8 days in no man’s land - hiking in and after Scotland
"Shall I bring some long-johns too?"
- "Oh, that would be great. I was thinking about those a couple of days ago, but I forgot."
"OK, well, I'll just bring a couple of things so you can pick what you want to take."
- “Alright, thanks, see you tomorrow!"
This phone call with my cousin Wouter turned out to be a life saver. So did my girlfriend (woohoo!) Ilse’s decision to buy me a waterproof map case anyway, even after I’d said I didn’t need one. By the time I realized how much they’d helped me, I was unable to get in touch with them to say thank you.
In July, I left for eight days of hiking through Scotland’s Highlands. On my own, with a tent, map (a waterproof one:-), compass and enough food to last me at least the time I was going to be there. I’ve never done something like this before. And it was a pretty impulsive decision to do it now. A month earlier I’d packed my tent and some food for one night’s camping in the Dutch wild (as far as ‘wild’ is possible in the Netherlands), following a sudden desire to be alone with myself in nature. I got what I asked for, and up came the wish to go for a real solo trek.
Ireland and Scotland have vaguely been on my list of love-to-go-to-someday’s, and now Scotland started appearing from all over, through friends who’d been, friends who were going and people I was meeting. So on a Sunday morning I found myself booking a ticket to Inverness, with no idea of where I’d go from there.
I did a fair bit of research before I left. I spoke to people with hiking experience about what (not) to take and I dug extensively for food inspiration. I wasn’t dead-set on avoiding people and civilization, but I wanted to be able to go the whole way without stocking up on fresh supplies. One of the most valuable tips came from the guy at the nut shop in my street: “100 grams of nuts equals a full meal, but only if you chew them really well. Otherwise, the nuts will just fall through your body, taking all their nutrients with them on the way out.” So now I knew that if anything, this hike was going to be an exercise in mindful eating.
I gratefully borrowed almost all of the things I needed. But the most memorable help came from Wouter and Ilse. They saw me off at the airport, together with my waterproof map case, a pair of long-johns, plus some last-minute essentials that Wouter had taken along: a thermal long-sleeve, gloves that made my own gloves look like flimsy pieces of cloth, and “alright, an extra pair of socks.”
All of my supplies fit into the borrowed backpack. I’d really confined myself to taking the essentials, plus two books and a journal. So I was slightly surprised when it still felt really heavy, and I almost couldn’t believe my eyes at the airport check-in counter: 22 kilos - with empty waterbottles! But I was also surprised by how easily I accepted it: I was going to haul 22 kilos plus water through the Highlands, and I was going to be fine.
I had done a little reading on Scotland’s terrain, and I felt most attracted to everything North-West of Inverness: the Northern Highlands. But I didn’t actually open my two maps until I was on the plane and in mid-air. I asked the guy next to me if he knew anything about where I intended to go, and he called me a nutter: “What are you going there for? There’s nothing there!” I have to admit I was shaken for a second, but very quickly I heard myself saying: “Well, yes, that’s the point.”
To add to an almost magical flow of help from all sides, there was the last person I hitchhiked with on my way from Inverness airport to the wilderness. A really friendly and helpful guy (like all Scots I met before and after him) who loves going for long treks and knows the area really well. It was getting pretty late and he drove me all the way up a seven-mile road to where I wanted to start. I had no idea about the water quality (and hadn’t bothered to research it:-), and I was carrying a tiny water filter and pump that was going to demand a lot of patience. But my ‘guide’ left me with this: “The water here is some of the freshest I’ve ever tasted, and it’s never made me sick. Just keep an eye out for cattle, and don’t take water when you’re close to where they are.”
And just before that, he’d told me: “If people have a bad day on the mountain, it’s because of their attitude. They think it’s the mountain, but it’s not.” Substitute “people” for “you”, and here’s probably some of the best advice anyone can get before going out there alone.
Off the grid
One last thing I did before crossing the open gate: send a text message to Ilse, to tell her that my cellphone was about to turn into dead weight, and that I would get in touch with her on the other side, 8-10 days later. It took me ten minutes to get the message out: here already, cellular coverage was close to zero.
