Walking Home

reveries of an amateur long-distance hiker

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:


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 5 May 15, 2022

May 16th, 2022

Walking to Cape Wrath, Day 5 May 15, 2022

Traquair (Innerleithen ) to Peebles (21 km)

Walking Old:   Since I often teach seminars on the literature and philosophy of walking, I’m regularly sent internet links to articles touting the benefits of walking for mental and physical well-being, claims often quite miraculous.  There is a peculiar dichotomy in that discourse as, on the one hand, walking maintains youth and health, yet in our culture (here I guess I mean the United States) walking is often associated with people we term “elderly.”  Young people have no need of walking as they can run, jump, gambol— why do something as pedestrian as walk?

Obviously since I tend to go off on all these long distance treks, I think about walking and health a lot. Each new trail prompts a serious re-evaluation of my ability to do it, and I have to admit that my ambitions have scaled back a bit. The rough mountain trails of the US hold less of an appeal than the more sedate paths in old countries like Scotland (this is not to say Scotland trails are easy, just that an approach to them is not so intense— perhaps as I finish this trek in the far north highlands, I’ll eat those words). Although I’ve backpacked most of my life, I only took up serious distance hiking in 2011 when my son Bennett and I did the first third of the Appalachian trail. While not young, I didn’t consider myself old then, and was happy to dive into the rigors that the AT brings. Three summers of getting back into trekking shape, losing more toenails in total than I have at any given moment, helped me understand the complex dance that is walking on uneven terrain with time constraints. But of course age brings additional constraints which for me included arthritis leading to knee replacement, something I recount here: https://walkinghome.lmc.gatech.edu/pointless-essays/learning-to-walk-again/ But also I consider a general diminishing of strength, stamina, and flexibility, which is just to say I approach the trail with a little more wariness than in the past


Which all brings me to the question of walking old. Without doubt, what I have found most fascinating this week are the older men and women I encounter on the path. In the States, the word elderly calls to my mind a certain feebleness, but here the paths are crowded by older, fit walkers whose faces glow with the pleasure they clearly feel by their exertions and encounters with the natural world. Much of this is geographic— Scotland has many small villages, each of which has walking paths radiating from city center, and right to roam laws make it possible to travel from town to town unmolested. I frequently encounter pairs of older people (or people at least as old as me) wearing well-warn hiking clothes, sitting nonchalantly on a muddy bank sharing a thermos of tea— faces radiating contentment. (I hesitate to compare their equanimity with the stress of American’s rushing to the gym or home for a peloton experience).

I wonder what life and health care in the US would be like if we simply had  access (near our own front doors) to paths that wander about in our own neighborhoods, our own community. I wonder what the status of the “elderly” would be given those circumstances. Of course that would have to include a population ready to give up some false sense of security to grant the simple right to walk across a field. If people in the US had the chance to see the pure pleasure on the face of that old couple sitting on a muddy bank, listening to the birds, greeting other walkers, and sipping tea, they would see that while wrinkles on their faces betray their years, their expressions are anything but “elderly.”

Oh yeah, I did walk from Peebles to West Linton today. It was in some ways a summary of the days leading up (without the traumatic weather). Some edges of town, hiking up through pastures, some open moorland, a lot of forests, and of course I lost track of the path twice, the second required all sorts of bushwhacking through a field quite close to a Manor house. One fascinating moment included watching farmers in the distance— far left and right— herding sheep on their quad bikes (now there is a transformative agricultural technology). I also spent much of the day on a drove road, and got to walk through the Cloich Forest which, while imposing, was just one more bit of industrial forestry. The latter part of the trek brought me through newly lambed pastures with one young lamb momentarily imprinting me, following as fast as she could (soon overtaken by her solicitous mother). Got to West Linton early afternoon in time for a pint and a phone charge at the Gordon Arms Hotel— fine establishment—then caught the bus to downtown Edinburgh to get a new pack cover and some maps, settling into a hostel over the Guildford Arms, one of Edinburgh’s great pubs— a fine evening spent there over whitebait and pints from an Orkney brewery.

T. Hugh Crawford