Walking Home

reveries of an amateur long-distance hiker

Walking to Cape Wrath, Day 3 May 13, 2022

May 14th, 2022

Walking to Cape Wrath, Day 3 May 13, 2022

Much as I like to celebrate life on the open road, some days fall into the category “no fun.” I’ve already heard the term “Scottish weather” countless times, but today even the most grizzled Scot owned it was some wind. Guess I should have been suspicious when the weather just posted an image 🌬, particularly since today’s hike was billed as a beautiful trek along the ridge line.

Of course it was not all brutality, the morning out of Melrose included more beautiful wandering along the River Tweed. After a half-Scottish breakfast (I declined the tomatoes and beans, and they didn’t offer blood pudding), I wandered down Main Street, picking up some oat cakes and fruit as today’s route crosses no towns. I soon passed the rugby field— clearly the favorite sport in this region—heading toward the river with its fishermen and dog walkers. After a bit, climbing up the river bank brought Skirmish Hill, a place where in 1526 various Scottish nobles (including James V) decided to kill each other. At one point later I had a wonderful sense of deja vu as the path opened out onto the Tweedbank train station, the spot where, on my first day, I caught the bus to Kelso on the way to Kirk Yetholm. Then there was a lot of walking through sheep fields and the edges of a large town (Galashiels) until finally breaking out into the true countryside. There were pastured hills and woods with the forest floor carpeted with Scots bluebells. Near midday, I began the long climb out of the valley to a high hill topped by the Three Brethren— three large stone cairns next to a trig point looming over a broad landscape.

That’s when the unfun began. Initially it was just like much of the ridge line I’ve been in so far— far below stonewalled sheep and cattle fields and close cropped pasture, and closer by, heather about to bloom. But on the distant hills were forests, not a Sherwood Forest full of oaks and merry men, but instead a plantation. I was crossing land owned by the Duke of Buccleuch, apparently one of the largest landholders in all of the UK. While much of the land was open, vast tracts were planted up in nice clean rows of pine—one of those monocultural pine plantations derided by environmentalists. Of course Scottish tree plantations date back at least to the Earl of Atholl whose land on the slopes of the Cairngorms became test ground for both mono and poly arboriculture. But here we are talking straight-up industrial tree farming.

And the wind the weather people predicted hit with full fury. I had passed some hikers who were heading east (the wind at their backs)— they looked on me with pity, knowing what an afternoon I was in for. I’ve been in worse (that would have been an attempt at the Tongariro Crossing in 2015: https://walkinghome.lmc.gatech.edu/te-araroa-walking-south-with-the-spring/day-43/), but today did involve some staggering wind. Thankfully all my equipment (including those titanium knees) performed. It was straight up exposed ridge hiking in the teeth of gale force wind, the only respite was in the lee of one of the Duke of Buccleuch’s tree crops (one bright spot was a stretch on an old drove road, making me glad I had read A.R.B Haldane’s Drove Roads of Scotland).

On entering the forests, it became clear what I was experiencing was the merest trifle. Massive old trees, whole swaths of timber were down, almost as if some giant child had brushed their hand across the landscape, flattening arbitrarily tree after tree. I was inspecting first-hand the handiwork of Storm Arwen, an extra-tropical cyclone that, between 25–27 November 2021, devastated the woods across the UK, with nearly 100 mph winds hammering this corner of the world. The only comparable experience I have was the derecho that smashed into the mountains of Virginia in 2012. There the hail was as large as I’ve ever seen and thousands of old growth was leveled (https://roanoke.com/archive/volunteers-clearing-the-appalachian-trail-of-blown-down-trees/article_15302054-c1b2-59fe-9bd7-fd977ac1bb76.html).


Fortunately by mid-afternoon I was descending to Traquair (the official endpoint of today’s trek) and in a light rain I made my way to the Tweedside Caravan Park in Innerleithen where, after waiting in a pub for the rain to abate, I pitched my tent and then had an amazing meal (duck confit) at the Traquair Arms (a place well worth a visit). Very happy tomorrow will be a short day.

