What originally was a news section for the rest of the website soon became a place for me to write about human-powered wanderings in the countryside. Photography inspires me to get out there, mostly on foot these days, though cycling got me started. Musings on the wider context of outdoor activity complete the picture, so I hope that there is something of interest in all that you find here. Thank you for coming!
Around the Spring Bank Holiday weekend, I made a Scottish Highlands return. Due to intrusions of life and escapades that convey me to foreign shores, I have not frequented a part of the world that I continue to admire as much as I once did, and there is much more to savour.
The reminders come from my dipping in and out of Seton Gordon’s Scotland, a compilation of selected writings from the selected author of some renown, made by Hamish Brown. This follows my devouring of Seton Gordon’s Cairngorms while flying from London to San Francisco last month. That followed much the same format and also involved Hamish Brown.
In truth, I often think of the West Highlands as being the epitome of the Scottish Highlands, though the most recent incursions have used Stirling and Aviemore as bases. The latter of these was where I headed for this year’s visit, partly because hotels in Stirling were fully booked and that possibly was caused by a Harry Styles concert in Edinburgh. The Cairngorms return was a welcome one in any event.
2009 and 2010 was when I last was there, so my going back was long overdue. Then, hostelling became my choice of accommodation, but the latest trip saw me ensconced in a hotel for greater privacy. In many ways, the ground covered in May overlapped with those earlier incursions.
There was an ascent of Bynack More, made in blustery conditions that briefly brought some light rain. This lay in my mind since 2010, and it felt not before time when I did it. This also is my first Munro; it was its relative accessibility that initially put the idea into my head and not the fact that I stayed in a dorm of the same name in Glenmore hostel. The day improved during my walk, and I might have liked lingering around Loch Morlich but for my feeling worn after my exertions.
That was resolved by going back there and returning to Aviemore on foot to take in both Rothiemurchus and Loch an Eilean, though any sunshine was made hazy by a thin cloud covering. There was a reprise on the next day, while walking from Nethy Bridge to Aviemore under clear skies and in warm sunshine. Other haunts like Ryvoan Bothy were passed on my hike and there were ample opportunities for photography too. What I could have done without was a tumble that ripped my trousers that cast a shadow over the rest of my wandering.
That mishap and its aftermath feels brief now and I might have fancied staying longer given the continued sunny weather. The trousers were replaced anyway, and any scuffs that I had suffered were well bandaged. However, the size of the Cairngorms began to enter my thoughts enough for me to consider hiring a bike for future off-road wanderings. Cycling would make a good way to reach Loch Einich, for instance.
Craigellachie National Nature Reserve was not ignored either, especially given its proximity. Now that I think of it, there were four incursions. The lochans are best savoured in the morning light while going above the tree line in the evening time grants you views east towards the Cairngorms and south along Strathspey. This is a wee place that offers so much.
Further Highland returns are possible. Seeing Ben Ledi in wonderful sunshine remains an unfinished business, as does reprising parts of the West Highland Way north of Bridge of Orchy to get better photos. The more adventurous prospect of a short backpacking trip from Taynuilt to Glencoe or Kinlochleven has entered my mind too. What went from being a place to explore to becoming a refuge from life’s woes now becomes somewhere to experience again and anew.
The last few weeks have seen a spurt of writing on my part. On here, that has manifested itself as an effort on catching up with the writing of trip reports. So far, I have been getting them done for 2018, but there may not be as many for 2019 as I might have feared. After those, we are into 2020 and pandemic times. The passage of time may mean that those will not feel as raw as they otherwise might have done. 2021 seems to have been a walking gap year in many respects, so my next move would be to write up the outings for 2022.
With all of these, it is not the actual writing that takes time, but the choosing and processing of any photos. With digital capture, it is very possible to make many images, only for choosing between them to become difficult. Even with using Adobe Lightroom, this is quite a task. Once decisions are made, the actual processing does not take that long, especially since I do not go overboard on tweaking photos and there is ever advancing automation that helps as well.
Still, the selection process does bring its own rewards because it reminds me of what I experienced out on the hike in question. That helps with doing the writing afterwards as much as taking my mind away from all the doom and gloom that pervades us at the moment. As much as having too many photos can be frustrating, they undoubtedly act as an aide de mémoire when there is a lag of some years between hiking and writing.
