Now I knew where Elly had gone: Knoydart. And I knew how she’d gone: under her own steam with a few essentials, some of which would have struck a person from eons before today as essentials, but to me, in the Twenty First Century as ‘niche’. What would I do now? Ignorance was not an option anymore at least so far as her practical plans and goals were concerned, but what about the likelihood of success? What that meant to me was her being able to get there in one piece, but what definition of success was in Elly’s mind was a mystery. She didn’t seem to have written about that at all. It was as though once she’d decided to act, to walk away, the only sense to be made was in the pragmatics of movement. It struck me as odd, ironic even, that her ideological approach had led her here, to the production of a guide book, and that it had taken her backwards in time, technologically speaking.
If I wanted to find her it wouldn’t be through taking a train or car and ferry to Scotland, to Knoydart, it would be through following her handbook: making what she made, packing what she packed, and walking out. The purity of the plan was seductive, but what kind of point would there be in me carrying a slingshot and a hammock? She had knowledge that was beyond me.
The going was painfully halting. I enjoyed the feeling I got from resolving to start on the very same journey: East from here to Enville, and then North up to the Peaks, and off up the Pennines to skirt Southern Scotland and head North West. Every single step of the way to actually going, though, was a massive effort of will.
It was about two years now since Elly left, so how could I vacillate? I began to wonder how sincere I was being with myself after setting three dates and failing to leave on each. And I could have predicted failure, since just days before each deadline I hadn’t even bothered to check the state of the kit that I did have and add the bits I lacked. I cast around for reasons: I needed to share this, that was it, I thought. The journey had to be alone, yes of course it did, but without any person to witness it my fear was that it would remain unreal. Initially I’d tried to keep it secret, thinking that was the right way to go about it, but I must have been wrong. And yet, if I told Jason or Linda wouldn’t it imply a need for protection: for people to look out for me. Elly’s journey wouldn’t have been buffered in that way. I held on and held on, stuck in squeamishness, and berating myself for making it so difficult.
I sat with Ed in the pub, describing my walk in the woods and success at finding the fox. Then my mood changed from the simple wonderment evoked by the woods, to a flatter and straighter mode of expression.
“I didn’t tell you Ed that I’m planning to backpack to Knoydart.”
“Where Elly went?”
“Yes, but it’s not that.”
“So you aren’t following her?”
“No. Not how you mean. I’m following in her footsteps. I want to understand.”
“You’ll understand you, not her, by it.”
I thought about that. In a way it was true of course, but that didn’t spoil the plan. I still sought her. Anyhow, analysis of my reasons didn’t feel relevant anymore. I was more concerned with overcoming my inability to go than mastering why I had decided to do it at all.
“It’s odd, you know, but we have family connections with Scotland: the West Highland coast. Doesn’t seem to be why she chose Knoydart though. It’s more about remoteness I think.”
“There’s a notion that Bonny Prince Charlie holed up there, after Culloden. Remote, then, even to Scots.” Ed conceded.
“D’you know, I seem to be more worried about the Midlands, outside my front door, than the rest of it. The Scottish Borders look tricky. It’s hard to imagine that bit. You’d have thought I was going to the moon the way I’m fussing. Jesus, folks are turfed out of their homes all the time, soldiers go to war fighting forces that are out to kill them, and countless poor kids leave home and live on the streets, and yet all I can think about are the dangers of sleeping outside. Every walk I go on now I’m thinking, would that make a good bivi site. Like, how many people are about? will there be dogs? will people come out hunting through here? I’ve had nightmares, not dreams but actual waking thoughts mind you, that the countryside might be full of refugees and illegal immigrants sleeping rough who you’d never know were there. I’ve even tried to bless my journey with things and ward off the risks with rituals. And it feels right to do that, not superstitious, not in any demeaning sense.”
“Indeed, you’ll need the land to favour your journey.”
“But why should I feel so damn vulnerable?”
