My dear friends,
This particular adventure begins in the Skye Outdoor Shop, where I've just purchased a topographical map of the island, midge spray and sunscreen. The goal: hike and wildcamp the next three days up to the top of the island. No people, no technology, no nothing. Just me, my pack, and the open road. Oh, sweet summer child.
The lovely man behind the counter helps me draw a squiggly, seemingly random line along the edge of the eastern edge of Skye- my route from Portree (the main town here) north to The Storr, a giant rock in the middle of goddamn nowhere that apparently I decided I had to see up close. Look, we all have our priorities.
"You can take the road to the Storr, or the Skye Trail, which is a harder path that's about 11 kilometres, but takes you along the coast higher up with better views," he says, eying my lack of proper mountaineering boots with only slightly concealed concern.
"Oh, well, screw the road, that's boring," I reply with all the naive optimism of the young and ill-informed. "Like, I'm not going to be scaling MOUNTAINS along the Trail, right? As long as I don't need mountain climbing experience I'm sure I'll be fine (1)."
"I have to warn you," he adds warily, "the last kilometre is basically a swamp."
"NO problem," I reply. "Nothing I haven't tackled before (2)."
"Just...tell someone where you're going, just in case."
"Oh, of course, for sure," I say, walking quickly backwards out of the shop, fully aware that I had no phone and if I died literally no one would know, because my corpse would probably be dragged away and eaten by mountain sheep. But that wasn't going to happen! I had waterproof hiking shoes (more on THOSE later), my 35lb hiking backpack with my tent and all my possessions, a raincoat- what more could I need to trek across 6.5 miles of mountain (3)?
The first stage of the journey was quite lovely- for 40 minutes of so I was lulled into a false sense of security as I walked comfortably along a low mountain path, eating raspberries as I went along, admiring the scenery, making friends with various woodland creatures, etc. Then I turned a corner and was faced with the foot of the Mountain. I capitalize it because its full name should be "The Giant Goddamn Mountain, Sir" because it commands respect and inspires fear, but that's too long. The Mountain was very tall, and very steep, and had no visible path upwards, just mossy grass and the occasional barbed wire fence.
At that point, I had made friends with a lovely English couple who looked uneasily up towards the mountain as I told them my plan to make it to the Storr. Their pleasant faces grew slightly darker as they examined my goals and found them ambitious at best.
"So...you're probably going to have to hike up the Mountain to get up top so where you can see where you'll be going," the woman said.
I squinted up the mountainside. It looked a lot more daunting this close up. A lot more mountain-y. "Yes," I said. "Yes, it looks like I am going to have to do that."
As it turned out, I did indeed have to scale it. And thus began a series of what I will describe here as "Tests of Strength and Resilience" in the face of a growing sense of terror that I would either fall down a cliff or my back would give out and I would be lying on in a bog somewhere for god knows how long until either sheep ate my face or someone dragged me home.
But damn it, the sun was high in the sky, the view was gorgeous, and once a Gryffindor sets their mind to something it's basically impossible to dissuade them, fear of death or not. So with more guts than water (4), I trekked on. I was brave. I was an adventurer. I was ARAGORN, damnit, and Skye had nothin' on me.
I'll fully admit: about halfway through I found myself standing at the bottom of yet another valley, staring up at yet another mountain ridge, and thought "I don't actually know if I can physically do this. I should maybe just hike horizontally and end up at the road and go that route instead of trying to pretend I know where I am on this stupid map". To clarify: I hurt my lower back quite badly last year, and while it hadn't been a problem since then, apparently mountaineering with no training beforehand was a life it was NOT all about. I was genuinely worried about doing something that would make returning back to Portree, or frankly anywhere, difficult. I was genuinely worried that "something" might be a simple misstep because, in case I hadn't pointed this out yet, most of Skye is a freaking MARSH. But at this point I had come so far that my brain kinda just said "Fuck it, Blackwood, you're doing this", and my feet kept moving. Slowly, albeit, but onwards they went, in spite of my brain.
The sheep, y'all. They're judging me so hard. They're just standing, everywhere, staring, with their horns and their mountaineering hooves and smug faces and do sheep eat people? Are they like cats and go for the eyes first? I don't know. I need water. Oh my god. This is going to end so badly. Look away, sheep. Look away from my feeble human shame.
At one point, a fellow traveller passed me by (she, unlike myself, dear reader, had hiking boots, hiking poles, and probably a back that worked properly). I asked if she knew where we were- she checked on her GPS (oh yeah, she had that too), and she showed me, before saying, "These mountains are tough. It's been uphill this whole way. But I think the rest of the way should be downhill."
"You think? Is that what your GPS says?" I asked, hope slowly creeping its way back into my eyes.
"Well...it has to eventually...right?" she replied slowly. My hope died once more.
It does not.
I should mention, at this point, that my "waterproof" shoes had been waterlogged since about two hours into what turned out to be a six hour hike. This is probably less to do with their efficacy and more to do with the fact that 75% of the time the watery ground passed over my ankles and just soaked into my socks the sneaky way; but regardless of how it happened, I was walking in wet shoes for four hours. At one point all I wanted to do was throw them off, but then I stepped in a giant patch of sheep poo and that was all the reminder I needed of how terrible a plan that was.
