The lonely spaces, and why I seek them out.Posted: November 10, 2015
I like to be outdoors as often as I can. While it can be very relaxing to sit with a book and while away a day or two, there is always something to be said for getting outdoors and feeling the wind, rain or sun on your face.
Over the past couple of weeks, I have driven out to the west, into the front ranges of the Rocky Mountains, in weather that could best be described as poor. When traveling alone, the trip gives me a chance to reflect. At this time of year, as autumn gives way to winter, the tonal palette of the landscape changes from the greens and yellows of fields and trees, to the burnt oranges and browns of winter. Often cloudy, the skies possess a beauty not seen during the rest of the year, as tendrils of water vapour coil their way among the shattered crags of the biggest geological car-crash between here and the Pacific Ocean. The worst weather often puts off the multitudes of tourists who normally jam up the roads with their people carriers and waddle about waving selfie sticks. I understand and accept the need for tourist-generated income for local towns and villages, but find the self absorption and utter lack of awareness of anyone else around them that such tourists generally exhibit quite annoying. I mean, when people are stupid enough to step backwards into moving traffic, in order to get a better photograph of their friends on a sidewalk, doesn’t that tell you something fairly basic about what’s going on (or not) inside their heads?
This past couple of weeks, I headed off the main tourist trail near Banff, to Lake Minnewanka. This is a favourite of mine, especially once the lake freezes, giving access to the interior on snow shoes. This time, it was the kind of day that I normally associate with the Pacific Northwest, whenever I think of the art of the Haida. Rainy, damp, not really too cold, but lots of moisture in the air, with dark still lake waters. Even here, on a day like this, it was impossible to completely evade the selfie-brigade, but their numbers were greatly reduced. I don’t like crowds, in case you haven’t noticed. Lake Minnewanka is ten minutes from Banff, but I suspect that most shoppers have never seen it. I really like Banff, girdled with mountains of different characters and possessing a river that I could sit and watch forever, but it isn’t the main reason I head west and north. The Palliser Expedition passed though here just before the American Civil War, heading out from the Great Lakes, with the remit of surveying everything to the west. Standing at the monument above Lake Minnewanka and looking out at wind ruffling the surface of the lake betweeen Cascade Mountain and Mount Girouard, I can’t imagine what that trip must have been like. I find the character of the people that set out to the west inspiring.
I like to get as far away as I can from cities sometimes. I don’t deal well with crowds, and the braying jostling masses sometimes make me want to shout at them. The view below is of the Crowfoot Glacier, on the Icefields Parkway, during the summer. I’d like to see this in full winter, with sharp clear sunlight and air that burns your lungs. Better still, I’d like to take my gear and get off the road, so often crowded with more tourists, and strike out into the back country across the lake to the west. There’s a lot to be said for breaking your own trail, and learning the skills necessary to be self-sufficient. Wilderness camping, under the stars, with only what you can carry, is one of life’s luxuries. Thoreaux and Emerson had it right when they talked about the wild. You can keep your satellite TV and two hundred channels of pap. Give me a good backpack and an ice axe and my own company. Chances are, I won’t fight with myself, and the trip can be a source of considerable catharsis.
Again, to find solitude, it isn’t necessary to get far from civilisation. Sometimes getting a couple of hundred feet higher up can do the trick. The picture below is from high above Lake Louise in Alberta, another destination for the busloads of tourists. Going off-piste, led on by a sign warning of danger of serious injury proved irresistable, and rewarded us with this view. Not many people from the carpark make it up here. The silence was palpable, and the light special. These are ancient rocks, from the Cambrian period, 540-480 million years ago.
Moving down the frozen expanse of Lake Louise, it was possible to leave the selfie-stick wavers behind, and enjoy the magnificent mountains towards the Victoria Glacier. The only people out here were snowshoeing or cross-country skiing. Out here, there are endless miles of trails, of a fairly serious character. Need to get fitter before I can tackle them.
Mind you, Canada isn’t the only place where you can find peace and quiet. The high tops in Glencoe, in the western Highlands of my native Scotland, offer good places to get away from it all. The first peak I managed in this group is below, Buchaille Etive Mor, the Great Shepherd of Etive, looking over to Bidean nam Bian. I have the First Midlothian Scouts to thanks for teaching me to navigate, camp, and most of all, to love the mountains of my homeland. I’ve not got the skill or head for heights needed to rock-climb, but scrambling is fine. On a clear day up here, you can literally see for miles. Choose the wrong day, as I did on Beinn a Bheithir, and you can’t see the end of your nose, with potentially fatal consequences. Those are when you learn hard lessons. I have never been happier to see the Clachaig Bar.
One of the last true wildernesses in Scotland is Knoydart, often referred to as the Rough Bounds. If nowhere has a middle, it is somewhere in there. The hills are serious, and carrying in everything you need focuses the mind. It helps to forget the humdrum and banal elements of “everyday life”, and sometimes the day can be distilled down to breathing and putting one foot in front of the other. Again, these are ancient rocks, cooked and compressed over geological ages. We’re privileged to be able to witness their testament to hundreds of millions of years of rains and snow. The span of time is almost impossible to imagine. Beside all of this, we are less than ants.
Glen Affric is another good escape. It is possible to walk all day here and not see many people. The shot below was in the Autumn, looking to the west. Typical for many highland rivers, the water was peat-coloured and shockingly cold. The trees were just on the turn, as the country slid into winter. I remember the smell of the foliage after rain.
The far northwest has some of the most ancient mountains, including mighty Suilven, here seen from the east, near Loch na Gainimh (Sandy Loch). These massive butresses rise from the underlying rock, dwarfing everything around for miles. These are names to conjur with, Canisp, Stac Pollaidh, Cul Mor and Cul Beag. I have seen these mountains lined up in the gathering dusk, casting massive shadows on the ancient land. They will still be here when Man has ultimately passed back into dust. Again, good for getting a sense of our own lack of significance.
The eastern side of Scotland also has great places to get peace. Here, under the gaze of the Cairngorms, there are many tracks giving access to woods and water. Funny to think that the blathering crowds aren’t actually that far away. If this reads as though I am fairly antisocial, it isn’t the case. I just prefer to be able to choose my company, and those people tend to be those that don’t constantly fill the air with prattle and noise. They’re the kind of people who can sit in the car with me for an hour and not feel the need to say anything. Sometimes just being there is enough. Wind and water, tree and hill. Give me moss and bracken, and rain in my face, and I will be happy. Cities are for other people.