anthropology, culture & society, mountains, munros, personal journeys, Scotland, travel & adventure, Uncategorized

where do we roam?

My father has told me several times throughout my life that freedom is the degree to which you are able to take responsibility for yourself. 

Caveats and social justice questions aside, I believe this no more firmly than I do on the river, at a crag, or in the hills. The ability to roam or wander and to know that you and only you can be responsible for your own safety–or your own ability to experience awe and joy–is distinctly empowering.

It’s wearing your mortality as proudly as a bird wears its feathers, letting your own awe and smallness take you deeper into the world.

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me getting ready to wild camp on the Trotternish Ridge with Maryam. Isle of Skye, Scotland

In Scotland, I mainly experienced this freedom by walking. If you’ve been around this blog before, you’ve heard me talk about it a great deal. Scotland’s ‘right to roam’ made this magic. Very simply, as long as you don’t damage someone’s property or trample their garden, you can pretty much walk anywhere that isn’t industrially dangerous. You can camp in fields as long as you don’t damage crops or disrupt livestock. You can cut across miles of pasture on your way up to a knife-edge ridge. This freedom strikes me as fundamental to the ability to take responsibility for one’s actions: you are responsible for how you care for the landscape, for your own safety, for navigation, for each step.

This freedom enables so many adventures. I climbed munro after munro, walked the entire 117-mile Fife Coastal Path and other hills besides with a dear friend, explored miles of the Moray Coast with another, and wandered and hitched across many islands.

Here in Pennsylvania, there is, quite sadly, no right to roam. It’s strange as ‘roaming’ seems to be very compatible with American mythology. Instead, I find some of that freedom on the rivers, the crags, and the creeks.

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Nick getting us ready to kayak on the upper Allegheny River

Nick and I have put in many miles this year thus far, kayaking parts of the Allegheny River, the Clarion River, the Kiskimenetas River, and Buffalo Creek. It’s been a lovely adventure. Oftentimes the waterways carry us past old railroads which have been turned into paths for cycling and walking–‘Rails to Trails’ for anyone who’s not familiar.  Primitive camping sites along some of these rivers give me a little of what I miss: complete responsibility for my food, my sleep, all my needs, just for a day or two.

At some point, I think I’ll tell the story of how the ‘right to roam’ was actually won in Scotland. It’s a good story with mass trespassing and angry union workers demanding a right to walk and move and enjoy their country without having to spend an arm and a leg. (Though the crags might take an arm or a leg from you for themselves.) I’ll explore how ‘adventure’ and ‘recreation’ operate in different places and amongst different sociopolitical systems. For now, however, I have a few questions.

What do you think of the right to roam?

Do you think the right to roam enhances or detracts from personal freedom?

Do you think that, if U.S. citizens were able to experience more of their environment more freely, there would be a greater desire for environmental responsibility?

What does ‘private property’ mean, and what does freedom mean to you?

Just questions to ponder. In the meantime, I hope you enjoy whatever adventure is readily available to you. Personally, I believe nearly every place offers its own unique freedom. It might not be as readily available to one group of people as it is to another, and that’s part of the inequality inherent in our current world. But I also believe that making the world such that more people might enjoy it takes going out there and enjoying it for yourself, claiming space and claiming adventure.

That’s the only way you can share the joy of the outdoors with others and advocate for the expansion and preservation of that joy.

Do and enjoy what you can, now, with what you have, and share your explorations whenever possible.

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anthropology, mountains, personal journeys, travel & adventure

what kayaks, alpacas, and flowers have taught me: learning from ‘odd’ jobs

During university summers, I worked a lot of jobs, some odder than others. I worked at a kayak, canoe, and stand-up paddleboard rental facility; I babysat and tutored; I gardened and worked at an alpaca farm. Whilst at university, I lead hikes and served for two years as a class representative. In the year or so since graduating, I’ve worked at GoApe (a high ropes course and zipline facility), tutored extensively, taught piano, cared for horses, and worked at a greenhouse and flower farm.

Sometimes it’s intimidating to think of where I am, where others are around me, and where I’d like to be. I think of my dreams of being a writer, researcher, and explorer (basically, an anthropologist with a mountain problem) and wonder how I’ll get there. I see others my age doing crazy, scary shit like getting desk jobs (not knocking desk jobs). Life can be quite strange, can’t it?

As I’ve said before here, my life has proven to be a little nonlinear lately, but it’s given me so much joy and brought me some of the most treasured people in my life. I think it’s also easy, as humans, to look around and label circumstances as somehow disadvantageous to our goals. But honestly?

