I thought the Camino had eluded me this year.
The urge to climb high and view the world from Scottish peaks and sleep in green corrie campsites filled my head and heart all spring and summer. It absorbed every scrap of my energy and enthusiasm – and a lot of time when I should really have been working.
And yet. And yet.
Triggered by photographs, long shadows on walls or roads and contact with pilgrim friends on three continents, El Camino has lurked and tugged at my imagination. It’s three years since I first set foot on the Way from St Jean Pied de Port and there hasn’t been a day since when I haven’t reflected on that journey, the people I met and the mark it made on my life.
And now, almost without warning, my backpack is loaded and my heather-scratched boots are patiently waiting at the door. My passport and guidebook are laid out on the table and the departure for my pilgrimage in the footsteps of St James is imminent.
This time I’ll walk along the camino portugués, along the route reputedly walked by Sant Iago himself when he first preached his gospel. Poignantly it’s also the way his body was carried back to be buried in the site now known as Santiago de Compostella.
I’m hoping for a Buen Camino.
Cappuccinos at 3500ft? Oh, yes please.
The frothy powder was the propellent that spurred my wearying legs up the fourth mountain peak of the day. We sheltered behind peak three’s cairn to munch doorstep sandwiches and chocolate while the chill wind blustered, numbing our hands and cooling the drinks.
By evening the day had mellowed to sun and long autumnal shadows when whole hillsides moved with herds of red deer and bounding mountain hares. Occasionally a ptarmigan dodged between the rocks while, high above us, skeins of early geese wheeled in from Scandinavia.
Spot-on map reading was provided by my son (who didn’t inherit his navigational skills from his mother).
For sure, a day to remember.
A few lines of verse lured me to Raasay; haunting Highland words by a renowned Gael about the passing of time and the mass clearance of island people from their land and heritage. “Time, the deer, is in Hallaig wood…” it begins.
I walked along the ancient bracken path, through Hallaig’s thicket of birch trees to the soft greenness of the township’s terraced landscape, a raised beach with a still sea below and the crags of volcanic Dun Caan high above. It was a September day in any year in the last century and in the sunlight I ached for the Highland diaspora transported by ships from this homeland to a new, unknown world. Reports of the time say some were forced aboard vessels clutching grass from their ancestors graves, a fraying thread to their history and a land they knew they’d never see again.
I found stones. Moss on stones. Stone built high, still forming the outline of a home. Fallen gables and gaping holes. And lines of stones harvested from village houses to make a holding for sheep, the new inhabitants of Hallaig and Screapadal and all the other cleared villages across the Highlands.
The sun shone, casting shadows on the rough edges of grey and pink. Clouds scudded over and fattening lambs snoozed in the lee of tumbledown lintels. And I sat too and read Sorley MacLean’s words among gentle ghosts, the faint imaginings of children playing in the burn and phrases of gaelic whispered on the breeze.
There will always be an emptiness here but moss, the marker of time, now smothers the sharpest of grief. And after only a few hours in Hallaig it’s not easy to turn and walk away.
A ranch. Somewhere high in north-western Montana. We’re fly fishing in the baking heat, casting for trout, listening to the trickle of clear spring creeks and glimpsing sleek, fast-moving shapes in the shadows.
It should be relaxing, but I’m distracted. I discovered in a chance conversation with the rancher’s wife earlier in the morning that at least two dinosaurs are entombed in rock on their land and she promised a ride to where the university volunteers are digging – and spending the long scorching summer.
“Yeah, they’re all living up there in the rocks, right beside the rattlers,” said the woman with a real life Jurassic Park on her land. “Someone flew over the ranch in a hang glider years ago and discovered the site and they’ve been working on it on and off ever since.”
