Wednesday, 8 April 2020

Thoughts in a Strange Time

View across the woods and fields to the Cairngorms, April 6

I went shopping today. I never thought I would start a piece of writing with those words. But the act of shopping now seems significant, fraught with danger, verging on reckless. It was the first time I’d been into town for a week, the first time I’d spoken face to face with anyone, shared space with them. Keeping away from others feels unnatural, difficult. Cross the road to avoid passing someone on the pavement. Reverse down aisles in the supermarket. Other people are dangerous. I am dangerous. None of us know if we carry the invisible threat. 

Into the third week of lockdown now, with no end in sight. The reality of this open-ended state has become familiar. I feel detached, disorientated. The world has changed so fast, so drastically. Yet here at home it is much the same. Living out in the countryside I don’t see empty streets, closed shops, speeding ambulances. I see woods and fields, birds and animals, as usual. But it’s not usual. The Cairngorms glow white in the late sun. Out of reach now. I forget the strangeness as I walk in the trees looking for the first spring flowers, listen to the spirit soaring song of a thrush, catch a glimpse of a deer, then out into the fields and the beautiful wild calls of curlew and lapwing. A buzzard circles overhead. This world has not changed.

At home I sit at my desk, working. That hasn’t changed either. But I feel slightly unreal, not sure if the world will suddenly change again. The house feels solid, reassuring. Built of blocks of stone. They’re not going anywhere. House, trees, fields, wildlife. Not much else feels substantial.

Here, alone, cut-off, I am detached. Yet I’m also connected, to my local community, to the wider country, to the whole world. This affects everyone, everywhere. Whilst I exist in this strange limbo others are suffering, working hard, desperately trying to adjust. My mind expands from this solitude across countries and continents. We are one people.

The people who keep society running are being acknowledged now. This needs to last. The world has changed and when the world comes out of this it needs to stay changed. Whenever that is.

Stay safe.

Sunday, 5 April 2020

The Great Outdoors Spring issue

The Spring issue of The Great Outdoors is out now. It's the first issue of the lockdown but was written and produced before this began. I guess it's best now to regard it as inspirational.

I wrote a piece on planning for the TGO Challenge in May. That's not taking place now of course but the advice will be useful next year! Or of course for other long walks that become possible once the lockdown is eased.

The lockdown has changed much, including the fortunes of magazines like The Great Outdoors. With many shops that sell it closed the best way for regular readers to help keep it going is to subscribe - which you can do here.

Back to this issue. In the Gear Pages I review ten pairs of three-season walking boots plus Mountain Hardwear's all-white Lamina Eco AF 15F/-9C sleeping bag. Coffee afficiando Daniel Neilson reviews three coffee makers for the outdoors. I'll be getting one of these! After years of deliberation I've finally decided I want decent coffee on the hills so I found this review very useful.

The theme of this issue is the Munros and the cover picture by Dougie Cunningham is of Buachaille Etive More, undoubtedly one of the finest of them. The lead article is a moving piece by Sarah Jane Douglas, author of Just Another Mountain, about climbing all the Munros and the solace the hills bring. In another major feature David Lintern links together a host of Glen Affric Munros in a high-level backpacking trip. There's a Q&A with Kevin Woods about his winter round, which he has finished since this interview. James Forrest, who recently completed his first round, talks to four Munroists about their bagging adventures. There are also lists of the five most difficult and five easiest Munros, which are sure to start some debate!

Away from the Munros the open picture spread is a dramatic shot of two scramblers on Crib Goch in Snowdonia. Ten TGO contributors pick their favourite walks for beginners. There's a look at Capel Curig in Snowdonia. Roger Smith reviews The Last Blue Mountain by Ralph Barker and Alan Rowan reviews Feet And Wheels To Chimborazo by Mark Horrell. Roger Smith calls for proper funding for footpaths. Jim Perrin's Mountain Portrait is Mweelrea in Co.Mayo in Ireland. I've never been there. It sounds wonderful! In the Lake District Andrew Galloway attempts the notorious Broad Stand on Scafell. Far away from our hills Phoebe Smith goes hiking with humpback whales on Dirk Hartog Island in Australia. Thinking about overseas trips Hanna Lindon looks at minimising the environmental cost.