Alpacas taught me a lot, namely that animals built for cold mountain weather are pretty needy in hot, humid Pennsylvania summers. In all seriousness, they also taught me about herd dynamics, about how animals build their own social networks and power structures, about managing a lot of animals. Some kind redneck gave me a two-minute lesson on how to drive a quad without breaks with a trailer behind it through the woods, and I learned it didn’t kill me.

Working at a kayak rental facility gave me the opportunity to learn to kayak, canoe, and paddleboard. It showed me many sides of working with the public: the frightened children, the rude customers, the customers who beamed kindness. It showed me how differently people can perceive a certain activity and how many different assumptions people can make about each other. I learned to watch people there, to try to understand where they were coming from and how best to help them.

Working 11 or 12 hour days in summer heat between jobs paired with living in Scotland the rest of the year, I learned a thing or two about tolerating physical discomfort. I learned that discomfort or inconvenience often produces memories, joy.

‘An inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered’ — G. K. Chesterton

Horses showed me unconditional irritation or unconditional affection. They taught me how to be assertive with an animal ten times my size and gave me lessons in medicine. I learned that working in subzero temperatures in a barn isn’t the worst thing in the world and can actually be quite enjoyable. Again, discomfort can lead to some crystal-clear memories.

Guiding hikes and mountaineering on my own in Scotland showed me a great deal in terms of camping, wilderness first aid, navigation, and so much more. It kept me on this planet during the hardest time of my life and gave me some of the best friendships and conversations I could have hoped for. It took me from not knowing how to read a map to tackling some of the most challenging ridges in the UK on my own or with a friend.

Tutoring lead me into hours upon hours of researching child psychology, the philosophy of education, and teaching models. I read countless books and articles about the Montessori method, Charlotte Mason, Classical Education, and Social Thinking. I worked hard to make my hours of lessons for homeschool kids fun, challenging, and always creatively joyous. This challenged me a lot: I had to understand how each child learn, pay attention to their needs and moods, and be open to wildly different personalities and learning styles.

GoApe helped me learn how to coach others through their fears and, very practically, set rescue systems at height.

Working at a flower farm and greenhouse has brought its own unique joys, from learning the name of so many new plants and flowers to watching the everyday workings of a family-run business. I’ve been able to ask so many questions and, as someone who aspires to live at least mostly off-grid at some point in my life, the knowledge it’s given me is invaluable.

And now I step back and think: I want to be a writer, researcher, and explorer. I want to work largely with indigenous circumpolar peoples, to conduct personal and interpersonal research in taxing, unfamiliar environments. My jobs have taught me, in a way academia never could, adaptability to different personalities, worldviews, and tasks; the ability to withstand physically uncomfortable or taxing environments; and assertiveness, endurance, and self-sufficiency.

The University of St Andrews gave me an education, but these jobs gave me tools that I feel will help me put that education to good use.

Maybe you haven’t worked what you think are the ‘perfect’ or ‘optimal’ jobs or internships. Maybe it’s easy to compare yourself to others or look at what others have accomplished. But everyone, no matter this circumstance, will do the human thing and catalogue their disadvantages. Let me ask you, though: what are the advantages? What are you learning right this second? How is this helping you love yourself and others more fully? How is this helping you become the person who will enjoy achieving your goals, rather than just hurtling towards them?

Your adventure isn’t around the corner; you might already be well on your way.

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mountains, poetry, Scotland, travel & adventure

the hebrides

Last summer, I spent a little over two weeks living and gardening on the Isle of Canna, an island off the west coast of Scotland. Somewhere in the middle of all of that, I also enjoyed a traverse of the Rum Cuillins plus a little extra, a bright and sunny day which gave me over 1900m of ascent and 20 miles when I’d finished my fun. These two islands are part of the bigger group of Scottish isles that make up the Hebrides, and these islands haven’t left me yet. Here is something I wrote about them months after my experience there, plus some shitty phone pictures. 

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chasing summits and miles on the Isle of Rum: my Rum Cuillin Traverse of last summer

the gods hid in those islands—

between the scheduled ferry trips—

between mainland and empty Atlantic—

they hid in the rocks that crumbled into surf

they hid in the wool of sheep caught on brambles

they hid in me as I plunged, naked,

into the clear cold of the vein-blue sea

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the Isle of Canna

I could taste them in the punishing rain

but I could never quite see them

they never told me their names

they denied my prayers, they laughed

at my hymns and pleas—and why should

a naked traveller splashing in salty shallows

be allowed even to grovel before

the hidden gods? hush—remember,

here be monsters—

they feed on secrets.