I got to the point where I could see The Storr in the horizon. It sat there, taunting me with how far away it was. Finally, I had cleared the last mountain. I was almost there! I was almost homefree! I was-
Oh, right. The motherfucking SWAMP.
Let's talk about this thing right here. Have you seen that scene in Fellowship of the Ring, where the hobbits are stumbling like mad fools through a swampy marshland hellscape, falling on their faces, and generally being completely out of their element? Well, I feel for those dudes. It was the actual worst. I would have preferred another mountain to climb (5). At least mountains don't send water shooting up to your knees at unexpected points as god-knows-what insects valiantly try to acquire your life fluids. The last kilometre felt like three.
As I stumbled gracelessly onto the dirt path at the end of the journey, I turned around and gave the mountain range both middle fingers, because I am an adult.
Here I was faced with my last potential challenge: I had hoped to find a place to set up my tent and then set off towards another northernly destination in the morning. But three things happened, pretty much simultaneously: 1) It finally started to rain; 2) My back and legs waved a finger and said "Oh HELL no you are never hiking ever again, do NOT make us cut you"; and 3) Everywhere I looked, the land was not flat, and marshy. So, alas, my dreams of wildcamping my way up to the top of Skye were, in that moment, dashed forever. Seriously, y'all, you could not have paid me to do it. My body would. not. let me.
This meant I had to get home. I briefly considered just hiking back along the highway, and then laughed the hysterical laugh of the doomed at the hilarity of such a ridiculous thought.
And that is the story of how I did, for the first time, something I thought I would never do: I hitchiked (6). I dragged my body along until I found a wooden pole sticking out of the side of the road, leaned against it, and stuck out my goddamn thumb towards every car that zoomed past me on its merry way to Portree. I got lucky- five cars in and a lovely couple from Hong Hong stopped and took mercy on the bedraggled, broken backpacker and drove me back into town. They didn't murder me, which was super lovely of them considering at that point I had the strength of a two year old child. We talked about our travels, and I thanked them for saving my life. They chuckled, not fully understanding how serious I was.
At 9:00PM, seven hours after I set out earlier that day, I got back to the Portree carpark where I had set up my tent the night before. I dutifully and painfully set it up again, and then went to the closest bar, found the cheapest whiskey they had, drank all of it, and contemplated my mortality.
I hurt yesterday. I hurt today. This adventure made the one I took the last time I was here look like a leisurely stroll. It nearly destroyed my body and my will to live, was the most physically difficult thing I've ever done- and I'm pretty dang proud of all of it. The one thing I regret was that I didn't get a picture of myself AT the bloody Storr, because at that point it was too late in the evening and it turns out you have to hike up ANOTHER little mountain path to get to the thing and ha HA was that ever not happening. But I did it- I made it those 11 endless kilometres. My back will probably never let me attempt something like it again, at least without proper equipment. Like similar adventures I've had on this island in previous years, it wasn't pleasant; it wasn't "fun"; but it was a test of will and something I can throw down later on in life in case I need to convince someone how super cool and badass I am.
I went back to the Outdoor Shop the next day to thank the guy again for his advice and he seemed genuinely relieved to know I was still alive. His words: "I was hoping you'd make it! I noticed your shoes were for hiking, not mountains, and I was a little worried for you! But it's good you got there!"
Indeed it is, sir. Indeed it is (7).
* * *
Thanks for reading. I figured I would start out the blog with a fun story. Next time I'll probably get into more specifics about backpacking, what I pack, etc., in shorter posts, but I wanted to try to get this down while it was still fresh in mind. Feel free to judge my ridiculous life choices; I certainly do.
1) This should have been his first tip-off that I was gloriously unprepared for this whole thing. Skye is LITERALLY just mountains. Seriously. Take a second and Google Image that shit. I'll wait.
2) This is incorrect. I have never, in fact, hiked a kilometre through a swamp before. However, I couldn't lose face. I mean, how hard could it be?
3) Answer: hiking poles, hiking boots with ankle support, a GPS, a better understanding of how mountains work, and a fully-functioning back. Those are things I definitely needed.
4) I did not pack enough water. I realized that a third of the way through and began a very systematic rationing system that basically consisted of me allowing myself to have a sip every time I dragged my slowly-collapsing carcass up another peak. Guys, don't be like me. Jesus Christ.
5) This is another lie. I would not have been able to climb it. I would have laid down and accepted my defeat and inevitable sheep murder.
6) I know, mother. I know. And believe you me, I have seen MORE than enough horror movies detailing to me the ways in which this would undoubledly lead to my eventual kidnapping and/or murder. However, everyone had always told me that hitchhiking in Europe was a super safe way to get around, and really, how many serial murderers could there BE in Skye? Like, two at most. I gambled and I WON.
7) Somewhere, a sheep is mourning the meal it never had.