Non-Fiction #2: Follow Orion

While I was in Scotland, I spent a couple days on the Isle of Skye.

Due to a combination of exhaustion from the previous day and a bad habit of hitting the snooze button, I missed the few buses that could take me to see all the sights to see on the Isle.

I chose to walk, went too far too late in the afternoon, and got stuck in the dark far from town and human contact.

This was my experience.


I paused just before the road turned away from the valley and over the ridge.

In the valley below was Uig, a modest town situated around a small bay off the Loch of Snizort on the west side of the Isle of Skye, the largest Inner Hebrides Island.

I stood on the north end of the valley, a narrow road zig-zagging down the hillside to the west where the valley was dotted with bed and breakfasts, hotels, cabin pods, campgrounds, a small white church, several conveniences stores, a bar, a café, and a restaurant. Across the valley and the bay, where another hillside rose up, I could just spot where my quaint little Airbnb sat nestled in the hillside amongst other little cottages. The sun angled brightly over the end of the northern ridge I was on, splashing the valley with waves of glowing gold light. Moisture in the grass from the reoccurring rain glittered, and the bay waters reflected white.

Over the stepped plateau behind the Airbnb, dark clouds sparked with lightning, swelling fast. Had I not seen the same thing come and go several times already earlier that morning, I would have been concerned for my own journey. It would strike the southern valley quick and hard and started dispersing before it even touched the northern bank.

Around the entire valley, a plateau of bogged yellow grass stretched wide in massive swells of gently sloping land. As I turned away from the valley, I continued down my chosen road, a narrow, chipped thing only wide enough for a single vehicle to pass at a time.

I slept later than I should have that morning. The previous day had been spent walking and standing in the rain whilst carrying everything I owned on my back, so the will to wake up on time eluded me. (Though this eludes me on normal days as well, so perhaps not the best excuse.) Still, I missed the morning buses from Uig to Portree, from which I could then travel up the opposite side of the peninsula to all the geological features the Isle of Skye is known for: the Old Man of Storr, the Quiraing, Mealt Falls, and Kilt Rock.

Now, I would only be able to take the last bus down, leaving me with no way back, and I was reluctant to pay for a taxi. I had taken one to get to my Airbnb the night before with a friendly local driver, Paul. He had left me his card with his own number written down in case I needed a taxi for the rest of my stay, but I was reluctant to call him if there was a cheaper option.

So I decided to walk.

This chipped road took me from Uig to the Quiraing in about seven miles according to Google Maps. I figured I could reach the Quiraing by around five that evening, visit, take pictures, and still have time to catch the last bus out of the Quiraing car park at quarter to six. Then I could eat dinner in Portree and get a taxi from there, not preferable but cheaper than taking the taxi all the way around.

But I got out of the Airbnb a little late, took too much time in town, stopping for lunch and grabbing several snacks for the way.

So here I was, walking down a road surrounding by these massive swaths of land sweeping up and around me. I was alone but for small herds of sheep that nervously trotted away from me as I past.

It was a strange mood, because I felt good. Walking in this beautifully untamed place. I knew where I was, where I was going, but I nervously watched the golden light dim little by little as I walked. Checked my watch periodically, never sure exactly how much time I had or needed.

I wasn’t sure exactly where this niggling feeling of unease came from. I knew the bus went to the car park. If I was too late for the bus, I could call a taxi to pick me up, and I would simply have to fork over a little more money. I had a large battery pack to recharge my phone as often as I needed, so I could always call someone for help.

I would be fine.

Still, my eyes followed the sun’s descent as I paused occasionally to take pictures, or to grab a drink of water from the bottle in my backpack.

I amused myself by teasing the sheep that ran from me. No one was around to hear me after all.

I lectured myself each time a car past going my same direction and didn’t lift my thumb to try and hitch a ride. It would be so easy, save me so much time, and yet the stigma of the action and the possibility of rejection by these unknown drivers made me hesitate and resist each time.

I began to jog on the downhill sections of road, hoping to make up some time.

Then I could see the plateau end up ahead in a jagged ridge and beyond it, the very first glimpse of the Quiraing. A thin slab of rock cut high into the air beside the ridge and, between the two rock faces, a distinct ‘U’ shape formed.

I grew too eager and deviated from the road to follow a four-wheeler trail up to a higher point, hoping to get a higher perspective of what I knew must be an awe-inspiring sight. I dodged standing water and muddy patches of moss on my way to the top, and there, I just stopped and took it in.

