Monday, April 6, 2015

Science and the Wolf

So what exactly is the Higgs Boson Particle?

Probably not a question you'd expect from some roving tentamuffin, and certainly not in a Cairngorms travelogue. The reason I bring it up is because it was while walking in these very mountains in 1964, Peter Higgs, a Geordie from Newcastle-upon-Tyne and lecturer at the Tait Institute of Mathematical Physics at the University of Edinburgh, developed his hypothesis of the Higgs Mechanism, which defies detailed explanation because I don't understand a bloody word.

In a nutshell, however, I'm told it's the part of the Standard Model of Particle Physics (itself a devilish whirligig of words, integers, and peculiar mathematical doodads) that lends matter the property of mass. Without the Higgs Mechanism everything in the universe would be flitting about at light speed and stuff wouldn't, well, be.

Which is why the party at CERN's Large Hadron Collider, when the mechanism was finally confirmed in 2013, must've been a knees-up to shame even my own nefarious drinking buddies. There'd have been the poking of flashing red buttons marked DANGER, drunken dares to quaff antimatter projects and cosmos-collapsing cries of the Universal Disaster Portent; Watch this, lads! 

I like to imagine a frail octogenarian Peter Higgs, surrounded by giggling science groupies and prostrate academics, when, spectacles dislodged by the bounce of an errant boob and draped in party popper ejaculate, he murmurs his now legendary maxim, 'It's very nice to be right sometimes.'

These scenarios obviously wouldn't occur, of course, as the great unwashed (and the great washed, for that matter) are too distracted by the bling of celebrity show business, shouty sporting events and the gloom of war and catastrophe to attend the properly important. Our water cooler conversations concentrate on Bieber's new 'do, or outrage at the latest infantile/anemic government policy, or whether some red carpet trollop inhaled the wrong cock when her career began to flag. Higgs et al didn't register even the tiniest blip on most people's radar.

Higgs' wandering demonstrates the benefit of imagination, and more poignantly, the importance of having the opportunity to explore it. One of the problems, I feel, with modern western life is our lack of this luxury. Every waking moment seems to be filled with some distraction or other: even while strolling to the corner shop I feel compelled to fill the time with music or an entertaining podcast. While partaking of such things may be intellectually and emotionally appealling, they rarely improve our implicit ability to reason, or help us arrive at a considered opinion. As I've grown and matured (shut up), I've found myself less reluctantly agreeing with the older generation that silence is the best soundtrack for thinking.

Day 50
The sharp cold dulled somewhat, the deficit replaced by blustery waves of misting rain, necessitating several flappy and frozen-fingered fights with the poncho. I thus stuttered along the undulating bike route to Kingussie while listening to an episode of the Joe Rogan Podcast about weird people preempting the inevitable mergence of technology and biology by sewing magnets under their skin, followed by a chapter of Bernard Cornwell's Harlequin (AKA The Archer's Tale in the US), which put me in a receptive mood for something historical. The Highlands didn't disappoint.


Ruthven Barracks
Ruthven Barracks appeared from behind a hill and stopped me in my tracks. This gem of a ruin is sited on a hill dominating the valley and surrounded by mountains, it's got Game of Thrones written all over it. I hadn't seen a car or person in twenty minutes, so I parked up by the gate, didn't even bother locking up the rig, and clambered up the steep path to find out what the hell this place was. 


The sign said it was a barracks completed in 1721 by our old mate General Wade to house soldiers combating the Jacobite Uprising. 

It was besieged twice, the first time defending against 300 Jacobites with only 12 redcoats, the second time overrun by Bonnie Prince Charlie's minions. After their defeat at the Battle of Culloden in 1746, they had subsequently made this their rally point some 40 odd miles away. 3,000 highlanders gathered here after the fight, to be met by a message to disperse from the aspiring potentate. I was starting to dislike this posh pretend Scottish git more and more: he didn't even have the stones to show up himself. They set fire to the place when they left, and what stands now is pretty much what remained.





There's something incredibly satisfying about exploring a deserted ruin alone. It lends a unique solitude and reflection, absent with company, that stirs the imagination and helps transport oneself back in time. While exploring the two barracks blocks, devoid now of furniture, floors and roof, I still got a sense of what life must've been like for the soldiers, crowded in ten to a room and two to a bed. The stables to the rear of the fort catered to the dragoon rapid reaction force, tasked to keep the roads clear of bothersome autocrats.


