I had never given one second’s thought to walking across Scotland until I sat next to Roger Hoyle at dinner in Moscow in October, 2014.
Roger (and his wife Roz) were visiting their son, who is a correspondent for The Times of London. I was visiting my friends Kathy Lally and Will Englund, The Washington Post’s correspondents. I don’t know how the conversation started–perhaps a query about how he was filling his time, as that was on my mind–but I soon learned that for seven years Roger had spent two weeks each May hiking from the west coast to the east coast of Scotland in an event called The Great Outdoors Challenge.
I queried him heavily, down to the weight of his tent and how many pairs of pants he carried. At some point it dawned on me I could do this. Which is to say there was nothing stopping me. My next thought was that I had better do it soon as it wasn’t going to get any easier.
The Great Outdoors Challenge is sponsored by an English magazine called The Great Outdoors. It’s been going on for more than 30 years and is now part of the hallowed tradition of Scottish “hill walking,” or so it seems. It has a few rules (no racing, no dogs) and is built on an atavistic DIYism foreign to American backpacking.
In the United States, you have to stay on the trail, stay off private property, and camp only in designated areas. On the TGOC, you can take any route you want (but would be advised to look for trails), cross any private property (except the grounds of Balmoral Castle), and camp anyplace you fancy (as long as it’s away from houses and animals).
Just what I’ve always wanted!
But be careful what you wish for.
The logistics for the TGOC are considerable. You have to apply and provide enough evidence to convince the “vetters” that you are likely make the 220-mile, 14-day crossing successfully. You must submit an itinerary with each day’s route described, the distance and vertical ascent calculated, and the camping place named. For sections dangerous or impassible in bad weather, you must to provide a foul-weather alternative route. You have to call in to the organizers four times during the crossing and let them know promptly if you decide, as they decorously put it, “to retire” before the end.
Much of this can be done on a computer through a site called Anquet after buying and downloading maps from the Ordnance Survey, Britain’s official mapping agency. The software makes the calculations but you still have to set the route, a considerable task when the landscape is foreign the client computer dumb.
Luckily, Roger Hoyle is a man of great patience and generosity. He gave me the first route he took, beautiful and not too hard he claimed (although it does include at least one 18-mile day). He spent a very long time on a very expensive phone call one Sunday afternoon explaining how to use the software.
After losing half this work to the ether (rather than the cloud, where it was supposed to go), and rerouting and recalculating, I submitted the plan for approval. It was accepted by a kind vetter named Bernie Marshall, whose advice includes instruction to get “a brew and a bacon buttie” at a particular hostel in the village of Tarfside towards the end of the hike.
I’m not exactly sure what a bacon buttie is, but I’m already looking forward to it.