Friday, 3 April 2020

More desert reminiscences - on this day on the Arizona Trail

Twenty years ago on this day I woke after a night under the stars to bird song then spent the day walking through the Superstition Mountains on the Arizona Trail. In my journal I wrote: "a great day, but long and hard ..... mainly due to the very rough, rugged terrain, but also the scenery - I spent some time looking and photographing".

Mostly I was in red rock desert but in Cottonwood Canyon "suddenly and delightfully it became a deciduous woodland in spring with fresh grass, clover and even dangling wild grape vines under a canopy of freshly green sycamores, oaks and cottonwoods. Through this narrow strip of verdant luxury runs Cottonwood Creek, a spring-fed stream. Through the trees saguaros and other cactii can be seen on desert hillsides, a strange juxtaposition. In places saguaros and cottonwoods are only feet apart." Water in the desert is always a wonder. Soon the stream faded into the stones, the greenery went with it, and I was back in the desert under the harsh sun.

Sunday, 29 March 2020

Another memory from twenty years ago on the Arizona Trail

On this day in 2000 I walked through the splendid White Canyon Wilderness on the Arizona Trail. Again much of the route was cross country following cairns. The views were tremendous and this was one of the most impressive sections of the walk. In the evening I wrote in my journal "fine desert canyon and mountain scenery all day". The seemingly dead dry sticks of the tall ocotillo shrub had burst into life and were covered with tiny emerald green leaves and topped by nodding red flowers. The hedgehog cactii had bloomed too with bright purple flowers. Vultures soared overhead, quail scuttled over the ground and flew low and fast over the rocks. Bright lizards raced for safety. A squirrel watched from a bush, a snake slid away. The air was full of the sound of crickets chirping. It was a magical place to be.

That night I slept out under a brilliant starry sky in  a desert garden of paloverde, sagebrush, ocotillo, century plants, prickly pear, barrell cactii and tall saguaro cactii. A desert in name but full of life. An owl called in the darkness. Dawn came with bird song and a woodpecker drumming.

Thursday, 26 March 2020

Far away and twenty years ago: On the Arizona Trail

Antelope Peak

On this day twenty years ago I was on a cross-country section of the Arizona Trail, walking through the desert below Antelope Creek. Part of the day was spent in aptly named Bloodsucker Wash, though the bloodsuckers plants not vampires. In my journal I wrote "slow going picking a way through cactii and spiky catclaw and mesquite bushes. Teddybear cholla especially bad as lots of small pieces on the ground - stabbed several times, used poles to remove them".

Monday, 23 March 2020

Some reading for when we can return to the hills

With plans for walks long and short on hold for the foreseeable future I'm spending time thinking about where I'll go when all this is over. Daydreaming is a way to cope.

Over the years I've posted dozens of features on all aspects of walking on this site. They're all free to read and maybe they can give some inspiration and enjoyment during this difficult time. I've gathered lists of some of them together. Here they are:

Lightweight Backpacking


Backpacking Photography

Sunday, 22 March 2020

Music Review: The Woods by Hamish Napier

Music is always a solace in difficult times like these. Much music is inspired by the outdoors and that's the case with a new album I've been listening to over the last few days, The Woods, by local musician and composer Hamish Napier. Commissioned by Cairngorms Connect The Woods is inspired by the Caledonian Forest.

There is a tune for each of the eighteen letters of the Gaelic alphabet, traditionally taught as the old names of native trees, plus ones for various forest fauna and flora. The music, which Hamish Napier says is 'rooted in traditional Scottish folk dance tunes forms', is rich and complex, a weaving together of many elements, just like a forest. It's repaying many listens.

A booklet accompanies the CD with a page on each tree packed with information plus lovely artwork by Somhairle MacDonald and photos by David Russell.

This is a tremendous piece of work and highly recommended. It can be bought from Hamish Napier's website.