 

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the Isle of Canna

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anthropology, culture & society, mountains, travel & adventure

I love the outdoors, but…

climin

Nick and I climbing at Lion’s Den, PA, with Dalton and Brooks

My boyfriend, Nick, and I have been climbing outside about thirty times this year so far and love every minute of it. Yet, each time we packed up and left, we had a decent bag of plastic wrappers, containers, etc. I’d thought a little about the whole zero-waste thing and had brushed it off as worthy but nigh-on unachievable goal. This, though, hit me differently, and we started doing clean-ups.

Then, the other day, cleaning up alongside the road where I live, I found several health foods wrappers. Organic, all-natural, great-for-the-planet wrappers, on the side of the road.

It makes me think more broadly about the outdoor recreation and health foods industry. Gear and health foods are expensive and often come from far away, thereby consuming more resources whilst simultaneously creating a ‘healthy, outdoorsy’ experience that few can really afford to live up to. There’s always the next superfood or the next piece of awesome kit, isn’t there? It’s impossible to keep up. 

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swimming in the North Sea with Ayesha this past April, photo by Josh Grinham

 

This expensive ‘all-natural’ lifestyle is increasingly celebrated on social media. One doesn’t have to look far to see photos of avocados (from Mexico) and quinoa (once a traditional South American food in such demand few local people can afford it) salads being eaten on a filtered hike. I mean, I love quinoa and avocados, and beetroot and kale and cliff bars and all the other obnoxiously hipster food. It makes me feel good and I genuinely like the taste.

But, underneath all of this, we’ve unconsciously created a brand of exclusivity: not only does this ‘lifestyle brand’ exclude certain people all across the production and consumption line-up, but it also excludes a full awareness of everything that went into creating that image.

The speciality foods, the packaging waste that will long outlive us, the ill-effects on the lives of others—these are the things I don’t want to think about. I like the ease and convenience of pre-packaged food. I also like foods that make me feel better about myself.

I don’t have an answer for this. When one looks at the sheer number of landfills, of trash in the oceans, it can be disheartening. I’m tempted to veer between the extremes of giving up or becoming belligerently and self-righteously zero-waste. I don’t want to do either, but I know I have done both at different times.

Instead of an answer, I have a few questions:

What would it look like if climbers, mountaineers, hillwalkers, hikers, and backpackers bought local, in season foods and knew how to prepare them for the hills and the backcountry?

What would it look like if we all knew a thing or two more about responsible foraging?

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Nick and I enjoying camping and kayaking along the Clarion River with Dalton and Andi

 

What would it look like if a few friends got together and swapped foods they’d made themselves?

I just hope my kids and their grandkids can enjoy the crags, the hills, and the rivers I love so much. It’s not an original sentiment. But it is an honest question, and I hope someday I’ll have an honest answer.

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mental health, mountains, personal journeys, travel & adventure

small victories

 

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Newtonmore, photo by Brodie

Small victories 

when you start being able to sit anywhere in a restaurant–even in the middle, where you can’t see much–and not have an anxiety attack. You might still penguin-shuffle race to get the corner chair, but your hangups are gradually fading into quirks.

when you get your own vehicle and sleep in it, twice, within the first week and a half of driving it, and you wake up feeling like a million bucks.

when your mother is starting to walk without crutches after a major surgery.

when you look back over the past year and a half, and you realise that a year and a half ago your depression and anxiety was so bad you were terrified of being alone, but now you look forward to a solo road trip or hillwalking excursion or even a day of simple silence just as much as you look forward to going out with friends or meeting interesting new people.

when you realize you can feel at home anywhere, just as much as you used to feel lonely everywhere.

 

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Durness, Scotland, photo by me

when you can laugh and roll your eyes at the thoughts that used to petrify you, even though they still sometimes petrify you. 

when you look at time away from mountains not as a total curse of Biblical proportions, but as a time to get stronger, eat healthier, get your shit together, love your family, earn money, write a story, and plan. (though it is sometimes a curse of Biblical proportions.)

when you feel safer and stronger and happier in your own skin.

when you know these feelings will come and go, but this world will still be around you: big, beautiful, overwhelming, impassive to your many capitulations but always tender to the touch.

these small victories are all we have; we have no banner but laughter, no weapon but resilience, no strength but the ferocity of unrequited love for people and places, no legacy but their unrequited grace for us.