Thankfully, the whole process is cathartic as well. Otherwise, it might become a chore that one wishes to avoid. Maybe, that is partly why the backlog has resulted. There are other reasons too, such as the rawness of looking back during lockdowns. It is easier to recall freedom when you still have some than when your movements of restricted. That is how it is now, so the therapeutic side can win.
You might even say that I have a weakness for the photos captured by others, and you would be right. Wildlife normally is not part of this, but I recently acquired a copy of Remembering Bears from Remembering Wildlife. This is a charity project raising funds for conservation of some of the world’s at risk mammals. The photos were provided free of charge by major wildlife photographers, and any profits after costs of production and shipping go to the intended efforts. As well as bears, the series also has featured elephants, rhinos, great apes, among others.
Returning to the volume on bears, it is a coffee table book with numerous species of bear included. It has the best known ones along with others that I had not come across before I perused it. The range is as wide as the spectrum of behaviour being featured. While the acquisition was a spur of the moment decision, it also was an opportunity to experience a little more of these impressive if daunting creatures.
Usually, photos of wild or more natural scenery appeal to me, and there are a few of those that found their way into my possession this year. Curiously, these come from German publishers like teNeues, gestalten and Koenemann. They are all coffee table items in a larger format with large photos to survey.
The ones from Koenemann’s Spectacular Places series are heavy as well, at least in hardback format, since there are paperback versions as well. Nordic Islands from teNeues is not as heavy as these, but shows its subjects off well in pleasing light and with good presentation. Curiously, there is a multilingual aspect with these, since the latter showing text in German as well as in English. Koenemann’s offerings add four more languages to these. In contrast, my copy of gestalten’s Wanderlust: Hiking on Legendary Trails is solely an English language production with more descriptive text than the others, which adds route information and other practicalities.
That these are series of books to collect could inflict damage on your finances if you end up wanting too many of them, and that also means taking up a lot of space afterwards. Nevertheless, they are a great means of getting a sense of what is to be found in places that you have not visited. Without leaving your home, there is the possibility of feeling that you have glimpsed scenic delights from faraway places elsewhere on the planet.
For a variety of reasons, I have fallen into getting various items of German origin in recent times. The list now includes computer software and calendars, as well as books. It feels as if Germans like photographic publications to be large, too. When I felt that the large calendars from Colin Prior were too predictable (he no longer does the type of photography that defined him around the turn of the century), my search turned to other places like Linnemann. Their large format calendars now grace my walls every year, even if they are not cheap. Their Norway item always appeals to me, and I otherwise have complemented it with something else from their selection, be it Alpine or Nordic.
There is a new offering from Norman McCloskey on its way to me too. This is called Kingdom, and it features photos of landscapes from County Kerry in Ireland, hence the title. It was something of an impulsive purchase, since I spent a deal of time around those parts during the year and remember passing Peter Cox’s gallery in Killarney a few times (the opening times were later in the day, which intrigued me). Decent photography of Ireland can be hard to find, too, and that makes me more prone to consummating whims.
Some of the acquisition fever can be caused by a sense of urgency brought on by what else is happening in one’s life. Over the course of this year, I have been making some significant changes to my Irish affairs that have not completed and likely will overrun into next year. This kind of thing has made me vulnerable in the past, so what is needed is a bit of extra space for myself, and I am hoping to have a bit of that in a few weeks.
In a previous post, I mentioned Ken Burns’ magisterial The National Parks: America’s Best Idea and even wrote a few words about this documentary film series. Not living in the U.S.A., I found this quite accidentally when reading an article on either the Outdoor website network (probably the Backpacker part but I am not sure now). Both are part of the same media group and I became a subscriber to Backpacker magazine in 2020. In Canada, there is Explore and they perform much the same function for that part of the world.
Before this, I was inclined to do long trawls through guidebooks for acclimatisation and awareness. This can work but it is not just time-consuming but also can be trapped within one’s own predispositions. After all, America’s National Parks are known by many around the world so it can be easy to gravitate towards them but there are other kinds of public lands that are amenable to exploration, some of which abut conurbations so they can be easier to reach. Here, I am thinking of what lies on the doorsteps of San Diego in California, Portland in Oregon or Phoenix in Arizona. Two of these came to my notice in a serendipitous manner, the first from a tragic story on the Backpacker website and the last from a Wanderlust webinar.
