hike blog

A Tale of Two Hips

Dancer-upon-Stump (a few days ago in Oregon)
Dancer-upon-Stump (a few days ago in Oregon)

Resilience is accepting your new reality, even if it’s less good than the one you had before. You can fight it, you can do nothing but scream about what you’ve lost, or you can accept that and try to put together something that’s good.

Elizabeth Edwards

This article will appear in The Trek later this month. I thought I’d give you a little preview...

I was not a happy camper one late summer afternoon at the doctor’s office. The air conditioning was too cold, I had my legs splayed in an awkward position because I could hardly tolerate sitting and there was nothing to look at but four walls painted institutional-beige where clear plastic holders hung in a row offering up pamphlets on joint replacement.

I did not take one.

“They’re clearly not talking to me,” I thought. “At least not now.” I was here because of pain in my right inner thigh. It had gotten so bad it was throwing off my gait. Vitamin I, as thru-hikers call it, was keeping me upright these days and no amount of stretching or massage helped. Instead, it was getting worse.

The door banged open and Dr. Stroemer, a tall, well-fed Midwesterner with a buzz-cut, strode in. I’d chosen him by accident, picking the first available appointment at Summit Orthopedics in the Twin Cites to just get this thing over with and find some relief. On his computer screen was an X-ray from three years previous of my left hip. “You do know that I’m here about my right hip?” I said, the snark in my voice not at all attractive.

He quickly sat down and, like me, ignored all formalities. “You don’t want to look at that,” he said. “Actually, you don’t want to look at this either.” He then proceeded to pull up the X-ray they had just taken showing my hipbones compressed tightly against my pelvic bone, like a square peg shoved into a round hole. “There’s no cartilage. At all. In EITHER hip.”

“Wait, what?” I stammered. “But this is a pain in my groin. I pulled something or ripped something or…I just walked 5,000 miles!”

“Yeah, well, you wore ‘em out and now, you need new ones.”

My hip looked a bit like a square peg being shoved into a round hole.
My hip looked a bit like a square peg being shoved into a round hole.

Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Alison Young, a.k.a Blissful Hiker. As a “full-time pedestrian,” I’ve walked 12,000+ miles on six continents. I walk to focus my energy and stay quite literally grounded. In fact, my earliest memory is of looking down at my shoes at around age three and watching them take me somewhere, knowing moving means power.

And I guess the opposite is true too, not moving means, if not powerlessness, at least depression.

The saga of replacing my hips began three years earlier when I used a heel hook to hoist myself up the crux on an overhanging wall. I felt something snap and screamed for a take, barely able to walk once my feet found the ground. I assumed I’d torn something, but being late-December and only a few months left on my health insurance deductible, my husband Richard drove me an hour across town to get an MRI.

It turns out an X-ray would have told me all I needed to know, and been far less stressful. I did not have a soft-tissue injury, but rather Advanced Osteoarthritis (OA) of the Hip. As a bit of a catastrophizer, hearing that caused a flood of tears. “I’m too young” I wailed. “Walking is what I do! This can not be happening!

The doctor who broke the news to me had seen it all and after an eye-roll she suggested the most logical option – a cortisone shot.

Cortisone is actually a synthetic version of the cortisol steroid we create in our bodies in response to stress. The idea is to inject a higher dose directly into the joint. It doesn’t really hurt since they use a local anesthetic and it can offer results within a few days that can last for months. Most important, a cortisone shot can delay joint replacement. The downside is that repeated shots tend to be less effective and must be spread out with at least three months in between.

Other risks include infection, nerve damage, a flaring up of pain and, most concerning, destroying the bone altogether, in which case I’d need to replace it. But since replacing it was going to happen sooner or later, I figured it was worth a shot. (pun intended)

It’s not as though everything was fine after the shot. It was recommended that I meet with a physical therapist. Now I’m not opposed to physical therapy, but I was starting a whole new year of high deductible health insurance and the idea sounded expensive. Furthermore, I just happened to live down the street from a yoga studio.

This was no ordinary yoga studio. Here, they led 90-minute Bikram-style yoga in a room heated to 106 degrees. With my doctor’s blessing, I began daily practice and was amazed at the improvement in the affected joint, and all my joints for that matter.

On the Presidential Traverse in New Hampshire's White Mountains, my hip pain a distant memory.
On the Presidential Traverse in New Hampshire’s White Mountains, my hip pain a distant memory.
I was just a speck in the vastness of Paria Canyon on the Arizona/Utah border, but feeling strong.
In the Lake District surrounded by all the big peaks in mist, the climb up here easy.

One shot in my left hip, hard-core hot yoga, and walking every day in Minnesota winter and I was back on trail by late spring – Peru’s Vilcabamba Range, New Hampshire’s White Mountains, the Paria Canyon, Minnesota’s Border Route, and England’s Coast-to-Coast and Lake District.

While walking those shorter trails, I never once gave my hip a thought, but I had a funny feeling time was running out. So I took a leave-of-absence and headed out for an adventure of a lifetime on New Zealand’s 2,000-mile Te Araroa, my first long distance thru-hike. When my career break turned into something more permanent, my husband pushed me out the door again to tackle the 2600+ miles of the Pacific Crest Trail, my second long distance thru-hike I completed end-to-end, strong and agile.

Over time, genetics caught up with me. I should pause here to mention that it wasn’t walking that wore out my hips. I’m predisposed for osteoarthritis. Both my parents and my older brother have new hips and another brother is on his way. I also have hip dysplasia, where the hip socket doesn’t fully cover the ball portion of the upper thighbone. Wearing them down was inevitable.

It’s funny, though, that I was not prepared for the eventuality of a replacement, even after the episode three years earlier. It seems denial also runs in my family, as does stubbornness. With pain so bad I could hardly walk, I set out for nine days on Isle Royale, lurching along with the help of painkillers. It was only after I returned that I sought out Dr. Stroemer who gave me the bad news. But I still needed one last thru-hike before surgery. That one was on the Kekekabic in Northern Minnesota. It’s only 41 miles, but remote and oftentimes hard to follow.

I took handfuls of Ibuprofen and planned to walk short distances each day, but that didn’t prevent me from falling – spectacularly and right on my face. This was getting real. I no longer could trust my gait and I knew the time had come. At that moment and in a sort of synchronistic magic reserved only for fairly tales, I met a friend on trail who recently had both his hips replaced one after another – and he was hiking within three months!

That was the clincher. I too wanted my hips replaced one after the other. My thinking was that if I had to take any time away from the trail, I wanted it all in one lump. Furthermore, the degeneration was so far along, both hips had to be replaced sooner rather than later, so waiting really was not an option.

I limped through the Kekekabic Trail and fell twice, realizing the time had come for surgery.
The "Tibetan Chanters" massaging my legs so I don't get a deep vein thrombosis and my beautiful tennis-ball footed walker started me off on my journey of recovery.
The “Tibetan Chanters” massaging my legs so I don’t get a deep vein thrombosis and my beautiful tennis-ball footed walker started me off on my journey of recovery.

I chose Dr. Stroemer as my surgeon, because as it turned out, I liked his direct manner. I knew there’d be no sugar coating, but also no hard sell. That didn’t mean I wouldn’t pepper him with questions like, How many surgeries have you done? What happens if something goes wrong? Are you happy at home? (I was told happy surgeons have happy outcomes)

We compressed the time more than he would have liked with my first surgery just seven weeks before the second. He knew I was fit, but suggested I stay fit before surgery. While the pain caused me to rock from side-to-side as I walked, I still had good form on a bike. It was nearly impossible to open my legs wide enough to hop on, but I found I could lay the bike on the ground, step over and sort of slip it under me. I biked for miles and miles to get as physically strong as I could before D-day, and also to have some agency over my destiny.

By October 28th, I was ready to roll. Summit Orthopedics is a clinic with a surgery center. It’s cheaper than a hospital, which insurance companies like, and dedicated only to orthopedic surgeries, which can be safer for patients.

I had what is called Anterior Arthroplasty. Hip replacements in general are much more straightforward than knee or shoulder replacements (knock on wood, mine are in great shape) but it’s a huge plus when the incision can be made on the front of the body rather than the rear. This is because it’s less invasive and there’s no need to cut muscle or tendon in order to gain access to the bones. Less trauma means less pain and faster healing. Also, because the muscles are still in place, the risk of dislocation decreases.

That being said, the surgery requires a lot of skill and there were seven people working on me in the operating room. I received a spinal anesthetic and was out for all of it. What happens in there? Well, you can watch this video if you like and hear all the sawing, scraping, pounding and drilling that goes into replacing a hip with a metal and ceramic prosthetic that the bone will attach itself to.

The only “first hand” experience I got was when Stroemer agreed to snap a picture of my sawed off femur and text it to me in recovery. Yes, that picture made it to Instagram.

Most of us hikers are fit and slender, so I would recommend discussing with your anesthesiologist taking it easy on the pain meds. After the first surgery, I came out sick as a dog, learning that nausea is actually harder to manage than pain. A trick I learned to avoid a reaction to opioids is to instead alternate between Ibuprofen and Tylenol every 4-6 hours. It’s a strong cocktail.

After surgery, I was immediately taken from recovery to a set of stairs. With one hand on the railing and one on my trekking pole, I slowly waddled up each step, one at a time, then waddled back down. In fact, I wasn’t allowed to go home until I walked up and down stairs. The physical therapy is very easy including tightening the glutes, pressing down the quads, sliding the heels, pumping the ankles and lifting the legs. The key is to do them religiously. One tip is to begin the exercises before surgery. It seems to put the muscles on alert of what’s to come.

The hip bone's connected to the femur bone, the femur bone's connected to the...
The hip bone’s connected to the femur bone. The femur bone’s connected to the…
Only a few days after hip #1 and she’s ready to roll – well, actually is rolling.
Dr. Stroemer snapped a picture of my sawed off femur and texted it to me in recovery. What a sweetie!

Frankly, the pain is not that bad – and this coming from a complete wimp. But very annoying is managing the risk of deep vein thrombosis. I had to wear leg pumps that whizzed and whirred like chanting Tibetan Monks and all on top of compression socks that were impossible to put on or remove on my own. My timing was just right since Richard was working from home due to Covid restrictions.

