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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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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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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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, yall). I’ve sat in the back of campervans and in the back of a workvan like a stray dog while my friend 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 penpal, 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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