rescue, but on Waiau Pass I was quite possibly not followed by anyone for several days and had no way of signaling distress. On the SNT, hypothermia would have done its work long before a rescue crew would have arrived. In other words, I trusted my own skills and ability, without counting on assistance from others, but I also trusted the mountain, entering into a relationship with it in all its particularities.

So how does adventure figure in this essay? Clearly it remains a going out and arriving, one accompanied by chance, risk and occasional danger. Following Shepherd’s lead, I must ask what knowledge is formed, and what form does it take? In a leadership training framework, one must assume that the knowledge and understanding— the skills—are somehow transferable, that learning on a mountain will help one act well in an organization. But Shepherd’s onto-epistemology is always situational. To know the mountain is to be part of it—in it—and the knowing only exists while being part of the event of adventure. Responsibility is perhaps part of what Whitehead would call the cognitive apprehension of nature, but adventure more than likely takes place on the ground, in the immersive risky place of prehending (in a vague woodland) and living out something like a pure experience, outside clear or obvious forms of control or planning.

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.

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 34 June 13, 2022

June 15th, 2022

Walking to Cape Wrath, Day 34 June 13, 2022

Weather remained dismal so I met my fishermen friends for breakfast in Kylesku and later went with them to Rhiconish. In our conversation it became clear they had a deep understanding of the history of the area derived from their on-the-ground (or in-the-river) experiences of place. As a result, they knew the breeding habits of fish, the botany of riverine environments, a lot of geology and hydrology, the human history of land occupation (and de-occupation), and the current class-related sociopolitical circumstances of the strange economy that is the Northwestern Highlands today. I got a similar lesson from the crew back in the bothy near Laggan as one was government policy advisor, another a forester, and another a gamekeeper. All good friends but often on different places in the conversation. In my rather desultory preparation for this journey— I had originally planned this trek for 2020 before Covid intervened— I devoured contemporary Scottish nature writers and dug into early 20th and late 19th century books as well. It’s a hard history to learn, as the various traumas are often alluded to without specific context.

The history of the lands where American trails lead is often actively suppressed as those trails try to offer a “truly wild” experience without the taint of human presence— strangely chimeric attitude. I wrote a bit about that in a longer essay on a different topic regarding the lands where the Benton Mackaye and Appalachian Trail overlap:

Careering on the Lakeshore Trail in the Smokies, I encountered, of all things, cars—slowly rusting hulks of 1920’s vehicles, one with an old tree growing up through it. Not the sort of sight you expect in the so-called empty American wilderness, but also not surprising given the path I had been following was once a fairly well-made road. Heading north not far past the cars other evidence of Appalachian settlers emerges— old sheet metal, beams, axles, the remains of an old mill race and stone mill, and then the Calhoun House, the last standing structure of the Proctor community. In the late 19th century Proctor was an agrarian village. In the first decade of the 20th, a railroad was pushed there, and Proctor became a lumber boomtown, swelling to over 1000 inhabitants until the timber was exhausted. During World War II, the Alcoa aluminum plant needed smelting power, so the Fontana Dam was built, with the lake submerging parts of the town. A promised road to Proctor was never finished, though the “tunnel to nowhere” some miles to the east is now a tourist destination. The remaining town dwindled and then disappeared, with most structures disappearing into the regenerating forest. I would guess that disappearance was also hastened by the National Park service— a whole nother story of displacement. The whole essay is here:

https://walkinghome.lmc.gatech.edu/pointless-essays/career/

In part because of the sheer depth of the time of human occupation in the Highlands landscape, the persistence of the past here is not so much suppressed as it is, for naive eyes at least, made puzzling. (I don’t mean to imply the lands of, for example, the Appalachian Trail don’t have a comparable history of human occupation, just that the more obvious marks one encounters when walking there are, at least for me, almost impossible to discern). I’ve spent days here struggling slowly up watersheds to some high bealach— out in the raw wilds of brute nature— only to encounter unmistakable signs of human occupation and industry. The position in the landscape seems to indicate subsistence farming as probable primary occupation, but, for me, those signs— stone walls, dwelling foundations, etc.— always prompted a halt to just look around and try to imagine what day to day life in such circumstances and seeming isolation would have been like. And of course the follow-on question of what became of the people who lived there.

These landscapes have gone through radical transformations— deforestation, subsistence agriculture, the clearances coupled with introduction of sheep and game production, to today’s parcelling up of huge tracts of land amongst incredibly wealthy landowners (often multinationals) and various activist environmental agencies (within and outside government). For all its deep time sensibilities, these spaces seem to be a constantly shifting, fluid occupation. Like the bogs I keep trekking through, getting a sense of history, of some foundation of the land, keeps sliding under foot.

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

Walking to Cape Wrath, Day 31, June 10, 2022

June 10th, 2022

Walking to Cape Wrath, Day 31, June 10, 2022

Loosing track of the days of the week is definitely a phenomenon up here. The midday isolation is always total, so it’s hard to get a sense of where the people living here are in their week. The main cue of course is trying to book a room or a table in a restaurant. So I count myself lucky as Liz, the proprietor of the Oykel Bridge Hotel not only made space for me in the restaurant, she also had a room in “The Bothy”— a sort of bunk house with very comfortable rooms, beds, etc. As my hiking friend Adrian said, they are the perfect trekkers rooms— everything you need, but nothing more.