Because my right hip was deteriorating fast as the left was healing, it was much harder to improve in those seven intervening weeks. I rolled around the neighborhood with my walker and eventually worked my way up to walking carefully with trekking poles.

I was thrilled that I had scheduled the second surgery so close to the first. Sure, I was scared. In the first round, they bruised a nerve and my calf and foot felt like they’d gone to sleep. Nerves heal slowly and it might take years to get back to normal. However, I recently had Electromyography (EMG) that showed the nerve is not permanently damaged and is responding to stimulation. It’s a really cool test because you can listen to your muscles working!

The second time around, Stroemer cushioned me with pillows and was gentler popping me apart. Whatever he did, it worked. There was no neuropathy and suddenly I was standing on two strong hips. I never used a walker for the second recovery, relying only on my trekking poles. I joined the subculture of Mall Walkers setting a timer for 20 minutes, then 30, 45 and finally an hour. Before long, I began daily walks outside in the snow with Yaktrax for traction.

The crowning achievement was a visit to Colorado three months after surgery. We walked up and down and through deep snow in our snowshoes and I felt good. After a storm, the sun rose on a crystal blue sky and I was determined to get to the top of a Fourteener. I marched up slowly and methodically, proudly telling people as they passed that I was walking on brand new hips. “Wow!” they’d exclaim as they left me in the dust.

It was mostly the altitude that dampened my spirits, and an optical illusion that made the summit look further away than it was. Only when two people came down and looked bigger than they should, did I realize Quandary Peak was within my grasp.

three months after a double hip replacement
Thumbs of Dr. Stroemer and shiny new hips that are getting me around even better than before.

I am so lucky. Lucky to live in this age when we can have worn out joints replaced, lucky to have the time and support to recover fully, and lucky to anticipate more years to hike, backpack and explore. Jumping and running are probably off my list of activities. That’s only because they’ll wear down the prosthetic faster, one that’s anticipated to last thirty years.

I’ve already hiked a lot ­– Glacier National Park and the Bob Marshall Wilderness, the Teton Crest Trail, and the wild and trackless Cape Wrath Trail in Scotland’s Western Highlands. I feel better every day and stronger than I’ve ever been. I still practice hot yoga for flexibility, and sometimes climb walls and push around on skis.

But Stroemer tells me walking is the very best thing I can do to stay healthy and make these new hips last.

Works for me.

Tips for managing osteoarthritis (OA) in the hip

  • Hip OA is not a death sentence to your thru-hiking life!
  • OA presents as pain in the groin and front of the thigh.
  • OA cannot be cured, only managed.
  • Get an X-ray to determine a baseline. Orthopedists can accurately measure the severity of arthritis from an X-ray.
  • Treat pain with NSAIDS like Ibuprofen, Advil, etc.
  • Use physical therapy and targeted exercises. I chose Hot Yoga because the heat helped me stretch further and manage inflammation.
  • Get a steroidal injection. One cortisone shot directly into my hip joint plus yoga helped my hip last three years and around 7,000 miles of walking. There are some risks and you must space out the shots by at least three months.
  • Finally, consider total hip arthroplasty (replacement) The anterior approach is far less invasive and normally a faster recovery than the posterior approach. .
  • Kia kaha! (Maori for “stay strong”) and happy trails
hike blog

a walk on the Ice Age Trail – 14 miles

I howled at the moon with friends,
And then the sun came crashing in.
Wo-o-o-o-o-oh, wo-o-o-o-o-oh
But all the possibilities,
No limits just epiphanies.
Wo-o-o-o-o-oh, wo-o-o-o-o-oh

from “The Best Day of My Life” by American Authors
The Ice Age Trail is a thousand-mile footpath all within the state of Wisconsin, a place that shares a name with an entire ice age from 15,000 years ago that left many features behind, all features walked up and over.
The Ice Age Trail is a thousand-mile footpath all within the state of Wisconsin, a place that shares a name with an entire ice age from 15,000 years ago that left many features behind, all features walked up and over.

The snow squeaks with each step as I push through a forest of ash, maple, oak and birch. I’m so glad I picked up a pair of Yaktrax for my sneakers. A particularly icy patch in deep shade with ghost footprints in elevated ridges forces me to look down at my feet.

I’m walking on the Ice Age Trail. Richard and I drove east from Saint Paul about five hours to meet a reader, who turned into a follower, and now is a friend. He and his wife live in West Bend, right in the heart of the glacial leftovers. Finally in person, we hit it off immediately, talking non-stop, drinking good wine, cramming into a booth at the (now famous) Omicron Diner and binge-watching “Kim’s Convenience.” We did come here to visit, but the trail’s proximity is not lost on me, and I devote a day to exploring.

The Ice Age Trail was, at least, dreamed up in 1961. The National Park Service acknowledged that the glacial features in Wisconsin were amazing, but that hundreds of miles of park would be too difficult to administer. It would take a grass roots effort to convince the feds to designate separate units and create a reserve. Leave it to a thru-hiker to convince the president in office (Carter) to sign into law that the Ice Age would become an official Scenic Trail.

The Ice Age Trail was mostly packed and easy walking except for a few icy patches and the downhills.
The Ice Age Trail was mostly packed and easy walking except for a few icy patches and the downhills.
Wisconsin has some of the finest examples of glaciation anywhere in the world including kames, eskers, kettles and interlobate moraine.
Wisconsin has some of the finest examples of glaciation anywhere in the world including kames, eskers, kettles and interlobate moraine.
Giant deciduous trees like this box elder dot the moraine on the Ice Age Trail.
Giant deciduous trees like this maple dot the moraine on the Ice Age Trail.

I get a late start after a breakfast lingered over in bathrobes. Paradise Drive is aptly named, twisting and winding up like a roller coaster through thick forest that opens up to views of lakes and ponds and leads us to a tiny lot. This area is called the “Kettle Moraine,” I name I misheard when interviewing Gina Knox for Walking Distance, her squashed Milwaukee accent making it sound more like “Meringue.”

I notice a few cars already parked as I grab my pack and head out, knowing my warm coat won’t last long on this sunny morning. I take my sticks mostly out of habit, but I know there will be hills where I’ll be glad I have “extendo-arms.” The start is mostly easy walking, taking me deep into a kettle where the traffic noise quickly disappears.

A kettle is defined as a surface depression formed by large, detached blocks of melting ice that were buried with sand and gravel. As the ice melted, the other material collapsed, leaving a crater-like depression. Some can be hundreds of feet deep but rather than walk into them, the trail follows a kind of catwalk up and around on mounds of glacial til. These are so enormous that the French called this area the Blue Mountains.

A “bi-athlete” shares the trail, both running and lifting objects.
No trespassing – no kidding! The Girl Scouts have a camp on Lake Lucas and want to ensure no one wanders in.
The trail is on sidewalk briefly through West Bend.

The route is clear even as multiple paths cross, large yellow blazes marking the way. It’s up and down and around on a crusty carpet of snow and likely better in winter with leaves down, the trees like skeletons. Silver light filters through high, wispy clouds. Faded ash leaves tinkle in the breeze.

I hear whistles and chirrups as I continue down a hill, letting out and audible “ah!” when reaching Silver Creek. Snow in long white stripes climbs up the thick trunks. The wooden bridge is sturdy and L-shaped across. I notice tiny paw prints along the handrail.

I cross a blowdown and laugh at its paltry size. Another tangle is already neatly cut. What a nightmare it was last summer in Montana. This is dead easy and a pileated woodpecker lets out a wild laugh seemingly accentuating the point. At the fenceline, leaves collect as if forced in by a blower. I luckily have a gateway to pass through.

I love this spot high above a snow-covered field. A plaque on a bench is named for a couple called Lovejoy who dedicated themselves to this trail. I set my pack down and change into another coat and stow my mitts. This morning, Sue told me how she and her sister were the oldest survivors in her family, the last to remember details from childhood. I look out and think of my brothers and all the stories, jokes and wisdom we share, the bits impossible to explain to anyone else. What is lost when someone leaves this earth? I am suddenly grateful for the Lovejoy couple who left this trail behind.

A maple leaf, faded but ready to feed the forest.
An ash leaf like a wind chime, crackling in the breeze.
Oak leaves always feel like hands to me.

I work my way down now, not too steep but enough to make wearing traction a good idea. The trail winds around Ruth Ridge County Park where the creek is dammed for anglers who are given special “urban” fishing rules. A kame is lit for sledding. A kame is a conical mound developed when a melt water cut a hole in the glacier and allowed debris to slip through and rest on slower moving water below. These are the most interesting features of retreating glaciers, tall and nearly perfectly round. No wonder this area is popular for winter sports.

I go up again, three signs leading the way. A blog about this spot mentioned all the trails heading off the main one and to beware of getting lost. I imagine I’d need to have my eyes closed to lose my way, even as I wind in all directions to slowly inch north.

A pavilion sits by the water, the picnic table chained to a tree. Two mallards eye me warily beyond icy fingers too thin to stand on. That doesn’t keep people from trying as evidenced by tracks in snow out to the end. Did they make it back? Drama ensues at the parking lot, a gal hitting her horn over and over to ensure her car is locked before she and a friend walk to the ice rink. Another couple’s dog barks non-stop and I happily pass by to round a swamp of blown-out cattails before reaching the road.

Ice Age Trail tree porn.
Ice Age Trail tree porn.
And some more.
And some more.

I come to the worst part of the trail on an un-shoveled sidewalk, cleared only by foot traffic which freezes into ruts and ridges. There’s no crosswalk at State Highway 33. I shuffle forward quickly, fairly safe with traffic slowed to 40. A truck driver gives me a wave.

The trail is signed with a set of limestone stairs heading up to a sidling section above a Culver’s. I can hear the whaa-whaa of an order being taken as I head back into a rollercoaster in thick woods. The Ice Age Trail is “continuous” only in the sense that sections are connected by many miles of road walking. The hiker can vary their walk from the suggested route, or get a ride from one segment to the next which is what I am doing.

The sun is warm, heating up an embankment to reveal dirt, moss and a few hardy plants. It’s not the crystalline blue of below 0 temperatures, rather a wide corona shining through high white wisps.

I continue marching along a thin ridge with a sea of mounds below. I’m on an esker which is formed as debris piles up on the rushing water under the glacier. As the water is trapped, it creates pools. Next, the glacier melts and allows the water to crash out and dig deep channels which fill with debris in long thin lines like snakes far above the ground below.