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mental health, mountains, personal journeys, Uncategorized

how I’m learning to use my panic attacks for good

I want to talk to you about how I’ve learned to deal with panic attacks and anxiety.  To do this, I’m going to describe what a panic attack feels like. Then, I’m going to talk about, you know, fear in general. These days I’m healthier, braver, and a lot less afraid–thanks to ever so much help, medicine, love and unabashed fun.

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photo by Maryam. Me “dancing” while sorting out our Skye hillwalking roadtrip stuff on the side of the road

But panic attacks? They completely and utterly suck. I’m not describing them to complain or garner sympathy; I’m describing them so anyone struggling knows I’ve also been there. If you know someone struggling, hopefully this gives you a bit of an insider’s perspective.

The day usually starts off with a vague but unshakable sense of unease. Nervousness. Edginess. Maybe a bit of crankiness. I don’t really know why, but it’s there–a low, persistent hum.

Then, all at once the pressure and fear build and I feel an increasing sense of dread. Something terrible is going to happen, I’m convinced. I don’t know why I’m panicking so much, but I’m confused and disoriented.

Everything around me feels like a threat and I feel like I’m probably going to get hurt, or someone I care about is going to be badly hurt, or that I’m going to die. The physical sensations of fear overwhelm me; my hands can’t stop shaking and my legs feel very weak; my heart pounds. Sounds and lights are oppressively lurid.

My chest tightens and I can’t breathe. Sometimes this suffocating feeling last just for a minute as the panic attack peaks. Sometimes, especially if I start sobbing, I ebb back into that unease and the shaking, only for waves of panic to peak several times over. I need things to be quiet and I need to be alone to calm myself down.

Last year, these panic attacks happened between once and several times a day, usually in the mornings.  I would need lots of extra sleep each night just to recover from the stupid amounts of adrenaline. Now, they only happen anywhere between once a month and once a week. In short: better, but still a difficulty.

I used to feel like a total idiot for dealing with panic attacks. I go to university on another continent and love hitch-hiking and narrow ridges, but I become terrified for no reason whatsoever? What kind of sense does that make?

They only really improved markedly when a realization hit me about five months ago: “As someone who’d love to do first ascents and lots of anthropology fieldwork, I’m being routinely confronted with inordinate amounts of fear. This sucks, but it also means I have a unique opportunity to get good at dealing with fear in one of its worst forms.”

See, I believe that many of our problems as humans boil down to the fact that we don’t often take the time to slow down and try to define things carefully. “What do I mean by that? What’s fear, anyway?”

Obviously, many things will mean many different things for different people. But if you don’t ask what you mean by fear, happiness, love, joy, challenge, or pain, chances are you’ll miss out on a chance to live in a healthier way.

I missed out for years with fear, until I asked I changed my mindset and asked that question.

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a photo I took when on my own on the Isle of Arran, looking out towards Kintyre

I also then realised that, on mountains, I rarely saw fear as helpful. If I was in a shit situation, getting all worried was just going to make my thought process shakier, so I literally just decided to not be afraid. Instead, I just tried to be “rational” in a fit of radical anti-anxiety. This led to sometimes suppressing legitimate fear to an unhealthy extent–after all, panic attacks were way worse, right?

However, when I sat down and tried to define fear, this is what I got: “Fear is an emotional, physical, and instinctual response to perceived threats in one’s environment. It often expresses information or assumptions one would otherwise overlook.” Simple as that.

This changed things. It meant that I could accept fear as a legitimate feeling that I could reflectively examine. I didn’t need to feel ashamed. After all, fear was just telling me a little more about what it thought it saw or what my assumptions were. If my assumptions were wrong, I could be grateful that fear pointed that out. If fear brought accurate information to the surface, all the better.

In other words, my definition never pretends that I don’t feel fear or shoves it out of mind. Fear either gives me the opportunity to change my assumptions or to build common sense. Most importantly, this definition reminds me that I’m responsible for dealing with my own fear. Only I can ask myself what I see as a threat. And only I can change how I see the world.

This totally altered the game for me. It might not be the perfect definition (if such a thing exists), but it’s a powerful one.

I didn’t realise how radically this simple act of defining “fear” would completely change my life. Not only has it drastically reduced my panic attacks, but it has helped me make smarter decisions on ridges, be less nervous for first dates or job interviews, be bolder and happier around strangers, and not stress the small stuff so much. It takes some work to put it into practice, but doing so is a hell of a lot easier than dealing with panic attacks.

