Coming, Going and Enjoying the Journey.

It was towards the end of a bright day this past summer. Our west facing windows are open. I am watching the sun as it blazes through the clouds. The view is punctuated by a plane every few minutes on final approach to Glasgow airport. Their flight path is a few miles away. The planes as well as the sun are low on the horizon. Their sound is muffled, more of a distant hum than a roar. Not the harsh noise that airliners make when you are right under their flight path. Observing these heavy machines defying gravity yet slowly descending is strangely enjoyable. A smooth and steady end to travel. The end of a day merging with the conclusion of people’s journeys. 

I wonder about the occupants of these planes arriving from many places. Is this their first visit to Glasgow? What are their initial impressions? Are some returning after years away to a new, uncertain future? Who, if any, are meeting those anonymous passengers? A family, a friend or a business contact? Maybe the more faceless, formal greeting of a sheet or board held by a driver with your name. These descending aircraft contain the hopes and fears of many.

In arrivals everyone wants to get out of the airport as quickly as possible. I don’t know anyone who savours hanging around in arrivals. There might be the joy of meeting a loved one but even then you don’t linger. You leave as soon as practicable. Yet to arrive one has to leave from somewhere. Going through departures is usually slower and encourages use of shops, cafes etc. In spite of decades of increased hustle, bustle and security the departure hall of today’s airports still hold a vestige of excitement. In the 70s and 80s it was different. For the most part air travel felt more special and luxurious then than today’s typical budget airline experience. However, even nowadays, once through check in, customs and immigration, the departure experience is usually not that bad. Yes you are in limbo waiting for your flight but not feeling you are in a queue. There is also the prospect of leaving one world to emerge a short time later to a different one. The reason for a journey of course determines how one feels about the whole experience. In that there may be a multitude of joys and sorrows. Saying goodbye to home and family, starting a new life or job, facing up to responsibilities.

I notice how much more often we ask “When do we arrive?” than “What can I see on the way?”

Disguises of Love p34. Eddie Askew

Commercial air travel however does not lend itself to savouring the actual journey. Travel in an aluminium tube is not very aesthetic. Any ‘in journey’ experience for me nowadays is more likely to be internally, in my head. Of course it may be different if you were flying the plane. However I speak here about a ‘seat 21E in a crowded 737’ experience. 

Here is one personal recipe for a more absorbing journey. Become a passenger, not a driver, in a car travelling slowly through quiet countryside. It’s a bright day with clear views. There is little or no other traffic dictating your speed. No rush to arrive anywhere. The destination may even be the same place as the trip’s beginning. Happy even to just stop the car on occasions and take a closer look at something. Especially helpful to have knowledgable fellow passengers/ driver who know the area and its people well. Small villages, isolated houses and the occasional walker passes by. Fellow travellers have stories to tell with each passing scene giving a sense of connection to what or who you are passing by. “So and so’s building has a new fence round it.” “‘Mrs. ‘X’ passed away last year but her son now lives in the house.

What’s around the corner?

Of course enjoyable journeys do not need modern means of transportation. We live in a restless world. I guess air travel can sometimes be a symptom of that malaise. One of the things that Covid lockdowns brought to me, a city dweller, was a better awareness of what is in my neighbourhood. This was through the simplicity of leisurely daily walks or cycles in our neighbourhood. Even in an urban environment there are things of interest and beauty on my doorstep. Lots of wild raspberries and blackberries (to eat) growing along hedgerows. Herons and ducks on their daily movements up and down the canal. Hidden streams in local parks, wildflowers by the roadside. These scenes were always there but I often did not have eyes to see. It took a pandemic for me to be less distracted. To become more aware of the rhythms of life that are always around me. 

“The Lord will keep you from all harm – he will watch over your life; the Lord will watch over your coming and going both now and for evermore.”  

Psalms‬ ‭121:7-8‬ ‭NIVUK‬‬

Endings and Beginnings

Cherry blossom

After 2 years in Japan my wife and I felt our time there was coming to an end. Our task had been to represent Operation Mobilisation (OM) in the country. OM was the Christian organisation we worked for. The work engaged us with people, churches and other groups throughout the land.