Two riders with fat tires pass, out of breath from the climb. Another couple asks if I come here often and then tell me this must feel toasty warm compared to the Twin Cities. We have come south and are closer to Lake Michigan, so the temperatures don’t tend to reach Arctic proportions.

The Ice Age Trail is incomplete with trail sections connected by road walks.
The Ice Age Trail is incomplete with trail sections connected by road walks.
It's hard to tell we're on the edge of a steep bit of moraine in the West Bend Segment of the Ice Age Trail.
It’s hard to tell we’re on the edge of a steep bit of moraine in the West Bend Segment of the Ice Age Trail.
Richard waits for me on the side of the road and takes me along the Kettle Moraine Scenic Drive toward the Milwaukee Rover Segment.
Richard waits for me on the side of the road and takes me along the Kettle Moraine Scenic Drive toward the Milwaukee River Segment.

I hear the road below as I pass a small stand of cedar and chattering chickadees. It’s flat now and I can see Richard parked ahead. Fortunately he only waited three minutes – or was it six? We take a turn to head up the aptly named Kettle Moraine Scenic Drive. At first, it’s mostly farm fields with humps off to the side, but soon we begin winding up and down steeply, passing a set of trails near New Fane and an entrance heading south. I hop out and immediately the trail goes steeply up.

And up and up.

This part is bigger and pitched sharply – and I love it. A huge stand of White Pine, their long branches elegantly reaching out and whistling gently in the breeze. It’s quieter here and I don’t see a soul as I head down into a kettle. Someone has placed a bench deep in the ravine in honor of a trail supporter and the view is not to a view, but rather looking up at the ridge above.

I head back up, this time into the silvery sky, the ice glittering under my feet. At the top, the view opens – oddly with no bench – and I can see more ridges in the distance. At my feet are juniper their branches flattened by snow. I wind through pines again, down and down to a parking lot where Richard meets waits, this time holding a cup of coffee. I tell him how much I love this section, so much more wild and varied. The bridge is out two miles ahead, but he assures me he can pick me up at the road, so I walk back into forest passing trunks festooned with fungus and one snow-covered I name a “Snoad Stool.”

Fingers of ice decorate small crooks on branches along the trail. It was cold enough for snow and ice, but too warm for a hat or gloves.
Fingers of ice decorate small crooks on branches along the trail. It was cold enough for snow and ice, but too warm for a hat or gloves.
Shelf fungus is spongy but still stiff enough to make a slight "plunk" when played by my fingernail.
Shelf fungus is spongy but still stiff enough to make a slight “plunk” when played by my fingernail.
Trees and fungus and creatures live together to keep this forest healthy.
Trees and fungus and creatures work together to keep this forest healthy.
Artists Conk renamed a "Snoad-stool"
Artists Conk renamed a “Snoad-stool”

The bridge is indeed in need of repair, two large cranes surround the river like brontosauri feeding their young. It’s a few minutes before 3:00 and I’m fairly certain I have enough time for one more segment called Cedar Lake. It’s only a few miles, but contains two important remains of glacial activities, ones so special they exist in only a few places in the entire world.

The trail begins through a field then again enters a forest, almost immediately as if a land mass were pressed together by a giant’s fingers, causing mounds of earth to squeeze out like play-do. A sign tells me I am in the midst of the “Polk Kames,” a cluster of cone-shaped mounds that are extremely rare, mainly because the formation requires space, so to have several in an area took ideal conditions to create.

I walk through beneath them as if in a valley of rolling earth waves. The forest is thick with gray and white birch at odd angles, plus sturdy Eastern hemlock, their bark peeling. The wind picks up as the weather begins to change. Our friend has sent a note that a storm will arrive tonight and I’m glad I chose today to hike. The trees groan and scrape. I pass a couple just standing to listen.

I leave the forest for an open field, the snow deep here and slowing my pace. I’m atop an Interlobate Moraine, where two branches of the same glacier have met and a kettle formed beneath them. A thick layer of limestone bedrock runs all the way from Door County to the north down to Lake Winnebago’s eastern shore and right through this forest before it ends up somewhere near Chicago.

The sky begins to turn pink and I can see the tops of cars whizzing on County Road NN. Richard is parked in the tiny lot and I move quickly towards him, the wind in my face cool and refreshing. So much time alone today, testing my strength, learning new things, letting my mind wander.

I remember a sign we passed in a small town on our drive out here: Pray, hope and don’t worry. Seems appropriate as I celebrate epiphany and the journey of wise men not entirely sure where the star would lead them, only knowing it was towards the light and worthy of their presence. They certainly carried hope with them along with frankincense and myrrh – hope that what they’d see would change their lives. Also packed in their camels and in hearts too was trust that all things would become clear once they reached their destination.

Walking through these woods on the remains of ancient geologic forces makes me feel small and insignificant in the course of time and yet I also feel alive and present, the crisp air contributing as well as the easy roll of leftover till.

The sun begins to set and the snow turns blue as we head back to our friends’ house and dinner at a funky restaurant in West Bend. Nothing was too hard today or overly grand, but it afforded a specialness that was needed today, something small and prayer-like.

And I got it in just right, a few hours before the storms roll in.

Walking through the magical Cedar lake segment where a kame "cluster" surrounded me.
Walking through the magical Cedar lake segment where a kame “cluster” surrounded me.
As the wind picked up, the trees began to moan and scrape including this huge hemlock.
As the wind picked up, the trees began to moan and scrape including this huge maple.
The rolling landscape of kames, kettles and eskers characterizes the Ice Age Trail and much of Wisconsin.
The rolling landscape of kames, kettles and eskers characterizes the Ice Age Trail and much of Wisconsin.
My day ends in a field with vies towards the rolling hills of the Kettle Moraine.
My day ends in a field with vies towards the rolling hills of the Kettle Moraine.
hike blog

out with the old, in with the new

You can get excited about the future. The past won’t mind.

Hillary DePiano
January "Halls of Malls"
January “Halls of Malls”

Forty years ago, my parents left me at home while they went off to church to ring in the new year. They chose to celebrate through contemplation and prayer, while I, behaving in a more quintessentially teenaged manner, invited over a modest sized pack of pals from Lake Forest High School, ones I hadn’t seen in years as I’d been away at boarding school.

Our zany connections through music, acting and sports had changed little, but now most of us were a bit taller, the boys’ voices deeper and every last one us carried fake ID’s. The evening got, shall we say, a bit rowdy. We sang, we danced, we made out, but my strongest memory still is of scrubbing the floor after an errant spill and my mother’s exasperated declaration to just go to bed and let her manage it.

My best friend Georgia wisely spent the night after a few too many, but we were up early to greet the new year, a morning that was crisp and bright. The first thing we did? Put on running shoes and jog up the road. I think 1982 may very well might have been the first time I made new year’s resolutions – to cut sugar out of my diet and move my body every day. And I stuck to it, at least the moving part, all these years.

February "Lake Elmo Snow"
February “Lake Elmo Snow”
March "Fourteener!"
March “Titanium Fourteener!”
April "Solo Backpack on the Superior Hiking Trail"
April “Solo Backpack on the Superior Hiking Trail”

The concept of making a resolution to be a better version of ourselves started like a lot of things in ancient Babylonia. Leave it to the inventors of writing, maps, the wheel and the concept of time itself to mark the beginning of the year with a party, one that curiously lasted 12 days, much like the 12 days of Christmas.

4,000 years ago, the first of the year coincided with the month of planting, March – did I mention the Babylonians also invented modern agriculture? – and was all about an attempt to curry favor with their gods, hoping that in so doing, their gods would look kindly upon the harvest.

They also reaffirmed their loyalty to their king, or crowned a new one, and promised to pay their debts and return anything they had borrowed. That last part makes me giggle. I mean devoting an entire celebration to ensuring you return a rake or a hoe – or have yours returned? Sometimes that’s what it takes.

Fast forward a few thousand years to Julius Caesar and we get a new calendar – aptly named “Julian” – which marks January 1st the beginning of the yearly cycle. January takes its name from Janus, the God with two faces, one looking forward and one looking back, often doing so on doorways and arches.

The symbolism is brilliant, as many of us ponder our past as we move forward deciding what to keep and what to dump. Certainly my bestie Georgia and I were interested in squeezing out the toxins of the previous night’s revelry and promising to make healthier choices. I know John Wesley another couple thousands years later would have approved. The founder of the Methodist Church nabbed New Year’s Eve for his followers, making it a spiritual alternative to the raucous partying during Christmas.

May "Strong as..."
May “Strong as…”
June "The CDT"
June “The CDT”
July "Air Rescue"
July “Air Rescue”

The truth is, about half of us, in the United States anyway, resolve to do better in the coming year and not even 10% of us succeed. So one might be sincere in asking, “What’s the point?” I might even count myself as one of those people.

But that’s not because I think that resolving to do better is a hopeless task in and of itself. It’s more because I believe typical resolutions become an either/or proposition, a kind of zero sum game that pits the “bad” parts of who we are with the possible “good” parts, ones attainable if only we set our minds to it.

That leaves us in a position to deny ourselves things and reach for a new version of ourselves that might be so far off from the person we’ve been, we’re simply setting ourselves for failure. Furthermore, creating a rigid itinerary for change can sometimes cause us to miss alternate routes that just might lead to something more compelling and worth striving for.

As the Blissful Hiker, I deal with change much like walking a trail and my resolutions tend to be broad in definition and thus are more achievable and stand a better chance at becoming a permanent part of me.

August "Return to the Trail"
August “Return to the Trail”
September "Teton Crest"
September “Teton Crest”
October "Cape Wrath"
October “Cape Wrath”

There is another bit to remember while making those resolutions, and that’s to reflect upon and celebrate the past year. A very wise woman once said to me, “I never tell myself ‘You made a mistake,’ rather I say ‘That was an interesting choice.”

I love that attitude! It gives us permission to approach our life story with curiosity rather than chastisement, to explore who we we were at the time we made a choice and what motivated us. To me, that’s how we grow thus invites all sorts of forgiveness so we can approach the future with a clean slate.

With that in mind, I look back at 2021 – the good, the bad and the ugly – with an open mind and heaps of gratitude. Sure, I would have preferred not to have had both hips replaced or need to be plucked off a mountainside because my heart went haywire. It would have been nice to have more clear days in Scotland and fewer unpleasant hiking companions in Montana.

