We rise in the morning to an island drenched in last night’s rain. Such is the conundrum of booking a place like Skye to vacation. You book months in advance–knowing you come here to be outdoors. Kayak, camp, bike, boat, whale watch–people don’t come here for the theater.
But there is always the real possibility of rain. And today’s weather map makes that an almost certainty. Based on accuweather predictions, it seems like our best window is between 2 to 5, so we plan our day on an act of faith that we will see enough dryness to hike the Quiraing in that window.
In truth, we need this miracle. The two provisions every site says about the Quiraing is 1) don’t hike when it’s rainy and 2) don’t hike when the visibility is low. On the whole, the sky in Skye portends poorly for each, but we set out on our quest regardless.
We begin our morning over oatmeal and fruit in the kitchen before the rest of the house is awake. Soon a couple from the Netherlands joins us at the table. They, too, are working a similar timetable, hoping to get a hike in before they return. The hiuse’s resident Scottish Deer Hound pays us a visit at the table. Then we hit the road.
Through the ride up the east coast to Staffin, the rain spits most of the time, but because I believe the weather will break our way, each shift in the clouds seems a good omen. We see some pull off attractions and take our time moving up the coast: apparently, some dinosaur fossils were found near here, and Staffin, unlike many of the lightly marked hikes on this island, have made an effort to highlight their ancient historical and geological features on this part of the island. Down through a valley are the ruins of an old Germanic house near the shore. A few miles up are is Mealt Falls, which plummets straight to the sea, and Kilt rock. We find lunch in a small cafe right near the turn.
By all accounts, we have timed this perfectly. It’s about 2 when we make it to the car. It’s still raining, but we have staked out day on this shift: no turning back now. The trail is only a short drive up a B road between Staffin and Uig. As we begin the ascent, a ram stands sentinel against the road. He is motionless and stoic, the gargoyle to the entrance hunched over the gates.
Our pilgrimage does not confirm our faith, unfortunately. The further we climb, the harder it rains. When we reach the trailhead car park, a food truck style RV is selling tea and paninis. But the soul of the day is pea–thick, moist, and a visibility of less than 100 meters. The rain is only seen in its splatter against the windows and the ever increasing mud puddles on the road and trail.
I get out to double check the sign. We’re in the right place. Apparently, the ancients thought so as well. The Table, if we ever get there, is labeled as “the navel of the world,” a mythological archtype in which a culture centers them existence, perhaps even with a creation story. In Peru three years ago, I found out that the Incas believed this about Cusco; it was their point of Genesis. There are theories that Stonehenge served a similar purpose for an ancient culture. And while it fascinates me that cultures accross the world create these unifying stories, it shows that they are likely effective storytelling as opposed to historical fact. The stories are not true in an empirical sense, but the belief in the stories, at some level, guides the way a person and a civilization observe their connection to the natural world.
So far, our act of faith has proven empirically false as well. Nic and I are sitting in the car, hoping the rain will subside so we can eventually hike. But right now she is trying to catch up on some sleep that she lost coughing in our damp and musty AirBnB. Perhaps, our act of faith will at least bring her that. Even if your belief proves untrue, buffeted by the harsh, cold reality of a mountain isle, what more can you do but assess where you are and move–or don’t–from there? Right now, we are okay in the car, which is still better than being caught outside in this storm.
In my dreams. I see the light and hear the rhythm of the rain slow, and move to get my bag to hit the trail. But when I work to actually do this, it wakes me from a vision of the world as I wish it to be to a world as it is. We bob in and out of sleep until about 4:30. The trailer has closed up shop. Part of me is willing to make a go of it, but it is my very impulsive and sometimes dangerously adventure seeking part. Maybe if it were only me, I might make a break for it, but I have Nic’s safety to think of as well.
As we drive off, I see the myriad streams, new swollen with a day’s heavy rain, wash down the mountain. At times, these streams–that now border on rivers–threaten to take over the road. I try to tell myself that not hiking was the best choice. I try to use my sleep to justify that this all worked out for the best. I try to lose myself in the beauty of the drive. But all attempts to make it okay fail. I’m frustrated by the missed opportunity, and as I turn down A87 toward Portee, my eyes scan the landscape that will soothe my hunger for discovery. I even pull down to the sea, only to end up I someone’s yard. We discuss our next move, and decide exploring Portee is sufficient for the day.
