I’d been looking forward to this trip for a long time. Two years ago I had a brief encounter with someone who was just graduating, who seemed so sure of himself as he leapt straight from his degree into travel and adventure. He rolled into my life like Scottish weather- unforeseen- and I fell in love with him like a thunderstorm, impossible to escape and leaving heartbreak in its wake. I had no desire at all to keep him anymore than I would a wild bird, but as the sorrow passed, the flight envy, the aching wings, remained.
And then, barely a week ago, my degree was finished. Like a dog who has been straining at her lead for hours before giving up, and not noticing when you release her, for a day I couldn’t quite fathom this new freedom, and everything still felt the same. But the second I left the flat with my new pack on my back, bursting with all the camping gear I’ve been waiting years to buy myself as a graduation present, a grin spread itself across my cheeks and I could feel my wings slowly stretch out again as we embarked on our journey north, ready to feel the highland winds and rely on the generosity of strangers.
“Aren’t you scared?” seemed to be the question everyone was asking. Hitch-hiking is the hunting ground for the bogeyman, didn’t you know?
Even my infallible travelling companion Alice admitted her fears the night before. “I want to be like you, and not be worried at all, I just wanted to let you know that I’m a bit wary.” Defending myself with a ‘fearless’ grin we agreed on our safety precautions- safewords in case either of us wanted to reject a driver, texting number-plates and locations to my mother, and chatting about public transport methods to fall back on. I was nervous, though. But if I showed her, I thought maybe we’d both psych ourselves out and cancel the trip, and I needed it too much- needed to get out of Edinburgh, to feel the freedom of finishing my education.
Spontaneity has been one of the best treatments for anxiety I have found so far, as it is difficult to worry about something when you don’t know which direction your feet will be pointing when you wake up, when changing your mind has no consequences.
And so the trip began. We began with a hike from Markinch into the Lomond Hills, at the mercy of a mosaic of rainclouds and sunshine over fields and through woods, following a river I knew would eventually take us to the loch I had taken a fancy to on the map.
I had Daguerre swinging around my neck, ready to grab shots of any birds I couldn’t identify to look up later, and I keenly pointed out every flash of wings and birdcall to Alice, who smiled and listened patiently to me reeling off all the bird facts I could think of. Though as we came out of the woodlands and crossed the farmlands, I fell silent to watch my beloved barn swallows twist and swoop around all the alleys and tunnels in the wind, their indigo backs flashing with iridescence in pockets of sunlight.
As our number of walking breaks grew on the final stretch, a herd of bewildered cows watched us start and stop, swig and munch, as we approached them and followed us along the fence with bemused curiosity until a bold Jack Russell came up the path and told us sternly that he didn’t want us coming any closer.
Luckily we weren’t far from our campsite, and after a short scout we found the perfect spot to camp: dry, flat, with a small river and mossy glen. Alice and I had been poring over my worst-case-scenario-survival-guide by John Wiseman before we left, and it had left us keen to start our own fire with the flint and steel I had in my little survival tin. After a good hour of collecting rocks to make a stone circle, we built up the kindling and twigs before using a cotton firestarter to get the flames going. Just like me when I made my first fire, Alice immediately began to stockpile kindling- but I convinced her that a kindling fire would burn bright and fast, and die just as quickly, so she went off and came back with a young fallen tree- “Is this big enough?” she laughed.
“That’s perfect!” I replied, trying to figure out how to cook our dinner.
Eventually when I served up the noodles with crumbled naan bread our conversation was muffled by appreciative murmurs and swallows- as nothing tastes as good as carbohydrates when you’re camping. We had a brief peruse of the map and tentative plans for alternatives to hitch-hiking, as I was sure no one would pick us up, before I put out the fire and we retreated into our canvas shell.
I awoke as infuriatingly early as anyone does when they’ve just finished a long stint of waking early for revision, and lay still for a few moments before I heard the sweetest alarm clock a bird enthusiast can hear: ‘Cuck-oo… cuck-ooo… cuck-ooo…’
“Alice! Alice! Alice!” I cried, slapping her curled-up form inside the sleeping bag, “Wake up! Wake up! Cuckoo! You hear it?” She emerged slowly, smiling at my enthusiasm, listened, heard, and retreated. I was ecstatic- cuckoos aren’t common where I’m from and I had never heard one before, plus I had been perusing British bird population data the day before I left and cuckoos were in the top ten for birds with the sharpest population decline in the last 25 years. I lay still for a while but didn’t hear it again, so I crawled out, lay some grass on the smoking embers and blew on them until the fire lit up again and began to warm me up. We boiled sausages on the stove and roasted them in the fire in turns whilst we were packing up, until we regretfully put out the coals and set off again down the road.
We heard another cuckoo on the road, just as a cyclist passed us, and he smiled affably at my excited call after him that there was a cuckoo, and then turned around to lap back to his friend and looked at me a bit strangely as I continued to gesture and ask if he’d heard the cuckoo, and finally Alice could barely contain her laughter as I bombarded the cyclists again as they passed us together, confused as to why they wouldn’t stop their bikes to listen to the nest-scrounger’s haunting call. “They’re probably quite common up here,” Alice said to me after my ears were sated and we continued our walk.
Eventually we reached a main road and began our first serious attempt to thumb down a car. By the time a car finally did stop we were so used to be ignored- or just receiving a thumbs-up by a driver as they accelerated away- that initially we didn’t realise it had stopped for us, and we charged towards it hoping they wouldn’t give up on our slow hitch-hiking instincts. They were a couple just heading to Kinross for lunch, they said, but if they dropped us next to the A9 we might be able to catch a lift north? Perfect! We jumped in, met the placid retriever in the back and began chatting to them, excited to finally be on our way.
It turned out that the driver was Tony Spirling, a British Paragliding champion who was used to having to hitch-hike home from where his wings landed him (listen to a podcast where he talks about paragliding and the mind here). We chatted with them the whole way, and left them in a service station keen to find out how far north we could get up the A9. Our flimsy ‘NORTH’ sign was looking a bit worse for wear, so we tried just chatting up drivers as they came out of the shops “Excuse me, do you know which road we need to take to get up to Inverness? … Oh great, we’re hitch-hiking you see, we need to know what road to write on our sign! … Oh, well, that’s a shame. No worries, have a good trip!”
This conversation repeated itself until eventually I approached a group of four Germans, three gentlemen and a lady, in an eight-seater, who agreed to take us up to Inverness. Progress! After their initial hesitation, they warmed to us quickly and were soon offering us biscuits, pork schnitzel and beer from a road-trip picnic basket, telling us about their whisky-tasting tour and the castle they were staying at that night with their English friends.
After they dropped us we decided we would camp out for the night in the woods just north of Kessock Bridge, and just as we were putting our stuff together a van stopped and we asked if the driver (who was busy trying to fix his CD player) could give us a lift five minutes up the road.
“Sure,” he replied, and soon we had decided we would keep him company until Dornoch, and our journey gained another leg-up the A9. That night we stayed in a forest covered in a spongy moss mattress and slept much better than the first night, wrapped up in all our layers and sleeping to the sounds of owl cries and running water.