But look at all the opportunities on offer this past year and also my tenacious spirit to recover and get back on trail. To be honest, I wouldn’t change a thing.

November "Clean Bill of Health"
November “Clean Bill of Health”
December "Night Walk between Christmas Eve Church Gigs"
December “Night Walk between Christmas Eve Church Gigs”

Earlier this month, my family celebrated Thanksgiving and Christmas together in one long blow-out weekend. We ate a lot of food, took long walks, shot clay pigeons (my first time!) played charades and talked non-stop.

One moment stands out to me that I want to share. My mother picked In The Bleak Mid Winter for charades and gave a whole bunch of obscure clues which none of could guess. We all had a good laugh and then she mentioned that even though she sang it for years in church, she couldn’t quite remember the melody.

There are actually two versions of Christina Rosetti’s poem, one by Gustav Holst and the other, my favorite, written in 1909 by an Englishman named Harold Darke. We located a performance on YouTube of Kings College and when we played it, she almost immediately started crying. “Hearing something this beautiful,” she told us. “Makes me feel happy to be alive.”

Yes, mom. It does me too.

Though I have made a few resolutions this time around, it’s funny, they never change from year to year. It’s still all about cutting out sugar and to exercise every day, especially when I’m not hiking.

But this time I’ll emphasize gratitude and how good it feels, no matter what happens, to be alive.

hike blog

Bear Safety with Tom Smith

When you are where wild bears live you learn to pay attention to the rhythm of the land and yourself.

Linda Jo Hunter


om Smith has co-authored practically every important paper about human/bear encounters and advocates for bear deterrent, like capsaicin, to avoid being attacked while hiking.
Dr. Tom Smith has co-authored practically every important paper about human/bear encounters and advocates for bear deterrent, like capsaicin, to avoid being attacked while hiking.

Have you hiked in bear country? Maybe that’s a silly question because pretty much every undisturbed forest in the US and Canada are host to black bear and you’ll likely come across brown bears – which include grizzly – if you’re walking in the northern Rockies and Alaska. They’re magnificent, beautiful but can be dangerous, so we need to take special care when traveling through and camping in their habitat. 

Tom Smith is a Professor of Wildlife Sciences at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. His research topics center on human-wildlife conflict. Initially, his specialty included bighorn sheep and caribou, but when he was hired to work at Katmai National Park in Southwest Alaska, he found the most common animal there was bear and his work took a radical shift. Over the last two decades, he has conducted research in Alaska, India and in bear country throughout the lower 48 states promoting bear safety and conservation. 


Tom Smith serves as a scientific advisor to Polar Bears International, Wildlife SOS-India, and the international working group for polar bear conflict resolution.
Tom Smith serves as a scientific advisor to Polar Bears International, Wildlife SOS-India, and the international working group for polar bear conflict resolution.

In collecting data on literally thousands of bear attacks, he has drawn conclusions that often go against popular beliefs about bear safety, including the efficacy (or non-efficacy) of bear bells, that bears rarely attack hikers in groups, that playing dead should only ever be a tactic of last resort and that everyone – including trail runners – should carry a bear spray, like Counter Assault Bear Deterrent.

He also discussed his studies with odors and just how much will attract bears including one case where a bit of an opened freeze-dried dinner drew no interest, but apricot-scented shampoo will have a bear pulling an unsuspecting camper out of their tent.

Most important was that he not only always carried bear spray, but that he camps with an electric fence, a Critter Gitter (which he describes as, “Fun!” and often uses flares to let bears know he’s moving in their territory. All of these are light-weight and could prove useful especially if hiking on one’s own. Important to note the bears in Glacier are totally different than bears in Alaska, like Katmai. They are more fierce. I can only say that I am glad I never ever saw one while in Montana but that’s likely because I made noise appropriately and had my bear spray at the ready!

COULD YOU SURVIVE A RUN-IN WITH A BEAR? Test your knowledge of bears with this quiz.


KÜHL convertible hiking trouser review

To walk in nature is to witness a thousand miracles

Marie Davis
Blissful gives KUHL Hörizn Convertible hiking pant the highest rating, five Anitas.
My KÜHL trousers’ stretchy, soft fabric and easy fit make them some of the most comfortable pants I’ve worn on trail.

“made in the mountains”

Just how important is finding the right trousers to wear when hiking? Well, next to finding the right footwear – both shoes and socks – about as important as it gets to ensure that you’re comfortable, will stay relatively dry and can move without restriction. And my new favorite is the KÜHL Hörizn convertible for its durable, yet soft and flexible fit.

KÜHL’s tagline is “born in the mountains,” and that’s quite literally so. Founded by three skiers and a climber (living legend Conrad Anker) KÜHL is an independent brand of clothing that reflects the harsh and changeable conditions of an alpine environment as well the demands of the people who play there. And I kinda like the fact that they’re indie, without shareholders or venture capitalists breathing down their neck. They answer to no one but themselves – and, of course, us.

And so it’s no wonder that the hiking trousers feel as if designed by people like me who live for adventure and also specifically with my type of hiking in mind – hard, fast, unforgiving with day after day in the same cloths. My walking demands a product that’s not going to unravel at the seams or easily tear when I plop myself down on a rock outcropping for the thousandth time.

construction counts

This starts with the choice of materials. KÜHL uses a fabric called “Reflex” which is made of 56% stretch polyester and 44% “new” polyester. What’s so new about this polyester, you might ask? For one thing, it’s a type of synthetic used in performance wear that allows for moisture management like wicking, color and other properties to be added to it but in a far more eco-friendly manner. Reflex is also Bluesign Certified, which means it meets a high standard of manufacturing that requires companies to replace harmful substances with safer alternatives.

But perhaps the most important point about Reflex is its GSM, or grams per square meter, number. At 164 it’s on par with chambray, a high density but lightweight fabric – you know, the stuff they make those ultra-comfy button down shirts out of. This translates to a heavy-duty fabric that can manage the punishment meted out on miles-upon-miles of blowdowns, cacti, and rock scrambles while never feeling heavy or scratchy against your skin.

Rugged they are, but also stretchy in all directions, which is useful since most blissful hikers are known to move in all directions. KÜHL sews the seams with 100% nylon thread. And why should this matter? This is the same thread used on climbing harnesses, and you won’t see a fraying or unravelling harness pretty much ever. To hold together the seams with that nylon thread, they use a saddle stitch. I learned this technique way back in Junior High Sewing Class, a more time-consuming way to piece heavy materials in the strongest and most secure manner. The point is to keep things together even if one portion of the stitch is cut. Talk about attention to detail!

In addition, this magic fabric offers the highest amount of sun protection at 50+ UPF.

The Hörizn hiking trouser converts into shorts by unzipping a stylish and “stealth” zipper.

stylish fit

So now we know that the materials are tough and put together in the best way possible to ensure they hold up on long backpack trips. But what about fit and how I look out there humping a backpack ? KÜHL knows that pants that might look good on a static model aren’t going to cut it in the field. This is why they add an extra panel or gusset at the back of the knee to allow the trouser to articulate with your every move.

I am not a belt person, so will never make use of the belt loops and it seems KÜHL is fully aware of this, providing an internal waist drawcord for a perfect fit. The pant actually tips slightly, higher in back and lower in front with a cupped fit over the hips while relaxed through the thigh. Although I’d never call the Hörizn “low rise,” the trousers tend to fit too close to the hips for me. I’d prefer a higher fit all the way around my waist rather than at my hips as there’s a tendency for the pants to droop slightly when I squat down or lean over. That being said, the fit is loose while still flattering, not an easy task.

The sizing feels true, so if you’re one of those people drawn into the race-to-the-bottom of making a size 6 into a size 2, prepare yourself for a shock. But this might very well be the only hiking pant on the market that offers three, count em THREE, lengths – 30, 32, and 34. LONG LEGGED HIKERS UNITE! You will no longer need to look like you’re waiting for a flood. I am a bit in-between tall and not-quite-as-tall-as-I’d-like-to-be, so it helps that KÜHL adds a bottom hem cinch to gather the pant over my trail runners.

I am an obsessive pocket-user when I hike and I know designers struggle to give me all I need and not make me look like I’m wearing clown pants. What I’d like to know is why men are so cute in cargo pants and us chicks end up looking like beached whales? While the Hörizn has two pockets in front and two in back, I don’t trust open pockets much while backpacking except to hold the odd wrapper or maybe my lip balm. I normally like my iPhone within easy reach for photos. But while the thigh zip pocket fits my phone well, it’s too short for me to zip it closed, so not all that helpful on river crossings or other exposed areas where I’ll need to keep my phone safe in my backpack’s waist belt. The zippers are high quality and hidden within a stealth seam, again with superb attention to detail and style.

Over the years, I’ve begun to dress more like an Arab in the desert rather than a hot young thing thru-hiker in short shorts. I still have good legs worth showing off, but I’ve learned from my dermatologist it’s unwise to expose them to the sun for hours on end, day after day because, as it turns out, the most common area for melanoma to occur in women is on the legs. That being said, it’s nice to have the option of a zipoff on trail for certain occasions.

I loved wearing my KÜHL hiking pants in Scotland because they moved with me on rough ground.

so, how did it go?

I wore the KÜHL Hörizn Convertible hiking trouser for a solid month in Scotland and I have to say I love them. While most of the time they stayed hidden under rain gear, they did their job, breathing when I got hot and sweaty, keeping me warm when the rain really came down and moving with me as I “bog trotted” on rough, uneven ground up and down trackless moorland. Yet somehow I managed to look reasonably attractive at the bothies and when we ventured into pubs for a wee dram. I am hooked and that’s why I give these trousers five Anitas!

Specs at a glance

  • Material: Bluesign certified sustainable “Reflex” fabric
    55% stretch/44% regular ripstop polyester/100% nylon thread
  • Sizes: 0 – 16; 30, 32 & 34 inseam
  • Color: Khaki
  • Fit: mid-rise, relaxed leg with internal drawcord, articulated legs
  • Sun protection: UPF 50+
  • Modifiable: bottom hem cinch cord
  • Convertible: stealth zips
  • Storage: four open pockets/two zippered thigh pockets


alison young was given these pants for testing by KÜHL

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hike blog


Luck…plus a whole lotta pluck: a thru hike of the Pacific Crest Trail

click here to watch

Your regrets aren’t what you did, but what you didn’t do. So I take every opportunity.

