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 turned out to be a life saver. So did my girlfriend Ilse’s decision to buy me a waterproof map case, 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’d never done something like this before and it was a pretty impulsive decision. A month earlier I’d packed my tent for one night’s camping in the Dutch wild (insofar as one can speak of ‘wild’ in the Netherlands), following a sudden desire to be alone with myself in nature. Out of that night grew the wish to go on a solo trek.

Ireland and Scotland had vaguely been on my list of love-to-go-to-someday’s. Suddenly Scotland started appearing all over, via friends who’d been there, friends who were going there and people I randomly met who had something with Scotland. So one Sunday morning I found myself booking a ticket to Inverness, no idea where I’d be going from there.


Preface
I did a fair bit of research before I left. I spoke to people with hiking experience about what (not) to take and I also 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. The guy at the nut shop in my street gave me a valuable tip: “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.”

If anything, this hike was going to be an exercise in mindful eating.

I managed to borrow almost everything 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.”

I’d confined myself to taking the essentials, plus two books and a journal. I was slightly shocked that the backpack felt frigging heavy. At the airport check-in counter I couldn’t believe what I saw: 22 kilos, with empty waterbottles…


Where to?
I felt most drawn to everything North-West of Inverness: the Northern Highlands. I’d done some reading up, but didn’t actually open the maps I’d bought until I was on the plane. I asked the man sitting next to me if he knew anything about where I intended to go. He called me a nutter: “What are you going there for? There’s nothing there!”
—“Well, yes, that’s the point.”
I said it with ease. Inside I felt my stomach cringe.

I hitch-hiked from Inverness airport to the wilderness. A really friendly and helpful Scot named Kevin, who loves going for long treks and knows the area really well, gave me a final, serendipitous push. It was getting late and he drove me all the way up a seven-mile road to the edge of the wild. I had no idea about the water quality (hadn’t bothered to research it:-) and was carrying a tiny water filter and pump. Using them would demand a lot of patience. Kevin told me: “The water here is some of the freshest I’ve ever tasted. 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.”

Just before that, he 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.”

Life-saving advice for anyone who’s about to go out there alone.

After sending a text message to Ilse, which took ten minutes to get out (cellular coverage was already near-zero), deep in my bag the mobile phone went, and out came the paper map and compass. I’d 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 two days this was pretty easy, mainly because I was clinging for dear life to the map and compass, stopping every hundred meters to check if I was still on track. A three-meter wide gravel track, impossible for anyone with eyes to stray from.

I was clinging because I felt anxious. The map showed no connecting tracks to where I was (roughly) going, so somewhere I was going to have to take a side-step. I got a practice run when a track on the map became invisible to my eyes: I just lost it. Immediately there was a slight panic. This idea of being ‘off the mark’ and not knowing (i.e.: not being told) that everything’s alright, made me feel vulnerable.

Those first days also made me feel like I was carrying a dead horse.

Something changed on day three. I intentionally left the track and my backpack seemed to lose weight. Maybe it was the exhilarating feeling of seeing two peaks on the map in the distance, of clearly seeing the terrain leading up to them, and then (‘shall I, shall I?’) just going for it.

I’m going to draw a corny parallel with life. In the days that followed my first venture off the path, I got a primordial sense of setting my own direction. I had no one to turn to for advice or help; it was just me, my map, my eyes, the land, and the freedom to choose where and how fast I was heading.

This reliance on something other than pre-packed bite-sized chunks, grew in several ways. Time, for instance, just wasn’t there. I had no clock and no idea. Even when the Sun was out (I seldomly saw it), I couldn’t judge what time it was. Summer days in Scotland are much longer than where I live.

Leaving my phone deeply stashed away in my backpack, I was forced to let go of clock-dictated habits. I learned to wake when I woke, to rest when I was tired, and to eat when I was hungry. It felt like un-learning, and often my mind would try to have its way: “You just started walking, what is it, 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!”

As the days progressed, this voice quietened. I found myself surrendering more and more to what the moment and my body told me it was time for.

