In February 2019, award-winning writer Alex Roddie left his online life behind when he set out to walk 300 miles through the Scottish Highlands, seeking solitude and answers. In leaving the chaos of the internet behind for a month, he hoped to learn how it was truly affecting him – or if he should look elsewhere for the causes of his anxiety. In this extract from his new book The Farthest Shore, out on September 2nd, Alex shares some of the pain and joy from the start of his solo winter challenge.
Day 1: 6 February 2019, Ardnamurchan Point, Scotland
‘Did you lose a bet or something?’ On the long trudge out from the ferry at Kilchoan to the lighthouse at Ardnamurchan Point, where I would officially begin my walk, a local stopped to ask me if I wanted a lift. I’d added a warm layer beneath my waterproof jacket and was just pulling my gloves back on when the car pulled over and the driver wound down his window. I could see him eyeing up the rucksack towering over my head and shoulders. His gaze lingered on the massive blue snowshoes strapped to the sides of my pack. After I’d thanked him and turned down his offer, he’d asked where I was headed – ‘The North Pole?’ – and shook his head in amazement when I said I was on my way to Cape Wrath. He wished me luck with an expression that said he expected to read about my demise on a Mountain Rescue blog in the near future, and then wound his window back up and sped away into the rain.
This walk was already feeling very different to how I’d pictured it. In the days before my journey up to Scotland, and on the journey itself, I’d stressed myself silly over worries beyond my control. What if my resupply parcels failed to get to their destinations? Many of the shops CWT hikers used to replenish their supplies were shut over the winter, so I’d sent pre-packaged supply boxes to various hostels and hotels along the way. I hadn’t been able to confirm that all of them had arrived. Worse, I’d made a stupid error. Some of the supply boxes contained gas cartridges for my stove. In the frenzy of preparations, it hadn’t occurred to me to check whether or not this was allowed. A tweet from a follower on the eve of my departure – ‘Maybe we’ll hear about an explosion at the Royal Mail depot on the news!’ – had sent my anxiety into overdrive, and I’d fallen into the familiar cycle of berating myself for my mistakes and believing that if I couldn’t be perfect then I might as well not even try.
Somehow, through the spiral of negative thinking and my mind flitting from one catastrophic scenario to the next, obsessing on the prospect of failure after building this trip up for so long in my head, I’d made it to the peninsula of Ardnamurchan. The walk was happening. It was real.
Although Fort William is the usual starting point for the Cape Wrath Trail, I had decided to extend my walk by starting at Ardnamurchan Point instead and joining the main route at Glenfinnan. At that moment, freezing cold and soaked through to my base layer, I questioned whether I’d been of sound mind to add several days of hard hiking to what would already be the hardest thing I’d ever done. From Glenfinnan, the Cape Wrath Trail would head north through the wildest and most remote mountain country until the land ran out beneath my feet.
Ardnamurchan Point is commonly cited as the westernmost point of the British mainland, although that isn’t true – Corrachadh Mòr, a headland about a kilometre to the south, juts a few metres more into the sea. Nevertheless, I’d chosen Ardnamurchan Point as the start of my walk. Just like Cape Wrath, it was home to a lighthouse, and the symmetry of this idea appealed to me, walking from lighthouse to lighthouse between the westernmost (well, close enough) and northwesternmost points of the British mainland.
The lighthouse jutted like an obscene gesture on the horizon. Bands of rain scurried in front of it. It protruded from a foreground of rock the colour of weathered lead, dappled with bone-white blotches of lichen and a few tufts of grass that fringed pools of rainwater. Even the puddles had waves on them. The wind battered me, slammed against me. Out at sea, great roaring waves swept in from an indistinct horizon to pound at the shoreline while a few intrepid gulls fought the gusts, first dipping low then wheeling high before uttering calls that pierced through the background noise of water and storm.
I clambered back over the rocks to the road. My huge pack felt cumbersome, and the straps were already digging in to my shoulders. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d carried a pack this heavy, weighed down with winter kit, backpacking essentials and food for over a week.
Rust-streaked outbuildings clustered around the lighthouse. There was an air of shabbiness and abandonment about this place, as if the landscape couldn’t wait to reclaim it. People had not lived here for years; the light itself was now fully automated, although a café and visitors’ centre served tourists between April and October. I peered through one of the windows into the café after wiping the raindrops away with a soggy glove. Inside, nothing but darkness.
After taking shelter around the side of the building, I dropped my pack again and pulled out the blocky orange satellite communicator I had on loan for the trip. Time to send my first check-in message.
The device took a few seconds to boot up. With its QWERTY keyboard, monochrome display and plastic antenna sticking out of the top, it looked a bit like an old-school BlackBerry. Similar devices, popular with backpackers, let you send pre-programmed messages to contacts, activate an emergency beacon, and (optionally) provide real-time tracking. Thanks to its built-in keyboard, this upgraded model could also be used as a two-way text messenger.
I activated the check-in function, which would – hopefully – send an automatic message to Hannah, my mum, my brother, and a few friends and colleagues who wanted to keep tabs on my progress. The progress indicator on the screen took forever to clear, and there was no positive confirmation that my message had actually sent. My tests prior to the trail hadn’t inspired confidence. Some check-ins worked, while others failed silently, giving the operator no indication that the message hadn’t gone through. The device triggered complex feelings in me. If I needed to press the SOS button, would it work? And what if two or more consecutive check-ins failed – at what point would my family decide that I needed to be rescued? Would its very presence change my behaviour or somehow tarnish the experience? Like my smartphone, would it remain as an ethereal presence in my mind even when switched off?
The satellite communicator went back into the top pocket of my rucksack. I had not activated the live tracking feature. I was willing to accept a lifeline, but I was not willing to be continuously tracked by the machine world I wanted to get away from. This line in the sand, I realised, was as arbitrary as the whole thing, but it felt important – why, otherwise, was I doing this at all?
At just after two o’clock in the afternoon I took my first step on the lighthouse-to-lighthouse walk that I hoped would lead me to Cape Wrath. At that moment, Cape Wrath felt incalculably distant – an objective so remote that it had become abstract, a symbol belonging to a future version of me not yet hammered into being.
To read the fully story of the journey, you can order Alex’s book now; 10% of the sale through our Bookshop goes to Walkhighlands, and a further 10% is distributed to independent UK bookshops.