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The Sound of Silence

In Scotland, Lisa Abend disconnects from civilization and discovers something much more … civilized.

I WAS ABOUT 20 MINUTES INTO THE four-hour train ride from Glasgow to Fort William when I realized I couldn’t stand the two men seated in front of me. This realization was based on nothing other than what I could overhear—which was every bloody word—of their conversation. They were traveling to a friend’s house, but before they arrived they would need to stop at the supermarket for cheese and wine, of course; though white, not red, since the carpets were beige and the host had a policy. One of the men also had a sister of whose parenting skills he disapproved, a nephew who would likely end up in juvenile court, a new backpack whose every compartment required minute explication, and a penchant for a Danish television series whose plot twists he could recall in terrifying detail. Did I mention that the train ride was four hours long?


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I know. The problem wasn’t Mr. Chatty and his mate. It was me. In the weeks before I went to Scotland, I had found myself increasingly irritated by the constant crush of other people, crowding me in line at the market, checking their phones at movie theaters, coming at me nonstop in tides of emails, tweets, and status updates. This happens to me periodically: The deadline pressures and everyday annoyances that normally pass unnoticed accumulate until even benign human interactions begin to feel like too much, and the only thing that helps is radical solitude. I didn’t have the time for a trip to Greenland or Mongolia or some other distant, empty place, so when I read a British newspaper story about Inverie, the only town on the Knoydart peninsula, one of the most untouched parts of the Scottish Highlands, I thought it might be just the cure for my misanthropy.

The problem? Getting there. Inverie is accessible only by boat or on foot. In my state of mind, the two-day hike seemed the better choice. I planned to start at the nearest access point—a road that dead-ends at a settlement near a lake called Loch Hourn, about 50 miles from Fort William—follow the trail along the lake’s edge to Barisdale Bay, spend the night there, then head over a pass and down to Inverie. It would be a 16-mile trek through steep and rocky terrain, and at hike’s end, I would be in a town with a population of roughly 100 people, no cell phone coverage, and a pub billed as the most remote in mainland Britain.

020314scotland2At last, the train arrived in Fort William. I picked up some granola bars and a map, and checked into a hotel for the night. The next morning, a taxi driver named Jamie picked me up, and we set out for the 90-minute drive to Loch Hourn. I had not a minute to contemplate the hills and sheep as we passed, as Jamie and I were too busy chatting. I learned about Scottish independence (“It’s the football hoodlums that are for it”) and a tiny biting insect, smaller than a mosquito but given to traveling in swarms, that was an annual plague in these parts. “Midgies,” Jamie said. “Worse than the independentists.”

Unlike the self-absorbed man on the train, Jamie was a charming conversationalist, so I didn’t terribly mind the barrage of sound. Still, after he left me at the trailhead, a quiet fell with the abruptness of a tsunami. It wasn’t silence. Birds chirped and water ran in small, stony falls down to the loch. But there was no human sound except for the crunch of my feet on the trail. The weather was gorgeous: bright sunshine, a warm-but-not-hot temperature. The view was even better: wildflower-covered hills jutting down to shiny blue water. And when I went to check my phone for the weather forecast, I had no connection. For the first time in months, I felt relaxed and at peace.

THE WALK THAT afternoon was easy. There were a few climbs, but mostly the trail hugged the lakeshore. Before I knew it, I had reached the juncture where the lake spills into Barisdale Bay. It was low tide, and across the shimmering flats, a few people dug for cockles. I picked my way through a flock of sheep until I came to a small house where a bare-chested, sunburned man was mowing the grass. He cut the engine, but he wouldn’t speak to me until he had run in to put on a shirt. Barisdale, it seemed, was an estate, and it was his job to manage it.

Craig explained that I could stay in the bothy, the first of several adorable Scottish words I would learn. A bothy is a rural shelter, open to walkers, that affords the simplest of accommodations on a first-come, first-served basis. This one looked like it slept about 12, which was 11 possible roommates too many. I paid extra for a private cottage on the property. A very loud rooster with a poor sense of time crowed with equal fervor at five o’clock in the afternoon and at six in the morning, but otherwise, my accommodations were quiet. Toward dusk, I found myself drawn, out of habit, to my phone. I went outside in search of a signal, but to no avail. Instead of checking email, I settled into the cottage and read some of the guidebooks near the fireplace.

The books agreed there was a spectacular Munro (adorable Scottishism No. 2: Munro = mountain), the tallest on the Knoydart peninsula, several kilometers off the trail to Inverie. I had no intention of climbing it. I used to do a fair bit of hiking, but that was more than a decade ago, and it left me with enough respect for serious mountains that I wasn’t going to waltz up one on a lark. Besides, it would add extra miles to a walk that would already take me the better part of a day.

Ferries from Inverie cross Loch Nevis to reach the harbor at Mallaig.

Ferries from Inverie cross Loch Nevis to reach the harbor at Mallaig.

