A blog about a hike across Scotland (and possibly other things)

Category: Scotland 5

Off trail again

By now you’re tired of hearing me talk about walking, and frankly I’m not only tired of talking about it, I’m also tired of walking. But who cares about that? We have to continue to the end—until feet in the sea—so let’s neither of us complain.

Here is a little about the walking in recent days.

One morning we left from a sheep pasture, next to a burn, near a corner of the Balmoral Estate, which is owned by the British royal family. As usual, it was an upward course.

By this time we’d gotten to know Ole Hollesen better. Better than what? Better than when he’d sat down next to us with his swollen ankle.

The previous night we’d heard a 20-minute synopsis of his working life. We’d gotten the synopsis of his two marriages and the death of his parents at a young age a few days before that. This is the wonderful thing about time with strangers, especially when discomfort and a foreign language loosens the lines and allows the sails to luff. It’s one of the reasons for doing this event.

Ole is a smart, skilled and principled man. He told us how he’d been approached two decades ago—he had an investment company—by a large Russian man with dyed hair who wanted to partner with him in seeking good businesses to invest in in post-Soviet Russia. There was this man, his money-crunching sidekick, and a beautiful Russian siren who would be in charge of marketing (and possibly other opportunities). Ole became suspicous, and then a bit afraid. He fended them off, and they disappeared, looking for other honest people through whom to launder dirty money.

Ole by this time was recovered enough from his ankle sprain to go on alone. But he stayed with us.

We headed off for a place called the Shielin of Mark. “Schielings” is the word (presumably Gaelic) for summer houses for shepherds in the high glens. ”Shielin” is presumably a variant.

But first there were rivers to cross and trackless stretches of boggy ground to cover, across eroded banks of peat.

Underfoot is an entire ecosystem built on water, the amounts, depth, and predictability of it. To the naked eye, it is a vegetable world, except for the occasional ochre frog, black beetle, and salamander too quick to get a good read on coloration.

It is also beautiful and abstract. Closeups resemble Jackson Pollock paintings a little.

You’ve heard of Pollock’s ”Blue Poles”? This is my take on it.

We passed by a stream called the Burn of Mohamed. I have no idea how it got its name. But unlike the mountain, it appears to have always been here.

We got to the bothy at the Shielin of Mark. It was small but nice, and contrary to reports, had dedicated sleeping places.

From there it was across another burn and up a field of heather and sphagnum moss toward a track more than a mile away. It’s difficult to describe the effort required to carry a 35-pound pack up such terrain, all the while searching for the step that won’t finally result in full-foot immersion.

It requires navigation, by line-of-sight and GPS. And rests.

The gravel track you finally gain is a mixed blessing—rock-hard, and in places ridiculously steep.

But everything that goes down eventually flattens out. For us, on this day, it was at the Stables of Lee, which actually are still stables.

I didn’t see any horses, however.

We stopped for lunch, which involves not only taking off the packs but also the boots and socks. It’s important to find a place out of the wind, on a slope where one can lie back on a pack and sleep for 15 minutes after eating. Lunch is invariably gorp, cheese, dry sausage, and water.

This is Ole and Mark.

This is the last thing I saw before my 15-minutes kicked in.

Glen Feshie

In setting the route for this crossing I intentionally added exotic stretches so that Mark Beckwith, my walking companion, could see as much varied terrain and as many degrees of isolation as possible. 

To that end, I set a route on the western side of the River Feshie, the watercourse that created Glen Feshie, one of the Highlands’ best-loved valleys.

“It’s good to see you opting for an interesting and adventurous variation on the popular Feshie/Goldie corridor,” wrote the man who reviewed and approved (“vetted”) my route, Colin Crawford. “You’ll lose most other Challengers by following the West Bank of the Feshie . . . I’ve never walked the path through Allt Lorgaidh; it is rather a route to nowhere and likely to be rarely frequented . . . The way through to Caochan Dubh will be trackless but likely not too demanding and, hopefully, you’ll find good pitches on the grassy river flats. Enjoy your pitch here, a deliciously remote spot.”

Couldn’t be better, right?

Several bridges over the River Feshie had washed out in recent years, making a commitment to the West Bank essentially irreversible once a person had dropped south of the main bridge still standing. Inspection of the topo map revealed a very steep climb in the afternoon, and then an eastward walk over the high moors on no path. Our projected camping spot was on a high, flattish bench with a lot of small ponds—unlikely to be dry. In all, it looked like a repeat of our first day, the one in which our 8.5 mile route turned into 17 miles.

It was with some guilt I proposed we do the “foul-weather alternative” for the day—a tamer trip down the eastern bank, which I’d done on a previous Challenge. The “interesting and adventurous variation” that had so impressed the vetter would be for another life.

This decision paid off almost immediately.

We stopped for lunch before going over the remaining bridge to the east bank. It was windy and we’d sought protection on the slope down to the river, on a mat of dead grass and ferns under a few trees. We were semi-recumbent with boots off and our feet bare. Our packs were up at the trail.

“Resting your boots, I see,” said someone coming through the thicket. I craned my neck to look. It was Ole, the Danish man we’d had dinner with at the Lochailort Inn the night before we started. (Pretty clever line, too, given that it was in one of his five non-native languages.)

We greeted him like an old friend, which he was in the TGOC time warp.

Ole Hollesen

He sat down next to us and took off his boots, not to rest his feet but to inspect his right ankle. He’d twisted it the previous afternoon. It was red and swollen, and he was walking on it conditionally, not sure how long it would hold up or whether he’d have to “retire” from the Challenge.