I laughed out loud, absurd giddiness swelling in my chest, and I couldn’t stop smiling as I took in the valley beneath me. The Quiraing was to the northwest and the Trotternish Ridge wrapped around the valley from the northwest to the east, and the ocean far ahead to the north. Behind me, the rolling plateau was still lit in gold. Beneath me, the valley was shadowed in deep, dramatic green grass and mosses broken by sharp slabs of dark rock reaching from the valley towards the ridge and reflective lakes that seemed so small from my position.

Every single formation was dramatically massive, and the depth and height and width of this place seemed almost impossible, like I was staring at a canvas instead. Minnesota was covered in trees and lakes and plains, a smaller, sweeter beauty, and so utterly different this, I could hardly grasp the reality of it.

I pulled out my camera and eagerly captured as many angles of this fantastical place as I could.

Once I settled some, I found a narrow trail near me worn into the side of the slope just beneath the rocky ridge. Tracking its path, I saw it led between the ridge and Quiraing, disappearing over the rise between them.

I eagerly followed the trail, capturing pictures as I went.

All the while, I debated how far along the trail I wanted to go. Even from that distance, I could see evidence of large rockfalls in the curve of the Quiraing. I couldn’t tell how stable it was or what was on the other side. But the further I went, the further away the road became, and I didn’t see any secondary trail that lead down from the height I had now reached. I was extremely reluctant to backtrack; it just seemed so much farther than was reasonable. Surely it would be shorter to just find the trail that returned to the carpark. I had never reached the car park, so there must be some other trail that led down to it. I just needed to find it.

Shadows deepened, and I past between the ridge and the Quiraing, carefully picking my way across the old rockfalls.

Beyond it, the trail continued through a mossy glen amidst the rocks, almost whimsical in their positioning, like fairies danced in the moonlight here.

On the other side of the glen, the trail was once again cut into the side of the ridge. Not far along, I ran into a crude fence of rough posts and wire that ran from high above me to far down in valley below. Where the trail and fence intersected, two platforms positioned on each side of the fence allowed me to step up and throw a leg at a time over the wire and to the other side.

It was crazy to think that someone had built that up here, moreover that people considered this a smart place to graze their sheep.

Around another curve of the ridge, the trail grew slightly wider, the slope lessened, and I walked a little quicker, a little less cautiously, and finally picking up into a slow jog as dusk reached its peak. Where was the trail?

While I was along the side of the ridge, a deep valley extended down and then back up in another range of rock. (I want to call these masses of rising rock “mountains,” but I’m sure they aren’t tall enough to classify.)

The road was on the other side.

In the distance, on that far ridge, I thought I saw a path curving around towards the other side, but by now it was too dark for me to be sure. I didn’t recall passing a second trail or even where a trail could have connected. By now, with so little light left, I didn’t want go off-trail to cross the boggy valley and climb up the other side only to find that it wasn’t a trail at all or that it lead me even further away from the road or that it was a dead end.

I was too terrified to deviate from my chosen path now, because if I was wrong, I would lose too much time.

If there wasn’t another path or if I had missed it, surely the trail I was following lead somewhere. All trails go somewhere. I was sure it must reach a road or town or national park at some point down the line. I just had to get there and call a taxi. If I could get to a road, I would be fine.

I check my GPS location on Google Maps. It couldn’t give me a route, but I looked to be so close to Flodigarry on the coast. If I could just get a little further, I should be able to just walk into town. It would certainly be a better place to wait for the taxi.

My trail sloped down some at the end of the valley, and I could just see where the path wound up through a rockfall and then up into what looked to be a deep winding ditch from water runoff, the mossy sides waist high and curling in towards me. It was steep but stone provided decent traction. It led over the ledge of a ridge, and beyond that, I had no idea what was left for me.

At the top, there was another fence with its platforms, and I sat to catch my breath. I took a sip of water, saving as much as I could for however much distance I had left. I packed up everything I didn’t need immediately into my bag, leaving my phone and battery pack in my rain jacket pocket and a flashlight in my gloved hand.

I climbed over the fence.

The trail followed along the ridge to my right, still going north. Initially, the upward slope was subtle, but it sharpened quickly. I could just see where the trail carried up to the top of the ridge, and the steep drop-off several yards to the right.