The Jeep bounced, rattled and shuddered its way over a track more suited to cowboys on horseback than four wheel drive trucks. Finally we crawled out to climb the last few feet up the hillside and in a corner of the rocky excavation site we found an anthill of burrowing bodies working under a protective sunshade. It was, the palaeontologist told us as he gestured over the valley, a spectacular example of the Morrison Formation in the Jurassic period, the geological era when many dinosaurs died.
I’ve never really had the dinosaur bug. But this was different. A long-necked Diplodocus and a Stegosaurus had walked and died precisely where we were standing around 150 million years ago and I was holding some of the fossilised bone that had just been excavated. The scientist described the size and age of the creature his team were uncovering; the way rivers had risen and fallen, how the ice had covered them and then retreated; how they might have died and been scavenged.
It was a huge privilege to be there, to gaze out over the valley and imagine all the other dinosaurs resting just below the surface of that dry scrub land.
The cool waters of the Yellowstone River flowed around my legs. I was wearing waders, casting half-heartedly for the fabled cutthroat trout as I gazed over the still meadows and up at the mountains in this paradise setting of “A River Runs Through”. All was quiet in the searing afternoon heat but for the trickle of the water on stones. There was no shade. No fish. No animals. No other fisherman in sight.
When I turned I realised I did have company. The lone bison who’d been napping earlier was now wide awake, considerably closer and grazing only feet away at the edge of the river. He filled the entire frame of my vision and I froze.
Do bison swim? I rapidly spooled back through childhood cowboy movies to scenes of herds fording rivers and concluded they’d certainly move faster in deep water than I would in my waders. Or even without them. So I sidled slowly away and he watched with one eye but barely lifted his head. A bit like Ferdinand the Bull, it was just too hot to bother.
Yellowstone has pink stone too, and rocks of orange and red and white. But Yellowstone it is. A natural wonder.
When dawn is breaking at 04.15 and the sun’s rays are just starting to inch their way down the rocky mountain tops, it isn’t easy to walk away from the wilderness.
I’d been camping out in the remote wilds of Fisherfield in Scotland’s far north west for two nights, climbing some of the most inaccessible hills in the country, and it was time to leave.
My friends tents were motionless in the half light; the inhabitants still asleep. Quietly I packed up my dew-sodden shelter, stuffed the gear into my rucksack and set off on the track between the sprawling lochs and hills. What a morning to be alive and alone.
At the first loch I unhooked my pack, washed my face in the soft peaty water, stowed my jacket and sized up the last of my food store: just an orange and a tiny breakfast bar. The walk would take at least five hours so I delayed my feast and crossed the stone causeway between two lonely stretches of water.
I heard the cuckoo calling and startled a few red deer as my boots grazed the stones of the rough path. And as I walked I tried to think of other mornings in my life that had felt as magical and momentous as this one. The early hours when my children were born are unforgettable, of course; there’s a string of dawns spent walking out from a corrie camp one romantic summer many decades ago that merge into one; and most nostalgic of all are the occasional early mornings of an idyllic childhood when my father woke me early to walk with him up to our high fields to collect the cows for the early milking. I recall anxious swallows swooping with food for their young in the eaves of the barns and the otherwise stillness of summer dawn as I held Dad’s hand and we walked up the road. I remember my sandshoes getting damp on dewy grass, the herd rustling and impatient at the gate and the precious feeling that no-one else in the world was up this early.
There was no-one else up early in Fisherfield either. I didn’t meet a soul for hours.
And I resolved to make more morning memories.
The hills lure you from every window in the wild rocky paradise of Assynt, and even in the rain the view from our hostel dorm to the massive hulk of Quinag was mesmerising. We dodged the stormy weather for a gentle evening stroll through rainbows to a chambered cairn just up the glen then decided to climb Stac Pollaidh next morning. It’s only 612m high but ranks 10/10 for drama.
It was a steep but short ascent and once we reached our high vantage we gazed over to the distant, outlandish rocks of Suilven, Ben Mor Coigach, Cul Beag and Canisp until their ancient outlines were imprinted in our minds, certain to call us back. Read more