We invited him to join us. Normally, he was an upright, long-stride walking machine. Crippled, however, he might be in our league. He said he’d love to walk with us (and he has been ever since).

Our interim destination was a bothy partway up the glen (the river was flowing north) that I’d seen in 2015. Back then it was like most bothies— dark and dingy, more interesting than inviting. Since then, the owner of the estate (which comprises most of the glen) had spent more than $350,000 turning it into a show piece. 

At the time it was 200 years old. Everything was removed down to the lintels over the windows. The wooden floor was pulled up, and three feet of dirt that had been the original dirt floor dug out. A two-story addition, with sleeping rooms upstairs, was added. 

The owner of the estate, it turns out, is a Dane, Anders Holch Povlsen, who made a fortune in clothing. He is the largest private landowner in Scotland, with 221,000 acres. In 2020 he was the 255th richest person in the world, Ole told us.

Greeting us outside as we took off our packs was an elderly man named Lindsay Bryce, the official bothy host whom I’d met on the previous crossing down Glen Feshie. He wore a plaid sweater and a herringbone flat cap. 

Lindsay had made enough money in oil and gas to retire at 45. (He’d had long stretches in India and Congo Brazzaville.) He has a house in Glasgow, which he gets down to every other month; he spent 42 days there last year. Most of the rest of the time he was here, sleeping in a non-private room upstairs and serving walkers tea and fruit, for free.

Lindsay Bryce and his tea caddy

There was a wood fire in a stove and a kettle continuously boiling. As he served us, four more people arrived.

“I cannot fault him in his vision,” he said, understatedly, about the Danish proprietor’s renovation project. 

At one point, Lindsay put up two hooks in the upstairs rooms, anchoring them with Phillips head screws. “He spotted them,” he said. “He asked me to replace them with domed slot-head screws, as that was the design style for a building like this.” 

It would have been nice to stay there. Besides Lindsay, there were only two set for that night. (The record is 42; I should have asked what the weather was like that night). But we had a long way to go.

Where we’d end up was uncertain. We were hoping for another bothy, given the flimsiness of my tent (and Mark’s too), but there was none in walking distance. Lindsay did say, however, there was the remains of a pony shed (probably floored in dung, he warned) and the ruin of a structure one might be able to crawl into, about seven miles away. We headed for it.

The trail was a long, steady climb, on a single path through the heather and grass. At places the path was eroded, with a long slide down to the river if one lost his step.

We soon hit what became our modus operandi—Ole and Mark at least five minutes ahead of me, sometimes out of view.

We walked, and we finally got there. We’d walked 18.4 miles in all that day.

Across a small burn on a high spot was a red tent. Bernie Roberts, a 76-year-old man on his 23d crossing, stuck his head out of the door and said hello. Not far down the hillside from him was a tiny building with one intact wall and a metal roof. The dung, however, was long gone. 

Carved into one of the remaining pieces of wood, and barely legible under lichen, was a date: “AD 24 – 10 – 00” (October 24, 1900, presumably when it was built).

There was just enough room in it for my tent, whose pitch I improved by cinching the top of it to the remaining underlayment of the roof with a piece of parachute cord. Mark and Ole pitched outside.

By that time it had started to rain. We retired to our tents to cook and eat alone, talking like the aforementioned “kinsmen met a night” in adjoining tombs. It eventually got dark and eventually we fell silent.

The next morning after breakfast I climbed up the slope. (Bernie was long gone.) A low and incomplete set of walls was all that remained of a small building, purpose and age unknown. There was nothing one could have crawled into to get out of the weather.

Next to it, perceptible only by a change in the mix of mosses at its perimeter, was the buried remains of an attached room, probably for animals.

The back wall, covered in moss two-inches thick, was a good place to stand and take a panoramic shot with my phone. 

It was raining lightly, trichromatic, empty, mysterious, and cold—another perfect day to walk in Scotland. 

In Glen Feshie

Challengers

I suppose I don’t need to convince you at this point that people who do The Great Outdoors Challenge are not a representative sample of the population.

They are, however representative of a fit, ascetic, solitary but also social, sliver of humanity that, in my experience, is enriched in the United Kingdom and Northern Europe, but not absent in the United States.

Here are a few of the people Mark Beckwith and I have met.

We spent one of the early nights at a bothy in Melgarve. It hadn’t been tarted up—and believe me, we like tarted bothies—like two we’ve seen. But it had been improved somewhat, and had two rooms upstairs for sleeping, and one on the ground floor off the room with the fireplace and built-in table for cooking with (portable) gas.

It was there we met Sean Sexton and his wife, Joyce, who are from outside Anchorage, Alaska. He’s about my age; she’s younger. Sean is on his second crossing. He looked, frankly, like a person at the limit of his adventuring ability here, like me. But how wrong I was.

He was a civil engineer (raised in Indiana) who worked for most of his career cleaning up Superfund sites, principally for the military. He made enough money that he could retire early, in 2006, and turn to his chief passion—difficult outdoor activities.

He’s done the Appalachian Trail, the Pacific Crest Trail, and the Continental Divide Trail—the Triple Crown of long, difficult backpacking hikes. In June he is doing a solo 200-mile hike in the Brooks Range, with food dropped by airplane every five days. When he gets to end, he will go on a six-day solo paddle on a pack raft on a river. He has one prosthetic hip and a stent.

When he first did the Appalachian Trail, he carried a pack that weighed 70 pounds. ”Back then, we bragged about how much we carried,” he said.