Ruthven Barracks are built on the bones of an earlier castle, one of the lairs of Alexander Stewart, the Earl of Buchan. This hate-filled fuckwit was known as the Wolf of Badenoch in the late fourteenth century, primarily because he, along with his Cateran, or private army, had a propensity for the rape, pillage and murder of his peasant protectorate that far exceeded the potential ravages of any likely invader. With over forty illegitimate offspring it's difficult to picture the impotent, innocuous nobility of today descending from such lusty and loathsome stock, but this is where inbreeding gets us, I suppose.

As the third son of King Robert II of Scotland, his appalling behaviour was largely tolerated, although token penance was undertaken occasionally to assuage the demands of the Church. He was granted governmental positions and titles such as Justiciar of Scotia for a time, likely in an attempt to give the wayward lad some responsibility, but none of it worked. The Wolf's depredations culminated in the sacking and burning of Elgin town and Cathedral in 1390, apparently in retaliation for the Church's condemnation of his murdering, thieving, torturing, and relentless shagging, but more probably the denouement of their power struggle for control of Scotland's north. 

One particular story involved imprisoning the monk who delivered the news of Alexander's excommunication in the bottle dungeon of Lochindorb castle. The dungeon breached the water table of the lake island location, meaning any prisoner had to live in three feet of water: essentially sentencing them to a horrible death either by, or caused by, sleep deprivation.

The Wolf was killed, it is said, after losing a game of chess to the Devil himself in 1405 (or 1406, or 1394, depending on who you listen to) at the age of 62 (or 63, or 51), his body found after a great storm marking the Devil's victory, uninjured but with the nails ripped out of his boots. This is, of course, absolute bullshit, but he's interred, rather ironically given his history of psychopathic excess, down the road at Dunkeld Cathedral. 

Kingussie & Newtonmore
I parked outside the library in Kingussie (population: 1,400), setting for the Monarch of the Glen TV series, and noticed another loaded touring bike locked to a railing. I got talking to the chap inside, easily identifiable by his rangy and unkempt contentment. He was a young man for a bicycle tourist, barely into his twenties, and he'd impressively ridden all the way from Istanbul. I loaned him my spare pump to fix a flat, and told him to keep it to see him home to Edinburgh. I gave him my card so he could mail it back to me later.

Ego buffed to an immaculate sheen by such prodigious charity, I left the library as the sun waned and rode to Newtonmore (population: 1,000), the next town along, for a quick shop of bread and cookies, and headed out the other side to camp. Pickings were slim, however, and as darkness fell my anxiety grew until I found a spot by a bend in the B9150. My description of the town should end here, as I'd sluttishly treated the place like a pitstop, but it really is more important than that: Newtonmore being a hotbed of the ancient and amateur sport of shinty.

I first rode past an impressive shinty stadium in Fort William, and was surprised to discover there's an entire sporting league on the island I grew up on that I'd never heard of, despite it predating Christianity. The game has striking similarities to Irish hurling, so much so the sports are often combined under unified rules to allow teams from both to play each other. Newtonmore Camanachd is one of the premier club teams in shinty, and ruled the roost for many decades, winning 30 national championships since the competition's inception in 1896. However, the team from Kingussie, literally two miles away, has dominated the last twenty years or so, winning 23 times in all and meriting a mention in the 2005 Guinness Book of World Records as World sport's most successful sporting team of all time. What a fascinating yearly rivalry this must be, in this remote and seemingly sedate highland valley. I may have to come back just to go on the piss, I mean, watch a game.

Day 51
The rain didn't let off until noon again, then I decamped and began a long, cold, granny gear slog into an abject cunt of a headwind, accompanied by stinging horizontal sleet, past the village of Dalwhinnie and its namesake whisky distillery, the highest in Scotland, and up towards the Pass of Drumochter. 

I don't complain about much, which is probably an undesirable trait in a writer. Reading a good bitch about something mundane can be hugely entertaining, a revel in someone else's angst whether we empathise with it or not, but there's nothing mundane about a proper fucking headwind for a cyclist. Every revolution becomes a battle, every mile a war. I'd have camped down and waited it out, because I'm all about having fun and this certainly wasn't, but real winter was clawing at my tail and with limited supplies I didn't want to get trapped in the mountains by the snow.

