Walking Home

reveries of an amateur long-distance hiker

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