Among the things he carried was a copy of ”The Complete Walker” by Colin Fletcher. Within three weeks he’s shed more than half the weight he was carrying, including the book.

I mentioned to him that I once met a young man who’d done the AT and had a rule that if he hadn’t used an object in three days he sent it home. At one point he sent home his jackknife. Sean nodded and showed me the kind of knife you get as a novelty for a keychain. He had it clipped to one of the upper loops of his pack.

“This is what I have,” he said.

We talked further. It turns out he carries a down quilt, not a sleeping bag. You can tuck it under the edge of your body, but you don’t have all that compressed down under you—such wasted ounces!

He comes back to Alaska in November for ”repair season,” he said. He was referring to his body, not the equipment.

Joyce and Sean Sexton

Mark and I stopped at a bothy and, unusual for our newly developed habits, got out the “boiler” (as they call it over here) and had a hot lunch. As we were finishing up, the door open and in walked a man in a half-zip waterproof mountain shirt, and other semi-hightech kit.

He was a Gordon Fraser, a New Zealander now living in England, on his second Challenge. He’d done 13 miles that morning and had a long way to go. He ate underway. He was ex-military and had spent two years in some sort of military exchange outside Richmond. He came and went so quickly that all I could get was a picture of him out on the trackless ground, checking his bearing.

Gordon Fraser, underway.

I walked for many pleasant hours with a man named John Meldrum, 76, a retired mathematician on his fifth crossing. He’d ”retired”—the decorous Challenge term for quitting—once, and had some unfinished business. His son had walked with him the first three days, and a friend his age, John Scott, for the second three days.

He’d done some very serious hiking and climbing in Morocco, Nepal, and Corsica (and all through Britain) since retirement. He wears semi-closed toe Kean water shoes, sometimes with socks and somtimes without. I asked him if he ever used boots. ”Yes, I wear them in the winter, when it’s cold.”

He was quiet and unusually thoughtful. It was good to see him a day or two later for a tea break in the redone (and tarted up) Glen Feshie bothy.

John Meldrum, left, and his three-day companion, John Scott

Mark and I ran into three men, two from Worcester and one from Milford, Mass., on their first Challenge. Mark had once been the pastor of an Episcopal Church in Worcester. Digging around, the came up with mutual acqaintances.

Taylor Bearden, 29, on left, and Albert LaValley, 37, on right.

In Glen Feshie, we stopped at a 122-year-old mostly gone pony pen after an 18.4 mile day. It rained and blew hard during the night. After dusk we heard someone else arrive. Ole our Danish friend greeted him and offered to put him up in his conical tent. I called that there was some single malt in a Nalgene outside my tent if he wanted some. He took up neither offer. He’d walked 45 kilometers that day—29 miles—and summitted one mountain.


When we met him in the morning we learned his name was Pierre. He’s a Belgian engineer who has been living on Lewis in the Outer Hebrides for the last six years. He now works as a gardener. He’s raising money on his walk for a school for disabled children in Lewis.

And then there’s Dave Wood.

He left from the same place on the West Coast—Lochailort—as we did. He’s 61, from South Yorkshire, in England. He, too, is an engineer—mechanical—who’s now working in “quality control.”

He’s 61. On June 2, about two weeks away, he’s going in a 100-mile walk in the Peak District of England. It’s an event sponsored by the Long Distance Walkers Association. Most people do it in a couple of days. There are checkpoints every six or seven miles where you can stop for up to two hours—and sleep if you like. About 500 people are signed up.

He’s a big runner. He did a 60-mile run a month ago. He attempted a 100-mile run, but rolled an ankle and couldn’t finish.

He’d played soccer and cricket as a young man, but didn’t take up running until about 10 years ago, when he quit smoking.

“I needed something to dissuade me from wanting to smoke,” he said, as we had a beer in Braemar. He was a pack-a-day man. ”I don’t feel the urge any more.”

Water on a slant

We broke camp after the first night on a grassy verge of a forestry road and stuffed the sopping tents into our packs. Most everything else was wet too, although my sleeping bag was spared. Firing up the stoves didn’t seem like the greatest idea, as it was starting to rain again, so we just headed down the road to Glenfinnan.

The first hotel we got to in the village said it was no longer serving breakfast even though we could see people inside eating. Of course, we didn’t look like the most desirable guests.

A little farther on was an old railroad dining car that had been turned into a cafe, near the train station. We settled in. I had a venison sausage sandwich and series of cups of coffee. Soon, we saw a large number of people outside, a few of whom came into the dining car. They were passengers on a Harry Potter-themed, steam-powered train. (Mark had noticed something I hadn’t—a gift shop next to the dining car selling wands.) The high point of the trip is going over the Glenfinnan Viaduct, the high, beautifully curved bridge featured in the movies. Pretty much everyone but the locals now call it the Harry Potter Bridge.

For the next day we intermittently heard the rhythmic chugging of the engine, and we saw steam rising above the treeline once, but never got a closeup view of the train itself.

At the far end of the village we headed into the hills again, following a stream. We passed a forestry project with stack of cut pine logs.

We stopped for a rest and experienced something frequent in Scotland—rain when the sun is out.

There was a path along the stream for a while, but it eventually petered out. That didn’t matter because we were planning on leaving it anyway, to head up one of the sides of the valley it formed.

The sun stayed out for several hours. It was a beautiful afternoon, with views that you come to Scotland for. The land is brown from last season’s grass and heather not yet in bloom, but patches of bright yellow gorse illuminated the landscape, and flowering bluebells decorated it at one’s feet.

