Bogsurfing, or How to Not Drown in Peat
Been gone for a bit, having taken a break from travel for home, family and the holidays. Here’s the conclusion of my hiking expedition into Scotland, in the Scottish Highlands and Islands. When I left off, my friend David and I were in the remote Outer Hebrides.
Step three: Using dead animals as flotation devices
The island of Lewis is connected by a small spit to the island of Harris. Harris is currently famous for Harris Tweed and should be famous for having some of the most stunning landscapes this side of a fantasy novel.
Me and my traveling companion had, at this stage, couchsurfed, used dormitories, and slept in the spare rooms of kindly pensioners. We had woken up next to Portuguese fishermen and mad Scottish retirees and unsmiling Germans. We were in need of isolation and cold, windswept beauty, the original grail of our Scotland quest.
On Harris, there were treks into the mountains that were waymarked by crofter huts, the old, low-slung stone cottages that housed Mel Gibson in Braveheart (when he wasn’t spending those portions of the movie screaming like a Detroit Lions fan with a Bob Marley haircut). Balancing out the traditional huts were bothys, small wayhouses that can keep you watertight and windtight and nothing more. It’s simple but generous hospitality, the sort of kindness to trekking strangers that is sadly rare among American landowners, but pretty par for the course in Europe. The code of the bothy is simple: bring your own bedding, your own firewood, and when you make No. 2, bury the shit outside.
Call it ‘crofter-surfing.’ Well, call it back country trekking, since that’s what it potentially was. David and I spent one more night in a boarder house in Stornoway, on the Island of Lewis, then set off by car the next morning for Harris and her hills.
There is an almost immediate shift in landscape as you cross the isthmus that separates the low gorse and blowsy grasslands – the machair – of Lewis from Harris. Both islands are cold and gale-stripped of vegetation, but where Lewis is flat, soft and rounded, Harris is knobbly, jagged and rocky. Harris bristles with mountains. It is harsh, and very beautiful in her harshness.
We rounded curves and bends in the road, our jaws in a permanent state of drop. On one bend, a steel-gray ocean was edging towards mountains whose peaks formed a bay, like Pacman taking a jagged chomp out of the sea. To the west, a plain rolled away into a foggy valley. It was the most beautiful thing I had seen in my life. I said, “David,” but he was already pulling the car to the shoulder. That valley demanded a hike.
There was a curve of green short grass rounding like the bottom of a ‘J’, with the top of the letter the western peak that overlooked the entrance to the valley. The bottom arc extended into the plain and looked smooth and easy enough to walk up, a grassy spine to a great view. David set off at point; I followed behind a few paces.
All the way up flat slabs of rock jutted out like the pffting tongues of some race of rude giants. Purple heather and sharp shrubs clung to the cliffs, an alpine stubble for the rockface. We occasionally gripped the hard, sharp plants for footing, to keep from falling into larger and deeper chasms that striped the approaches to the mouth of the valley.
David reached the peak that lipped over the landscape before I did. It took me almost 20 minutes more to join him, and when I did we were both silent. Somewhere in my attic I still possess a photo of what we saw, and I can and will describe it here, but it was too beautiful, and came after too much searching – of feeling adrift in Europe and searching for a place to be alone, of long hours on British buses, of nights in train stations and bus depots, of rain and wind and more rain, of sleeping on strangers’ beds and sofas, of the long walk here from a car just glimpsed below by the white tideteeth of the northern seas – for me to truly describe the feeling that view gave us. It was as simultaneously sad and happy as I’ve ever been in my life.
We saw: A trickle of snow rush river. Wet, black clumps of boulders flanking a soft depression in the landscape, overlain with dark green grass. In topographic counterpoint, mountains made for dragons shredded a fog which poured over everything like sour milk.
David and I stared for awhile. One of us said, ‘Damn.’ We stared awhile more and then David started making his way back to the car, picking his way down the same slope we had trundled up.
“Wait,” I said.
“I’m gonna walk back through the valley.”
He stared at the bottomlands for a bit and nodded.