We also spent time with Japanese of many ages and backgrounds through teaching English. The cost of living compared to Europe was very high so we needed the extra income. It was an opportunity to meet and engage meaningfully with people we would not ordinarily meet. I have written a bit more about this in Japan – Anyone for English

Our commitment to working in Japan was coming to an end. The thinking was that we would establish some things but then hand over the work to Japanese and others who would lead the work longer term. Other groups with more experience had said it was difficult for a westerner over 30 to master the language. We had therefore decided when we first went to think of a 2 year commitment. And so it was. We then passed on the baton, as it were, to others to develop things further. It is heartening today to see how the work there has grown over the years. It was a privilege to be a part of the story. There had been challenges and difficulties. Our main memory though was of an enriching, rewarding time which we look back on fondly.  

On the practical side we either sold or gave away most things. One family kindly took us for a night to a spa hotel in the mountains which was a real refreshment when our home became very primitive (i.e. no chairs, tables or bed!). It also reminded us that there are places of solitude and quiet in Japan! Our last few days in Nagano were enjoyably spent in our landlady’s home…May 10th, the day of our departure, came. Tears were shed. It had been one of the hardest times of our lives but these thoughts were lost in an overwhelming sense of God’s grace. Left to ourselves we’d have left prematurely. He had taken us through the difficulties and given the strength to persevere when all seemed lost. We were able to leave with a sense that God’s hand would continue to be on what we had been initiating. Japanese were becoming more involved which had long been our prayer. We know not when or if we can visit these distant shores again but we do know that we have left a part of our lives there. It seems that in God’s work our hearts often seem to be broken only to be mended and enlarged again. —Extract from letter to friends Sept 1994.

Our next steps after leaving were uncertain. Initial plan was to return to Europe. Then probably settle in either of our home countries, Sweden or the UK. Flying in to London in the spring of 1994 felt a little strange. We had got used to crowded living. It sounds strange now but flying from Tokyo to London seemed like being transported to a rural idyll. So much less traffic and far fewer crowds of people. From the air at least there seemed plenty green fields. So much space! It definitely felt less stressed. 

On our initial return we were part of a 10 day leadership course held by our organisation. It took place in West Watch, a country house on the outskirts of London. There were 11 of us, a comfortable number. Most participants we knew from previous times on MV Logos, India and Europe. A very welcome time of renewing friendships, spiritual refreshment and learning. It was just what we needed – a kind of buffer as we reoriented back to the west. 

We then spent the summer of ‘94 with each of our families in Sweden and the UK. All the time wondering what our next steps would be. Changing environment was nothing new but was still not easy. It was one thing as a single person to live a somewhat itinerant lifestyle. To sustain that as a couple was different

My 17 years with OM had taken me to live and work in about 70 countries. The last ten of those years was as a married couple. When we left Japan my wife and I had lived in 8 homes on 3 continents. We had experienced many blessings. Absolutely no regrets. However as the Bible says ‘there is a time for everything**’. We needed some stability. Moving home as well as adjusting to a new country or culture takes up much energy. Maybe it was our time to be more settled. 

In September we attended OM’s annual conference looking for fresh direction and inspiration. None came. Sometimes doors close. There were several possibilities within our organisation (at one point 12!) but none seemed right. We took it as a signal to step into a new time of life.

Sometimes the way ahead is not clear

In one sense this was saying goodbye to a way of life we had become accustomed to. Also it was a farewell to many colleagues around the world we had come to know over the years. However in another way our commom faith in Jesus’ promises meant there would be no permanent goodbyes. Bonds formed through working together for a common purpose would remain. A precious hope that transcends time and our life circumstances. 

So in the autumn of 1994 we moved to Scotland. We had no direction as to what to do next or where to live. An uncertain, difficult time. For the first time in 5 months we stayed on our own for 2 weeks, house sitting for a couple on holiday.

