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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feminism, love, poetry, Scotland

a poem for sisterhood

a poem I wrote after my time in St Andrews in April, almost a year after I graduated. I’m sending love and gratitude to all those who helped me along my way, all those women who loved each other and didn’t take shit from anyone. 

 

I came back to a place that was trial by fire

only to find the hearth of a beloved inn

here, my sisters–hillwalkers, anthropologists,

philosophers and domestic goddesses

have pulled up chairs and rockers to gossip

to mhmm over mistakes and knit scarves

for our daughters caught in the cold

to drink down spells of sisterhood

and to eat the flesh of slain monsters

St Andrews 2018

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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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love, personal journeys, Scotland, travel & adventure

twists, turns, and a love story

I don’t often share everyday details of love, family, and friendship here on this blog, but I feel like I should tell the story of Nick and me–simply because it’s a good one and has contributed to so many of my recent thoughts and adventures.

We met on Tinder, of all places. I was about to delete my account given the state of the average American male, while Nick’s friends had just talked him into making an account. I was his first match, and two days later we met up for dinner. I’d just finished work at the stable and I wasn’t sure about going to meet this stranger, but I went.

It was, quite simply, the best conversation I’d had in months. He kissed me in the parking lot, we parted ways, and, like a goon, I couldn’t stop smiling.

We met up two days later, then the day after that (Valentine’s Day), then the day after that. The day after Valentine’s Day, he drove out to rescue me when my car died and I was stranded. I got him into healthy(ish) eating; he got me into rappelling. The relationship unfolded from there like a river unfolding into itself: climbing, hiking, camping, kayaking, bad decisions and hilarious adventures.

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Nick and I climbing at McConnells Mills the day before I left for the UK

Then, on April 1st, I left to guide a family for whom I tutored around England and Scotland for several weeks. All of a sudden, a place I had wanted to leave for months–Pittsburgh–felt so difficult to leave. No matter how I happy I was to be back in the UK and to see my dearest friends, I was continually surprised by how much I missed this recent stranger.

That UK trip was full of surprises. I frequented an awesome climbing gym while in London, got horrendously sick (perk of working with small children), and then my parents kicked me out because I’d left my room messier than they’d wanted. This sent me reeling–it was my parent’s home, of course, and it was their decision, but it did leave me feeling incredibly stressed and homeless. The tutoring family’s grandmother passed away while we were in Scotland, which meant they decided to go home early. Plans I had with my UK friends fell through given the rather drastic logistical and financial changes that had just hit me. I felt unprepared, childish.

In spite of this, I was fortunately able to make the most of my time in Scotland and St Andrews. I ceilidhed with the hillwalking club, helped friends with dissertations, had coffee and dinner with my practically-a-sister friend Antonia, laughed and gossiped with Maryam, enjoyed my favourite coffee shop, attacked Irma with a hug, jumped off the pier, ran through Glen Shee, and more. But then I had to go home. This time, home meant going back to Nick and his family.

On one hand, it was scary to move in with someone I’d only known in-person for six weeks. It seemed a little mad, even for me. But underneath all the confusion, I felt a sense of peace and excitement that didn’t make sense given outside circumstances. I already knew I loved Nick. He felt like home for me, and his family soon came to feel like home for me as well. I started doing the family gardening (commandeering the entire yard). I changed summer jobs from high ropes course instructor to farm and greenhouse worker while the tutoring season was at a bit of a lull.

Meanwhile, Nick and I kept climbing, kayaking, and camping. It was ropeswing and swimming season all at once, and I went to my first music festival. My life suddenly brimmed with new things in a place that had once seemed a little mundane. Sometimes it was overwhelming. Often, it was exciting. But I always felt that, in spite of the craziness of the past few months, I was on the right path.