I took in the valley around me, hoping to find another route and reluctant to climb up the ridge. It was too dark for me to see much but the dark outline of the valley edges against the navy-blue sky, a bowl shape perhaps a half-mile long and a quarter-mile wide. I squinted through various depths of shadow, trying to find darkness in the shape of a path. In the light of my flashlight, I could see the lumpy grass forms that told me the center of the valley was bog. I though I heard running water, but it could have been far away. There was a relatively straight line of darker darkness on the far side of the valley, but similar to before, there was no place to cross the valley to reach it. Who knew if it was actually a trail?

I briefly started to walk lower in the valley, walking on top of the grassy lumps to avoid the damp earth, and sometimes the standing water beneath them. It didn’t seem to get me anywhere or help me see a direction to go any better.

So, with heavy resignation, I slowly climbed back up the short distance to the trail and followed it up the ridge, warily keeping my distance from the edge. It could have been unstable, and I wasn’t willing to risk it. It was painfully steep, especially after the nearly ten miles I had walked through mountainous terrain by that point (I had a Fitbit watch to tell me so).

Sheep grazed at the top, probably looking at me like I was crazy. A human in their territory?! I was vaguely amused by the thought, but at this point, I was too nervous and desperate to be near some form of civilization to appreciate it.

The trail began to dissipate. I wasn’t sure how to take it. Perhaps it was flat enough that all the people who came before just walked wherever instead of on one set path?

The ridge sloped down to the end of the valley, and at this point, there was no trail. I traced my flashlight over the ridge curve, and I didn’t see anywhere with a slight enough slope to walk down. And even if I did, there was no trail. I had no idea if the terrain was passable if I could somehow get down.

Far off, I could see the lights from Flodigarry, right next to the sea. It was right there! But I was high above it. No way down.

I gritted my teeth and worked my way down the steep slope. I had to step sideways to use the length of my foot for balance against the slope or my weight would pitch forward. The last thing I needed at this point was some sort of injury. The lower I got, the wetter the grass. A couple times, I missed the grass lumps I was walking on and stepped in water. My boots quickly grew damp, but I could hardly bring myself to care. As long as I got out of this situation.

I stopped descending. The sound of running water was more constant now, and I didn’t know how far away it was. I backtracked, heading south, parallel to the ridge, and thought maybe I could try going to the other side of the valley, that a path could be there and that’s why the one I had followed disappeared. I just hadn’t paid enough attention when I crossed the fence. There had to be another path.

But I didn’t know how far that would go. If it would disappear too, if it even existed, or it could take me even further away from town, from the road.

I stopped and stared into the darkness of the valley, the stars shining brighter and brighter as the sky dimmed into black.

Suddenly, I dropped into a squat and choked on a sob. Oh so briefly, I allowed myself to break just a little and acknowledge that I had no idea what to do. Nowhere to go. In the middle of nowhere. I stood right back up almost immediately, the feeling of not moving, not making progress towards something was too much to tolerate.

I pulled out my phone to try and look up trails of the area, hoping I could be near something. But it wouldn’t bring up any search results, even using my data plan.

I just needed a map. (Why I didn’t look one up before leaving my Airbnb, I have no idea.) If I could find the trails on a map, I could use it to lead me back.

I had been avoiding it, but I had enough bars to make a call. I vaguely recall thinking that the local emergency number was close to the United States’, maybe the opposite? I dialed 119. It could “not be completed as dialed.” I tried again because hey, maybe it was a fluke? Still nothing. I had no idea where to even start guessing at any other numbers. (I checked later. It was 999 for severe emergencies, and 101 to contact the police in a non-immediate emergency.)

There wasn’t anyone I knew in the area, no numbers I knew who could help me nearby. Not even my Airbnb number.

Then I remembered. I had the taxi driver’s number on the card he gave me the night before. Briefly, I hesitated to use it. He could be driving another customer somewhere. He could brush me off, though he seemed too nice to do that. At the very least, he could direct me to someone else.

I found the card in my wallet and awkwardly held my flashlight in my teeth to see the number and type it into my phone. Then I tucked the card back in the wallet and my wallet safely back in the pocket of my bag.

I forced myself to hit send.

“Hello?”

“Hi, I don’t know if you remember me, but you gave me a ride to my Airbnb last night? I ended up walking to the Quiraing and past it, and I’m not sure where I am right now.” I was a bit embarrassed at how much my voice shook, but I ignored it.

“Are you at the carpark?”

“No, I’m in the mountains past the Quiraing. I have no idea where I am. A valley past the Quiraing with a bog. I don’t really know what to do. I don’t know if there’s a map or something you can send- “

“You shouldn’t be in a bog. You need to get out of there. Do you know where you came from? Can you go back?”