Cameron Diaz
Stunning Glacier Peak Wilderness in the North Cascades. I’m smiling because I just safely crossed an exposed snow field.

Two years ago, I lost my job at MPR and so made a last-minute decision to walk the entire Pacific Crest Trail from North to South. Trail Angels, decent weather and practically zero natural hazards (like wildfire) as well as just the right amount of solitude and togetherness made for one of the most thrilling and doable thru-hikes.

You can join in via Zoom this Tuesday, November 16th, 7:00 PM for stunning scenery, lots of stories and some clever hacks and ideas for your next hike, both long and short. Thanks to the Minnesota Rovers Outdoors Club for hosting. (the presentation follows the weekly meeting)

guest post

GUEST POST: Hiking in Slovenia by Tadej Kožar

Just shy of 10,000 feet, Mount Triglav is the highest peak in the Julian Alps and the highest in Slovenia. Classical composer Mussorgsky’s telling of supernatural happenings Night on Bald Mountain takes places on this very peak.

As the world makes another trip around the sun and I move more into my late-50’s, (is that considered middle aged anymore, I wonder?) I’ve become obsessed with the sheer number of trails available to hike and the limited time I have to check them all off my list. It’s always a delight to hear from avid walkers living in far-flung countries who want to share their passion. Tadej Kožar is one of them. Founder of CampingValley.com he asked if I might share his favorite hike with you as well as his passion for going to places where our hearts and souls feel at home.

Hiking to Veliki Spiček by Tadej Kožar

Have you ever been to Slovenia? Do you love to hike? If you like to hike and would love to visit European trails, I invite you to come to my country that has lots of beautiful trails for hiking.

Slovenia is very diverse. It has a sea, mountains, and valleys that are worth seeing. Slovenia belongs among the greenest countries in Europe. You can opt among 10,000 marked hiking trails all across the country. Most Slovenians and tourists like to visit the Gorenjska region which has magnificent mountains, with our highest mountain, Triglav at 2864 meters.

In addition to so many trails for an active vacation, you will also have a chance to spend the night and eat in one of many mountain huts to recuperate after a long walk. The trails that are the most famous are Via Bela Krajina, Zasavje Long-Distance Trail, Koroška Mountain Trail, Soča Trail, Pohorje Hills, Logar Valley, The Loka Mountain Trail.

To give you a taste of my life as a hiker, I’ll share a story of the trail that leads to the Špiček. It is a daily hike so you won’t need to have a tent no matter if you go alone, with a friend or in a group. My girlfriend and I hike regularly on Veliki Špiček since it is close to our home. It is the highest hill in the Brežice municipality at 686 meters. There are a few paths to reach it, and we opt to start at the the Pišece castle next to the lake.

The castle was firstly mentioned in the 14th century but we assume that it existed in the 13th century when the knights of Pišece lived. There is a beautiful English park with a 50 meters high sequoia and a lake that gives the place an aristocratic feel. The castle is not open to the public but I still advise you to look at its magnificence from the outside. We proceeded to the forest path that will lead us to our destination.

The castle at Pišece was built by the Archbishop of Salzburg.

Hiking gear

This is the gear that we usually use when hiking on Špiček.

Hiking shoes or sports footwear

You will start to walk on a rocky path that is meant for hikers and lumberjacks. The most appropriate footwear is a hiking shoe that is durable enough to handle those sharp rocks. However, if you will hike in ordinary sport’s shoes it will be fine as well.

Backpack for storage

We took a backpack with us. It is recommendable to have since you can store a water bottle, food, wipes, first aid kit, and bug repellent inside.

Oh, and the flies! You will not be alone at the start. If you will hike in the warm weather there will be annoying flies that will try to break your nerves.

Sunglasses and a bug repellent

Sunglasses are perfect to stop those flies from getting into your eyes. They are persistent, believe me, so put sunglasses on or a natural bug-repellent on your face. Don’t spray the face, just put some repellent on your hands and spread it on your cheeks, forehead, chin, and nose careful to avoid the eyes.

Hiking poles

Vanja also uses hiking poles that help her to overcome the hill due to occasional knee pain from broken bone after a bike accident.

A daypack, good walking shoes and a good attitude will take you up the rocky trail to the Špiček in Slovenia.

The path of pine cones, flowers and greenery

We hike on the demanding path that is far more beautiful than the ordinary path that most hikers choose. The more you ascend, the more rocks there will be on the trail. So you must be careful where you place your feet.

I recommend that you go at your own speed, that you breathe normally, and lift your legs high enough so you won’t get injured. The most important thing to remember is to walk as you can no matter if your partner or a friend is ahead of you.

Hiking poles are of great help here since you will be like a goat with four legs. The regular use of the poles will strengthen up your arms and the upper body.

If you will hike in the spring and summer months you will see cyclamen and saffron. Pines are more at the top of the hill where you will see pine cones all over the trail. Vanja likes to pick them as she likes to decorate them for Christmas.

We had a special assignment yesterday as I lost my sunglasses when we were picking cones in a bag. Our goal was to find them and we were lucky that no one found them before us. I must say that some people even pick lost items and put them in a visible place so you can find them easier. This is a kind gesture!

We have our own log where we sit a little bit, drink some water, and talk. The top hill is near, you will need about 15-20 minutes to reach it.

A few up’s and down’s and you will be on the crossing where the two paths join. You will see a sign that tells you how much time you will spend to accomplish the summit. At that point, it’s only about 3 minutes to reach your goal.

On the top, you will see a little house with a bell and a book where you can sign. There is a signpost of different cities as Brussels, München, Slovenian places and kilometers to reach them.

We signed in the book and sit on the bench to eat our meal and drink some water.

The signpost at the summit.

The end of our daily trip

We were happy that we hiked our trail successfully and that we found my sunglasses. The hike on the Špiček is not so demanding. All you have to have is a good pair of shoes, sporty clothes, some food and water (food is not necessary) and the right attitude to reach the top.

I hope you enjoyed my story and wish for you to come to experience the hill by yourself!

Cape Wrath

CWT: in review

Giving up is the only sure way to fail. 

Gena Showalter
A gale on my first "Corbett" in a Scotland, Meall a' Bhuachaille (mee-OWL uh VOO-cuh-luh), one of 221 summits between 2,500 and 3,000 feet.
A gale on my first “Corbett” in a Scotland, Meall a’ Bhuachaille (mee-OWL uh VOO-cuh-luh), one of 221 summits between 2,500 and 3,000 feet.

When Bill Bryson wrote his landmark book A Walk in the Woods chronicling his (mis)adventures on the Appalachian Trail, he summarized events by saying, “We walked it,” even though they completed about 1/3 of the actual mileage. His reasoning was they indeed walked and experienced the route in all the harsh weather it could dole out, with big climbs to summits that offered zero views, and with oftentimes quirky people. After 700 miles, it was enough and they moved on to other things.

In our case, the weather was so horrendous, we simply couldn’t keep moving forward in the usual way. Part of that was where we ended up when the heaviest rain hit with two possibly dangerous river crossings ahead in boggy, trackless country. Waiting it out was not an option because there was nowhere to stay but in the tent which was saggy under bent poles and the “escape route” was out a long, single-track road to a highway far from any town.

I was lucky that my partner drove his car to Fort William and once we hitched out, we could take a bus to retrieve it. That afforded us a peak-bagging day of the UK’s highest Munro, Ben Nevis, 4,413 feet above the loch we started from. It added a thrilling twist to the planned walk of climbing into cloud, rain, sleet and finally snow flying directly into our faces all while knowing a hot shower and warm meal awaited us below.

It’s easy to look back now and see how our choices worked out, but at the time, we debated every choice available from my flying home and returning at a more opportune moment, to trading the Lake District for this soggy nightmare, to visiting friends and calling ourselves “tourists” instead of walkers.

But somehow, we persisted.

A deceptive photo at the bealach (pass) near Carn a Bhteabadair that shows clearing skies, when all they were doing was getting worse.
A deceptive photo at the bealach (pass) near Carn a’Bhreabadair that shows clearing skies, when all they were doing was getting worse.
Sea Stack shimmy at Duncansby Head in the Caithness on the far north eastern side of Scotland. (I am trying to stand upright in a gale)
Goofing around on the unfinished Napoleonic-era monument or “Edinburgh’s Folly” on Calton Hill.

Having the car gave us the luxury – and safety – to pick and choose which parts we’d hike, but it added an awkward element of only being able to walk out-and-backs since there were not really any circular routes per se or anyone we knew well enough to pick us up at the other side.

Oddly enough, heading out to a bothy for the night gave us this wonderful taste of how walking is done in Scotland. The Mountain Bothies Association partners with estates to fix up cottages in remote locations, making sleeping out a far more enjoyable experience. Each one was unique in various stages of repair, comfort and location. Twice, we stayed two nights and explored and because of the wretched weather, we had them mostly to ourselves adding a special magic dust to the adventure.

In the end, we walked around 170 miles or so, missing our target of 230. Still, that’s an achievement considering the trip was on the precipice of being axed entirely. It also had the benefit of forcing creative thinking to choose the best spots to walk, and a willingness to let go when the going got so tough, it made no sense to keep plowing forward. It’s unlike me to quit, but calculated misery afforded challenge rather than a death-march, and plenty of stories to share – as well as experience gained.

Callum at the Whisky Castle in Tomintoul, part of The Glenlivet estate, explaining the use of caramel in distillery bottling to create consistent coloring. I chose to purchase two small-batch locally made specialty whiskies (second and fifth from left) after our spectacular private tasting.
“Easy as” on the recently repaired Whaligoe Steps built by herring fisherman to easily access the cove below 250 foot cliffs.
The best “full Scottish breakfast” in Kinlochbervie of all homemade treats ready to raise my cholesterol through the roof.

