Sunburn in Scotland
Sunburn was the last thing I expected when I set out to climb Ben Nevis. You can start out in sun and get caught in fog, gale-force winds or pelting rain. Stumble into one of the gullies or off a ridge en route to the summit, and the next stop is the bottom of a sheer cliff. On the other hand, in spite of some steep sections, the trail is mostly a steady switchbacking up relatively gentle slopes.
I started off with only water and a sandwich in my small pack. Instead of sturdy hiking boots, I wore lightweight sneakers. I had no map, warm clothing, hat, gloves, first aid gear or whistle.
I did tell the proprietors of the bed and breakfast where I was staying that I was planning to hike up Ben Nevis. They warned me to watch for runners trying to break the record of less than two hours from Fort William to the top and back. (That’s compared to the 5-7 hours for normal folk.)
The bed and breakfast was less than a mile from the trailhead. My hosts’ directions were good enough I didn’t really need a map. The trail was not only clearly marked but heavily traveled. Though I walked alone, I was soon one of dozens making their way up the side of the mountain.
Reward at the top
At every switchback the views widened. Surrounding hills flattened as the trail climbed above their tops. Then the bucolic, sheep-dotted hills gave way to barren, rocky slope where the trail was hard to make out. Not trying to set a new record, I reached the top in mid-afternoon and spent a long time eating my sandwich, checking out the old observatory, and rotating slowly in all directions. I was reluctant to leave the view over endless ranges of hills and lakes.
By the time I started down, my arms and face were grilled meat. Then I saw a vision I’d missed on the way up: the sparkling waters of Lochan Meall an t-Suidhe. It seemed incongruous, lying in a saddle where the only source for replenishing it was melting snows. I left the track and wandered toward the lake.
The cautious part of me figured I should stay on the path and not wander off alone. But the sunburned part of me was aching for some cooling water.
The latter won. I reached lake’s edge, spent a good ten minutes looking for signs of other hikers, and then stripped to the buff. Cool water never felt so good.
Where the spirit finds home
As I soaked my burning skin, I watched the backs of other hikers recede in the distance. I felt both gloriously alive and completely at peace. Far from anyone I knew, away from any place familiar, I was at home in my own skin. Water, sky and earth embraced me, welcomed me to claim my place in the universe.
Peace can be elusive in our busy lives. Perhaps that’s why this simple event stands out in my mind thirty years after I slipped into the cool welcome of that mountain lake.
My spirit found home, and I learned it is a place I can return to at any time, wherever I may be.