Backpacker

WALK FREE

LESS THAN HALF AN HOUR into a four-day hike across the Scottish Highlands, I’d lost my way. I had missed a bridge over the rain-swollen Inverie River, and now I was high-stepping over tussocks, baptizing my socks in bogs, and walking the river’s soft edges, seeking a point to cross and finding nothing remotely safe.

Disoriented as I felt, I was at least comforted knowing that, here in Scotland, I could be lost on someone’s land without feeling like a criminal or worrying about getting shot. It felt good to ramble across the countryside, no trail or signs to guide me, wandering in whatever direction I fancied—even if that direction proved wrong. It reminded me of my boyhood in Western New York, where my brother and I built forts in the woods, played hockey on frozen ponds, and never once thought we were doing anything more nefarious than being kids. But unlike that tiny suburban oasis where neighborhood kids could trespass with impunity, all of Scotland is open for exploration. Aside from a couple of road crossings, every step of my 25-mile trek would be across private property.

I had come to the Highlands to exercise Scotland’s “right to roam,” which describes a 2003 law that allows citizens and visitors to responsibly enjoy Scottish lands and waters, no matter who owns them. For hikers and other outdoor recreationists, it’s a critical legal right in a country that’s 83 percent privately owned (by comparison, the United States is about 65 percent private). I was particularly interested in Scotland because I’d recently written a book about how nature in the U.S. is becoming increasingly inaccessible. In (coming out in April), I chronicle how anti-access landowners, conservative politicians, and far-right movements like the Sagebrush Rebellion—which made national news during the 2016 occupation of Oregon’s Malheur Wildlife Reserve—are seeking to deny the American birthright to enjoy the natural world. I was eager to visit a country that’s moving in the opposite direction by providing unfettered access to its countryside. I wanted to see if Scotland’s right to roam worked, and how it worked, and whether it might work in the U.S. Instead of defining a park by its boundaries, is it possible—when

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