Hiking, Biking and Climbing in Places Far From Home
by Pat Wray
I tend to write most often about hunting, fishing and related issues, but I actually spend the majority of my outdoor recreation time hiking or biking. Several times a week I hike in McDonald Forest, in the Cascades or somewhere along the Coast Range. So often I walk up through the mist to Dimple Hill or McCulloch Peak, only to find myself standing below a blue sky and above a carpet of white, stretching in every direction.
I tried to do the same thing during our trip to Great Britain, though with more success at hiking than at biking. It didn’t take long to disabuse me of the desire to bike on the roads there. In most of the areas my wife and I visited, there is little enough room for one car, much less two and a bike. Those roads don’t have a waist, much less a shoulder. Bikers are necessarily careful; there is none of the chest thumping foolishness so often seen among Corvallis bikers, whose motto seems to be, “I have a three-foot bike path but I’m going to put my tires on the yellow line to establish my ownership of this space and some of yours as well. You cars had better not hit me or…or…you’re going to be in trouble!”
British bikers can’t afford that kind of stupidity, so they are careful–and so are the car drivers around them.
My first good hike was on a nice little mountain in central Scotland called Ben Ledi. We left the bed and breakfast at 5:30 and were on our way up at first light. The lower reaches of the mountain were covered by a Scotch pine plantation, then we broke out onto the open mountainside. It is important, and educational, to remember that the Scottish Highlands, starkly beautiful in their vast, expansive reaches of rock and heather, were once covered by forests much like our own. Virtually all those trees were gone by the end of the 17th century, proving that we don’t need modern equipment to ruin our environment, just short term thinking in a long term world. This means you, Michele Bachmann.
The open country reminds me our our own high desert, with heather instead of sagebrush and bunch grass. It’s easy to imagine chukars in this land. In fact, a cousin of our own chukar, Alectoris rufa, is found in England and Scotland, where it was transplanted from the continent in the 1600s.
The trail we followed was steep, rocky and eroded in places, but its waterbars were things of beauty, deep, solid affiairs constructed with two-man rocks and built to last centuries. In places, somone had also built stairs, using large flat stones. The stones were not quite as large as the ancient megalithic cairnes we would later see in Ireland, but they came pretty close. These folks might have been hard on their timber, but they build to last.
An hour and a half into our climb we were still a quarter mile from the top, but we turned around anyway, so as not to miss our full Scottish breakfast, which is itself a thing of beauty.
A week later we were climbing a much more famous mountain in Ireland, Crough Patrick, locally known as the Reek. Croagh Patrick was sacred to the Druids and more recently to Christians as the spot where Saint Patrick fasted for 40 days before expelling all snakes and demons from Ireland. It is a very nice hill to climb, though a considerably different experience from Ben Ledi. On the Scottish mountain we saw one other hiker; on Crough Patrick we passed 100 people on our way up and 1,000 on our way down.
A significant number of those people were barefoot, which is fairly impressive when you consider that the trail is rocky and mostly unimproved and the climb is over 2,500 feet. Penance, one man explained to me–though I’ve never understood why any God would be pleased when believers hurt themselves in his (or her) name. Nonetheless, where there’s faith, there may be profit. Perhaps I could open a concession from which to sell hair shirts and other accoutrements of self torture.
From the saddle half-way up Crough Patrick I could see thousands of acres of bogs, many of which are being dug for peat, which the locals burn for heat. It’s what you do when your trees are gone, if you have bogs.
As I approached the top a heavy mist descended on me. Visibilty was less than 50 yards. No one was more surprised than me when I popped out on top into a perfectly clear day. Suddenly, visibiltiy was unlimited, but I could see nothing but blue sky and a perfectly white carpet stretching in every direction. It felt just like home.