My time in Ullapool made me a bit anxious as the next four hiking days are long (most more than 30 km) and listed as 4-boot rugged on the chart. Today was actually the longest, but assuredly the easiest as I walked up the glen out of Ullapool, by late morning I crossed a low bealach and descended into the Oykel river valley, all on land-river tracks (except a couple miles when I walked the shore of Loch an Daimh). Weather called for rain, but there were only sporadic quick showers. Most of day was hot sun— glad I got a new neck cloth to replace my old bandana which must be on the trail behind me somewhere.

The Oykel Bridge Hotel caters to fishermen— two types: trout and salmon. So tonight, unlike earlier nights where I was in the company of long-distance walkers, or mountain bikers, or Munro baggers, tonight the lobby was full of fishing talk. What was fascinating is that they were all old-school fisherman, belonging to a club that has been around for 100 years. Some have been coming to this river and the lochs nearby since the sixties. You could hear the history, the tacit knowledge, the sheer being-at-home in the world in their every move. Today’s crew were trout fishers— happy with their day’s sport. Apparently the salmon fishers have abandoned for now because its been a couple of weeks with no significant rain (something I am grateful for) so the rivers are too shallow for the salmon to run.

The lobby talk tonight prompted reflection on just how many pretty strenuous sports the Scots of all ages participate in. Not only do they require skill, physical stamina, and will, but they also reflect a deep historical, local connection to place. You can see that connection in their faces and hear it in their voices— it’s uncanny but also gratifying.

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 28, June 7, 2022

June 8th, 2022

Walking to Cape Wrath, Day 28, June 7, 2022

Today was a rhythm day— one where at different stages I found myself in a particular walking mode. Just out of Kinlochewe started as a long land rover road walk, a beautiful glen, passing some abandoned houses, but also an amazing modern one, shaped like the old cottages but with a gable end that was a wall of glass. I could see inside a bird spotting telescope trained on the opposite ridge— could happily spend some time there. I’ve settled into a 3+ mph pace on such roads, only slackening when they ascend (or descend — my old new knees). Then there is the rocky narrow path rhythm— much slower, more deliberate but still a fairly rapid pace.


On reaching a series of small lochs the path turned uphill and disappeared completely— time for much more deliberation, taking headings, picking landmarks and following. Give yesterday’s difficulty, I made every effort to maintain good humor as the pathless space twisted and turned up several glens to a bealach that finally positioned me for the long afternoon walk down a narrow glen, followed by an ascent up to a plateau with a good gravel road leading across and finally down in the directional Inverlael. Found a bit of dry level grass in an old cow pasture next to a fast running stream, pitched my tent and counted that 19 mile multiple rhythm day well-spent. The early evening brought a string of Munro baggers trickling down the track heading for a car park. As one said as he passed, “We are all knackered.”  Guess I was too.

 

T. Hugh Crawford

Walking to Cape Wrath, Day 27, June 6, 2022

June 6th, 2022

Walking to Cape Wrath, Day 27, June 6, 2022

A zero day (did not walk except from the campground to the service station/ cafe then to the Kinlochewe hotel). Had breakfast at the cafe run by wonderful people with a nice set-up and great sausage and bacon buns. As usual with people in this country, the Kinlochewe Hotel staff treated me with great kindness, letting me check into my room hours before official time, and my weary bones appreciated it.

No great sights to report. Instead I spent much of the day arranging for some travel later in the summer. Starting to think past the trail, including the classes I’ll be teaching in Oxford starting later this month. Some of that preparation took me to a book I’m currently struggling with— just trying to think through my reticence. It’s a book about walking trails recently published by an author much younger than I am. I kept wondering what it was that didn’t feel right, and then remembered a comment I once read about Peter Matthiessen’s Snow Leopard, a book written at a moment when nature and travel writing was both enjoying an upsurge and was being redefined (at least at that particular late 20th century moment— much has changed in the 21st). As Robert MacFarlane has pointed out, Matthiessen’s book was published just a year after Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia, Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time of Gifts, John McPhee’s Coming into the Country, and Nan Shepherd’s Living Mountain. The last remains to my mind the finest nature book ever written. I’m not sure if I imagined this comment or actually read it, but the claim was that the first person singular pronoun rarely appears in The Snow Leopard (don’t have a copy so I cannot check). The book was always about the world described and not so much about the describer (of course one could do a psychoanalytical read on that, though it would be of little interest). I’ve always been struck that much of the best nature/walking writing is about the place(s) and not the narrator.

It seems I’ve internalized that ideal, even as I constantly fail to live up to it as the first person singular proliferates on these web pages much to my dismay. But the crux of the matter is a sense that really good walking literature is not about the walker but instead about the walk.

T. Hugh Crawford