I know many of you are less interested in the gear I used as opposed to the views seen and puzzles I solved, so feel free to skip these next graphs if you like. Suffice-to-say, I made good choices in taking real rain gear which I wore every day plus a baseball cap which kept the sometime-brilliant sun out of my eyes and the nearly constant rain off my face (the raincoat visor is a joke)

The Granite Gear pack is one of the best I’ve ever used with 60 liters of space plus a “brain” for quick access. I normally only need 50 liters of space, but I carried the three-man Big Agnes tent each time we went out as a backup (Ted carried the poles) plus more clothing. The tent was large and comfortable for both our person and gear, but it proved far too flimsy for the big Scottish gusts. Besides, we bent the poles on day one. This resulted in the tarp touching the inner layer, creating small puddles and subsequently dripping on my head. In the future, I’ll pick up a low-profile double-skinned tent made for these conditions.

About clothes – layers is always the way to go, and, in these types of conditions, clothing to change into from hiking gear was an essential luxury. My rain gear kept me dry, but I was sweaty and feeling scratchy. Putting on fresh socks, tights and a wool top was better than any therapy session. Speaking of socks, my plan to wear a thin compression liner plus the Balega running socks kept any foot problem at bay. We had a little game to see just how long we could keep our feet dry – an hour? – before plunging into a burn or bog. I was wet all day, but never suffered a blister.

At the last minute, I put my clothes, sleeping bag and electronics inside water poof bags and inside a trash bag. It seemed like overkill, but the sheer amount of moisture was beyond comprehension. Even then, my sleeping bag had a kind of heavy dampness, but not so much I didn’t stay warm in the bothies. If you expect rain, go the extra mile. Ted used heavy-duty Sea-to-Summit water proof bags designed for boating, and that might have been a smarter choice than my ultra-light compression sacks.

He also packed his Jetboil. Lately, I’ve moved to the dark side and cold soak all my backpack meals, but on a cold and wet journey, a cup of tea and a hot meal can make all the difference to your mood. Besides, I needed the stove for my mussel feast at Glencoul.

One last note on the specifics of walking in this type of trackless, boggy and steep country – bring trekking poles. I’m always amazed when people on hiker blogs discuss the merits of walking with or without sticks. My first question is, “Have you ever hiked without a manicured trail?” Poles make the walker like a four-legged creature, helping them move with ease and power, while putting less stress not just on their knees, but on all the stabilizing muscles in their legs. They also act as a guide through lumpy ground where trap-door like holes hide beneath benign-looking mossy mounds or rocks lie in wait to trip you in dramatic fashion. This became obvious on a windy walk to sea stacks near John O’Groats in northeast Scotland where each step felt slightly risky and my arms were out as if wings to keep me balanced. A worthwhile investment!

The final day on the Cape Wrath Trail was lush with golden larch and birch, but dangerously windy with spitting sleet.
My church.
A bear encounter with the bronze statue of Wojtek and his Polish handler in Edinburgh.

Being able to squeeze in the Cape in between raindrops was our most valued moment. It was hard, lonely and spectacular heading out there and turned our to be the most satisfying likely because it marked the end of the walk. Strangely enough, when we returned – a feat in itself as the weather increased n ferocity – we were unable to hike anymore.

Our plan was to take in one last bothy and use the remaining days to hike as many of the missed miles as possible. But we were turned back on our way to Shenavall Bothy on Loch na Sealga when the wind built to gale-force and the sleet started spitting in our faces. It didn’t help that the dead-easy track turned to a muddy hellscape and my phone began to fail, making navigating tricky in the high exposed place as the mist came right down.

We descended grouchy and disappointed, quiet as we licked our wounds until I suggested we simply get out of here. My thought was any more time spent trying to get miles was just going to make us more depressed and despondent, and besides it was starting to look pretty “samey.”

Ted had said at one point that even though he’s British, he’s never seen the most Northerly parts of Scotland. It would be a long drive, but we agreed to kiss the Western Highlands goodbye and drive east to Scrabster, John O’Groats, Thrumpster and Wick with their wide open rolling moorland set upon high cliffs above the roiling North Sea. We became tourists, visiting another Robert Stevenson lighthouse (the spitting image of Cape Wrath which we could drive to) walking out to massive sea stacks and down ancient steps to a fisherman’s cove.

We then headed to Aviemore in the Cairngorms waving to the Queen at Balmoral, lounging in the quirky Fife Arms, and climbing a “Corbett” (again in gale though without rain) a Scottish mountain between 2,500 and 3,000 feet. There was even time to have a private tasting at the Whisky Castle in Tomintoul and drive the highest road in Scotland to Edinburgh where the walk ended with a couple of hills on cobble stones.

Did I walk every last step of the CWT? No, I did not. But I kept going and found a creative way to catch its highlights, oftentimes in absolutely horrible weather that even the locals found surprising. Because my partner fetched his car, we had a fuller experience than most, and lapped up all the country could offer. I learned about disappointment, and coming to terms with the fact that things don’t always work out as you planned, that you often have to improvise and that holding too tightly to a given itinerary will, in the end, frustrate and keep you from enjoying what is possible.

As a “peak bagging” kind of gal, it certainly isn’t easy to let go of a goal, but oddly this walk opened up new avenues in my perception of what success looks like and for that, I am tremendously grateful.

Cape Wrath

CWT: Blairmore to Cape Wrath, 24 miles

Walking along the stunning beach at Sandwood Bay. The end of the country (and trail) is near.

It’s haddock again with a poached egg for breakfast. This time, an entire fish and I can’t eat it all. I nick two croissants, decadently buttery, and wrap them in napkins to eat somewhere along the trail.

I’m nervous about this stage. We cross several rivers, including two said to be dangerous in spate. Everything is in spate right now with all this rain, although the last two days have been gloriously dry.

We’re told much of this one will be too and we pack for extra nights, intending a bothy stay near Sand Bay. It’s a bit off trail, but said to be an interesting place once home to a hermit nicknamed Sandy.

We drive to the car park, amazed by all the houses tucked into this lonely place so far north. They look well cared for with decent cars parked in front. Sheep dot the landscape, both black and white. We leave the car near a yard with an entire pack of border collies.

It’s windy and gray and I put on an extra layer plus my raincoat, which I promptly remove as we begin to walk. It’s only four miles to the bay, an easy walk on track in an area maintained by the John Muir Trust.

The trail to Sandwood Bay is easy and popular with many people camping in the dunes.
The day begins clear and still on easy track.
Friendly campers.

Large, fancifully shaped mountains appear with cottony clouds attached as we pass lochans. This is the time to see just how long we can keep our feet dry before we have to step into a burn of bog.

The sun is silvery through cloud and I think about the wind and how the BBC weather service designated its speed. Yesterday was a ‘gentle breeze,’ whereas the day before was ‘moderate.’ Today it’s a ‘fresh breeze’ and I soon realize fresh is actually more powerful than moderate. I don’t know what’s after that, gale I think.

The place is lonely and quiet, but that’s not its history. Many people lived here, a dead giveaway the skeleton of a stone building, but they were forcible removed to make way for sheep.

We see two people coming towards us with packs and swinging arms. They’ve camped at the bay and are headed back before it rains. We can see ahead where the cliffs open to the bay, making it here in record time.

This may be a home to sheep, but it’s also protected for scientific interest. Its extensive dunes and machair make it one of the most species rich and least disturbed places in Scotland. The name ‘Sandwood’ Bay comes from the Norse Sanvatn describing the quality of a nearby loch.

High mountains above lochs with the sun desperately peaking out is a Scottish cliché.
Above Sandwood Bay with our beacon, Am Buachaille seastack, in the background.
The first river was a snap especially after all the fear mongering.

We don’t see much life at this time of year, but marvel at the deep sand and grasses we need to pass through, digging in deep with each step before we reach the beach itself.

Am Buachaille rises straight and proud, one of the most iconic sea stacks. The rocks here are pretty special, part of the Riconich Terrane, ancient gneiss squeezed into colorful layers. These are obvious underfoot at our first river crossing on palm-sized stones smoothed by the water’s relentless tumbling.

I’m taken with the reflection of the sky, gray and silver, in pools on the sand, as well as the light turquoise as waves curl up in the dim light. We snap pictures and I collect a few shells including a massive limpet. Without discussing it too much, we decide it’s far too early to stop and better to head all the way to the Cape.

We have the time, but we’re warned the eight miles is a slog across utterly trackless peaty moorland, remote and tough-going with the North Atlantic throwing all it’s got at you. None-the-less, we’re surprised not to find any hint of herd trail, and the ones we do find take us off in the wrong direction.

Our first challenge os straight up a hill, stepping up strongly with the help of walking sticks on tussocky and mossy lumps. The view is outstanding and we see one hill after another leading to the cape.

What comes up must go straight down, every step carefully negotiated through mud and squishy fluorescent green moss. Our shoes are totally wet from the first river, so neither of us cares anymore where we step. The rain returns a misty drizzle. The ocean is lapis under brooding skies.

Stunning, but slippery, rocks at the ford as Sandwood Loch drained into the sea.
Entering the MOD firing range. They made no provision for crossing the fence.
Ted and Alberto from Glencoul bothy.

We charge on looking vainly for any hint of trail, moving confidently to the first river. I’m nervous, telling myself we can always turn back or walk to the bothy if need be.

Ted spots a loud waterfall and the knot grows in my stomach. Just because we get through doesn’t mean we can get back. Much of Am Lochan à Gheodha Buaidh tumbles over rock loudly like that waterfall. I push upstream and find rocks in line that might work. But when Ted tests one with his pole, it’s slippery with gooey algae.

I move further upstream to find a braid with a sandy bottom. Perfect! I can even step from one island to the next without submerging too deeply. Ted just splashes straight across and I realize that even with one more foot of water, this should be an easy cross back.

It seems we’re spot on the route, but heading upstream throws off our bearings and we contour Cnoc à Gheodha Rhuaidh too low and slightly west rather than north. A compass bearing doesn’t help and we end up having to create a sharp-edge to find the tiny opening between two lochans.

I panic a bit as we leap from tussocky island to another around deep bogs, wondering if we’ll get out of here safely. It’s not easy walking at all, but rather movements that twist, stretch and pull your legs, requiring balance and strength to keep moving, kind of like deep sand in a steep incline.

And it is steep here as I try to pull us closer to our route steeply up a lonely and desolate hill filled with deep, peaty pools. At the top, I look down towards a ravine where I know our second river lies. I take a bearing on a gash in the mountain ahead and start walking overland towards it.

Vast, lonely, dour and desolate.
Constantly wet feet.
Strong walking on trackless moorland.

