Reviewer: Linda Hepworth
Publisher: Vertebrate Publishing 2nd September 2021
ISBN: 978-1839810206 PB
In February 2019, award-winning writer Alex Roddie left his online life behind when he set out to walk 300 miles through the Scottish Highlands, seeking solitude and answers. In leaving the chaos of the internet behind for a month, he hoped to learn how it was truly affecting him – or if he should look elsewhere for the causes of his anxiety.
The Farthest Shore is the story of Alex’s solo trek along the remote Cape Wrath Trail. As he journeyed through a vanishing winter, Alex found answers to his questions, learnt the nature of true silence, and discovered frightening evidence of the threats faced by Scotland’s wild mountain landscape.
The moment I read the publisher’s synopsis I knew that I wanted to read Alex Roddie’s story of the challenges, both physical and mental, he faced during his almost four-week-long winter trek through some of Scotland’s wildest and most remote areas. His opening sentence “I’d come to this high, wild and lonely place to escape from my anxiety for a while, but it had followed me here like a dog” immediately engaged my attention because with those few well-chosen words he managed to convey an impression that what followed would be an honest, thought-provoking and insightful account of his experiences. My initial impression proved accurate because his powerfully engaging writing-style captivated my attention from that first sentence, right through to the moment I turned the final page of his extraordinary story. I’m sure that a major reason for this was because he so effectively interwove his accounts of the considerable physical challenges he faced with his reflections on the changing terrain he was walking through, the very visible effects of climate change and the deeply personal challenges he was confronting. The latter included his feelings about the recent death of his father, his struggle with what at times felt like crippling anxiety, his increasingly ambivalent feelings about his ‘relationship’ with social media and his ongoing attempts to try to separate cause and effect.
I found that Alex’s honesty about confronting his ‘demons’, and his sharing of the insights he developed during the course of his journey, made this not only a very moving story to read, but also a constantly thought-provoking one because many of the struggles he was grappling with felt very recognisable. It feels tempting to share some of these insights but I’m going to resist doing so because I feel there’s something important about following, in ‘real time’, what triggered the gradual shifts in perception which he experienced during his long journey. In fact, a major reason his story took me longer to read than I had anticipated was because I found myself frequently pausing to think about the internal ‘conversations’ he was having with himself, the consequent insights which emerged and his reflections on how he could use these to make life less stressful for himself.
Apart from enjoying the more philosophical aspects of the author’s writing, I thought that he evoked some very vivid images of the ‘lows’ of his trek, of how relentlessly tough most of the walking was, how it felt to trudge all day through wet, boggy terrain rather than the frozen conditions he’d expected during February and the despair he felt when supposedly waterproof materials proved to be anything but! Equally well-portrayed was his sense of relief, and enjoyment, on the few occasions he was able to spend a night in a bothy … particularly when that included meeting fellow-walkers, sitting in front of a log or peat fire and sharing a dram or two! I also enjoyed the selection of colour photographs which were included because they offered a glimpse of both the beauty and the challenge of the terrain he trekked through. I found that his descriptions of the natural world, and its effect on him, were often affectingly poetic, at times almost spiritual in nature, and I appreciated the extra dimension this introduced to my enjoyment of reading this truly memorable book.
In his penultimate chapter, entitled ‘Manifesto’ he offers some thoughts on how we can all become more mindful when spending time walking, whether that’s in the mountains or the local woods and parks. His reflections (he describes them as tips rather than advice!) cover seeking silence, noticing more, choosing connection rather than connectivity and trying to find ways, no matter how small, to protect and preserve our precious natural world. Although most people who read this book will never tackle something as challenging as the Cape Wrath Trail, I believe everyone who does will find themselves becoming more consciously aware of how important it is to our mental health to find ways to consciously escape the ubiquitous ‘noise’ of our modern world.