I've reread The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd a couple of times recently. I'm not sure whether I have favourite books as such. I'm terrible at remembering plots, quotes, characters... and more importantly it feels like there are too many books in the world to keep some as favourites. This particular book though... it's a touchstone. It comforts, inspires and provokes at the same time. I can lose myself in the prose, and Shepherd's description of her Cairngorm muse. Frequently, she seems able to articulate my love for those wild places better than I ever could.
Why have I read it twice recently though? No reason. Lots of reasons. Life's felt a bit hard work recently. I should caveat that by saying that I am incredibly lucky person, who is loved, is otherwise healthy, has a roof over his head and gets to run and ride nearly whenever he wants. Despite that, things have felt tougher than they should. The creeping emptiness of depression threatens to pull me under. I've been here before. If I'm honest with myself, statistically, I'll be here again. It doesn't make it easier. I know the drill, though. Listen to the dark thoughts, break them down, fight them. Don't run away.
It's tiring though. Exhausting. Especially as sleep isn't always so easy to come by. I treasure my chance to escape. Runs and rides take a new level of importance. Worth chasing, treasuring, holding closer than ever. It's not about the activity, but the sense of calm I feel. Depression erodes my confidence – it sometimes feels as though it erodes me. The value in doing something that I'm not wholly awful at is immense.
While the purpose of these forays into the big world might be escapism, they are always immersive. A mind that feels tenderised, bruised almost, absorbs the sights, smells, sounds, tastes and feel of where I am like a sponge. My sense of place has felt enhanced. I am a walking (or running, or riding) sensory blotting paper. Soak it up.
So, Nan and I. I had go find the book again to find the bloody quote, because I can't remember quotes. And, before I go on, I have never read a book where every sentence sings off the page in quite such a way as The Living Mountain. If you have not read it, do so. The quote that tells the story I want to tell today is “no one knows the mountain completely who has not slept on it.” I'm inclined to agree. Night time in the hills is special. It brings an inherent sense of privilege, maybe because the masses are tucked up in their beds, but I think there's more to it than that. We deny the deep rooted psychological draw to be home and safe when darkness draws in. Our senses prickle, presumably a vestigial survival mechanism, guarding against vicious sheep. I like that I shouldn't really be here. Over time, I've become increasingly comfortable sleeping outside. More often than not I sleep better under the stars on a calm night than in my own bed.
Ilkley Moor is within easy reach of home. I can run there if I really want to. Riding is an easier proposition, and with a bit of wiggling, I can link known trails to the outskirts of my regular rides and beyond to the base of the hulking hill. Friday afternoon and Alex provided some much needed company as we went through the now familiar adjustment process of riding with a loaded bike. Familiar trails feel a little different with a few extra kilos strapped to the frame. The scorching penultimate day of June didn't let up as we climbed to the Cow and Calf, calling in at the pub for refreshment of the liquid and teatime kind.
The moor was dry. Desiccated. It was a day for the lesser ridden trails. Slivers of raw earth, heather threatening to snatch them back. In winter they would be off limits, an exercise in futile plodding through bog. Dust danced low, glinting in the evening sun. That sun. It was 8pm and there was burning heat to it still, a summer of chasing these moments has left my skin brown and arm hair bleached. The tattoo of the sketch that Jenn drew is now two summers faded, more part of me than on me. Not just skin deep.
Due to its ease of access, the Moor is where I have spent more nights out than any other. From miserable, stormy winters evenings, when I was truly running away from the darker and stormier thoughts to mid week escapes from work, arriving back at the office for a shower and hoping no one would notice that I was changing into the same shirt two days running.
Our destination was far enough from the car parks and easy walks to know that we would have it to ourselves all night. All that was needed was to find the spot. Somewhere flat enough to lay two sleeping bags. Somewhere sheltered from the building northerly wind. Somewhere that we could enjoy the sunset that was shaping up to be a fitting end to a flaming day. We found the spot. Gritstone boulders gave us a literal window to the north west. The stone radiated heat into a cooling night as I rested my back against one, my sleeping mat sitting on neatly carpeted grass. I sank back, the rough rock making a better pillow than any duck down. We shared beers and tales. Talk comes more easily when only the sky can hear. The sun always sets. It did that night. And last night, but I didn't watch the colour slowly drain from the sky last night. It didn't drain initially. It danced and played long after the sun was below the horizon. Low cloud formed and dissipated as conversation slowed.
I don't remember falling asleep. I do remember waking regularly. Never for more than a few seconds; sometimes to turn my back to the swirling wind, sometimes to push the thoughts that purvey my dreams a little deeper, not quite ready to share those with sky.
When I woke the next morning, did I know the mountain, or bit of fell side better? I did not. Did I appreciate it a bit more, love it a bit more? Of course. Did I feel better? For some time, as always. Long enough to keep me going until the next time. Onwards.