We crossed numerous small streams (“burns”) that flowed down the hill to the larger one we’d left behind. Along one was gnarled grove of trees newly in leaf.

The walking was steep and difficult. The ground is soft and in places saturated with water that was kept from flowing by grass and moss.

We’d come from the stream far below.

The plan was to go around the north side of the hill we were climbing, but we realized we could cut some distance if we went around the south side. The original route is in magenta, the one we took in blue. Our destination was Glensulaig, on the right end of the map.

We climbed to the elevation of our destination and then walked along that contour line (the 350 meter one) as best we could. We eventually saw in the distance a dark, vaguely conical structure—the ”bothy” where we hoped to spend the night.

Bothies are former dwellings or barns that are maintained for hikers, although they offer little more than shelter. There are no bunks. There’s usually a tiny fireplace built to burn peat. But nobody cuts peat for them, and there isn’t wood around, so the fireplaces are unusable.

We saw a bunch of tents outside this one, which made me think it was already full, probably with Challengers. But it turned out to be a group of 11 teenagers (mostly age 15) on an Outward Bound trip. They were all sleeping in tents, as were the leaders, so Mark and I had a room out of the weather for the night, which had turned quite cold.

We spent an uneventful night and then headed downhill toward Loch Eil. The route took us through another pine plantation.

To shave off some distance we went diagonally through the forest on a track, looking out for a cairn marking a path down to the Outward Bound Center that one of the leaders, Craig, had recommended. But we didn’t see the cairn, or a path.

The track we were on eventually came out onto a cleared area that we were able to go down, although the ground was another version of sloped land holding water. We had to step from hummock to hummock, trying to avoid water-filled holes. It was hard going. Of course, our feet had now been wet for two days.

We eventually got to the bottom, had lunch in a restaurant, and then headed up the Caledonian Canal, an ancient feat of engineering that, with the assist of long lochs reaching deep into the country, created a water route from the west coast to the east coast, through the middle of the country.

There were a few people crazier than us.

We eventually got to Spean Bridge, a village where my father and his friend had spent a night on their bicycle trip in July 1936. We were glad to have a room in a guest house, a shower, and dinner in a sports bar.

It had rained every step of the 19 miles we’d walked that day.

The first climb

Mark Beckwith and I did our unplanned leg-and-core workout in advance of The Great Outdoors Challenge with three hours of standing of a four-hour train ride from Arrochar to Lochailort, our embarkation point.

Perhaps the gods of Challenge, knowing we were underprepared, did this to give us a final toning. Or to mess with us—hard to tell.

My friends Deborah and Paul Richard, who live in Argyll at the Kyles of Bute on the west coast, had graciously hosted us for three days. On the day we arrived we squeezed in a visit to the ruins of St. Blanes Monastery on the Isle of Bute, a short ferry ride from Colintraive, the village where they live six months of the year.

I’d been to St. Blanes on a previous visit. It’s where some of the earliest Christians in Northern Europe lived and prayed in the 600s, until the place was sacked by the Vikings. Living there, and being valuable enough to be destroyed—it’s all a bit hard to believe.

There is nothing from the monastic days left but piles of stone that might have been the walls of monks’ cells. The ruins of a church from much later telegraphs to visitors that this is a site where people thought about God.

We visited in part because my walking partner is a man of the cloth, the former Episcopal bishop of Newark, New Jersey, and before that a parish priest in many places.

Paul Richard on the left, Mark Beckwith on the right.
Deborah Richard at the burial ground for women.
Ruins of the later church.

Deborah and Paul delivered us to Arrochar to begin our journey north. We were sorry to part company, but it was getting close to a time to walk.

When we disembarked at Lochailort—a stop you have to ask for, as it’s so obscure—we walked to the Lochailort Inn with a man who became, Challenge-style, a great friend in under 24 hours. His name is Ole Hollesen. He’s a 59-year-old Dane who looks minus-10 his age, a Challenge first-timer.

Ole lives just north of Copenhagen, and is a military veteran whose current job is to handle finances, and some logistics, in movies. He even had a bit part in one that won an Academy Award a few years ago for best foreign film. It was called ”The Last Round.”

Ole has done a lot of walking. Brief conversation and a look at him reveals he’s somewhere between an ultralight and an ultrafast walker. He walked across Iceland—500 kilometers, or 310 miles, in 19 days, with one resupply (which means he carried food for half the trip with him at the start). He’s hiked in Columbia, Majorca, and all over Scandinavia. He speaks nearly accentless English, along with the other Scandinavian languages, German, French, and a little Italian.

He has a tough route, going alone. We hope to run into him again.

Ole Hollesen

We signed out on a register, as required by Challenge rules, and began our walk at 10.23 a.m. on Tuesday, May 10. Here is Mark and me, the picture taken by a fellow Challenger at the inn who was outside for a smoke.

We proceeded down the road, and then off to the left on a path, past a crew doing some sort of digging with heavy machines. We walked along a stream, gaining elevation. The weather was good and the sun was out, but we took no solace. It was going to rain; it was just a matter of when.

The route I chose for this walk was borrowed—actually taken, with permission—for two people I’d met on a previous Challenge, Andrew Walker and Alan Sloman. The photographs of it on Andrew’s website were spectacular. Eager to please, I chose it for Mark’s inaugural and probably only walk across Scotland. This may turn out to be me trying to please too much.

The route involves miles and miles of no-path walking. In other words, navigating by a route laid down electronically on a topographical map, or by ingterpolating on a paper map—but with no visible path underneath.