T. Hugh Crawford

The Lee Shore

April 27th, 2020

The Lee Shore

Once hiking up the Tongariro Crossing from the north just after I cleared the tree (and lahar) line, I stepped headfirst into a gale. The storm had been threatening as I ascended the lower section, but it unleashed on gaining the open ground. No visibility and winds that literally blew me off the trail. As I was closer to the Department of Conservation’s Ketetahi hut, I pressed on, hiking in a crouch with one arm swung back holding my pack in place, finally reaching it but not without being soaked through and feeling hypothermia. Obviously the goal of my trek that day was impossible so, after bundling in my sleeping bag for an hour to get back temperature, I made my way down the mountain to the place where I had begun, feeling grateful when I entered the woods which cut the wind and then finding two English trekkers in the parking lot who offered a ride to a campground on the south side of the crossing. That evening I found myself warm, cleaned up, dressed, and eating a meal in an elegant restaurant.

The English Pennine Way is, by and large, a beautiful wander through the Yorkshire Dales on long-trod paths. But, as readers of Wuthering Heights well know, up on the moors the fog and wind come in, easily disorienting the casual walker. Much of the path is cobbled with material from old mills, so in the dense fog, you have to trust the stones. One day in such a state, I heard the unmistakable sound of an ATV engine, and soon out of the mist a modern-day Heathcliff appeared, asking if I had seen any stray cattle on the ridge. I replied that I had barely seen my own feet. He laughed and rode off, maybe heading to the Grange. Up on those ridges people—probably shepherds—have built stone walls in the shape of a cross, allowing walkers caught in the weather to find shelter in the lee of whatever angle breaks the wind. These seeming Christian contrivances are pure material practicality and not theological symbol, serving troubled travelers no matter the direction of the weather. 

After finishing a month of trekking in Tasmania this February, I found myself on the Great Barrier Reef teaching a university course on Moby-Dick. The weather on the day we took the ferry out from Gladstone to Heron Island was a little rough—barf bags were widely distributed and people passed around Dramamine like it was molly. Twice on the outbound leg, the ferry passed in the lee of an island (Mast Head then Erskine) so briefly the waves smoothed and wind abated. Much to the relief of some nauseated students, we arrived at Heron, disembarking in the sun but also to wind and surf stirred by an offshore cyclone—one that would slowly pass on the the East buffeting us for days. 

Moby-Dick is a maddeningly beautiful book. Ahab famously declares “The path to my fixed purpose is laid with iron rails,” but Melville the author has clearly gone off them. It’s a book with a complicated textual history, with some dead ends and a number of enigmatic characters. Some think the original protagonist was to have been a man named Bulkington whom Ishmael encounters at the New Bedford Spouter Inn, his having just returned from a four year voyage on the whaler Grampus. Bulkington, like Jack Chase or Billy Budd, is a handsome sailor—a strong, capable man who inspires confidence and loyalty from his fellow sailors. He appears again briefly on Ahab and Ishmael’s boat, the Pequod, in a “six inch chapter” that serves as his “stoneless grave” entitled “The Lee Shore.” Obviously a teachable moment, my students, having braved the seas, Dramamine, and barf bags on a short channel crossing, well understood the calm of a lee shore. 

Of course all calm in Melville is soon disrupted, and he uses this chapter to push at the calm/danger binary. Like crouching in Pennine Way cruciform walls, to be in the lee of an island is to albeit briefly inhabit shelter, but as Melville makes clear for the sailor it is the island that is the danger. Bulkington must pilot the Pequod into the sea, the teeth of the storm, to avoid being wrecked on the reef: “The port would fain give succor; the port is pitiful; in the port is safety, comfort, hearthstone, supper, warm blankets, friends, all that’s kind to our mortalities. But in that gale, the port, the land, is that ship’s direst jeopardy; she must fly all hospitality; one touch of land, though it but graze the keel, would make her shudder through and through.” So to rest in the lee, perhaps only for a moment invokes home’s hearth and brings calm, that “insular Tahiti” Ishmael describes later in the book, but in the big outside, leeward is short lived, and safety or perhaps even truth is only to be had by casting off, doubling the cape and facing the teeth of the storm: “Glimpses do ye seem to see of that mortally intolerable truth; that all deep, earnest thinking is but the intrepid effort of the soul to keep the open independence of her sea; while the wildest winds of heaven and earth conspire to cast her on the treacherous, slavish shore?” Melville sets up a land/sea binary, but the two-stranded lesson of the lee shore is that seeking refuge is but a momentary respite—actual safety is to be had by abandoning false comfort. My time in Ketetahi hut was limited because, built on the slope of an active volcano which had recently erupted hurling rocks through the roof, it was deemed by the authorities unsafe. Refuge was actually to be found by returning to the storm, piloting before the wind to the woods below.