Midway through the pass, frozen and exhausted, the cycle path ended, so I was forced, rather worryingly, onto the A9's dual carriageway. I wasn't crapping myself at every passing lorry for long, however, as roadwork bollards soon separated the lanes. The inside one had been resurfaced; richly dark, lounge singer smooth, and gloriously all to myself for the next ten miles or so of resplendent downhill. In addition, the sleet stopped, the wind switched direction, and the sun smashed through. Thus the breathtaking glide down the broad Garry and Tummel river valleys as they twisted through the mountains was sublime, effortlessly sweeping from pleasing view to pleasing view, a high banked flight corralled by the black ribbon of road. It was hypnotic. Familiar now, I surrendered to it, bathing in the feeling. Not thinking, I turned off the music that'd helped me up the pass and just... flowed. Suddenly, the answer to the question of my life was glaringly obvious. Just do this. Bugger all that other shit. This is what it's about, evermore sweetened by the antecedent slog. 

As the land flattened and the bullshit babble of humanity rushed back in, I considered the euphoria. It was an excruciatingly addictive drug. So this is what religion must feel like, I mused. Or heroin. It ruined any further chance of a normal life, whatever that is. I was actually, truly, finally, free. 

I considered the aesthetic, too. Was it the simplicity of moving through a gorgeous landscape that caused this, or was this just the first time I'd properly been 'in the moment' on a downhill? And what is 'beauty', anyhow? Realizing I was teetering on the edge of philosophy I knew precious little about, and no doubt every idea I could come up with had already been discussed and dissected to death, I consulted the Greeks and their academic progeny. 

And discovered the philosophy of aesthetics to be an unnecessarily complicated load of old bollocks, compounding the idea that much of academia invests in overblown waffle to describe things that are quite simple, probably in an attempt to appear brainier. I promptly gave up and decided to sling a quote your way instead to look like I know what I'm talking about.

Beauty is anything you are compelled to look at. - John Waters

That should cover it.          

I rejoined the bike path, and quickly found a fantastic camping spot on a cliff with a grandstand view of the raging River Garry, a few miles northwest of the awesomely appellated village of Killiecrankie. This has nothing to do with Wee Jimmie Krankie, the cross-dressed Scottish schoolboy of Crackerjack fame, but it made me think of her anyway. (She recently admitted, along with her comedy partner and husband Ian, to being heavily involved in the swinging scene during the eighties. Oh, how I curse my persistent and overvivid imagination.) I clambered down the rock face to grab a bucket of water from a tributary burn, feeling very Bear Grylls, filtered some to drink and had a rejuvenating wash with the rest. Bubbly TV chef Ainsley Harriott completed today's weird celebrity quotient by providing dinner in a packet of his Thai chicken soup, and surprisingly acceptable it was too, hungrily scoffed down with half a loaf of bread. My phone told me it was 4 degrees C in nearby Pitlochry, but the ice in my water bottle disagreed, so I wrapped up cozily and delved deeply into season four of The Wire, punctuated by long stares at a fantastic night sky.

Day 52
Rain forced only a couple of hours in the saddle today, but that short span took in a parade of pretty villages, impressive castles and hidden stately homes, the latter often only indicated by their roadside gatehouses, which were pretty spectacular in themselves. 


I decided not to stop at Pitlochry library and pushed on through Dukeld, passing by the cathedral grave of the Wolf of Badenoch, to the library at Birnam, a small village in a fetching valley setting. The library was a throwback to the seventies, it seemed, with an ancient computer system and barely an hour's grace with their ridiculously inconvenient opening schedule. I left with the dark and climbed the valley side along a bike route that looked worrying like a private driveway, confirmed about halfway up by a PRIVATE ROAD sign. Bike routes often follow such prohibited thoroughfares, though, as the signs often only refer to powered transport, so I paid it no mind. I couldn't find a decent flat bit suitable for a tent apart from one right by the road on a corner, but it was so quiet I decided to pitch anyway, and didn't see a soul until morning.


Saturday, February 28, 2015

War and Patriotism

'You're hauling too much stuff.'

'Nah,' I contradicted the experienced cycle tourist I'd been talking to for the last thirty minutes. We were chatting at one of the trailer-blocking bridleway entrance obstacles of which overeager planning departments are so frustratingly fond, 'I'm hauling too much stuff for you.'