Jesus! I had been worried, and I knew I’d had these thoughts, but blurting them out like this made my resistance palpable. Fear, not lassitude, was the issue. Okay. I knew, then, what I was dealing with. The only trouble was that now I knew I would either have to conquer it or stay at home out of being too scared to do what I had to do.
“God, I’m so tamed aren’t I?”
“You think so?” Asked Ed.
I didn’t answer, just said “anyhow, now you know.”
One step at a time then. Back to Elly’s notes, I felt the reassuring momentum again. First the food.
I lumbered home with a heavy weight of the solid white fat and unpeeled the bag from it on the kitchen table. It didn’t smell very much, and seemed easy to manage until I started to prise it apart. The lumps of fat were quite crumbly if I handled them carefully, but they were bound together in a sponge of membrane that made them difficult to break off. I tried cutting off pieces with a knife to speed things up, but the mess began to spread as the fat warmed and the knife slipped in my hand. It wasn’t like oil: I couldn’t wipe it off things easily.
The pan was beginning to crackle as the first lumps began to liquefy. I stood over it watching, trying to decide if it smelt bad or bland, and wasn’t sure as I observed it whether actually there were any membranes at all, or whether given time the whole lot would melt down. Being impatient to get it all in the pan and done with, I didn’t wait too long before I was fishing out the yellowed lumps and throwing them into a bowl to cool and bin.
Several rounds of sieving and I had a pot full of hot, transparent, yellow fat. I expected it to set hard once it was off the hob, but even pouring it into a cold bowl didn’t seem to have any impact. It took ages. Then there was no softness at all, just a perfect block of white. I could push my finger onto it and it didn’t give way or crumple.
Now was the time to powder-down my pemmican ingredients, for which I followed Elly’s recipe carefully: venison jerky and dehydrated fruit stew (of blackberries and damsons). The meat and fruit pieces were like little stones, though, and didn’t powder down by hand, even with the big pestle. But then there would be huge expanses of pure fat to eat and surely that would just be revolting. So I added oats, which were not in Elly’s recipe. I nearly missed the salt, pepper and orange zest, but was incredibly relieved not to have once I finally tasted the pemmican. That was after I’d poured a freshly melted batch of tallow onto the dry stuff and set it in the fridge.
The slab broke quite easily into bite-sized greyish chunks. It was quite heavy: you’d never want much, I thought, but you’d not be much hungry on it. It took a while to decide how to carry it, having had to deal with the mess left in the kitchen. But this was the point that dawned on me: this tallow was the kind of thing I was made of, and I certainly didn’t start to melt when it was hot. So this fat wasn’t going to start seeping out of bags or anything like that.
With my food prepared it was easier to organise myself, and in the space of the afternoon I’d amassed a heap of things that I, in consultation with Elly’s handbook, thought would be essential to my journey. A central issue was shelter and sleep. Elly had a small tent from years ago, state-of-the-art lightweight, that was still in the loft, but there was also a bivi bag. On a number of fronts the bag seemed preferable. The idea of being zipped up in a tent somewhere with the possibility of detection, people able to see me but me not them, made the shelter of a tent too costly to allow. When we’d gone camping, when Elly was small, the night sounds were bad enough, keeping me awake and alert until dawn. I was going to have to stop thinking about the nights, but it was a big ask. I was just going to have to find a way of sleeping comfortably. I ticked off the items from my list as, with an uplifting sense of my own courage, I arranged them in the small pack that I’d found amongst the various sleeping bags. I was satisfied with my efforts finally, after moving the items around a few times (some of them had stuck out too much, and some were too heavy for the top and unbalanced it). It felt heavy to lift up from my feet, but once swung onto my back it was really quite manageable. I’d need a pole too though to keep my balance.
I didn’t have any kind of handle on whether this was the sort of weight I should be aiming for, or expecting to carry. Elly didn’t write that down. I’d only ever shouldered daytime provisions, and that was anyhow a long time ago when Jason had been into walking holidays. Well, whatever the case I couldn’t pare down the load any more than I had. Tomorrow, then, I’d set off.