My view of hikes as 30 minute jaunts along cute dirt paths with frequent pauses for waterfall photo ops was stomped on by my trip to the southern Scottish highlands.
An October Sunday takes me and 40 other St. Andrews students to the base of Ben Lawers. The mountain peaks at nearly 4,000 feet and is one of the highest points in the area. I preen my feathers of pride a bit and opt for the second highest level of hike.
Two hours later I am in the most physically miserable circumstance of my short life. The charming hills have given way to a wall of fog and the trail is a jagged rock so steep in comparison to what I’m used to that I might as well be climbing with my face. The jolly chatter of the group has dissolved in heaving breath and gusts and silence. I curse every step I take. The elevation has wrapped us in a weird self-destructive cloud that slams us with alternating blasts of wind and eerie calm. Rain or mist bites our skin like ice. A collective push brings us to the top, but triumph is merely a group photo in a gray haze.
Yet 20 minutes into our descent, the clouds laze apart and we find ourselves in knee-high grass overlooking the valley that dips into Loch Tay. In that moment, “[t]he word ‘time’ split its husk; poured its riches” (Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway). Any day is about acceptance, about knowing how to relax into yourself, about knowing that, with a little time, the pace of your steps will change. And you’ll get to where you’re going.
In the spectral hush that follows, there is laughter. There is the remainder of the six and a half hour hike unspooling in a downhill sweep. There are flocks of sheep dotting brooks and grass like sponge. There is a town below waiting, waiting with the mountain-wreathed lake.