It requires all sorts of things to go off the trail as much as this route required. The big three are: knowledge of navigation, good judgment, and perseverance. It turns out Mark and I only had the last.

After a while of walking up the stream—or ”burn,” as they’re called over here—Mark and I turned 90 degrees and started to climb up a large, treeless, heather-and-grass covered, steep side of a hill. I’d call it a mountain in a land of small but endless mountains, like Scotland’s Highlands.

It’s easier to describe the next five hours if you see where we were. Here are few pictures.

It’s immense open space, empty in a conventional sense, but clearly not in a historical sense. It’s surprising the amount of metal one encounters up there (mostly remains of fencing), and the inexplicable end of garden hose-size pipe sticking out the peat every once in a while. It’s hard to believe anyone needed to move water around.

The pictures don’t do justice to the conditions we encountered. The day’s route was meant to be 8.5 miles, by the mapping app used. We ended up walking, by the Apple watch calculation, 17.03 miles.

Who cares which was less accurate? What’s clear is that we walked a great deal longer than we planned to.

This was because neither of us had studied the paper maps closely enough to have topological “handrails” in our minds as we looked at the hills and cliffs around us, and because (more embarassing, but equally unforgiveable), we didn’t have adequate facility even with following a course on the GPX route on my phone.

Mark was unprepared in both regards. I’d done insufficient review of both, assuming the skills would come back in real time. They did not. We walked in the equivalent or circles, although not actually, for a long time.

The idea was that we would ascend the ascend the side of a hill at the river-end of a long chain, and then walk along the tops for many miles. “The tops,” of course, is not what it sounds like. It’s up and down, up and down, not just across.

But that wasn’t the biggest problem.

It began to rain, and it began to blow. I would say steady at 40 mph, gusts to 50 mph; Mark said 50 mph, gusting to 60. Whatever, it was hard to stay upright at times. Twice we thought we’d encountered hail, but it was just the force of the raindrops hitting our jackets and hats.

We couldn’t seek shelter by moving lower because lower meant below cliffs on either side. There were, to my surprise, few outcrops that gave real lee from the wind. The only way out was through. At one point I had to cinch my had tighter to keep it from blowing off.

There are no pictures of all this because it was too cold and difficult to do anything but move forward.

There were endless diversions around the equivalent of tide pools here at the top of the Highlands. I’m glad I did a lot of rock-hopping in Maine.

In places there were undercut banks of peat forming what are called “peat hags” in these parts.

We walked and we walked, twice the distance we planned, and finally descended.

Only when we got into the protection of a forestry plantation—the ugly monoculture of pines—did we escape the wind and cold. We had been rained on since just after lunch. We made camp at the side of a forestry road about 8 p.m.

Both Mark and have tents that are erected with trekking poles. They are a way of saving weight—in my case, three pounds over my trusty Hilleberg Akto, the wonderful Swedish solo tent that has served me so well over three of my four previous crossings.

We found a grassy turnout on the forestry road and pitched camp. Even in minimal wind, they were saggy and untough. And of course, totally wet, as were we, as we had been walking in the rain for most of the day.

I bought my tent on the high rating provided by the gear tester of The Great Outdoors Magazine, the UK’s equivalent of Outside, and the original sponsor of The Great Outdoors Challenge. But I won’t use it again after this event.

I should have known—expert opinion aside—that the middle of a tent is where the action is. The idea that you can put trekking poles at one end, and a small arch-like pole at the foot end, and pull them tight enough to keep the middle of the tent—minus ridgepole or center hoop—up is pure fantasy. My tent, by Alpkit, is well made. The problem is the design. It will never work.

I got in, sopping wet and exhausted, and managed to boil water and make an in-bag dinner of spaghetti Bolognesi. It was delicious. If the water pot had fallen off the stove, or the stove had fallen over, I would have either been scalded or burned alive. It seemed like a reasonable risk.

It rained all night. The ceiling of the tent sagged, so I slept as if I were in a burial shroud two sizes too big—and wet. But the gods were not entirely without mercy. In an all-night rainstorm, it’s possible to kneel in prayer in such a structure and urinate in a Nalgene.

Call this particular tent a “pound-foolish” purchase. Or in my case, three-pounds foolish.

One of the 15,530

My father’s cycling companion on his bicycle trip through Scotland, England, and Wales in the summer of 1936 was John Gaylord Brackett, Jr. He was 18, my father was 19.

They’d gone to Deerfield Academy, in Western Massachusetts, together for high school, and both had just finished their freshman year at Harvard College. My father refers to John Brackett as “J.B.” in the journal he kept that summer. Whether that’s what everyone called him, or was just to save time and space in the writing, isn’t clear.

John G. Brackett, Jr., onboard ship sailing to Britain in July, 1936, with a fellow passenger.

Sometime when I was a teenager, my father had told me that the person with him on that memorable adventure was later killed while training to be a pilot, someplace in the Deep South. Not surprisingly, he never said how this death had affected him. Surprisingly, I never asked, even when I was mature enough to realize it must have been a great loss, and an emotionally complicated one.

My father didn’t serve in the armed forces in World War II, although 80 percent of his classmates at Harvard College did. He’d had a kidney removed because of chronic infection, and was rejected by both the Army and the Navy when he tried to enlist. Late in the war, after graduating from Tufts Medical School on an accelerated schedule, he worked in a laboratory in Berkeley, California, doing high-altitude physiology research for the military. In the early 1950s, soon after I was born, he served stateside in the Army as a medical officer.

