The Old Man of Storr: “The Eye”

As I mentioned before, the best way to get around the Scottish Isles is by car. Landscape and cultural sites are spread out and often inaccessible by public transit (like the Fairy Pools, which I’m incredibly sad to miss). Since renting a car is not really an affordable option for me, E and I have to make due with the hikes we can reach by bus.

The Old Man of Storr is a pillar of volcanic rock situated at the highest point of the Trotternish Ridge. The formation itself is impressive, and its visibility from many points on Skye also made it a cache site for Nordic invaders. On our first hike outside of Portree, we saw Storr in the distance, lifted like a limb into low storm clouds.

One issue that comes up for us is the lack of internet in Portree. It becomes difficult to do adequate research on the trail beforehand. I remember reading that the loop was relatively short, under two hours, and I figure that the exact distance of the trail will be listed at the trailhead.

E and I are two of only four people taking the bus out to Storr in absolutely miserable weather. Mist obscures the landscape to the left and right of the road, and wind is relentless against the bus windows. We’re dressed in waterproof hiking gear, but the unpredictability of the wind gusts and accompanying rain drizzles are not promising.

When we arrive at the trailhead, there are multiple plaques providing information about Storr. However, none of them tell us the distance to Storr itself, or the approximate time of the hike. We have no choice but to start up the trail anyway; the next bus comes in 2.5 hours.

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The beginning of the footpath is slick with mud. The trail is surrounded by machined brush, left in red heaps, and the only trees still standing are far enough away to disappear into the mist. One sinking step at a time, we make our way up the winding trail, watching for puddles, while the wind pounds at our backs and rain flurries soak through our layers of clothing.

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About ten minutes in, stones start to litter the landscape and gradually overtake the trail. Grasses and moss have replaced the machinery as we enter the part of the trail outside of the development zone. The curtain of mist lets up enough to see that, up ahead, the stones are shaped into winding stairs, a fairly vertical line that disappears in the haze. The stone around us is the same kind that covered the coastline the previous day, but their color changes in the rain, creating a striking contrast between the near-black of the rock and the electrifying green of wet moss.

About ten minutes in, stones start to litter the landscape and gradually overtake the trail. Grasses and moss have replaced the machinery as we enter the part of the trail outside of the development zone. The curtain of mist lets up enough to see that, up ahead, the stones are shaped into winding stairs, a fairly vertical line that disappears in the haze. The stone around us is the same kind that covered the coastline the previous day, but their color changes in the rain, creating a striking contrast between the near-black of the rock and the electrifying green of wet moss.

We push through the weather for about 35 minutes. Two other hikers are on the trail with us, and to my annoyance, they keep almost our exact pace. I like to have some seclusion when I hike, space for me and the people I choose to hike with, so I try hanging back, moving head, etc., to put some distance between us. But in the end, our pace is too similar, and we have to share our space.

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This is the point at which multiple factors combine to make us especially miserable. First, the weather is debilitating. We are soaked through to our bones– especially E, whose raincoat is less water-repellant than my jacket. E has been having ankle pain, and between the slipping mud and uneven, movable rock, those issues are flaring up. Our proximity to the other hikers is really bothering me, unreasonable though that may seem. Lastly, we have no idea what our time frame is. With no visibility, Storr could be five minutes ahead or an hour ahead. We make the decision to turn back without seeing Storr.

I believe strongly that, when it comes to travel , failures in plans we make can turn out to be our greatest successes, our most unforgettable moments. E and I have turned and are heading back down the trail. As we do so, the mist is gradually letting up. The first thing I see is the silhouette of a pocket of trees, appearing along a ridge. Then, I can make out the bulk of islands, like shadows marking the sea.

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I’ll never forget what I see next. There seems to be a thread of light riding on the air in the distance, identifying the horizon line. In the parting of the mist, that thread starts to gain definition, and what I’m looking at is actually a patch of sunlight breaking through clouds and landing on the water. The storm clouds, the collection of island masses– everything surrounding that light remains dark, and in contrast, the light seems bright as the sun itself. Sun held within a strip of water. Everything around me seems shadowed in comparison, as if I’m standing in the negative zone. I can see distance as I’ve never seen it.

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Within a couple of minutes, the sight has dissipated, and once again, the horizon is nothing but island, cloud, and mist. We make it back down to the trailhead and spend a miserable hour and a half waiting for the bus. At one point, we can see Storr standing tauntingly above us. We were probably only ten minutes away when we turned back.

We could have made it up to the volcanic rock if we had kept our heads down and trudged forward, in spite of the weather and irritation and pain. There are times when this is exactly what you need to do: push forward. However, there are also days when the right thing to do is admit defeat and turn around. We might have made it up to the Old Man of Storr, but in the end, Storr is a pillar of rock. I’m from New Mexico and I’ve seen lots of impressive rocks, but I’ve never in my life seen anything like the light that hit the water when I turned, that disappeared as quickly as it formed.

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My poem today was selected from an anthology called Best Scottish Poems 2012. The pinpoint focus at the end of the poem should explain why I chose it. The “waxing moon lighting a track” could be, in the case of my story, the emerging sun. The ephemeral passing of light was the same.

 

The Eye

by Sheenagh Pugh
Across the bay, they’re building a house
with a glass wall, panes all the way up

into the gable, windows that wrap
around corners for a view as wide

as sea and sky, to take in Sumburgh Head,
Auriga, every passing vessel

and pod of orca, storm-force gales,
anvil clouds, the cliffs of Levenwick,

the waxing moon lighting a track
clear to Fair Isle. This huge eye,

lidless, unfillable, as hungry
for every last object it can rest on

as if it were mortal, knowing how soon
light goes by; how little time it has.

 

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