Deep in my bag the mobile phone went, and out came the paper map and compass. I’ve never been properly instructed in using them, but I figured it couldn’t be too hard: point the compass north, align the map, and use visual reference points to confirm where I am. The first couple of days this was pretty easy, and I had to laugh when I suddenly realized how I was clinging for dear life to the map and compass, stopping every hundred meters to check if I was still on track. The three-meter wide gravel track…
But I also felt a little anxious. The map showed no connecting tracks to where I was (roughly) going, so I knew that somewhere I would have to take a side-step and really make my own way. This happened first when a track on the map became invisible to my eyes: I just lost it. For a moment, I felt a slight panic for not having the track to reassure me that I was OK, that I was still going in the right direction. This idea of being ‘out of reach’, not ‘knowing’ (i.e.: ‘being told’) that everything is alright, made me feel vulnerable. Even if just five minutes earlier I’d been happily trotting along a narrow but clear path.
Well, trotting… the backpack was still 22 kilos, and those first days did make me feel like I was carrying a dead horse. But on the first day I intentionally left the track, it seemed to lose weight. And as I write this I’m suddenly asking myself if those two are connected. Because I became less scared as I took those first steps off the path. I could see two peaks on the map in the distance, I could clearly see the terrain leading up to them, and to then just go for the spot in between and cross over to the other side… exhilirating and energizing!
I could draw a corny parallel with life, and I’m going to do it: the days that followed gave me this primordial sense of setting my own direction. There was no one to turn to for advice or help: just me, my map, my eyes, the land, and the freedom to choose where I was heading and how. I didn’t stick to what the map dictated, nor to whatever someone else had thought out for me. I relied on my self, literally feeling lighter and lighter.
And that self-reliance grew in several ways. Time, for instance, just wasn’t there. I had no clock and no idea. I couldn’t even judge by the position of the sun because the days were so much longer than at home. So whenever the sun did show itself (which wasn’t often: the Highlands aren’t your typical Summer destination, and I would not have been alright with a waterproof map case) I could be missing the mark by hours.
So in leaving my phone stashed away, I had to let go of all time-dictated habits. I learned to wake when I woke up, to rest when I was tired and to eat when I was hungry. And this really felt like (un)learning, because sometimes my mind would still try to have its way: “You just started walking, what, maybe half an hour ago: what are you resting for?!” Or: “Surely it must have been three hours since you last ate. You better sit down and eat again!” But as I walked, this voice became quieter and I found myself surrendering more and more to what the moment and my body told me it was time for.
I also (re)discovered how important that is, listening to my body. It’s something I’ve known for long, felt in different ways, something I even go by in the work I do. But since my life in Amsterdam doesn’t immediately depend on it, I tend to forget. In the Highlands, denying what my body’s telling me, not taking its cues for truth, was down-right dangerous. The steep inclines and treacherous terrain commanded me to be aware and alive at every step. I probably came close to spraining my ankle about twenty times, each time being either tired, stuck in my mind, hungry, or all three combined.
These were also the moments when I fully realized that if something were to happen to me, that this would probably be it. I don’t think there was anyone even remotely close enough to hear me or my whistle. And it would have been a bit of a shame to end up like Alexander Supertramp (note to self: bring some kind of emergency beacon or signaling device next time).
Forced or unforced, I pretty quickly adapted to a more natural rhythm, driven by an internal clock instead of an outside one. And here’s the funny thing: at the end of each day, plotting the route I’d taken, I would find out that I’d walked twelve to sixteen kilometers, up and down, with a heavy load on my back. I enjoyed my days even when the wind and rain relentlessly pounded at me and my feet were wet throughout. And once, while I was quietly resting and waiting for the energy to lift me up again, I got to see a herd of deer passing right in front of me, only spotting me at the last moment before shooting off again. Magic.
When I compare this to a regular eight-hour-plus workday, which many of us spend ticking off as many of our todo’s as we can, I feel like I’ve been thrown in the deep end of natural flow. Treating my body as a trusted friend and counselor, as the wisest thing I know, to which I only have to listen and take good care of; letting the moment decide when to stop and for how long; setting out with a sense of direction and leaving the day to unfold the destination… all of this allowed me to walk safer, feel healthier, to more fully experience and enjoy the day during the day. And (not so) paradoxically, I probably covered a lot more distance than I would have done walking with a goal in my mind.
This is probably the clearest insight I took from the Highlands. Like I wrote, I ‘know’ that slowing down allows us to go faster, that we have this magnificent vessel called a ‘body’ that allows us to stay in touch with what needs and wants to happen - and when. But as with everything, knowing isn’t knowing unless I’ve physically felt something as being true. Until then, it’s little more than borrowed wisdom.