At no time does it feel easy, but I’m scared of how long this is taking us. Ted says if we want to turn back, now’s the time. I’m certain of the direction and determined to get over the next river, so plow through, oftentimes finding one bit of grass above eroded bog to cross.

It takes us to a fence. We’re entering the MOD (Ministry of Defense) live firing range. Good thing we checked first that no one is shooting today. A white card is in place, but a red one would mean most definitely turn back.

It’s an awkward climb over barbed wire. Someone helpfully affixed thick wire as a hand hold and some posts to climb on, bit we still need to take off our packs and hurl them over before we carefully climb over. Isn’t this a well-used trail? Seems odd to be without a stile.

But that’s only the beginning of our challenges. The Kesgaig river is deep in that ravine, with access itself a challenge. The water tumbles and boils over rocks and I can’t imagine trying to keep my balance while crossing.

So again, I walk up the river and sure enough find a way over at a flatter spot where I step on big shifty stones. Can I get back here if it rains and rises? Sure. I do look back at the spot and make a mental note of the number of signs on the fence so I can find my cross if the weather gets ugly.

Clag and deer in the distance.
For a while, the coast completely disappeared..

Up we go again, steeply on lumpy ground. We’re breathing heavy heading towards Sithean na h-loloireich, a pointy hat of a peak that we contour around. Somehow I take us slightly too far east and we end up having to negotiate three deep gashes in the mountain, dropping in and crossing small streams then crawling out again.

We get to the top of a hill and can see our final hill in the distance and a road! This is right before a cloud of rain comes for us, thankfully at our backs, spitting and blowing.

We drop fast, back into holes, this time all created by ordinance. It’s wet and miserable and our view completely disappears, an odd and fitting end to this wild trail. I’m feeling strong and not at all cold, but it’s bleak here and I’m not sure how much more I have in me.

Just then, we see a figure coming our way. It’s Alberto from Glencoul! He greets us with a smile, telling us he camped at Sandwood Bay last night and will again tonight. Tough guy handling this both ways in a day.

He cheers the mood as we contour another massive ravine, Ted certain he’s found a footpath, only to have each one disappear under out feet.

It’s more of this wet, lumpy exhausting business beautiful in its own drear way before we hop up a hill and hit road. Ted sets out to build a cairn as the sky clears and the sun pops out.

The sky suddenly cleared and the sun came out lifting our spirits and burning our faces.
Cape Wrath from the signaling house.
The light was unbelievable when we arrived.

The massive landscape is beautiful in sunlight, bright and more varied in color. We move quickly around, looking back to islands and steep cliffs, the sun hot. We’re high on steep cliffs, this spot nearly inaccessible to the ocean. Two cargo ships move slowly past.

When the light comes into view, I holler. The northwestern-most point in the UK, no land between here and home. The light is lovely, recently painted white and sandalwood.

We learn it was built in 1828 by Robert Stevenson, part of a dynasty of lighthouse builders and Robert Louis Stevenson’s grandfather. It’s thought coming to this wildly lonely place inspired Treasure Island.

The place is strategic and goes back to the Norse who called it Am Parbh or the turning point where they’d head east toward home. Wrath is a more appropriate name even in this sunshine, knowing there’s little that separates the elements from my helpless self.

The area is in a state of refurbishing with one lone building the only one that appears habitable. It’s ‘The Ozone,’ a cafe and our home for the night. Ted called last night to see if it was open, but the place appears empty, even with an ‘open 24 hours’ sign.

We look around and take pictures, but we’re cold and decide to claim bunks and change out of our wet socks. The dorm is accessed through a machine shop filled with stacked wood, but is lovely inside, clean and bright with crisp white sheets.

At the Ozone. No one showed up, but they kindly left it open for us.
Filtered water from a peat bog, ready to drink.
The night was spooky as the mist came down and the wind rattled and moaned.

We set up and still no one comes, Ted nervous we have no water. We take a walk to the signal house above, also a work in progress all boarded up with warning signs that walls might collapse. I find a stream running and we collect water, root beer colored from the peat.

We make dinner in the cafe, finishing just as it goes dark and the lighthouse begins its nightly routine. Still no one here when the mist closes in and the wind picks up, moaning and whistling.

Will John the owner show up late or will we be all alone in this lonely place? Who knows. I only hope the mist is just a sprinkle and squeezes everything out of the sky before tomorrow and our return.

The moaning of the wind stops sometime in the middle of the night with brilliant pink lighting the sky. The air is warm, still, humid. I see squalls far out at sea. Deer run in herds above the shattered countryside.

There’s no way out of here in off-season. The ferry at the end of the road would normally take a walked to Durness, but all that’s stopped now, so the only way out is walking back the way we came.

It’s so nice to walk on road, our stomachs full and we can see the sea stack from here and even a bit of beach. Wouldn’t it be lovely just to march there on this track?

But no; a sharp turn into utter clag begins at the rock cairn and off we go, faster now seeing where we need to contour. That doesn’t remove the challenge of foot placement, the ankle always turning on shifting ground of moss mounds and general squishiness. I fall down deep into a hole opening like a trap door, then sink both legs to the upper thigh in muck.

Ted in the bunk house. No light or heat, but it was comfortable and safe from the howling misery outside.
Looking back at the seastack and wishing this road could take us there.
During an SVT episode I was absolutely leaden.

The rain comes in spurts but the wind is less. Ted tells me after ‘fresh breeze’ comes ‘strong.’ It’s more like a refreshing fan now and we’re cruising through this challenging bit, often splitting off as we choose a route.

The view opens to ocean and a massive gash as we head steeply up. I live for the ups and fly through the maze, my walking sticks like arm extensions feeling and feeding me forward.

But just then I get that gassy feeling in my chest, the sign my SVT is coming on. Not now! It immediately sets my heart beating wildly. My breathe seems fine, long ins and out yet slightly gaspy. And I feel leaden, dizzy.

And yet, she persists. I walk slowly inch by inch until Ted suggests stopping before the wind gets wild at the top. I take s beta blocker sitting in a rock, then inch some more.

SVT is awful. I’m weak, fainty and can’t breath. But it’s not fatal (unless I faint and fall off a cliff) So this determined girl muscles on and crests the summit, knowing downhill will at least keep me from heavy breathing.

And the beta blocker works as we wobble our way from one tussocky bit to the next, ‘spot on’ back to the third sign along the barbed wire fence, across the burn, across the fence, then up more, down, up, across.

It rained all day on and off, but we were strong.
The SVT (Supraventricular Tachycardia) a distant memory and leading towards the second river crossing.
The sea had an unearthly beauty even in cloud.

It’s our hardest two days especially with all the rain, but by far the best because we’re both strong and evenly matched. A middle aged woman with new hips and a pensioner ultra-marathoner unafraid of this wild terrain, and maybe motivated because it’s so wild and unknown.

We finally reach the beach and find the slippery stones as the loch pours into the sea the hardest – well, next to the deep sand up a steep hill.

Loads of people have arrived as we walk out, surprised it feels so far. We march at full speed and I tease Ted that his son is concerned he won’t be fit enough for their next race a few days after I leave.

Just as we pass the last lochan before the houses come into view, the rain really starts to pour, no longer a passing shower but ‘settling in.’ And look what we did heading all the way out and back, pushing hard and returning in the nick of time.

We both feel, as they say in these parts, chuffed.

Nice gneiss.
River stones.
Metamorphic beauty.
Cape Wrath

CWT: Kylestrome to Glencoul, 20 miles

Rounding the head and seeing Glencoul bothy below.

The day begins again with poached haddock and egg for breakfast, plus clear skies with a long pink streak signaling the sun rising somewhere beyond the crags. The birds in my beautiful oak of the orange and yellow leaves are singing happily.

It’s a stunning drive past massive mountains. Scotland was created by ancient volcanos and the separating of land masses. One behemoth reaches straight up like a hat, 90-degree angles on all sides. My favorite light appears, yellow with black in the distance.

We pass the ruins of a castle at the head of the loch, forlornly looking out to sea. The road is wild and curvy, the day (finally) spectacular. A bridge signals our turn, but we never seem to locate a town. Ted leaves his car where as far away from the ‘no overnight parking’ sign as possible.

It seems we’ve entered an estate of some sort. The gate is equipped with cameras, but open for walkers. We walk on tarmac at first, past large homes and rows of Land Rovers and Mercedes. Soon it’s a track and I need to put on my sunglasses, all done with much fanfare since it’s the first time they’ve been worn.

It’s easy walking, barely a puddle to navigate. This fjord or ‘arm-of-the-sea’ is called Glenhue. In it are long lines of black buoys holding up a kind of below surface lattice work for mussel farming. A boat is nearby at work and I think back to my first night in Scotland when I ate an entire pot of mussels and washed it down with whisky.

One of only a handful of clear days along Loch Glenhue.
The sunglasses came out for the first time.
A stalker dressed in traditional tweed and tie along the track, the mussel farm beyond.

The track is not flat along the loch, but rolling up and down, waterfalls crashing down and racing to empty out at the seaweed-covered rocky shoreline. We plod along, passing a stalker dressed to the hilt and tending horses. A posh estate, and one we hope will keep its clients in luxury at the main house and not at the bothies.

There are two ahead – one along this track, and one reputed to be ‘hard underfoot’ getting there with indistinct track on a messy climb. I’m more worried the bothies will be off-limits in the middle of stalking season which runs until October 20.

Ted is sanguine on the subject, though insists we carry the tent in case we’re benighted with no place to stay. But where would one camp in all this damp?

Last night as we studied our route, he stumbled upon a blog which complained about a washed out footbridge. That caused a bit of panic until I assured him we would not cross anything dangerous and leave plenty of time to turn back if need be.

For now, we’re walking on superbly maintained track, a rock wall carefully constructed for safety as we seem to hang against the mountainside. I figure with this level of care, any washed out bridge has surely been replaced.

We make good time walking on the soft grass between ruts, rounding a bend and seeing a beautifully placed set of buildings underneath rocky mountainside. I squint but can’t see any bridge over the swollen river feeding the loch. One step at a time and ‘cross that bridge when I get there,’ I tell myself with a laugh.

The superb track to Glenhue bothy and other estate buildings.
Horses at Glenhue. This house must be used by the estate as it was locked.
We were glad to see a bridge Amhainn a Ghlinne Dhubh.

