I was going to buy this book anyway, but Keith contacted me to see whether I’d like a complimentary copy. One of his previous books “The Last Englishman” about his epic PCT walk is one of my favourite books, so I was looking forward to reading High and Low. It certainly doesn’t disappont and is a great read. So much so, that I read it in two days. I had to pace myself a bit as I could easily have read it in a day.
High and Low is a bit different from Keith’s previous books in that it’s not just an account of a long walk but there’s a subplot of his growing realisation that his mood swings and low feelings are down to depression. This is not a book of endless introspection and self analysis, but there are occasional asides and clues as to the causes of his drift into a depressive state. Most of the book is an entertaining account of his walk from Cape Wrath to Bellingham, taking in the Cape Wrath Trail and the West Highland Way along the way.
The genesis of the walk was his aborted CDT attempt where he caught pneumonia and had to bail, fearing he was suffering a heart attack. After recuperating for a couple of weeks, Keith had the idea of walking from the north of Scotland to the English border and maybe tacking on the Pennine Way and bit more at the end.
The Cape Wrath Trail is notoriously hard and, for Keith, the weather (and midges) made it even more of a challenge. In contrast to the long US trails, route finding is more difficult and the paths often sketchy or non-existent. Not only that, most of time, unlike the PCT or AT, you’re walking on your own with little prospect of company.
Walking solo is great, but if your mind is in the wrong place, it can be a curse as it gives you time to dwell on negative things. In a more minor way, that was my experience in the first few days of last year’s TGO Challenge. Chuck in some bad weather, problems with food resupply and losing his trekking poles (vital for his tent setup) and it was not surprising to see the start of a negative spiral developing.
Having finally overcome the obstacles of the CWT and made it to Fort William, it should have been plain sailing. Indeed, at the start of the WHW, he met a lady, Elina, with whom he strikes up a friendship and they walk together for the first two days. Elina had suffered from depression and in a series of conversations, which become pivotal to his understanding of what’s happening to him, she explains her journey and recovery from depression. Unexpectedly, she has to cut her walk short. Their parting is quite emotional and she writes him a lovely note.
After completing the WHW, the rest of the trip has some rays of sunshine but both the weather and Keith’s mood become increasingly troubled, culminating with a decision to end the walk and go home. Dealing with the aftermath of the walk, a lack of purpose in life and a family tragedy pile on further pressures, not helped by a dependency on nicotine and alcohol. Finally, Keith admits he has a problem and seeks help, finding a way out of the mire of depression.
The struggle with depression gives a greater emotional depth than his previous books. This must have been a difficult book to write but Keith avoids the temptation to try to garner sympathy or dwell too long on his problems. However, his honesty and openess are admirable. Although I’ve not suffered from depression, I can empathise and have had similar, less intense feelings, over the past couple of years, especially after the death of my mother.
Not that Keith’s previous books are badly written, but this book is definitely a step up in his craft as a writer with excellent pacing, variety and interest. It would be nice if it garnered a wider audience than just the hiking crowd as it not just another trail book, but one that explores what it is to live with the challenge of depression. Highly recommended.