The Bothy Project Neighbourhood Residency – Part 2

So here I was, waking up to the first full day of my neighbourhood residency – read Big Nature, Little Nature to find out more about it), and it was to be a flawlessly sunny day! Whatever I had felt and told myself the night before – take it easy, don’t rush, don’t feel any pressure – had disappeared after the first glimpse of the blue sky and the shape of Suilven from my ‘bedroom alcove’ in the art studio. I could not deny it, Suilven was calling to me in a big way.

I had already decided the evening before that the path to Suileag bothy, which is also the first stretch of the long way to Suilven, was to be my destination for the day. I had walked it many times with my family, and visiting friends, not for Suilven, but to go fishing, or for other outdoor adventures. We had always been on a mission to ‘get somewhere’, with the path I was heading to being the first part that we mainly wanted to get out of the way. Very different from my mission for the day, which was going slow on the fast lane to Suilven! It would be all about enjoying nature and the elements with all my senses, a mindful mix of taking in the views – big and small, listening to the sounds, taking in smells, touching rocks and exploring water, looking up and down, and enjoying every step.

The first challenge was to not rush off – after all, this was a slow (and I assumed long) day out, so sustenance for body and soul had to come first. Mark Coleman’s ‘Awake in the Wild’ was one of the few books I  had brought and dipping in and out of bit-sized chapters and meditations with my breakfast was the perfect start to the day.

I anticipated it would get busy soon with walkers making the best of a sunny weekend, and out of the corner of my eye, I spotted the first mountaineers striding past in the distance. After throwing together a packed lunch, just after half-past nine, I finally started my adventure. With the ambition to not be more than ambling, I hit the path and didn’t get very far actually before being drawn to the first sensory break, smelling the vague hit of coconut in a gorse bush. Deciding against a detour to my sit spot down at the loch I continued at a leisurely pace, tuning in to the soundscape, trying to pick up bird song over the noise of the wind. The wind was my friend at that point as I walked into it, and that and a slightly uphill section made sure I didn’t speed up unnecessarily. I stopped for birds pecking for food on the path, to look at interesting rocks and to gaze back, at the blue loch and the blue sea further in the distance. The ability to see everything that Assynt has to offer, lined up all at once, had always been one of the favourite things about this location, and I was determined to truly indulge in the luxury of nobody but me setting my pace. Slow-motion not just in terms of walking speed, but also nourishment for the soul. 

I continued, immersed in my thoughts, being aware of my gentle steps that weren’t about pace or speed, but just propelling me along the path, free to look, and smell and listen. Occasionally I turned round… initially for the view and then, as I realised, to check who, if anybody, was behind me.

For the longest time there was nobody, and then I spotted somebody! Two walkers, heading my way at a determined pace. Why worry, I told myself, there is space and time for everybody and every speed. And yet I noticed I was speeding up, and then slowing down, spotting the long(ish), steep(ish) uphill slog not far ahead. Never a favourite at the best of times I had planned a very mindful slow ‘ascent’ (ok, ok I was carried away with mountaineering language, just a bit), as a sort of experiment to find out if I could ever love uphill slogs, or at least not mind them. But this sudden company made me reconsider. Would I possibly look like I COULD not stride uphill at a faster pace? It bothered me!

I slowed down thinking those in pursuit of me – yes, I had started to take this very personally – would easily overtake me before the uphill stretch, but they didn’t get closer fast enough, so I realised I was committed to staying ahead. And I went faster, slow pace and nature mindfulness no more, self-consciousness taking over. I upped my speed to what I considered somebody on the fast lane to Suilven SHOULD display. It was not pleasant and I was seriously out of breath as I reached the top. I looked back again, there was enough time to catch my breath before they would reach me, and those behind them. Suddenly it was getting very busy.

So I sat down on a big rock, grounded myself, gazed into the distance, mindfully. And I was indeed breathing more slowly again, a convenient byproduct. I was ok, felt a bit silly, but I remembered my mission… until the two women, all proper-mountaineering looking, got closer and I suddenly wondered if I looked like I had needed a break.

My thoughts wandered off to Copenhagen and the Little Mermaid on her rock. Did anybody ever wonder what she did there? Just hanging out? So I started to rummage in my backpack (vaguely professional-looking, definitely like I had possibly meant to head for Suilven) like I was searching for something REALLY important, pointing my definitely very pro-looking Asolo mountain boots towards the path, displaying my credentials to be here. They walked past, neither bothered to assess my boots nor backpack, and we greeted, sisters on the fast lane to Suilven. So did the next group and then another single walker, a woman. And after a bit more slow gazing into the distance – direction sea – I continued too, towards Suilven (where else).