“Yes, but I don’t think you understand. I think I’m a few miles in. I don’t want to go back. There must be a trail somewhere- “

“You need to go back. I can reach the carpark in half an hour maybe forty-five minutes. Will you be okay until then?”

I started climbing up towards the ridge, but it was too steep, so I walked parallel and climbed up a little at a time. I could feel exhaustion setting in and had to force my legs to keep lifting me up and back to the fence.

“Yes, I’ll be okay. I think I’ll take much longer than that to get back.”

“Okay, I’m on my way. You have enough battery on your phone? You can call again for anything. If you get lost, I can come up and find you. I imagine you don’t want me to call mountain rescue unless we have to.”

“I have a battery pack if my phone dies and a flashlight. And no, if we can avoid that, I’d prefer not to call them.”

“Okay. Start heading back. I’m on my way.”

“Okay. Thank you. Thank you so much.” I felt a tension release. Someone knew where I was, was going to be waiting for me at the end of this, could bring me back to my Airbnb. No matter what, I would be safe. I was okay.

At some point, I realized that I didn’t have my flashlight anymore or one of my gloves, because I had been using my phone light to see while I had been talking. I had tucked both under an arm and in my distraction, must have dropped them somewhere behind me. I turned and honestly considered going back to find them. The flashlight had been a gift from my mom, but it was completely dark now, I wasn’t sure what path I had taken up until then, and it could have fallen into the standing water. I didn’t think I could make the walk back up again, nor could I spare the time to search. With reluctance, I left it behind.

Turning on my phone’s flashlight, I continued working my way back and up, pausing here and there to catch my breath. My legs felt heavy, trembling in exhaustion, and I often tripped as I struggled.

But I persisted because I had to.

I kept telling myself that my body was capable of incredible things. That one step here and one step again will eventually bring me back. And I can make this one step. I can make this step too. I had not reached my limits yet. I could make it back. Yes, I was tired. Yes, I didn’t want to, but I could. I would. I would take breaks and be as careful as I could. I would make it back, and someone was waiting for me at the end.

Turns out, the fence line I remembered crossing was even further back than I thought. But I had come back to a real trail again and that alone was such a relief. I sat for another brief break and a sip of water before crawling back over the fence.

I eyed the runoff ditch that wove down the slope warily. Slowly, easing myself into the space, I took each step carefully, ensuring my shoe had grip before putting my weight down. Again and again through the space, and I did the same through the rockfall below the ditch. The small rocks shifted unnervingly, and I slid a few inches in a misstep.

At the bottom, I found the trail and eagerly followed it. I walked quickly and confidently along the path. It was so easy compared to the bog, and with my vision restricted to my flashlight’s range of light, I wasn’t thrown off balance by the slope down to the left or the slope up on my right.

Up ahead, fitting perfectly in the dark curve of the valley, Orion stood over me in the stars. One of the few constellations I knew, and he filled the sky, guiding me back. A piece of home, my bright protector.

Paul called again. “Hey, I’m at the car park. I have my headlights on so if you get close you can see where I am. How are you?”

“I’m okay. I’m back on the trail. I don’t know if the trail goes to the car park or not, but I suppose we’ll see when I get close.”

“Alright. I have my hiking shoes with me, so if you do get lost, I will climb up to find you.”

I smiled at that. “Thank you. I think I’m okay as long as I have a trail to follow. I should be seeing you soon.”

“Be safe. Call me if you need anything.”

“I will. Thank you.”

I made good progress until I reached another rockfall section. I was climbing down through it, and I couldn’t see if the path picked up again at the bottom or if it went back up to the ridge. I thought I saw a trail up above and went towards it. Stopped and questioned it. Went towards the valley bottom. Stopped. I climbed back up just a little further and shook my head. That wasn’t a trail. And went back down and reclaimed the trail at the bottom.

I reached the original fence line and climbed over.

My flashlight abruptly went off and darkness wrapped around me. I resisted the instant suffocation I felt and fumbled for my battery pack and the cord in my pocket. My balance swayed. The steep slope to my left was the same vague darkness as the path under my feet and the ridge to my right. I carefully crouched down, leaning to the right slightly until my phone lit back up with the start up screen.

I turned on the flashlight again.

I climbed up and went over a peak and instantly I saw headlights in the distance, pointing straight towards me.

I smiled.

Soon I lost sight of the headlights as I went back into the valley, but I still followed Orion, and the path soon climbed up to the ridge as it had been at the beginning. The trail crossed a small waterfall, no more than a narrow stream trickling down the rocks, and I picked my way across the driest rocks.