The next morning I slipped out of the estate without seeing another soul. In minutes, I came to a path that headed to the right and cut vertiginously uphill. I said a prayer of thanks that I didn’t have to tackle that ascent right out of the gate. Instead, I went left, where the trail climbed more gently. I thought of Lord Byron and those other Romantics who sought solitude in the woods. Time alone in nature felt restorative for them. And that was before the Internet. Solitude in the outdoors was surely all the more healing for those of us who had not only the physical and moral pollution of industrialized society to escape, but also the incessant chatter of everyone we have ever known running constantly across our screens and phones. It was a relief to turn off all those voices and focus on the path in front of me.

Soon the trail crossed a stream and became so vertical that it wasn’t long before I was playing little mental games with myself to keep moving: Walk to that boulder, then you can rest, I told myself. Walk 100 steps, then you can rest. The good thing about hiking alone, I decided, is that there is no one there to see you humiliate yourself.

After what seemed like hours, but was probably only 45 minutes, the ascent plateaued. Behind me, Barisdale Bay sparkled through the folds of the mountains. Ahead, it was just as the guidebooks had described: I had come through the pass, sharp peaks soared around me, and down below I could see a lake, its cobalt waters rimmed with ribbons of sand.

I set off happily toward the distant lake. But the bone-jarring descent quickly tempered the relief I had felt when I’d reached the pass. Down I went, my toes slamming into my boots with each step. At times the trail disappeared altogether in bog, but the lake gradually got closer. From my reading the night before, I knew that once I reached it, the trail would turn into flat jeep track, and I’d be four kilometers from Inverie.

When I reached the lake at noon, I felt triumphant, even a bit smug, despite the ache in my feet. With plenty of time to make it to Inverie before dark, I took off my boots, ate a sandwich, and took a nap.

I AWOKE WITH A START. Something—I couldn’t say what—made me think I needed to look at the map. The trail had been so clearly marked that it hadn’t occurred to me to take it out earlier. Now I spread the map and traced my path. There was the climb up from Barisdale, there was the pass, there was the descent to the—I stopped. The map had me coming up to the lake on its right shore. I had arrived on the left.

I tried turning the paper, to see if I had somehow gotten the orientation wrong. I walked back up the trail I had come in on, to make sure that it was indeed a trail. And here is the part that, even now, I can’t explain. Absurd as it sounds, instead of admitting I had made a mistake and turning around, I convinced myself that the map was mistaken.

Lisa Abend’s wrong turn took her to Lochan nam Breac, the lake in the foreground. Loch Quoich is in the distance.

Lisa Abend’s wrong turn took her to Lochan nam Breac, the lake in the foreground. Loch Quoich is in the distance.

I had no one to ask, no GPS to orient me. A stone path lay across the shallowest end of the lake and I took it, convinced it would lead to the jeep track, and hence to Inverie. And sure enough, I found a trail on the other side. I followed it until it disappeared at the edge of a fast-moving river, beyond which lay another loch. The prospect of going back seemed
so horrible that I persuaded myself that if I just kept going, I would soon come across that track.

I followed what I took to be a trail, then lost it again amid the bog and grass and sheep droppings. I walked for another hour, trying to make sense of my location. Finally I came to the far shore of the loch. I saw no trail. It was after 3 p.m.

I gazed at the sun, trying to determine where it would set, but the days were so long in July that it was still straight overhead. Without a mobile connection, I knew the compass on my phone wouldn’t work, but I pulled it out and clicked the compass anyway. Amazingly, the needle began to spin. I lay the compass on the map and watched as it hit north—exactly opposite of where I thought it should be.

In that moment, with horrible clarity, I realized that I had taken a wrong turn at the beginning of the trail that morning. The right-hand path I had judged to be the one that led off to the highest mountain was, in fact, the path to Inverie. My current location wasn’t even on the map.

In For Whom the Bell Tolls, Hemingway famously describes how fear, real fear, eradicates your ability to spit. It turns out to be true. In that moment, as I realized that I was lost, I felt a physical terror I hadn’t known before, and my mouth went bone-dry. No one knew where I was. This is how people die in the wilderness, I thought: out of reach, ill prepared, and utterly alone.

I considered my options and, slowly, I accepted that I had to quickly retrace my steps, all 10 miles of them, to make it to Barisdale before dark. I managed to overcome my panic enough to hustle back up the devilish incline, my feet again mud-soaked, my muscles aching. I found myself propelled by the thought that each step erased a small piece of my mistake, and I hiked with tunnel vision. I made it to Barisdale just as the sun was going down and knocked on the estate manager’s door, embarrassed, but perhaps never in my life so glad to see another person. In the cottage, as I cleaned my bleeding, blistered feet, I wondered whether I could catch a boat to Inverie.

But, motivated mainly by shame, I had my feet bandaged and my pack on at seven the next morning. I walked out along the same trail I had the day before, but this time stayed to the right. The trail turned steeper than the previous day’s. I didn’t even try for 100 steps; I barely managed 20 at a time. The climb seemed endless. If I hadn’t just learned that I could get myself out of a bad situation—even if it meant trekking 20 miles out of my way—I might well have given up. But I kept going.