What was it like to spend the war out of uniform? Were there quizzical or accusatory stares? How often did he have to give a rehearsed explanation?

I have answers for none of those questions.

Bruce R. Brown in the summer of ’36.

Of the 866 men who graduated in Harvard College’s Class of 1939, 30 died in the war, according to the 50th Reunion Report. How that number was calculated isn’t explained. Memorial Church, in Harvard Yard, lists 27 dead from the class. That was fewer than the adjacent classes recorded–31 in the Class of 1938, and 38 in the Class of 1940. (Curiously, among the names on the marble slabs is Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Class of 1904.)

There were distinguished soldiers among my father’s fallen classmates.

William Edgar Huenekens flew secret night flights into France to deliver supplies to the Resistance as part of the OSS, forerunner of the CIA. Leroy Adolph Schreiber was a P-47 Thunderbolt pilot who shot down three German fighters and damaged two others on a mission over Hanover, Germany, one night in February 1944. (He was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.) Wells Lewis, the son of novelist Sinclair Lewis, fought in North Africa, Italy, and France, winning the Bronze and Silver stars (and also publishing several short stories) before being killed on October 29, 1944.

John Brackett never deployed, but was still, of course, considered a casualty of the war. He’s listed as “DNB” in official lists–Death, Non-Battle.

He’s among what’s surely the saddest and most overlooked of the war’s victims–those who died not in the good fight, but in preparing for it.

From 1939 through 1945, the United States Army Air Forces–the precursor to the United States Air Force–suffered 6,500 fatal accidents in the continental United States. In all, 15,530 people were killed, and 7,114 airplanes wrecked. There was, on average, almost 40 accidents and 10 deaths, in training each day during the war. In the peak year, 1943, there were more than 5,600 fatalities.

Those astonishing statistics are from a 2013 doctoral dissertation by Marlyn R. Pierce, at Kansas State University, called “Earning Their Wings.” He dedicated it “To the 15,530.”

The study documents how the demand for pilots and flight crews grew as the U.S. military prepared for, and then entered, the war, and how the evaluation and training of recruits changed as a consequence. It’s fascinating, and full of incredible numbers. Here are a few more.

In 1939, the number of people in the Army Air Forces was a little over 22,000–12 percent of all Army personnel. In 1944, it was 2.4 million, or 31 percent. In 1939, there were 7 fatalities for every 100,000 flying hours; in 1943, there were 19 for every 100,000 hours.

The risk of dying increased as flight training progressed. The rate was 27 per 100,000 flying hours in small, “basic” aircraft, and 55 during “advanced” training, when crews were in larger, more complicated, and more recently designed, planes.

This appalling mortality was far from all–or even mostly–attributable to pilot error and inexperience.

The demand for aircraft was so great that companies such as General Motors and Packard, which had never made airplanes were suddenly making thousands. Some had poor designs, with airframes and engines barely able to carry their armament. Some were inadequately tested. The number of engine fires and mid-air explosions was shocking.

John Brackett had just been commissioned a second lieutenant when he was killed on August 13, 1942 a mile west of Key Field, in Meridian, Mississippi. He’d left his third year at Harvard Law School and enlisted, taking flight training in Florida, and at two other bases in Mississippi.

Brackett’s father was a “special justice of the Boston Municipal Court,” according to a four-paragraph story in the Boston Globe. His paternal grandfather was John Quincy Adams Brackett, who’d been governor of Massachusetts in 1890, when gubernatorial terms were one year.

Brackett was flying a Douglas DB-7B “Havoc” light bomber. He was in the part of training called “night transition”–learning how to take off and land in the dark. In combat conditions the plane had a crew of three–pilot, gunner, and bombardier–but as this was just flying practice, only the pilot was on board.

An online data base of thousands of aviation accidents lists the cause of this one as “take off accident due to engine failure.” That same night, flying from the same airfield, the same type of plane crashed, killing the 23-year-old pilot, 2nd Lt. Walter J. Miers, of Crowley, Louisiana. The cause of that crash was “engine failure and fire.”

An Associated Press report said: “Witnesses said Brackett’s plane exploded immediately after clearing the landing field and the other accident occurred a minute after Miers took off.”

The official report of the crash, which I obtained from a website called Aviation Archaeological Investigation & Reports, tells a different story.

The cause of the crash was judged “100 percent Pilot Error,” and in that category it was judged to be 100 percent due to “Poor technique.” He’d overshot the airfield in an attempt to land and was going around to make another approach when he lost air speed and crashed into a patch of woods off the base.

One part of the report said he “dumped his flaps too low to the ground.” I’m not sure what that means, but it was clearly a mistake. He’d had 235 hours of flying since enlistment, and 24 hours in the model in which he died.

Here’s a picture of the crash site, and some of the wreckage. The destruction is total. One hopes death came quickly.

John Brackett was buried in Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, the resting place of Boston bluebloods, and many famous people (Nathaniel Bowditch, Winslow Homer, Mary Baker Eddy, Fannie Farmer, Bernard Malamud, Felix Frankfurter). My father was one of the five honorary pallbearers. After that, Bruce Brown kept his grief to himself. Or at least from his children, which I realize is not the same.

As it happens, the land I’ll be walking across in the next two weeks with my friend Mark Beckwith is sacred ground.

Scotland was the training ground of thousands of airmen in World War II. About 5,000 airplanes crashed there during the war, mostly in the Highlands, which are open and treeless. Wreckage of about 300 remain visible today. I passed one site in 2015, on my second crossing. All that remains of the Audax Harrier is part of the airframe and scattered pieces of metal.

