I always put my hat and gloves in the same handy place whenever I get home, on a shelf near the front door.
They’re always there, especially in winter, but one freezing day last week when I was heading out for a walk my hat… wasn’t.
At first there was no panic, just a puzzled frown and a casual check of the other places it sometimes resides when laziness takes hold – coat pockets, the car, the kitchen. No luck.
There then followed an apprehensive inspection of the whole house, with a growing sense of foreboding.
Still no luck.
Cue a frantic and breathless search of the whole house a second time, but now incorporating the kinds of places it would likely NEVER be – the shower, the boiler cupboard, the washing machine.
I even looked in the fridge, which isn’t as crazy as it sounds because I once, bafflingly, found my passport in there.
But no. There was no sign.
I hastily rushed outside (albeit with a cold head) and spent hours retracing all the local walks I’d done that week, wherever I remembered wearing my hat, but to no avail.
I trudged home and returned to an article I’d been writing, but my mind was elsewhere and I had to give up.
It’s bad enough when you lose anything, frankly, as you become possessed by single-minded determination borne of disbelief and annoyance to find it again, but the hat’s disappearance hit me hard.
I tried to shrug it off, tried to think objectively and rationally, telling myself “It’s just a hat for goodness sake! It’s nothing special!”
True, I’d not put much thought into buying the hat, I’d just picked something warm-looking from whatever meagre selection Millets had at the time.
It could just as easily have been another hat entirely. But I was forlorn, and there were three reasons why.
The first became immediately apparent the moment I stepped outside on the search, having just donned one of the other few hats I have lying about the house.
Funnily enough, they’ve all been reappropriated over the years, having been lost by other people on the hill.
I grabbed the warmest-looking of the lot but the wind cut easily through the weave. It felt loose and flimsy, and my balding head felt cold and unloved.
By comparison my lost hat was always toasty, the thick knit wool impervious even to -20C windchill.
It was secure without being tight, holding fast even in gales, the snug sensation of its close fit always oddly reassuring in bad situations.
I liked to think it had moulded and reshaped itself over the years to fit my head and nobody else’s, so when I looked online for a replacement hat that afternoon, it dawned on me I’d never find one quite the same.
Second, the length of time it had been in my service – 20 years! But that’s not to suggest that I automatically develop an emotional attachment to a piece of outdoor kit on account of long service.
I’ve had my ice axe, crampons, tent and GPS for 16 years, and while I’d be annoyed if I lost any of them I wouldn’t feel the emotional wrench of separation. It’s the memories we invest objects with that makes them dear to us, and in the hat’s case it features in more memories than I can count.
Pick any photo, post 1998, of me standing somewhere cold and it’s there. I bought it for my very first hillwalking forays into the Brecon Beacons, from where my love of walking really took off. It kept me warm in the Lakes, Alps and New Zealand. In Snowdonia, Iceland and Canada.
It warmed my hypoxic head as I watched a Himalayan sunrise from 21,000ft, and guaranteed wet woolly warmth on more Scottish hills and beaches than I can count.
The third reason therefore, is we’d been EVERYWHERE together, a fact betrayed by its reassuring fustiness. Somewhere between ‘wet dog’ and ‘old tent’, one sniff evoked adventure and happiness.
I mourned the hat’s passing on Twitter, saying it was like losing a friend. I half expected to be ridiculed but to my surprise there was only sympathy and empathy.
“I’m sorry for your loss”, remarked one person, and it kickstarted a wonderful conversation with more than 100 people about their oldest and most cherished outdoor items – 60-year-old crampons; 40-year-old stoves; a birch walking stick cut above Kinloch Rannoch 50 years ago. Cherished rucksacks, ice axes, knives, scarves and, somewhat dubiously, underwear.
Someone even cited her husband! It was joyously uplifting to read people’s stories, and it was nice to discover I wasn’t alone in being overly attached to a long serving piece of kit.
As for the hat, well we were reunited two days later. I found it lying on the one walk I hadn’t backtracked along, as I’d had no recollection of wearing my hat that day.
At first I thought it was a molehill, so imagine my elation when I realised it wasn’t.
I picked the sodden object up and held it to my nose.
Mmmm, wet dog.
Ben Dolphin is an outdoors enthusiast and president of Ramblers Scotland