I suspended cathartic visions of a brutal council office axe massacre and softened the insult with a grin. 'If I'm not complaining, it shouldn't bother you, either. I like my kitchen sink.'

'But wouldn't you prefer to ride further every day?'

'I'm not particularly about seeing as much stuff as quickly as possible, mate; I'm not on a vacation: it's about the journey, experiences, and living in the moment,' I said with more conviction than I felt. But then decided I was right.

When I get in my tent, it's my home from home, rather than a temporary respite from the elements, which is why I use a large two person rather than a single, and I'm actually thinking of moving up to a three person, because that's how I roll, bitches. Pimping in a guest wing, if you will. Most tent manufacturers are laughably conservative about sleeping capacities, so cycle tourists typically use a size up; solo riders will use a two person, couples a three, etc, but I require more. In addition, load-wise I carry up to ten litres of water and a week of food so I can stop anywhere I fancy on a whim, and two stoves so I can make more elaborate meals. I have many redundancies built in, and lots of stuff I've never used, such as tools, that take up space but would be invaluable during a mechanical crisis in the middle of nowhere.

Do I curse the weight on a steep hill? Not really, no more than I do any other exercise; I'm in no hurry. This is something a lot of proper cycle tourists, irrevocably bungeed to day jobs and minacious mortgages and voracious families, fail to grasp: being an aimless vagabond is my work, now, such as it is. I'm the job, my brain's the game, and soaking up juicy information and substantive experiences the goal. And besides, enduring a little cardio slogging up a hill is redemption for the indulgence: it eases the grudging guilt of euphoric downhills, rapturous scenery, unctuous cakes, endless candy, witnessing history, geography and culture unfold from a tangible first person perspective far superior to any academic deliberation, and every one I climb makes me fitter, and the next one more surmountable. It's a win-win-win. Without uphill struggles I'd be all soft yin and empty yang. Without the suck, the joy would seem less so. One must embrace the suck, even revel in it. And the suck ends at the summit.

The Scottish Highlands
The challenging highlands of Scotland are a comparatively deserted region: at just over nine people per square kilometre it's one of the most sparsely populated in Europe. (At least, this is what Wikipedia claims; 'but what about northern Scandinavia?' I roared indignantly at this often derided source, 'or Eastern Europe?' I looked it up elsewhere, and by Jimminy, they were right.)

The numbers were much higher in previous centuries, but upheavals such as the Highland Clearances (where powerful landowners forcibly enclosed common land for their own use, effectively marooning smaller subsistence farmers: possibly one of the most criminal moves by the powerful in Britain's turbulent history) and the industrial revolution saw huge swathes move to the coasts and lowlands, as well as significant numbers abroad to North America and Australasia. Interestingly, there are more descendants of Highlanders in these locations than remain in Scotland, a notion I was noticing in overheard accents: occasionally I'd mistake Scots for American if I snatched just a snippet, tuned as I am to the US vernacular. This suggests there's a disproportionate descendance of Scottish in the American linguistic stew, which I'd certainly look up on Google if I was interested enough to be arsed.

Day 46
Another late start due to the increasingly frequent rain.

At noon I left my scenic roost above the torrential river Foyers, itself created by a confluence of the wonderfully named rivers Gourag and Fechlin, and descended from the heights along one of General Wade's famed military roads, through the mountainside village of Foyers itself, down to the pretty shores of Loch Ness.

An undeveloped section

These roads were laid in the 18th century to aid troop movement during the highland Jacobite Risings. It's difficult to imagine such violent contention in such a beatific setting, but demonstrates how silly people can be when the ridiculous carrot-and-stickfest of money and power are involved. The Duke of Hanover, William of Orange, had a claim on the British throne and made one at the head of 15,000 men. There was little opposition from the nobles in England, primarily because the Duke agreed to uphold the ratifications of the Magna Carta and the establishment of the Bill of Rights, which ultimately reduced the power of the monarchy to a constitutional figurehead. The deposed Catholic James II preferred absolute power, believing it divinely granted; a ludicrous notion inherited by the equally unenlightened Bonnie Prince Charlie, personifying the invention of 'country' and becoming a rallying cry for patriotism: an ideology I've long curated but never quite embraced.