In all of the eight days, I hardly saw or heard anything human. On the second day I spotted some people in the distance, and on the fourth I came across a car-driver as I crossed a path. That last encounter was again a meaningful one. All of the places I’d camped up till then were infested with midges (mini-mosquitoes that attack in armies and are not impressed by repellant). On this morning I was dilly-dallying: “Should I go straight up the mountain, or find a lodge or a village where I can get better midge-repellent and a head-net?” I was leaning towards the second option, because midges really are incredible little beings (they far outrank the weather as the main topic of conversation in Scotland). But the man in the car told me the nearest village was eleven miles away.
That answer sent me straight up the mountain, collecting what little wood I could find on the way, to camp at altitude, in the wind and away from the midges. I probably defied conventional camping wisdom, although I’m not sure, because I have no idea if there is such a thing as conventional camping wisdom. I do know that it brought me to the most amazing sites with stunning views. And forced me to start cooking my food with just two burning sticks of wood, something I managed even in the pounding rain and wind - and something we men must surely experience at least once to truly feel like, ehm, men.
I’m not a total stranger to the power of being in nature. Last year I had an amazing journey through Namibia with photographer Thijs Heslenfeld, and a walk in the forest, through the dunes or by the sea always brings clarity and freshness. Maybe Scotland was a pretty steep step. But I’m still happily surprised by how easy it felt, and how much fun I had with myself. I don’t think I could have done this even one or two years ago and surrendered to the experience like I ‘did’. And being so removed from anything and anyone probably made it easier than harder. Because who else can I turn to for good company when I’m totally alone?
As I’m writing this, it’s been two months since I left the last (unbelievable) camping spot in the wild. At least one thing’s visibly changed: I can no longer set my alarm clock when I don’t have to. For years I swore by getting up early in the morning, whatever the weather. I’ve experimented with letting go of it since I started working and living for myself again. But now, for the first time, it seems like the most logical thing to do, even crazy to ignore: to rest until I’ve rested. Even on days with (not too:-) early appointments, the alarm stays off. It now feels crazy, abusive even, to make myself live by a clock.
So much for the night, now for the day. Here I feel like I’m seeing through things more clearly. Times where I ‘should’ be eating, times I ‘should’ be working, ‘should’ be resting, ‘should’ be anything… it’s becoming meaningless, even madness. What’s the point of doing something now, when it doesn’t feel like it, and it doesn’t have to happen (yet)? And what actually wants and/or needs to be done right now?
Hiking through Scotland so clearly mirrored me. I feel so much more how pointless it is to be dictated into action, rest, work or fun by ‘should’. And I see so much more the joy in being guided by something that knows no time.
Which begs the question: “Yeah, all fine and dandy, but we’re living in the real world, and sometimes flow just doesn’t cut it when you need to pay the rent. So what do you say to that?” Well, thanks for the question! I’d say that maybe there is no difference. Maybe natural flow means being so connected to ourselves and whatever the moment truly demands, that we don’t even need to separate flow from practicality. I’ve seen this in my life over the last years: when I allow flow to do the work, whatever comes out is always what’s needed right now. It makes life much easier, right down to taking out the garbage. And it leads to beautiful things no mind or todo-list could ever imagine.
This easy life is not always easy though. Time and again, the judge within grabs hold and I find myself fighting on the inside, lost in translation with a voice that tells me: “Whatsoever you’re (not) doing right now, it’s wrong!” So maybe that’s the biggest difference, and the true ‘work’ now: I’m becoming more aware of it, seeing it more clearly, and seeing through it more easily. And - little steps at a time - I find me smiling at myself whenever I fall into ‘should’.
That same judge is now telling me I’m talking trivial shit. “People on all corners of the world are suffering and you’re taking hours to write about something as meaningless as flow - on a week day!? There’s more important stuff you should be doing!” Well, thanks for your input. I actually believe most of the mess we’re finding ourselves in - big and small - comes straight from being disconnected from our natural selves. Which makes the opposite just as true: allowing ourselves time and space to reconnect with our true nature is the biggest gift we can give, to ourselves and to the world around us.
And that is easy. For me, Scotland’s just around the corner. So are many other places where I can be in nature. Even a one hour walk in the park, without phone, appointment or to-do list, can work wonders. I’m learning that it’s a luxury we can’t afford to do without. And I’m learning to grant myself this luxury more often.
Want to join me?
While walking through Scotland, an idea came up to occasionally take a small group of people on a similar journey: one week, carrying all our supplies, relying on our map, compass and sight, living and walking in a natural rhythm. And now it's going to happen: a week naturally. The page is in Dutch: if you don't speak our little language but would like to know more about the trips, please use Google Translate or get in touch with me, feel free!
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