Please, if you have someone in your life dealing with panic attacks or anxiety, show them patience. Hell is dancing inside their head and lacing their ribs together. The last thing they need is extra pressure or to feel like an idiot for struggling with legitimate mental health issues. Tell them you believe in them–that you know they’re stronger and more resilient than they think, and that life and adventure is out there. Above all, show them love. Dostoevsky once said that love is the opposite of fear, which is a topic for another time and another post.

 

 

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mental health, mountains, Scotland, Uncategorized

when the mountains kept me here

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ridges are fun. Especially if you’ve just come up the Devil’s Punchbowl on the Isle of Arran in total cloud.

A few weeks ago, I wrote this post on a hillwalking facebook group in the hope it would help someone who’s going through mental health issues or addictions. I got an overwhelming number of responses, messages, and stories, which inspired me to take a stab at blogging again. It’s revised here in the hope that maybe it can reach a few more people.

 

Over the past eleven years or so, I’ve struggled off and on with a variety of disordered eating behaviours, and the past five years or so have been marked by depression and panic attack disorder. It all came to a head a year ago when I narrowly avoided suicide.

One of the few things that stopped more or more lethal attempts was, quite simply, that there were lots more munros* to climb. I would eat well for the munros; I would wake up thinking about munros.

Whilst walking, I got a hit of something I now recognise very easily as pure and simple joy.

But for me, in what I now think of as the Grey Cloud (because it’s not nearly as awesome as as whiteout), I couldn’t quite recognise it as joy that I could feasibly feel in my everyday life. I just knew it was Something. I was very lost, but I could navigate a ridge in cloud.

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Me, very much having fun on munro called Lochnagar and Not Dead, Not Starved and actually rather flexible.

Fast forward a year and through lots of help, through medicine (thank God for medicine, and fuck the stigma) and therapy and incredibly supportive family and friends. Fast forward through the good fortune to have that much support. A few weeks ago, after a few months largely consisting of hillwalking and camping and solo hitchhiking and lots of ferries, I was on the Isle of Rum, wild camping very happily on my own. I made friends with the ponies. I wasn’t weighed down by the pressures of dark thoughts that used to descend whenever I stopped moving. The next day, I would tackle the Rum Cuillin Traverse. And I would feel something more powerfully than I’d ever felt before: gratitude (also sunburn). For this body, that I’ve starved and binge-stuffed and abused, but now can tackle 1900+ metre days and 40k if I ask it to. For this mind, which is now happy and healthy and sweary and rather lecherous and bloody stubborn. For the fact that I now feel totally safe by myself and that I enjoy my own childish sense of humor and stupidly energetic company far too much. For Scotland, seeing as it kept me on this planet with its ridges and summits.

Scotland kept me on this planet with its ridges and summits

A week later, however, I turned back from a walk after about a kilometer and only the tiniest bit of ascent. I don’t know if it was a fellow gardener remarking too often on how much I ate (because I climb loads of hills, bitch?) or if it was worry for my mother’s surgery or whatever, but bad eating habits slipped back in without my knowing. Over three days I ate maybe 2000kcal total, and that’s with lots of moving around. I was at the base of Stob Ban in the morning—a munro I saw and lusted after a year ago from the Ring of Steall—and I just couldn’t do it. My legs, which on a gym day can squat 120kilos 30 times in a row if I so choose, were impossibly weak. My head hurt. I had a nasty metallic taste in my mouth. What normally took me 15 minutes had taken me an hour and a half. When my legs buckled, I knew it was stupid to keep going. But more than anything, I was pissed. I wanted Stob Ban like some women want Ryan Gosling (I just don’t see it, soz), but it just wasn’t happening.

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me (red jacket) on enjoying the Five Sisters of Kintail during one of the hardest times

Recovering from mental health problems and/or addiction is not easy. It is not straightforward. But yall, there are hills. There is that wild gratitude (on sunny days, at least), that breathlessness as you reach the summit. Sometimes you’ve just got to fight it as tactically as you would (should) plan an expedition, and that’s okay. But when I turned back from Stob Ban, I knew that these habits just had to go. There are too many hills. I am not going back to that dark place, and I am not letting those habits eat me alive. They tell you they’ll make your problems smaller but really—and I’m telling you this with every ounce of belief I have—they just devour your sense of self and make joy a stranger. You don’t need to make your problems smaller, not with substances or food or lack thereof. You’re enough to fight them now, as they are, no matter how scary they look. You can’t choose your challenges, but you can choose your joys and you can choose life for yourself. You can choose to fight for the mountains.

Please choose with me, pack some goddamn chocolate and never turn back.

 

*mountains in Scotland above 913m or 3,000″

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