 

Although he died nearly a decade before the publication of Moby-Dick, the German Romantic poet Friedrich Hölderlin pressed precisely the point of Melville’s “Lee Shore.” In “Patmos” he pens the phrase that so stirred Martin Heidegger: “But where the danger is, also grows the saving power.” The speaker is a wanderer seeking salvation in the lee of Patmos, an island that could bring revelation (if St. John doesn’t remain hiding in the cave). Charles Olson, in his wonderful book Call Me Ishmael, reads Melville’s 1856 journals on his trip to Egypt, the Mediterranean, and the Holyland, recording Melville’s response to the Mediterranean in general and Patmos in particular: “Off Cyprus, on his way from the Holyland to Greece, Melville can no more imagine a Venus to have risen from these waters than ‘on Mt. Olivet that from there Christ rose’ …. Now, off Patmos, he can ‘no more realize that St. John had ever had revelations here.’” Like Ishmael, Hölderlin’s speaker is persuaded by an unseen force—the amorphous desire some call wanderlust—the desire to cast off the assurances of hearth and home to live by passing through (or around) a world that alternates danger and refuge.

… a spirit 

Led me forth from my own home 

To a place I thought I’d never go.

. . . .

And how fearsome it was to leave 

The sight of dear friends and walk off 

Alone far over the mountains

Bulkington, like Ishmael, is one of Melville’s isolatos, “living on a separate continent of his own.” There are scenes of camaraderie in the novel— who can forget the squeezing of the hand—but Ishmael’s solitude is unmistakable. What Hölderlin makes clear is that a wanderer’s solitude is profoundly different from the alienated soul in society. It is a necessary forsaking and wandering out into “howling infinite” which, as Ishmael opines, is better “than [to] be ingloriously dashed upon the lee,”

Heron Island can be circumambulated in about 30 minutes. At low tide the beach is wide and smooth, marked only by the tracks of nesting tortoises and their scampering young. Unlike directional hiking where you might find yourself walking all day with the wind at your face or blasting from the side, a circle brings the weather from all points of the compass. Many people, particularly in the Himalayas, look askance at the notion of conquering a peak. They prefer to show respect by circumambulation, best known in the West with the walk around Kailash. Having just come off a month of rigorous trekking in Tasmania and therefore still having feet, not unlike Bulkington’s, scorched by the land, Heron became my Kailash— circling at least twice a day. Such wandering clarifies the lesson of the lee. Depending on the direction I started, I would either begin or end with the wind. The rising tides brought waves crashing to the edge of the forest, making walking tiresome, awkward, but not dangerous. In the lee comes peace and I’d sing (quietly) Graham Nash’s song “Lee Shore”: “All along the lee shore/ Shells lie scattered in the sand.” Such circuits are strikingly different from a day of long-distance, directional trekking. The sun and wind burn both cheeks equally, and intensity is exactly balanced by peace, each shading into the other on the edges. Equanimity is a balance of extremes, offering a glimpse of Melville’s “mortally intolerable truth”: deep thinking demands that you “fly all hospitality” at least temporarily. But as my daily island circles taught me, fleeing to the lee (also temporarily) is just as fundamental.

As it turned out, the danger that lurked there was not a tempest but instead pestilence. We retreated back across the sea to the Australian mainland and soon home to the United States because of the emerging corona virus pandemic, circumstances that make every day here a question of refuge or danger. Hölderlin also makes room for the lee shore with a prayer for all wanderers: 

  give us calm waters; 

Give us wings, and loyal minds 

To cross over and return.

 

T. Hugh Crawford