It was around then that a couple we were friends with got in touch. They had been supporting us in our work with OM. He was a trustee with Prison Fellowship Scotland. Would I be interested in working with prisoners, ex-offenders and their families? Wow, that certainly came as a bolt from the blue. Up till then I had virtually no experience of this kind of work. My initial reaction was no. I was still emotionally attached to OM. However after a short time realised that this was the next step. Another friend arranged for a flat we could initially stay in. It was the beginning of a new chapter in life, work and home for both of us. Maybe the subject of a future blog.

** Ecclesiastes 3 verse 1a

The Bothy Life

Ben Alder bothy

2022 for me is proving a bit of an experiment in outdoor living in Scotland. The first was a wild camping experience in a one man tent in May (see Big Day (and Night) In the Mountains ). This was followed in August by a night in a bivouac (‘bivvy bag’) on another mountainside. My regular trail running pal Cammie had instigated these trips. Please know that I love my creature comforts. Sleeping overnight in the wild is not something I dream about. That said I have slowly warmed, emotionally and physically, to the experiences. 

Buoyed by his success Cammie (‘C’) suggested a further mini expedition. This time it was a two night hiking / trail run trip to a remote bothy in the Scottish Highlands. It sounded a lot more civilised than sleeping on the ground outside. Bothies are basic shelters, usually left unlocked and available for anyone to use free of charge. They are found in remote mountainous areas of Scotland and the UK. The Mountain Bothies Association do a great job maintaining many of them with a network of volunteers. Despite living a good chunk of my life in Scotland I have never stayed in a bothy.

There is no financial transaction involved, only a reciprocal exchange of goodwill. Bothies demand that you be self-reliant, respect the building and possibly share a space with strangers. In return you get free shelter, the opportunity to wake up in magnificent wild surroundings, and the potential for rewarding encounters with like-minded people. Not exactly glamping, then – but approached with respect and an open mind, a special bothy experience can be far more memorable.”

Extract from Hill skills: how to use bothies 

Armed with the requisite ‘open mind’ I agreed to try out the bothy life. In summary the plan was to drive to Bridge of Gaur at the western end of Loch Rannoch. Then hike in to Ben Alder bothy with our food and gear. The next day we would leave most of our gear in the bothy and spend the day trail running/ hiking Ben Alder and surrounding area. 

A two night trip in an isolated ‘off grid’ place (no internet or mobile phone connections) requires a bit of planning. What food and gear to take as everything had to be carried in? There would be no corner shop! This included firewood to use in the bothy. Was glad C was carrying that! For the day in the hills we would leave our bedding and most of the food back at the bothy.

And so earlier this month we motored to a place just outside Bridge of Gaur. From there we hiked in the 14 km to the bothy.

Route in to bothy

Probably more than half of the way was good forest road which allowed for a good, marching pace. The wooded areas did not give a lot of perspective but the expanse of the area we were in really opened up on the shores of Loch Ericht.

Reaching shores of Loch Ericht

There we had a fantastic vista of this long loch and the surrounding mountains which stretch all the way to Dalwhinnie. Our track took us along the western side of the loch. Seeing a cut out model of a deer reminded us that it was the stalking season. We had informed the landowner we would be in the area. Hopefully our silhouettes would not be mistaken!

After a while the easy path disappeared. The last third of so of the route was very boggy and often with no visible trail at all. We were compensated with beautiful Scots pine forest scenery and dead pine remains on the shoreline.

Drowned Scots pine on the shoreline
Approaching bothy

In late afternoon we reached our destination beside Loch Ericht. A stream was conveniently located nearby to meet our water and washing needs. Weather was dry and quite warm. C suggested we go for a dip in the cool waters of the loch. I must admit my mind was more on brewing tea or coffee. Surprisingly I actually did immerse myself for a second or two.

There were 3 rooms and the only other occupants were two American women. They had come overnight by train on the London sleeper to Corrour station and walked 6 hours to the bothy. Imagine the contrast of embarking at a busy London station to then step off into the highest and most remote train station in the UK. They worked for the world’s largest search engine beginning with G. It seemed somewhat ironic that they delighted in coming to this remote place devoid of internet or mobile phone. We shared the firewood we (actually Cammie) had brought in with what they had foraged. 