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back in my favorite St Andrews coffee shop, Taste, and sleeping on the sofa like my old self. photo by ILinca

I don’t know what the future will bring. It’s been a crazy few months, but I do know this: I have an acceptance to the University of Glasgow’s Celtic, Pictish, and Viking Archaeology Master’s Programme, which I’m deferring until 2019. I have an idea of how I want to combine archaeology and anthropology in the future. I have someone with whom to explore the world. I have relationships to mend with my own family, but I also have another family that has come to feel very much like my own. Lastly, I have hope that this unforeseen road will take me better places yet.

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sometimes this is about as professional and put-together as I feel. Photo from a Dublin adventure with Antonia in March, 2017.

My path isn’t looking like a straightforward undergraduate to master’s to PhD to an academic career path. But maybe a life of radical challenges is exactly what I need in order to conduct research and exploration that will have a powerful impact. These days, I’m reading anthropological articles while the bread rises, thinking about landscape theory whilst weeding in the garden, muttering Scottish Gaelic in the shower,  and thinking about Scottish mountains while I walk to the gym. I keep repeating my old mantra to myself: anthropology starts at home, no matter what home looks like. 

Beyond that, these twists and turns have opened me up to so much love. It’s shown me how little I actually control in my life. Five months ago, this new and lovely world I now inhabit didn’t exist for me. It didn’t come to me because I planned or earned it. Rather, it fell into my lap: a gift wrapped perfectly in muddy adventures.

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feminism, Scotland, travel & adventure

why and how I hitchhike

When I tell people I hitchhike and often do so on my own, the first question usually is: “But isn’t that rather unsafe?” Raised eyebrows, comments on being a young female, etc. My response usually is: “Half the time I’m carrying an ice-axe and pointy poles and can be found by sniffing the wind, so I don’t exactly scream Vulnerable Pretty Little Thing.” 

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wildcamping on Skye near the Quiraing, because why wouldn’t two females wildcamp where they damn well choose? Photo by Maryam

Hitchhiking is dangerous, just like crossing the street, hillwalking, driving, rock climbing or, hell, going out on a date with a relative stranger. Did you know some kids these days have Tinder? The nerve.

More seriously, I’ve been told far too many times that hitchhiking as a female (especially alone) is “asking for it”. Unless “it” refers to a lift rather than sexual assault, that assumption is not okay. It blames the victim, rather than holding perpetrators responsible for their criminality. Kind of gross. By hitchhiking and being more-or-less smart about it, I challenge this idea and take ownership of my adventures and my body.

I see becoming a more assertive and confident woman–and maybe inspiring other women to do likewise–as a bigger attack on the Baddies of the world than huddling indoors ever could be.

In an age of fear-mongering, it can be easy to think that our era is unsuitable for such shenanigans and that people just aren’t to be trusted these days. This is another assumption that demands thought, but I’m not going to dig into the statistics here. We are each responsible for researching the facts, clarifying the risks and trying to understand likely rewards.

We don’t need to be told we don’t understand the Big Wide World or to feel like we can’t or shouldn’t take ownership of our own adventures. Also, can we just not all assume that everyone is out to get us? Given so many seem to be assuming that and huddling inside, it probably isn’t true, strictly speaking. 

That being said, let’s consider the rewards of hitch-hiking. 

hitchhiking: the good

I’ve had hilarious conversations, talks that made me rethink my relationship with religion, dogs curled up on my knee, stories of land rights regulations and its impacts across generations, and a brief education on the marine life of the Firth of Clyde (it’s been overfished, y’all). I’ve sat in the back of camper-vans and in the back of a work-van like a stray dog while my bestie sat up front.  I’ve chilled in the front seat of windowless black vans—sorry, Mom—and in suped-up SUVs. I’ve been given lifts by taxis on their way to their next job, expensive Mercedes-Benz contraptions, and tiny wee cars that somehow made it out of the 80’s on 3.6 wheels and a prayer. I’ve met mothers, teachers, construction workers, gardeners, an ex-jockey who is now my pen-pal, shop owners, taxi drivers, tourists, a bar owner, and mountain leaders. Strangers have a magical knack for extending their best selves. 

