The narrow trail bends up around a corner and the young birches arch overhead. A small sign reads, “Drover’s Path,” and, given a choice between the gravel road I’ve been running and a path twisting up out of sight, I know my route. I stub my toes into the steepening grade; I go up. And, though I am more than 3000 miles from home terrain, the close birches and narrow way, even the scuffed stone underfoot, seem familiar. Then, the light ahead that presages a clearing begins to shine, and I pop out into the open. “Whoa,” I say involuntarily, “Whoa.” And I slow to a walk and watch the Sound of Sleat unfold before me. Some 500 feet below the gray water sets up in rows akin to print; a lighthouse winks on a point; and across the water the mountains of Knoydart poke into the clouds.
The path ahead runs through a field of ferns grown up around recent logging and then sweeps around a contour; the footing is firm, the drizzle that insists feels like a balm. I begin running again, feeling the usual tension between admiring the sweep of land and attending to the footwork of the trail. I am on my way to Leitur Fura, a village abandoned 200 years ago when its mix of short-season agriculture and smuggling finally couldn’t sustain its hundred people. Those leaving Leitur Fura set out for Nova Scotia, and here on the Isle of Skye in old Scotia, they have left behind their stone cellarholes and the gray light of Sleat.
Reading Henry Thoreau’s journal, with its closely observed record of his daily walking, reminds me of travel’s merits. Every time we set out for terra-less-known, we gain new eyes, and, with those eyes, we see afresh. This recent travel in my family’s ancestral land, Scotland, has suggested long roots to my affinity for two landscapes – New Hampshire’s White Mountains and Maine’s intricate coast. In the Highlands and on the Isle of Skye, I kept rounding corners or looking down and seeing reminders of home; then, the land would turn exotic before my eyes. These twin perceptions made every moment rife with awareness and possibility; I was travelling a good deal a long way from Concord, even as its adjacent lands flashed before my eyes.
Then, I did what all vacation-travelers do: I came home; there, I returned to my daily trails and wanderings. But I also resolved to keep my traveler’s eye. And that, it seems to me, is part of the knack for living that Henry Thoreau mastered – he could travel “a good deal in Concord” because he found the ways and the awareness to see with a traveler’s eye.