The two people in the plane survived the crash in 1939, but not the war. One was killed in 1940 in the Battle of Britain. The other disappeared in 1942 in a bombing run to Flensburg, Germany, no trace found.

The deaths of young men learning to fly is part of the collective memory of northern Scotland, and in the individual memories of some of the people still alive from that time.

In 2016, when I walked along the Moray Coast I met and interviewed a man named Donnie Stewart. He grew up in Lossiemouth, a fishing town where an airbase was built in 1938. He was a preteen during most of the war. To him and his gang of friends, watching the fortification of the coast (and helping in small ways) was a great adventure. So was watching the airplanes come and go–and occasionally crash.

“We regarded this as entertainment,” he said ruefully.

A long time later a stranger came to Lossiemouth and inquired whether anyone recalled a crash that killed three Australians, including the man’s uncle, Ed O’Dwyer. Donnie did.

All on board died, as did a would-be rescuer who tried to swim out to a rocky island where the fusilage landed. Donnie described in detail what he’d seen. That gave the man some solace, and it assuaged somewhat Donnie’s decades-old guilt.

“Three-hundred eighty-four people died learning to fly out of the Lossie aerodrome,” he told me.

Donnie Stewart

The psychological stress of being a novice pilot in wartime was clear when I interviewed a man named LaVerne Schaaf in a small town in Iowa in 2007 for another project. He’d been on the ground crew at an airbase in Alaska for two and a half years. It was hard to know which was more dangerous in the Aleutian Islands, Japanese fighters or the weather.

“We lost over a hundred men, out of our outfit. They’re laying there in the bottom of the Bering Sea, up there. I don’t know how many pilots we lost,” he said, the sadness and disbelief still evident six decades later.

“The last guy, I felt so sorry for him. I put him in a plane–that was when we were on Amchitka–and helped strap him in. He was shaking so bad. He was a warrant officer. It was new to him, first time in combat.

“I told him: ‘You’re shaking so bad, you don’t have to go. You can turn yourself back in.’

“He said: ‘Well, they’ll court-martial me.’

” ‘I know. But you’ll be alive.’

” ‘Yeah, but my Dad and Mother are proud of me. I’m a pilot in the air force. I’m going through with it.’

“I said: ‘Well, all right.’

“What he did, he never gained flying speed when he took off. He got a good half-mile out there and he lost flying speed. He went down, to the bottom of the ocean. There’s where he’s laying today.”

How many people are alive today who knew John Brackett? There can’t be many.

His parents are gone, of course. He had two sisters, so I suppose there could be a niece or nephew still alive who may have met him. My father, who could have told me about what he and John did in Scotland–beyond what’s in the journal–is gone, as is everyone else from the Harvard Class of 1939.

Soon, John Brackett will recede into the deep silence of history, where we exist only as names, stories told no better than second-hand, and (if we’re lucky or had been so inclined) maybe an object or piece of writing or music that’s survived.

It reminds me of a poem by Emily Dickinson:

I died for beauty, but was scarce

Adjusted in the tomb,

When one who died for truth was lain

In an adjoining room.

He questioned softly why I failed?

“For beauty,” I replied.

“And I for truth–the two are one;

We brethren are,” he said..

And so as kinsmen, met a night,

We talked between the rooms,

Until the moss had reached our lips,

And covered up our names.

The moss has almost covered up John Brackett’s name, as it will ours in due time. As I walk across Scotland, maybe for the last time, I will keep him–little as I know of him–in mind.

John Brackett, on the road in Scotland.

July 1936

My father, Bruce R. Brown, spent the summer of 1936 riding a bicycle around Scotland, England, and Wales. He went with a friend from high school and college named John G. Brackett. You will hear more about him later.

They had both just finished their freshman year at Harvard College. How the trip came to be, what they carried, how they found the bikes to rent, how much the whole thing cost—all this is unknown to me and lost to time.

My father kept a journal and wrote in it many days. Consequently, it’s possible to chart the route he and his friend took with a fair amount of certainty. The Scotland part of their trip is in blue, below. It was 352 miles, all on bike except for two short hikes. The route Mark Beckwith and I will take (in red) crosses their path twice.

Bicycle route, in blue, taken by Bruce R. Brown and John G. Brackett in July, 1936.

My father grew up in Framingham, Massachusetts, the only child of older parents. His father, Charles Albert ”Bertie” Brown, was born in 1863 and had had an entire life before he married my grandmother.

My father and his friend took a steamship from Boston to Britain. Its name and where it landed are unrecorded in the journal. They were much taken with two young women about their age, whom they spent deck-time with.

They also met a Jewish family heading to the People’s Olympics, in Barcelona—an event I’d never heard of. It was a protest against, and alternative to, the Hitler-hosted Olympics to be held later in the summer in Berlin. Here’s a bit about it.

Barcelona had been the runner-up to Berlin’s bid for the 1936 games. Spain’s new Republican government said it would boycott those games. It was joined by several other delegations (notably the Soviet Union, but not the United States), as well as teams of exiled Jews. About 6,000 athletes planned to attend.

The event was cancelled two days before its opening when the so-called Nationalists began a revolt against the popular government. It’s said that 200 of the athletes stayed and fought in the Spanish Civil War.

That’s it for the voyage out.

Somehow they got to Glasgow, where they rented bikes. Here’s my father on his. It seems a bit small. There are paniers over the rear wheel, and he may have a small knapsack on his back.

Here’s John Brackett on his.