(George Bernard Shaw suggested 'Patriotism is your conviction that this country is superior to all other countries because you were born in it', neatly summating my feelings on the subject. If you're a patriot, do you honestly believe the group of people you artificially affiliate with, formally designated by lines drawn on maps by politicians, are somehow special? There's a word for that, my provincial friend, and that word is 'simple'. (Look, we're cave people, and have been for millions of years. Now we just build our own. Unless we're attached by blood or friendship: you ain't in my tribe. We lived in small nomadic hunter-gatherer bands of 20-30 for millions of years, tens of thousands of generations (compared to around 400 since the advent of agriculture), and associated with similarly-sized groups whose ranges overlapped. That's our tribe: anthropologists discovered the number of people we can develop meaningful relationships with to be about 150 or so, known as Dunbar's Number. Countries, by comparison, are a few generations old and millions strong: that ain't our tribe at all. Not even close.)

I can't help but feel General George Wade should be a more interesting bloke. He was born in Ireland, and such was his solid if not spectacular military and political career (he was sufficiently mediocre to became a very popular MP, representing the well-heeled people of Bath from 1722 until his death in 1748) he received a mention in the lyrics of the national anthem around 1745. To be honest, the most interesting thing about him is he died unmarried but with three kids, so he was very probably a rake, which for me is a tick in the plus column.

Lord, grant that Marshal Wade
May, by thy mighty aid,
Victory bring.
May he sedition hush
And, like a torrent, rush
Rebellious Scots to crush.
God save the King.

This tribute obviously didn't go down too well north of the border, and the verse was scrapped. Wade's opposition to Bonnie Prince Charlie (whose belief in this 'divine right of kings' rubbish puts him firmly in the cunt camp, making his deified folk hero status all the more exasperating) supported the swelling movement towards democracy in Great Britain, and culminated at the 1746 Battle of Culloden, the last pitched battle fought on British soil.

Had you seen these roads before they were made,
You would lift up your hands and bless General Wade

I dawdled along the waterside for most of the afternoon, contemplating this history and the second largest loch in Scotland by area (22 square miles), and largest by volume (755 feet deep; Loch Ness contains more fresh water than all the lakes of England and Wales combined) before leaving its northern banks behind for the highland capital of Inverness.

Inverness
Another shower shepherded me into a bus shelter on the outskirts, and I spent the time Google Streetviewing potential wild campsites. I found one just around the corner, close to a Tesco, and decided to do a quick food shop while the rain passed.

Sometimes, in my daily visits to the supermarket, I experience a kind of reality warp. I enter with a clearly delineated shopping list of, for example, bogroll, matches, tinned soup and a loaf of bread, and emerge with a packet of Bourbon creams, an apple turnover, three onions and a banana.

This transmogrification occurs, I'm sure, because of special offers. When on a limited budget, special offers spring tumescently to the fore like misplaced porn in the Disney aisle. Several British supermarkets have got into the commendable habit of grouping their specials together in one place, especially perishables nearing their sell-by date. I plunder such bays like a Viking berserker, pausing to ask myself 'do I like cheese coleslaw?' and 'what exactly is hummus?' amid the raging red mist.

Settled and fed in the tent I decided to engage Shawn, a good Texan lawyer friend of mine, on Facebook in a perfunctory squabble about something. I picked including vegetables in chilli con carne, as he prides himself on his own authentic southwestern US recipe that scorns the tomato but desperately clings to the abuses of onion. We share similar views on pretty much everything, so we regularly invent stuff to argue about. I suggested starting off with a mirepoix, a chopped mixture of onion, celery and carrot used as a base in French soups, sauces and stews, to round out the flavour profile. He disagreed and said some scandalous things about British cuisine. I won, of course. He disagreed with that, too.

Day 47
I put my bag down by reception to sign up, only to discover the Inverness library had no WiFi. I wordlessly gaped at the librarian for a couple of seconds, fourteen years into the 21st century and all, then asked if they had a study area where I could plug in.

'Well, the problem is, you see,' she said, 'our wiring is so old we're asking people not to plug anything in, as the fuses might blow and it's a safety concern.'

Utter fucking dogshit. Another council simulating fiscal responsibility for the dumber voter by alienating people who are suddenly surprisingly prepared to burn the place down tonight. 'You're saying my laptop will blow this entire building's electrical infrastructure?'

'Yes.'

'I've been cycling around Scotland for six weeks, navigating electronically, and this is the first library I've encountered with no WiFi and a plug ban. Are you seriously suggesting a phone charger will blow the lot?'