The bothy is unlocked and carries the circular Mountain Bothy Association sign on the front door. We pop in and check out the two main rooms below, one with a fireplace and two above, just wooden floors with large skylights.

It’s so early in the day – and such a fine one – we decide to eat a few bar then press on towards the more remote bothy. It’s funny how comfortable one can get with the weather. Clear, dry and warm until suddenly it’s not.

Like a joke, a massive cloud builds, swirling in a fuzziness directly where we’re headed. I drop my pack and get out the waterproofs. Clear skies are evidently not meant for the entire day.

And we still have the bridge to locate. Well, this bothy is here, it’s open and there’s plenty of space should we turn around, so we head on all suited up now towards the burn. And there it is! Not only a superbly built bridge, but one reinforced with steel.

This one’s not going anywhere.

So even if it rains all night, we’ll have a path back. Funny though, the trail almost immediately disappears as we leave the bridge. It become a boggy, rocky, bracken-choked mess, with the actual ‘way’ anyone’s guess.

I mean, we were warned. But will it be this messy all the way up and over that head?

After the bridge, the trail disappeared and became wet and rocky.
The view back to the bothy from the boulder field.
In the trees, the trail was awash in mini waterfalls.

We find an trail – what Ted would call a ‘footpath’ and me, a ‘herd trail’ – but it peters out to a choice: up into boulders and bracken or down into boulders and seaweed.

When moving forward, I’ve found we tend to keep moving. You know, that whole objects in motion tend to stay in motion. It’s not a useful principle when hiking, however, especially when there’s no sanctioned path.

Ted hurtles himself into the bracken following the indentation in the grass. But with rocks underfoot, running water and hidden holes, it’s a leg fracture waiting to happen. We stop to check the map and are spot on. Again I wonder if this be the state of the trail the entire way.

We continue pushing through, grabbing rock and wedging feet into odd positions. Should we turn back? I point to a rock above which appears somewhat separate from the boulder field and suggest we aim to it. When we finally reach it, Ted points back at a perfectly clear path by the loch.


From here, it’s obvious track on rock, some long, slippery slabs with water pouring down in fanciful falls. We reach a riparian area filled with gnarled birch and mosses. I step carefully to avoid slipping on any slimy bits.

The mist hits us with drizzle as we contour around a cliff and out onto muddy grass. The view opens back towards the houses we left this morning and the Atlantic beyond. Just when I’m sure the trail has hit the top, it goes on, climbing and climbing through mud and bog. Ted wipes out here, but falls on his arm and is not hurt too badly.

At the top of the head looking out to sea.
Sàil Ghorm and Sàil Gharbh with a curtain of rain and bog in the foreground.
A first look at Loch Glencoul. I’m wearing waterproofs, but the rain was minimal.

It feels an eternity before we crest the top and see Loch Glencoul below. It’s not actually a different lake but more another arm of the fjord. We’re high above and stay here for a long time, skirting cliffs below and heading in. Just as it feels we ought to go down, we head up again.

But it’s short-lived and takes us to the most spectacular sight of the day: the end of the loch in a U-shaped valley of rounded mountains and massive waterfalls. Numerous islands sprout up from a gently curving peninsula with a long, rocky beach and nestled within is our bothy.

It’s a long way down and unclear how we get there, but we soon hit a track. Alongside is a fence placed there to protect the replanting of native trees from hungry deer, which we hear loudly roaring somewhere in the hills.

The track is incredibly steep and reinforced at each turn with massive stones. My shoes fit well, so my toes aren’t banging into the front of them, but I definitely feel my shins working to keep me upright.

This steep on zig-zags and we’re there within minutes, a beautiful, strong bridge in place for the river crossing. There’s a large storage shed with a new, metal roof on one section, as well as rock walls closing in animal pens.

Glencoul bothy from the memorial cross.
Bothy life is awesome in fall when you have the place (mostly) to yourself.
Ted heading up the jeep track at Glencoul. The huge rocks were placed to protect sharp turns from erosion.

The bothy itself is part of a house that’s mostly derelict. Only two rooms are set aside for public use, bit they’re beautifully appointed, one with a huge wooden sleeping platform that could accommodate about six hikers.

We snag space for ourselves and begin the business of starting dinner. Ted sits down to get out of his wet shoes and socks and I surprise him with a mug full of whisky – yes, I carried it all the way here and it went down smooth!

It’s not long before it goes dark bit thankfully, the bothy caretaker left candles so we sit up for a bit just as a hiker arrives. Alberto is Spanish but living in England. He’s young and fit, and we wonder if maybe we could have kept going through the hard parts, but decide one flooded river crossing was enough for this hike.

He leaves in the morning, not especially early or in an especially big rush. It’s dry but overcast and we decide to stay and make it s day at this magical place. Breakfast is outside sitting on the orange folding chairs outside.

Just as I wonder if we might have more visitors, a man drives up in an eight-wheeled vehicle. It moves a bit like a tank, or maybe more like a centipede, each wheel able to grab the rock and rough trail as it moves.

Moss and beach at Glencoul.
Stones on the beach at Glencoul.
One of my magnificent mussel feast.

He locks it in the shed then marches our way. Dressed in camo, he carries a gas can on a walking stick over his shoulder. I assume he’ll stay with us and say, “hiya!” His name is Matt and he works as a stalker for the estate, one owned by the Duke of Westminster. So that’s why he’s wearing tweeds and a tie under the fatigues.

And yes, it gets hot being all dressed up. But not now in all this unusually heavy rain. We’re actually happy to hear that wondering if it’s just our wimpy selves unable to manage Scottish weather.

One bit of advice he leaves with us is where to harvest mussels – where he’s walking now, on the rocks beyond the peninsula where the Duke has his private pier.

Of course I suit up, grab a pail and head over. It’s less a pier and more a rock ramp at a cove. At first, I see nothing at all, just seaweed in clumps along large, dark boulders. It’s spongy under my feet as I carefully step on it, reaching the cold water which falls deep quickly.

I spy tightly closed black shells with a tiny bit of blue just above the water. Bug they’re on a rock slightly out of reach. I squish around on the seaweed peering under any rock within reach, and I find one.

It only requires stepping carefully in up to my ankles to lift the heavy seaweed and pluck off several huge shells. They make a lovely plunk in my bucket as I drop them in – 1, 2, 3…27, 28… yes, 28 should do.

The rocks where I harvested mussels, then was visited by three seals.
Matt the Stalker at Glencoul.
Pink sky at night, hikers delight.

Just as I get ready to head back, I hear a massive splash. A whale? Nessie?!? I stand still and wait and soon a head appears. The water is stirred up and I wonder if it’s just my imagination as whatever it was pops back in the water.

But then it reappears, this time with a friend. They move ever so slowly towards me, stopping and peering. To get a better look, the heads pop up out of the water, white faces with black eyes and snouts.

I smile, and back in they go, splashing hard. Seals, three seals just having fun in this wondrous cove.

Soon, there are three, swimming along and stopping for a look. One proves the bravest and comes very close, as far in as the seaweed. He drops under without a sound, appearing only a few feet away to look at me, his mouth opening in a kind of “hi.”

A blue heron flies past and I see a black cormorant drying his wings on a rock. They appear in consort, distracting me as two otters quickly dart from one side to the next, their lithe bodies glossy in this dour light.

Finally I go, ready for lunch. I wash my mussels in the stream to pull of any scum, then boil them in batches of 7 or so in the Jet-boil. Never has there been a better meal.

Later, Ted and I climb the small hill next to the bothy where a stone cross has been placed in memory of two brothers lost in the great war, aged 24 and 25. What grief their family must have felt.

Ted cutting a rotten plank for our fire.
Watching seals at the cove.

We sit outside as the day comes to an end and it begins to get cold. You know I saw that fireplace in the bothy but somehow never considered using it. I give Ted some pointers and he soon sets one roaring, making the room toasty warm.

It must be all the years of thru-hiking when I’d never consider building a fire late at night that makes this whole experience feel giddy and new. But bothy protocol is to never take more wood then you use, so I head outside to see what I can find.

Twigs, damp twigs and damper twigs. I take them inside to dry next to what we built when Ted calls me around the corner. “Ali, what do you think?” He’s found an old useless and wet plank dumped out here from the derelict side of the house. I knew there was a reason for those saws hanging inside!

Ted does most of the sawing, creating pieces small enough for the tiny space. Without an ax, they’re bulky, but slowly they dry and begin to light. I take a shot at it too, and make him laugh with my willful nature, never giving up as I grunt and cut.

There are a few odds and ends in the wood box – a broom bristle, cracker boxes, one mitten – and they’re all chucked in, making a gorgeous light and warming us up. In the end, we create bright red coals but still leave behind pieces for the next visitor.

One of our only clear days in Scotland looking out to Kylesku.
Ted with the two gas canisters at Glenhue bothy; we’re saved!

It’s a cold night under crystal clear skies, the mist laying like puffs of cotton candy on the distant peaks. We earned it, but have to bundle up for the walk back, easier and still lovely. Our plan is to drive north and walk the two days/one bothy to Cape Wrath. But just as we heat up water for coffee, we notice our camp stove gas is nearly out. Does this mean a side-trip all the way back to Ullapool?

It’s steeply up, then slippery down the five miles back to the bridge. I’m pondering our dilemma the entire way because the weather threatens to change again from mostly dry to mostly soaked-to-the-skin wet. I don’t want to delay on this last bit.

As we approach Glenhue, I wonder if maybe someone left behind their unused gas as many people do. It becomes a bit of an obsession as this time I take the lead on the hardest bits of bog and clag, trying not to fall while barreling down through rock, bracken and waterfalls-as-trail.

We make it in one piece, Ted – the expert at downhill – commenting on my good pace. I bang first into the bothy, looking in both rooms, then climbing the steep stairs.


It’s Ted who finds the tiny room in the back, a kind of storage area where not one, but two, canisters sit awaiting our greedy hands.

We’re saved! We sit to have a bar before the long walk on track back to the car. I learn from this that one should always snag leftover gas if intending to move forward, because you just never know.

I also think it’s a good idea to see what else might be laying around for our use on these final days. A can of anchovies, one packet of dried soup, a deflated bag of wine – with some still in it!

11:00 am on a Sunday morning and there’s something to toast – a fabulous few days at the bothy, and enough cooking gas to continue. Yay!