Finally, I reached the summit. There, as promised, was the pass, and down below, on the other side, a loch. I nearly ran down the hill. Sure enough, the trail came in at the right side. Sure enough, it turned into wide, flat, track. Ninety minutes later, I faced another bay surrounded by peaks. To the right, the white houses of Inverie hugged the shore.

Hunting guides Max Logan, left, and Iain Biggart scope out a herd of red deer on the Knoydart peninsula.

Hunting guides Max Logan, left, and Iain Biggart scope out a herd of red deer on the Knoydart peninsula.

I went first to the Gathering, a bed-and-breakfast where the owner, Cara Gray, welcomed me with a glass of wine. This, I remembered as I sank into her sofa, was one of the benefits of humans: Frequently, they will give you alcohol. Gray told me a bit of the town’s tragic history. It was never an easy place to live. “People used to bleed their animals and mix the blood with oatmeal for protein, then sew them back up,” Gray said. During the Highland Clearances in the 19th century, Knoydart’s population was obliterated. Landowners decided it was more profitable to turn the land over to grazing sheep than to let crofters (tenant farmers) continue to work on it. All of the peninsula’s nearly 1,000 residents were evicted; some were sent to Canada, and others were left to fend for themselves.

Gray, like most of today’s 100 or so Inverie residents, was drawn to the spectacular scenery and found the town’s remoteness a lure, not a disadvantage. She saw the lack of cell phone towers as a good thing.

There isn’t a grocery store or a doctor in Inverie. To get to those requires a trip by ferry. But Gray can depend on a hundred other souls when the cupboard gets low. “It’s ironic, though, isn’t it?” she said. “Here I was drawn to the isolation, and I end up getting a stronger community than I would have had in the city.”

Her words resonated with me. Maybe, I thought, what I had been craving wasn’t escape from all human contact—only from certain types. I went into town, such as it was, to test the theory.

Locals, stalkers, and Munro-baggers all flock to Inverie’s pub for fresh seafood, live music, conversation—and the lack of mobile phone service.

Locals, stalkers, and Munro-baggers all flock to Inverie’s pub for fresh seafood, live music, conversation—and the lack of mobile phone service.

THE CENTER OF Inverie, both physically and metaphorically, is the Old Forge pub. J.P. Robinet recently bought the place, having first come to Inverie on a stalking holiday, as a hunting trip is called in these parts. Determined to maintain the pub’s reputation for sociability, he turns off the Wi-Fi every night. “I want people to talk to each other,” he says. And talk they do. I spent the early part of my dinner gazing out at the bay, but soon conversation was unavoidable. Locals, for whom the pub is the source of all social life, mixed with a few visitors. They drank pints, laughed loudly, and shared plates of fish and chips and steamed mussels.

A pair in their 60s, a couple of self-proclaimed Munro-baggers (adorable Scottishism No. 3: Munro-bagger = hiker who likes to knock mountains off his/her list), struck up a conversation from the table next to me. “We’ve been coming since 1983,” said Peter. They asked what I was doing there, and, with more than a little embarrassment, I recounted what had happened. They laughed but didn’t make fun of me. Instead, they urged me to try one of the pub’s dozen or so scotches. I asked for guidance, and Peter suggested Talisker, made on the nearby Isle of Skye.

“Not that one!” his wife, Helen, chided, swatting him. “It’s too smoky.”

Soon, every person within a three-table radius was weighing in on which scotch I should drink. So passionate did the conversation grow that we barely noticed when a few bars of fiddle sawed the air. One by one, diners stood up and assembled at a nearby table. Two guys with guitars joined the fiddle player, and someone else grabbed a banjo off the wall, where the pub keeps instruments for anyone who wants to play. As the musicians picked up speed, a chorus of voices joined them, first on “Irish Rover,” then on Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Boxer.”

It had been three days since I started my trip, three days since the mere presence of others had set me on edge. But my wrong turn in the wilderness had forced me to confront true solitude and, in the process, clarified the source of my previous irritation. It wasn’t all human interaction that was the problem; it was the virtual stuff, the kind of running commentary that comes at you every time you turn on your computer or pick up your phone: a constant flood of irony-tinged banality that is always on. Companionship, help, easy cheer—the interaction I found in the pub—was something altogether different, and altogether welcome. I found myself telling a few stories of my own, eager to keep this passing but real engagement going long into the night.

The next morning, I took the first ferry out to the village of Mallaig. There were about 10 others onboard, and all but one of them pulled out their phones as soon as the boat crossed back into range. I wasn’t ready for that, however. Spotting the only other person who wasn’t busy scrolling through missed text messages, I sidled up. It was nothing but small talk, but I was glad for the conversation.

Photographs by Michael Turek. This appeared in the March/April 2014 issue.