On my recent walk, following (in reverse) the ancient route used by drovers bringing cattle from Skye to Crieff, the line also linked places and people warm in my affection from a twenty-five year relationship with this part of Scotland. I was walking between memories of past climbs, paddles, pub nights, days spent with friends and lovers. I hadn’t planned the route around this, at least not knowingly.
As Thomas A Clark says in ‘In Praise of Walking’, ‘Walking is the human way of getting about.’ It is obvious, and yet worth reminding ourselves of this. For me, the pace became the thing. In ten to fifteen miles per day, the changes are of a human scale – the gradual handover from one land-shape to another, from one settlement and group of people to another. It is enough to adjust to, accommodate, enjoy. I wonder whether more than this can dull rather then enliven the mind, giving too much stimulation to digest. When the landlord of the Tomdoun Inn referred to Aberfeldy as ‘not far’, I looked at him in astonishment. For me it was ten days away.
‘I can only meditate when I am walking. When I stop, I cease to think; my mind works only with my legs,’ said Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Ralph Waldo Emerson called walking, ‘gymnastics for the mind’. I know of few writers for whom the rhythms of walking (and possibly running, cycling) do not bring reflection and discovery that lead to creation. I like speed too. I ride motorbikes and sometimes skis, and like freewheeling downhill on my bicycle. But the purpose is thrill, and the practice of skill at speed. Such ways of getting about have an entirely different function.
Perhaps for everyone, whether they wish to be creative or not, walking as a refreshment, a pilgrimage which links special places or people, is something we should award ourselves annually? It is an intensifier of life, a celebration of crossing points and transitions, a getting-to-know ourselves. I came back a different person from this journey in ways I cannot yet explain. I was often surrounded by the pleasure of familiarity and revisit, there were challenges, an emotional threshold, a spiritual experience and a reassurance that my body still works. I carried what I needed in terms of shelter, food, warm clothes, the materials with which to read and write. And it was enough. This sufficiency makes me question the accumulating objects that seem to normally burden my life and travel, claiming to be ‘essential’.
The line of the walk is the string upon which, in memory, the jewels of special moments are held in lapidary brightness. A double rainbow arcing over my tent by a crag-framed lochside near Kinloch Hourn; late sunshine transforming a simple spectacle of water and grass into a miracle of colour; wind-walking a god’s path above Camasunary in a tumble of storm-cloud, sun-glare and the gnash of Cuillin pinnacles; the quiet smile of a man offering a cup of tea. The white gloss of bracken shimmering beneath dark stands of Scots Pine; the high mew of buzzards; honeyed heather scenting the path beside white-rock-tumble on the Water of Tulla. Hot water blasting onto cold, damp skin in a shower at the end of a hard day.
Leaving my line after fifteen days brought a bruise of loss. It also meant a return to a mobile signal, to emails, to the tyranny of my ‘to do’ lists at home. I longed to maintain the simplicity for a little longer, to keep walking, even to turn around and walk back again, arriving at my front door a month after I had left it. The trees I passed in Glen Lyon would then have been toasted and bronzed with the change of season rather then just golden and copper-crowned as they were.
It took me seven hours to reach home from Portree, even with the vagaries of buses and hitch-hiking. Less than thirty minutes for every day I had walked, and taking a route that echoed and had glimpses of my own way. It felt like a betrayal of the line and the sense of simplicity and intensity it had drawn.
Crossing points. Thresholds. Migration and pilgrimage. I am still counting and fingering the beads along my line.