There also is the usefulness of a more gradual approach taken with an open mind. A concerted effort can and does help but the slower accumulation of insights and possibilities is how I got going in hillwalking in the first place. It happened so naturally that I hardly noticed what was happening and this also brought with it a growing cultural awareness. The same approach might help to restart nascent explorations of North America yet.
All this highlights background realities regarding the scale of North American wilderness as well as equipment choices offered by brands that are not so pervasive on this side of the Atlantic like Canada’s Durston. There are times when you need to watch for product placement though and Backpacker’s online webinar series from 2020 was a case in point, especially given they erred on the side of overdoing just that at the expense of conveying an experience of the wild places that were featured.
Still, knowing the cultural side of things remains ever useful and that returns me to the feature film series mentioned at the start of this piece. The history of the American National Park system was not that well known to me, even if I was well aware of the influence of John Muir from my reading of his writings during the winter of 2017/8. What happened after him and the issues surrounding the various contradictions of a motto like “For the Benefit and Enjoyment of the People” became plainer to me as I watched the film series.
The tension of high visitor numbers is very clear to us now and it always has been a problem as has allowing people to visit using their cars. That there has been road-building in otherwise pristine areas is part of this, even if that was curtailed in Denali National Park in Alaska by a persistent campaign by one of the park naturalists. The conflict between conservation and having visitor services like hotels and other amenities pervades today and that is likely to continue. Even so, there has been progress too with a different attitude to wildlife meaning that we now need to keep away from wild creatures rather than mingling among them as once was the case.
There is much to learn about another continent half a world away and doing this one morsel at a time makes things stick better. The more gradual approach also allows for added serendipity so you get to find out about places that do not come to light from a concerted effort.
It is too easy for me to think that autumn is my least favourite season but it is also the one when many transformations happen and when it is possible to think ahead to the next year. The hours of daylight are shorter so there is time to think about other things. Admittedly, the ongoing pandemic stalled any forward-thinking but these still were times of change. 2020 saw me begin to learn new computing languages while 2021 saw me embark on spiritual explorations. Both journeys are still ongoing.
2019 was the last year when thought could be given to a future even if that was devoted to continuing my freelance consulting business. Until that was more assured, I could not think too much about overseas journeying and then the pandemic intruded. A possible trip to Colorado became unthinkable in July 2020. Going to Vancouver, Canada in July of 2019 became a reality because of reading undertaken during the autumn of 2018. The next steps that I took in my career during 2018 were made possible by a career break that itself began in August 2017. The rest of that autumn was taken up with decompression and healing before I could do a rethink at the start of 2018. This necessity was brought about by fatigue after heavy work done at the latter end of 2016 to fulfil my late father’s will.
In between the more weighty matters of 2016, much thought was given to mid-winter sunshine escapades that took me to Mallorca in 2016 and Tenerife in 2018/9. It may be tempting to think that a year is done for when you get to its final quarter so that there is an overflow to the following year only for surprises to come. Thus, mid-winter walking trips to Arizona, Malta, Madeira or the Azores can be kept in mind should an opportunity arise.
For 2023, Scotland again offers multiple possibilities and North America also looms again after my watching Ken Burns’ monumental documentary film series The National Parks: America’s Best Idea. While I probably was after the scenery that was shown, the series mainly was about the history of the National Parks and was just as fascinating for that. Learning about the efforts of John Muir and other actors was as intriguing as seeing the learning journey where lessons that we now take for granted had to be learned on the fly with no precedents for guidance. That the winter of 2017/8 saw me reading the works of John Muir only helped things to resonate with me. It also helped that there was enough scenic footage to restart dreams of Yosemite, Glacier and Rocky Mountain National Park visitations, to name but a few, and the soundtrack was as alluring as the footage.
All in all, I am rethinking my appraisal of autumn. It no longer might be a season of mourning the passing of summertime and springtime, or indeed the year itself, but could be a time of inner growth and expanding horizons. That is how it is starting to appear now. Work for 2022 continues with there being some asset downsizing in progress but time flows ever onward to bring whatever comes our way.