It took me almost half an hour of careful stepping amongst the rocks and the gorse, using Silverweed and Milk Wort as handholds that scratched my palms, to make the bottom of the valley. When I reached that lowland I realized my error in judgment.
This was not a valley but a bog inlet. There was no ground. It was, essentially, an extension of the bay we had spotted earlier. Grass mixed in with ocean; an estuary masquerading as land. I grew up in a similar wetscape amidst the marshes of Southern Maryland. I love that land, but I respect it, too, for its deceptive beauty. There’s a lot of dangers in the mucky teeth of a swamp.
Here and there marsh orchids and marigold and clumps of heather and red lichen formed little islands, but the rest was reed grass underlined with a thin gruel of mud and cold water. As I stepped in, I slipped, till the wet was up to my ankles, my knees, my waist, and finally, my chest. I imagined being dug up centuries later, preserved in peat, my jacket intact and leaving me identifiable to future archaeologists as Helly Hansen Man.
The situation turned worse when a thick Scottish mist curtained over everything, until I literally could not see five feet in front of me and the world was reduced to a milk cloud, plus the small lap laps of cold water pushing against my chest. My feet were suctioned into something warm and yielding. My arms treaded, because even with mountains just meters away, I was sinking into this hybrid land/water/fog world. If you have ever seen The Hedgehog in the Fog, that excellent Russian short animation film, this was where I was: in the fog, unable to escape, blind and led by whatever small sensory incidents were around me.
Ahead of me, I spotted something black. It stood out against the white mist like a beacon. I mucked my way towards it and the ground began to firm, until I pulled higher, dryer, and my feet were on solid something. The black, a small, dark blot, was still ahead of me. I backed up two steps, all I could without feeling the seep of water begin to squish into my toes, and then stepped forward and jumped.
Splash. Water rushed up, and now it was at my neck and my chin, but the indistinct form had taken on proportion, texture, definition: it was a drowned ram. Its coat was stringy and waving tendrils of wool in the rush water, blending into the encompassing fog. The head was black, a dead face, no longer bloated but stripped and leatherized by whatever bacteria preserves things in peat.
The water pumped in and out of the eyes and nostrils and between brown, rotting teeth and under the fur so the ram looked as if it were breathing in marsh time, like the marsh had given it life after robbing it of such. A few bones floated to the surface, displaced by the weight of my body.
I clung to the corpse like it was some ungulate life preserver and looked into the empty eye sockets, pulsing with the bog tide. The horns of the ram licked the surface of the water, and unaccountably, I wanted those horns, wanted to bend forward and hold them.
Instead I looked up onto a new world of sensory mileposts: flashes of color and marsh flora. I turned away from the horns and plucked a small sprig of purple heather, pocketing it. Then I placed my hands on the sides of the dead ram and pushed up and my feet were free and now my chest, and I pushed off and kicked out and was on ground once more. There was color ahead. I jumped again.
My feet skimmed the water and I swear in that moment something like hands pushed out of the sog. I felt, in a space between breath, the ghost of something around my ankles, yet nothing pulled me down but gravity and I landed with a whump in a clump of blood lichen and knife-y reeds. The plants grew on solid soil and I passed my hands through it, breathing that reassuring dank. The world was musty in my nostrils, and then cold, fresh, mountain air gusted through, and the fog started to lift.
Ahead of me, more marsh islands crept out of the cloak of the dissipating mist. I judged my distances, hopped them, one after the other, till the marsh islands became rock islands and the rock islands became turf. On one stretch carpeted in Sea Campion a herd of curious sheep waddled towards, than away from me. I wondered if they could smell their dead brother.
From there I stumbled, leg sore and gasping, back to the car. I saw myself reflected in the shotgun mirror: wet, and almost black up to my face with the trace of whatever I had just flirted with. I opened the car door and sat down.
David snored awake from a nap and gave me a once over. “What the hell happened to you?”
I sighed and lit a cigarette to stave off a wet cold already gripping at my bones, and exhaled. “Just drive, man.”
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