'Yes.' But there was a crack there, quickly camouflaged by obstinance. My coherence obviously didn't jive with my roguish appearance.

'Well, if I get lost and die in a highland blizzard because I haven't charged my GPS,' I huffed, turning to dramatically depart on the last word, 'I'm coming back to possess your children.' Pleased with this rejoinder, I promptly tripped over my backpack.

I put her reticence down to my lack of cycling gear (I was discovering people treated me less like a transient when I was wearing my cock helmet or luminous twat jersey: note to self), and Google mapped a route to the next nearest library in Culloden. I managed twenty minutes of charging there before they closed for a bafflingly mediterraneanesque two hour lunch.

I decided to visit the nearby Culloden battlefield on Drumossie Moor instead of waiting for them to reopen, but the long climb out of the village dissuaded my return. I bimbled around the battlefield for a bit, learning as much as I could about a conflict I was fairly ignorant of. Turns out the discipline of the English broke the fury of the French- and Irish-supported Highlanders, largely because of the bayonet drill which involved each redcoat in the line attacking the Highlander to his right, rather than the one straight ahead, thereby bypassing the Scottish shields once their charge hit. At least, that's the story. I toyed with the idea of camping here, but there were too many people about, so I set off south into the Cairngorms.

Just before starting the first major ascent, I stumbled upon the Clava Cairns, a series of stone burial mounds dating back to 2,000BC. What a find! This is precisely why I've fallen in love with travelling this way. I nosed around the deserted site for an hour, taking photographs and imagining the neolithic builders hard at work. I considered disobeying the 'No Camping' sign, as this place was suitably remote and pitching away from the road would be hidden by darkness, but decided to push on up into the mountains as I still had juice in the legs, and there was some daylight left.













An hour of climbing finished me off, and I made a particularly cosy camp in a pine forest, resting on years of softly layered pine needles.



The only power I had left was 20% on my phone, so I shut it down, lit a candle, and wrote old school, with pen and paper, until the cold numbed my fingers.

Day 48
Everything was frozen this morning. All my water, the overnight flysheet condensation, and the sweaty clothes I'd hung on the lower tree boughs to dry. I hunted down a stream to grab some water for a wash, and it was Narnian solid. Yikes. I took a Wet Wipes whore's bath instead, but my distrusting testicles snatched up into my torso like a Kung Fu pebble grab, spectacularly flipping me into the air with the recoil. I picked myself up and coaxed them back out with soft cooing, talcum powder, and the snug promise of warm winter cycling tights.

The low sun hit the icy road about 10am, and it began to thaw. I set off with twenty-five miles to go to Aviemore, Scotland's attempt at a ski resort. I'd never been there, but was fascinated to see how crap it might be. I found a data signal atop a rise and discovered the town library closed at four, and as I was desperate to recharge my electronics, I put the hammer down. The bicycle route follows the A9 in a roundabout way, so much so it became frustrating as today wasn't about pleasant riding, but about getting to my destination, the search for enlightenment temporarily suspended. When the route began to double back on itself yet again, I fucked it and took to the shoulderless A95 for the last four or five miles, which delivered me directly into the centre of Aviemore, albeit a little shaken up.

I don't like riding on major roads at the best of times, but my frustration with the bike path eclipsed my common sense. There's nothing like a few close passes from 70 mph HGVs to rapidly revitalise one's faith in gentler thoroughfares. It's not a lack of confidence in my riding ability, you understand, it's the putting my life in the hands of people I've never met who can kill me with a vehicular nudge.

The Cairngorms
The larger part of the Cairngorms National Park consists of several broad plateaus, but actually looks like one large one. This means the cycling is mostly flat, but is fetchingly surrounded by some of the tallest mountains in Britain. Scotland's second highest peak after Ben Nevis, Ben MacDui, is part of the range, 114 feet shorter than its big brother. Local people for years planned to pile stones on the top in a fascinatingly futile attempt to claim the title for the uncaring crag, a stunningly lopsided example of cost-benefit analysis, and obviously a silent and lonely cry for validation. If your hobby involves carrying rocks up a hill, folks, chances are your life is in need of stern redirection.