Portee is the capital, which is to say it is the largest collection of buildings on the island. It has a roundabout, a high school, pubs, hostels, hotels and gift shops. It also has the Portee harbor, which–after a brief tour of the center of town–we turn our direction. The restaurants and pubs are teeming with thwarted outdoor enthusiasts, but down at the harbor we find a modicum of solitude and peace. There Nic does what she does so well, pulling beauty out of the mundane–here the rocky low-tide harbor strewn with algae and underwater fauna abandoned by the tide. She sees things others don’t and finds a way to frame it so everyone else can see it’s beauty. This is her urge in our trip. Having sated hers in the harbour, we made our way to dinner and home, unaware how much the damp of the day had settled into our bones, until we bathe and change for bed.
The next morning comes early. I’ve set an alarm for 6:40 to try to milk every drop of say from Skye before we have to leave the island by 1. But the sunlight wakes me early, and by 6:15 I am up and getting dressed. Nic looks at me like I’ve lost my mind. She’s playing slug-a-bed, so at some point I head out to explore the property while she gets out of her PJ’s and starts packing.
I make it out to the edge of the water. It’s low tide on the northern shore of Corry near Broadford, which means the algae Nic beautified through art yesterday now festoons the muddy ground between the trail and the rocky shore. I cross the marshy ground and sit on the rocks, listening to the waves lick the shore, watching the submerged algae move in circles with the ebb and flow, eerily like the grass amid the fierce, swirling winds on Arthur’s seat. I remember a story I read yesterday while waiting for the storm to pass about a local artist whose father took him out to such a stone prominitory on the shore only to have the tide roll in and strand them as the night fell. The ocean has a beauty here, but it is a powerful and dangerous one, even more so that it has been driven by storms.
Scottish philosopher David Hume once posited that an ordered, teleological universe is but the frame of a story we place on the chaos of the world to try to make sense of it, much like my belief in the story Accuweather told me yesterday. Walking these Scottish beaches, it is easy to see Hume’s inspiration. From the trail, this seemed a simple walk to a flat place to observe the sea. But every stone is its own balancing act, complicated by the slippery moss and rain. And though my comfy room is back at the house, the tide could turn and I could be marooned on this rock. It’s just me the wind and the waves out here. As much as I would like to make it otherwise, the Scottish weather–and perhaps the universe itself–is in a state of unpredictable flux about which we tell stories–true or not–to grasp some meaning or glean some understanding.
This, as they say in philosophy, is where Hune began to feel the fear in his bones. Maybe it was just the wet weather of the Scottish highlands, or it was the foggy fear that our attempts to build purpose through art or myth making or travel itineraries are all for naught. But this means we can not experience the chaos and understand it, quantify it. But that would make order graspable. One of my favorite philosophers, Alan Watts, repeatedly opined that if all things worked together as they do…according to The Tao…then what we find as chaos one one level is order when seen from another. As such, he claimed, we whole embrace chaos as an integral part of life and approach it with wonder, like a piece of music we’re hearing for the first time.
All of this rain has probably given me too much time to think. If the weather had broke my way, I might be spinning some yarn that the aisle of Skye loved us, or that we were blessed, or that our faith had been justified. But it didn’t, so I’m not. Instead, I’ve been watching the water flood the highlands for the last two days. Every waterfall now glows in the distance roaring with might and power. What is a frustrated hike on my level is the flux of the water that has shaped this land–this land i’ve become entranced by–at geological and temporal levels that I can only begin to understand. What is it to these cosmic workings that I’ve traveled across the pond to hike for a couple of days?
My faith in the weather was but my best approximation, my ebb and flow. Like going to Skye and back, driving to Quairaing and back. I would do again and every time, as I do with my walk to the shore and back, whether the algae can make sense of it or not.