The bothy had small windows making the inside dim for over an hour before sunset. It’s easy to forget that most Scottish homes 60+ years ago were like that. Outside the night sky was stunning. A true dark sky area.

Our food was more modern. Dehydrated meals that only needed hot water from a small primus stove was the staple of the food we had brought. Eating it out of a bag though was more primitive.

Was surprising at how many things previous visitors had brought. An assortment of dusty pots, pans, candles, shovels, even a chair and some clothing. There were fireplaces in two of the rooms. The rest of the building was locked for the use of the estate (the landowner). There was also a guest book. It was fascinating to discover entries for 2022 on almost every weekend and many weekdays. As we were sleeping on the floor the first night I took special note of the entry about being aware of rodents.

The next morning we set off for our day in the hills. With most of our gear left at the bothy it would be a mixture of hiking and running.

26.5km on an anticlockwise route.
Looking back at the bothy on our way to Beinn Bheouil

Shortly after starting we visited Prince Charlie’s cave. If interested in this legendary Scottish figure just google ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’. He certainly lived in a lot of caves as there are plenty named after him.

A very poor ‘selfie’ of our visit to Prince Charlie’s cave.

Once on top of Beinn Bheouil there was contact on Cammie’s phone so borrowed it to call my wife. Cammie moved off whilst I talked and after the call he had disappeared! I wandered off where I thought he was but no sign of him. After about half an hour I heard C shouting. He had seen me in the valley below. I was lost but now found. Another thing that was lost were my gloves. Was too embarrassed to tell C as I often drop my gloves whilst running/ hiking.

Approaching Culra Bothy (right).

Leaving Beinn Bheouil we continued northwards descending as far as the Culra bothy where we had lunch. Due to asbestos people are not allowed to stay there except in emergencies. However the door was wide open. Quite a large building that could maybe accommodate 20 or more. 

A nice lunch spot.
View from the north of Ben Alder (left) and Aonach Beag (right)

We then headed southwards up the long valley between the Ben Alder massif and Aonach Beag. To summit Ben Alder we then made a very steep ascent to the left at the head of the valley. The big surprise is that eventually you arrive at a huge plateau. The top is just a little mound in the far distance, not some majestic peak.

Summit of Ben Alder

Got back to bothy about 5pm and after a hot drink enjoyed more rehydrated food from a bag. C did not seem too keen on swimming again and he would get no encouragement from me. We then set to and lit the fire with remaining wood. As with the previous night there were other guests. This time two men and a woman arriving by kayak. The retirees had canoed for 6 or so hours from the north end of Loch Ericht, near Dalwhinnie. We assumed that they would occupy the other end of the bothy. Instead they set up tents outside! Then they came in and lit a separate fire in the other room where they ate a warm meal. Apparently they found the bothy too stuffy to sleep in. It takes all sorts to make a world.

As we settled for the night a couple with a labrador came in. I had seen their head torch lights on the hillside about 15 minutes earlier whilst outside. We assumed they would relish coming in from the cold. Not at all, they were just passing by! They asked if any of us had lost gloves. The lady had found gloves on top of Beinn Mheouil and they decided to stop off at the bothy to see if anyone had lost them! Very surprised and sheepishly I admitted they were mine. They were lost and now they were found. Amazing kindness. Talk about going the extra mile. Once their mission was accomplished they then set off into the cold, dark night. They were camping a mile away beside the loch and assured us their dog would keep them warm. Why did those around us find tents so attractive?

On our final day we left after breakfast for the hike back to the car. We returned roughly the same route as we had come in.

On the way out
Goodbye Ben Alder

And so we said goodbye to the big, open skies. Was grateful for lovely autumnal weather which made for a more gentle experience. The few people we met were certainly inspiring. My short experience of bothy life leaves me feeling the attraction is not so much about the rigours of staying in such places. It seems more about a quest for solitude, about getting away from it all. A love for the simple things in life. About being immersed in the grandeur of nature and companionship without the world’s distractions. All that I understand as am sure most who read this do also. There is definitely a place for bothies in 2022!