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if I didn’t hitchhike, I wouldn’t have gotten to have a beautifully lonesome evening with these sheep and the Stones of Stenness in Orkney

I’ve built up a lot of confidence in being able to read vibes and guiltlessly turn down lifts that strike me as slightly off or sketchy. Because you’re also in a slightly more risk-involved situation, you’re also attentive to the driver in a way you wouldn’t normally be. Mannerisms, turns of phrase, and body language all become more apparent and more fascinating. 

As someone who’s struggled with Panic Attack Disorder, I now can walk up to someone in a car park and ask for a lift with a smile and not a niggle of anxiety. It’s made me about ten times more relaxed around people, because, in some way, everyone’s just looking for a lift and a conversation in this life. Perhaps it’s cringe-worthy and sentimental, but I firmly believe it’s true. 

Also, hitchhiking is free. You get to places you can’t access by public transport. Hitchhiking enables adventures that would have otherwise been impossible. It’s kind of awesome. 

Those are the rewards. What, then, are the risks?

Risks

Conversion to a life of piracy or (another) religion(s), kidnapping, torture, death, alien abduction, etc. 

I’m being flippant, I know, but every single time I hitchhike I do think about the chances of being raped. It’s just what comes with being a vaguely rational woman in a beautiful world marred by violence and sexism. However, risks can be mitigated.

Maybe the following list is gruesomely methodical. However, I find that the more one wants freedom the more willing one has to be to take responsibility for oneself. This means having one’s own rules–breakable should the occasion arise–which above all prioritise kindness and safety towards yourself and others. While also allowing you to challenge silly prejudices. 

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see: life of piracy

risk mitigation

1) I accept lifts only from people I immediately feel safe around. This is my number one rule. If a sketchy-looking guy pulls up next to you and gives you The Look and, by the way, his car doesn’t have a roof but rather a covering of duct tape and tarps (true story), for the love of everything holy don’t get in the fucking car. Dear, dear God. 

2) I only thumb for lifts in safe places where it is unlikely that sketchy characters will purposely frequent. Remember, someone looking for a “vulnerable female” is not likely to go venturing into the hills looking for a stink-bomb mountaineer to ice-axe duel. Cos if they did, crampon-kicks would be totally legal.  I also don’t hitch between big cities. A bus is cheap, more reliable, and much safer than a city context.

3) I make sure there is space for me on the side of the road, that I can see cars for a long way and that they can see me. 

4) I don’t get in a car with more than one man unless with multiple females. If I get in a car with a guy, I have some object that can be used in self-defense within easy reach (see: ice-axe duels). For this reason, I keep my bag on my lap.

 5) I am happy, confident, and willing to talk or to be silent, and I sit with my shoulders relaxed and make firm eye contact. I don’t hunch or make myself look small. Communicate kindness and confidence.

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if I didn’t hitchhike, I wouldn’t have been able to indulge my overachiever penchant for building stone stacks balanced on wood balanced on a cliff on the Brough of Birsay in Orkney, would I?

That said, I’ve only ever hitchhiked in Scotland and Ireland, which are both relatively safe countries. Hitchhiking in the U.S. strikes me as a different ballgame. If you decide to hitch because of what I’m saying here, make all your own decisions and don’t blame me for any of them.  

Hitchhiking is wonderful because it allows you to experience a different side of life—a part of the country that might be harder to get to, a side of the population you don’t normally see, a side of yourself you didn’t know existed. Yes, there have been times I’ve been on a quiet road for an hour or two struggling to get a lift and wondering if I’d have to negotiate sleeping arrangements with some cows, but it’s the adventure that’s worth it.

Above all, hitching shows you that people (and cows), with their kindness and open-mindedness, are adventures in and of themselves. You don’t need to be a professional ice climber to experience this. All you need is do is stick out your thumb, know what makes you feel safe and keep your wits about you. Chances are, you’ll be surprised by yourself. 

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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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