A silent pep talk followed – what was wrong with me, I did ‘slow nature’ all the time, in my woodland, and I had learned to confidently push back when my family wasn’t happy about my pace. Why, when thrust into a more public place, did my resolve and confidence simply vanish? Maybe it was Suilven’s fault, too big and imposing to be ignored, claiming the path just for his followers.

But I was determined to not be beaten, and to regain my own speed, step by step. I got calmer and found my own pace again, concentrating on my footsteps and how they felt as the sole touched the ground. Walking, steadily, I was back in my zone and I realised that I truly was when I got a sudden sense of floating as if my feet had suddenly lost touch with solid ground. After a quick moment of disorientation and panic, I remembered that there was a stretch of path where some matting covered a boggy and wet part, to make it passable. I was indeed on floating ground, so my body and mind had accurately picked up on this change of surface.

And then a strange thing happened, rather than being pursued from the back I noticed that the walker in front of me was going more slowly than I was. Was she too on a slow walk? Just having found my stride I was keen to keep not just my pace but also my space so I decided to look for a place to stop and a rock next to a lovely spring was the perfect location to tuck myself away for a bit.

The babbling stream was amazingly soothing, the perfect sensory distraction from anything that could possibly happen on the path. I lingered in my little hide-away for quite some time, enjoying the warm sunshine on my face, only once briefly worried somebody might walk past, not expect to see anybody, spot me, be startled, fall off the path, break an ankle… (I DO overthink things occasionally, it comes with my main occupation as a project manager).

I finally reached Suileag Bothy at around 11, much earlier than expected to be honest, and enjoyed my lunch, with a stunning view and watching more people walk past, headed for Suilven, the anticipation almost tangible. It’s a long walk-in to reach even the base of the mountain, which can be disheartening for some, and yet this is the place where suddenly it feels a lot closer and the spirits lift.

I considered heading further up from the bothy to hang out around some of the lochs we usually visit as a family, but then decided I rather wanted to keep exploring my slow path wanderings, this time the other way. I had a hunch that with the mountain at my back and the ocean calling to me it would be a different experience and I was right. As soon as my back was turned to Suilven I easily settled into a casual pace, being drawn to the little things near the path, but also the big sky and the open views in the distance. I spotted my first dog violet of the year, growing on an exposed edge of the path, bravely holding up in the blustery wind, and it made me look back at the mountain, being moved by the contrast of big and small.

But let’s face it, there was also a human angle – I was now coming ‘back’ from somewhere, possibly it could have even been Suilven? I was a mid-morning early returner from an adventure, nodding and smiling with encouragement at the walkers heading the other way. What my adventure had been remained a private matter, but also left to my fellow walkers’ imagination, and my own. On the return journey, the middle-aged slow wanderer had turned into a true woman of the mountains. I laughed at myself and wondered if return journeys are maybe always more light-hearted, however big or small your achievement?

As I returned to my residency just after midday I reflected on the overall experience. I had gone much slower than ever before on this very path, I had experienced things for which there is usually no time, I had involved all my senses. And I had learned quite a few lessons about going slow on a fast lane. None of the fast walkers was responsible for how I had felt. Me and nature connection is a personal and intimate affair and I had not realised how personal it was until I suddenly shared the same space with others.

No doubt doing things ‘your way’, especially when it’s not the most common way, needs practice. Mindfulness and meditation, whether in nature or other settings, are more often than not practiced with like-minded people or in a ‘quiet’ and dedicated space. It would be extremely odd to find somebody trying to meditate in the middle of a busy shopping center, and swimming pools have dedicated lanes for those going the distance, rather than having a bit of a paddle. My fishing-guide husband will walk the extra mile to find a quiet and private spot for fishing rather than a road- or path-side stretch because for him fly fishing is an immersive activity for which he wants his personal space. Of course, I can make myself go slowly and practice sensory activities but that the distractions around me had an effect should not have surprised me.

I actually enjoyed the path itself – as compared with the rough ground (but that’s going to be the subject of another blog post) – and there is no reason NOT to go at an easy pace where others stride along. And yet, for those easily distracted, or self-conscious, or polite and wanting to get out of the way of the fast people, opting for somewhere quieter make a lot of sense. Up here in the far North, we do have the luxury of space, and especially if going slow is a new experience then I’d definitely guide people to the less busy paths.

As for the rest of that Saturday, you maybe won’t be surprised to hear I did two more walks that day, because well – slow walking is one thing, but slow sitting around. I wasn’t quite ready for that yet.

The three podcasts in the neighbourhood residency series are now available and I’m honored that I was asked to donate the title of this blog for the first episode

You can find the other two podcasts at the neighbourhood residencies page of the bothy project website.

The project and the experience of myself and another Assynt participant is also featured on the Scotland Outdoors Podcast: Bothy Culture – Using Bothies to Reflect and Connect