I could say I know how important it is to listen to your body. I’ve felt the importance and I even go by it in the work I do. But since my life in Amsterdam doesn’t immediately depend on it, I also tend to forget it (or ignore it when I find my bodily cues ‘inconvenient’). In the Highlands, denying my bodily cues was downright dangerous. The steep inclines and treacherous terrain commanded me to be aware 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 either me or my whistle.

Forced and unforced, I adapted to a more natural rhythm. 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, on terrain that’s nowhere near a walk in the park. I enjoyed my day even when wind and rain wouldn’t let up and my feet were wet throughout. Once, as I sat quietly, resting, a herd of deer passed right in front of me. They were completely at ease because they didn’t see me sitting there. Only when one of them spotted me, did the whole herd suddenly shoot off. Magic.

When I compare this to a regular eight-hour-plus workday, which many people spend by ticking off as many todo’s as they can, I feel like I’ve taken a crash course in natural flow. Treating my body as a trusted friend and counselor, 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 only a sense of direction and leaving it up to the day’s walk to point out the destination. All of this allowed me to walk safer, healthier, with more enjoyment —and paradoxically, to cover a lot more distance than I would have done, had I walked with a goal in my mind.

This is probably the clearest insight I took from the Highlands. One I got to experience, physically, as true.

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 was crossing a path. It was a helpful encounter. All of the places I’d camped till that moment were infested with midges (mini-mosquitoes that attack in armies and are not impressed by repellant). On this morning I was in doubt between going up the mountain or making an attempt at finding better midge-repellent and a head-net. I was leaning towards the second, because midges really are incredible little beings (they far outrank weather as the main topic of conversation in Scotland).

The man in the car told me the nearest village was eleven miles away. That answer sent me straight up the mountain. I collected what little wood I could find on the way, intent on camping at altitude, in the wind and away from the midges. This decision brought me to the most amazing sites with stunning views. It also forced me to start cooking my food with just two burning sticks of wood,  something I ended up succeeding in even when rind and wind were pounding.

Surely we must experience something like this at least once in our lives.

I could say my trip in Scotland was a pretty immersive one, but I was surprised by how easy it felt. And how much fun I had with myself. Being so removed from anything and anyone probably made it easier than harder. Because who to turn to for good company when you’re totally alone?

Writing these words, it’s been two months since I left the last (unbelievable) camping spot in the wild. At least one thing has notably changed: I can no longer set my alarm clock when I don’t have to. For years I did. I swore by getting up early in the morning, whatever the weather. Since I started working and living for myself again, I’d become a little more relaxed. But since Scotland it just seems like the most logical thing to do: rest until I’m 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.

As for daytime, here too I’m seeing useless patterns more clearly. Times that I ‘should’ be eating, times that I ‘should’ be working, ‘should’ be resting, ‘should’ be anything… it’s becoming meaningless, even madness, to live like that. What’s the point of doing something now when it doesn’t feel alive and doesn’t have to happen (yet)? What really wants and/or needs to be done right now?

Hiking through Scotland mirrored me in the pointlessness of allowing myself to be dictated into action, rest, work, and fun, by shoulds. Conversely, Scotland reacquainted me with the joy of being guided by timelessness.

This begs a question. Because 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 does thou sayeth to that?”

I’d say now that maybe there is no difference. Maybe natural flow means being so connected to ourselves and what this moment truly asks, that we don’t need to separate flow from practicality. I’ve seen it happen in my life. When I allow flow to do the work, what comes out is what’s needed. Life becomes easier, right down to taking out the garbage. It also brings forth beautiful things no time-enslaved mind could imagine.

It’s easy, but not not always easy. Time and again, the judge within grabs hold and I find myself fighting battling a with a voice that says: “Whatsoever you’re (not) doing right now, it’s wrong.”

Maybe the biggest shift that Scotland brought about —and the real ‘work’ now— is increased awareness. I’m seeing some patterns more clearly, seeing through them more easily, and smiling at myself more easily.

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