Early in the ride they spent a night in Spean Bridge. We will too. They spent a night in Newtonmore, which I walked through on my first crossing, in 2014. The Challenge coordinators Ali Ogden and Sue Oxley run a hostel there; it’s the beating heart of The Great Outdoors Challenge. They got as far north as Inverness–Macbeth country–which I passed through on my third Challenge on a route along the Moray Coast, where the first rehearsals for D-day were run.

The photographs that exist are unrevealing. Most are distant views of hills and lochs. There are several of castles and old buildings. Only a few have people in them. Here is one of a sheep-shearing session they passed.

This is a man wheeling a cart that appears to have milk cans on it. It also looks like he’s wearing wooden shoes, which I don’t associate with Scotland.

They saw a lot of rain. We may also. You lose money betting against rain in Scotland (although my previous visits were blessed with lots of sunny, beautiful days, too).

Despite the rain, cold, and uncomfortable foul-weather gear (“those damn rubber nightgowns”), my father loved Scotland.

A. favorite place was Kenmore, where he and John spent several nights, one at a hotel where Robert Burns wrote a poem, in pencil, on the wall above a fireplace. It was visible then, as it is now. During the days, they explored a nearby castle and hiked up Ben Lawers, the highest mountain in the southern Highlands, and the 11th highest in the British Isles.

Up Ben Lawers.

One night, my father wrote in his journal: “This evening I sat on the old bridge leading over the River Tay and drank in an everlasting silence, Ben Lawers in the distance and the Loch calm . . . If one wanted a more absolute sanctified place I don’t know where he’d find it. If I marry I’d like to spend my honeymoon in this country.”

He did marry, in 1943, but by then a honeymoon in Scotland was out of the question. He and my mother, Sally Mosser, spent theirs in Sea Island, Georgia.

He had another wish that summer.

“If I ever saw God-made land that was it,” he wrote rapturously about a day spent in Glen Coe. “Down through sloughs cut in the rocks the road wound. The Three Sisters sat on our left–huge rock-armoured hills with here and there a landslide showing like a cut. A stream ran a race with us on the left. On our right the Three Brothers guarded . . . with clouds shutting off their summit from view.

“Such a ride down I never expect to have again. No houses, nothing but heather, rain, mist, clouds . . . Down we flew into Glen Coe and on past slate quarries on the ever narrow road and finally here to the Ballachulish Hotel at 11 o’clock. 54 miles, most of it in the afternoon and evening. I hope my children see this country–it makes one small but exultant.”

That one did come true.

The Quincunx

I’m back in Scotland for another running (actually walking) of The Great Outdoors Challenge.

This event is a two-week walk across Scotland that I discovered by chance and did for the first time in May 2014. I can’t say it was life-changing, but it was interesting and enjoyable enough for me to come back and do it three more times.

I was signed up for a fifth crossing in 2020 when the Covid-19 pandemic forced cancellation of the event. I couldn’t do it last year for various reasons. But I’ve managed to summon the energy to do it again this year. Of course, I’m writing this before I’ve walked the first yard.

I’m going with someone else, a college classmate named Mark Beckwith. He heard me talk about it on a canoe trip another classmate organized a few years ago. We didn’t know each other terribly well at college, but we’ve become friends in recent years (thanks to two more canoe trips.)

Solitude was one of the appeals of Challenge. In the last one, in 2019, I took a route at the southern edge of the allowable territory—there are lots of rules—and didn’t see another Challenger until the last day. I saw lots of other people, of course. But it was a bit more solitude than I was prepared for.

This year will be different.

The route is 178 miles–shorter than some of my previous crossings, but with a lot of elevation gain, especially at the beginning. As a concession to age, and to give Mark a break, we’re going to be staying in B&Bs or hotels a little more than one-third of the nights. Challenge traditionalists would be appalled. Forty years ago, I’m told, the rule was you could only stay indoors one night a week.

There are Challengers from 16 countries outside the United Kingdom—26 percent of the walkers in all. Thirty-five are from the United States. Normally the event is capped at about 300 walkers. This year the field was been opened to about 400, to accommodate people who had to defer because of covid.

You can walk from one of 14 villages on the west coast. Lochailort, mid-latitude, will host 31 people, including Mark and me.

Here’s our route.

I’ve made a concerted attempt to lighten the load this year. I bought a tent that uses trekking poles as tent poles. It’s tiny; it will be interesting to see if I can sit up and type. But it saved 2 1/2 pounds.

I’m carrying a bigger pile of electronics than in the past, about seven pounds in all. This presumably will allow me to write blog posts in real time, and also learn a lot of irrelevant information my Apple watch insists on telling me.

I had foot pain in my last crossing, and put my beautiful Italian hiking boots back into the stream of used footwear at Montrose’s Salvation Army showroom. (They were accepted without hesitation.) This time I’m wearing a new design of flat-bottom, wide-forefoot boots I got at REI that makes me look like the GEICO gecko.

My hat, which I didn’t wear in my last crossing, is back, with its Challenge campaign pins on it. One of them got ripped off bashing through forest-fire regrowth on Parramore Island, in Virginia. I replaced it with a pin of one of Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s chairs, a nod to a great Scotsman.

The crossing will also have some backward looking. (Anybody surprised?)

Among the events of the past I’m interested in is a bicycle trip my father took through Scotland after his freshman year in college. He went with a friend. Somewhat to my surprise, he also kept a journal. It’s possible to chart where the two teenagers went 86 years ago. That’s the subject of the next post.

As in the past I’ve also done a little exploring before the walk. I want to tell tell you about that too.

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