On a whim, I paused at the other side. Crouching down with a cupped hand, I caught the cold mountain water and sipped at it. It was numbingly cold and felt so good.

Beyond, the path slowly widened and crossed several streams with large stones perfectly positioned on each side to step on, flat and smooth. The terrain leveled out, and I moved quickly now.

Then the elevation rose, and I suddenly saw the taxi no more than two hundred yards from me. It was such a relief that I had to force myself to keep moving, to not bask in the relief. I kept a close watch on the car while I followed the trail to its end.

Paul got out and stood in the road waiting for me.

I approached, and he immediately pulled me into a warm bear hug. As I relaxed, I could finally feel the tight tension release bits at a time. I noticed how quick my breaths came, how they shuddered, and the trembling in my limbs.

“Hey, you okay?” He asked in his deep Scottish rumble.

“Good. Good. My God, that was crazy,” I replied.

“I bet. You feel okay? Not hurt?”

“No. I’m okay. It was just – crazy. God, I just – “

He chuckled. “I bet. Do you need water? A glucose drink? It has electrolytes and sugars to replenish what you lost.” He opened his trunk and pulled out a drink.

“I – yes, that would great. Thank you.”

He handed me a large drink and opened the passenger door for me (on the left side which was still strange to me). He went around and got in. “Are you cold? Need the heat?”

I shook me head. “I think I’m okay. It wasn’t that cold.”

He nodded. “I suppose compared to what you’re used to and all the exercise, you wouldn’t be.”

He was right. When I left home not even a week ago, it had been nineteen degrees below zero. The whole day it had been between thirty and forty degrees. It was still chilly, but I had a sweater, a leather jacket, and a rain jacket on with a scarf, gloves (now just one glove), and a hat I had tucked away in my backpack when it got too warm earlier.

For the drive back to the Airbnb, we talked, and I found some comfort in getting the stress off my chest.

I also realized just how dangerous my situation had been.

He described how the runoff from the higher points of the mountains created channels often no wider than six inches but could grow several feet deep, and grasses often grew over them, so they were difficult to spot. That he had once gotten stuck in one while dirt-biking.

It was terrifying to think that I had probably been surrounded by these channels. I was suddenly so glad that I had chosen to walk on the mounds of dirt and grass. A broken ankle – or worse – would have ruined any chance of getting back without help.

“It’s a good thing you were able to follow the trail out. If we had to call mountain rescue, you would have been on the local news by morning!”

“God, that would be horrible. Even worse, they would have called my emergency contact, and the last thing I need is my mom freaking out. She’d be on the first plane out, and she’d never let me leave home again!”

I could only feel horrified at the thought; I would never live it down.

Then he mentioned that people weren’t supposed to go so far in. That I was probably following sheep trails, and usually they just sent dogs up to bring the sheep back. (In hindsight, the trails were too well-worn for the most part and I did see human footprints, it was only when I lost the trail that it became a problem. And that I went so late. That was definitely a mistake.)

He told me that he had been eating dinner when I called and hadn’t intended on working that night. He stopped eating immediately when he got my call, grabbed his hiking shoes, and came to wait for me. Again, I was overwhelmed with such utter gratitude for this man.

After Paul dropped me off, after I ate a bun and finished the glucose drink, I lay in my Airbnb bunkbed, and just thought how insane it all was. How I persisted on that path for so long. How I was so sure my way out was forward and that going backwards was longer, that I might not have come back at all. Others have been in the same place that I was and not come back.

While I knew that I would have survived the night had I been stranded, that I wouldn’t have fallen asleep in the just-above-freezing weather, I still might not have gone back on my own. I may have still tried to go forward and broke an ankle, hit my head, or otherwise, been incapacitated to such a degree that I did fall prey to the cold.

Later, I looked at the area I had been in on Google Earth and traced the path I took.

I had been heading straight for a mountain runoff channel that appeared to be a deep gouge in the earth. Who knew how large it might have been in person?

And even if I had managed to climb down from that valley, there was only untouched bogged land for another mile and a half before the nearest road.

Right before I finally fell asleep hours later that night, I thought humorously that if anyone ever asked – though I don’t know why they would – I could say that I owed my life to God, my parents, and a taxi driver.

fin.


Thanks so much for reading! I hope you enjoyed that and maybe learned a thing or two not to do when in a similar situation!

(If you go hiking long distances, please start earlier in the day. Give yourself time and make sure someone knows where you are, and that you have  a way to call someone in case of an emergency.)

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