I decided not to climb it when I discovered Queen Victoria had done so in 1859, and figured if she was capable it couldn't be much of a challenge. She wrote 'It had a sublime and solemn effect, so wild, so solitary — no one but ourselves and our little party there . . . I had a little whisky and water, as the people declared pure water would be too chilling.'

I've since discovered she rode up on a pony, which is, of course, cheating.

Ben MacDui is also home to Am Fear Liath Mòr, AKA the Big Grey Man of Ben MacDui, a bigfoot-like creature that apparently haunts the frequent mists. He was first reported in 1925 by noted mountaineer J. Norman Collie, who was also a PhD in chemistry and Fellow of the Royal Society, so was far from being a nutjob. He wrote: 'I began to think I heard something else than merely the noise of my own footsteps. For every few steps I took I heard a crunch, and then another crunch as if someone was walking after me but taking steps three or four times the length of my own' .... 'the eerie crunch, crunch, sounded behind me, I was seized with terror and took to my heels, staggering blindly among the boulders for four or five miles.'

Highland whisky, finest in the world.

Aviemore
I had a hard time finding the library, as Google maps placed it right by the road, when it is, in fact, set down a side street and hidden in a school/sports complex. I stubbornly rode through the village three times before relenting and asking a local. I did, however, discover Aviemore to be a very pretty place, European ski resort in appearance, with a plethora of alpine bars, hotels, and restaurants. I was itching to go on the piss, because a pub crawl in this place could become the stuff of legend, but I needed to get myself out of the mountains before the real winter hit, and going out on the blather at my age is a three day event.

Once in the library I plugged everything in, and basked in the warmth. There was no WiFi and no data signal, but there were online computers, so I Googled around for a campsite and decided to bed down in some woods by the train tracks, very near the library, so I could be back in here first thing. Charging up all my stuff takes a full day, but I could ratchet up a workable chunk in the 10am-4pm Sunday opening hours tomorrow.

While updating my Facebook, an old neighbour of mine from Scarborough I hadn't seen for thirty years messaged me. She lived in Aviemore with her husband, and wanted to come to the library and say hello. Gail turned up about ten minutes later and we had a lovely chat for an hour or so. She kissed me on the cheek goodbye and I had to admire her bravery; my road funk was an obnoxious wall by now. I really needed to have a proper wash and launder.

I camped down literally ten feet from the train track, which proved intriguing. In the familiar environment of my tent I would forget, and be deep into a movie, when the ground would vibrate, almost imperceptibly, then rapidly explode into an impossibly deafening maelstrom of noise and light. I experienced a psychologically cleansing second of pure bowel-loosening terror each time before remembering where I was. This was going to be interesting in the morning.

Day 49
It was. There's nothing quite like being woken up by what initially appears to be a planet-killing meteor strike. The intense wave of endorphins that follows such a pronounced adrenalin spike is palpably psychedelic. You can keep your base-jumping and heroin nonsense: camp next to a railway.

It was very cold. So cold, in fact, when I rode to the library the bike slipped on some invisible black ice, and the rig went down like a Latin centre forward. My head smacked the pavement with significant prejudice. Luckily I was wearing my cock helmet so no damage was done to the tarmac.

After the library shut I went on a cookie hunt, managing to corner some digestives, ginger nuts, and custard creams in, funnily enough, a corner shop. I absently munched on them back in the tent. Three cups of coffee and an episode of Star Trek later, they were all gone, and that was dinner.

A lot of my friends have expressed jealously at what I'm doing, and admittedly, there's a lot to be jealous of, but cookie dinners may well top the list.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

The Caledonian

I get complimented occasionally on how adventurous I'm being, cycling around the world.

Thing is, I don't consider it particularly adventurous: after all, I'm not visiting anywhere that hasn't been visited before, and I'm going to places people live. It's not like I'm hiking across Antarctica, or scaling some great mountain, or I dunno, hanging my toothbrush too close to the toilet. It's possibly the least dangerous thing I've ever done, professionally or otherwise, yet those close to me suddenly express concern. Weird. Were they not paying attention to the last twenty-five years of construction, rugby, mixed martial arts and a thirsty predilection for alcohol-fuelled excess or am I grossly misjudging how dangerous riding a bike along quiet country lanes is? And how hazardous can it be if folks are living there?

Maybe it's because I read a lot. When people mention the word 'adventure' to me, I think Conan the Barbarian, not Conan O'Brien, and I often compare what I'm doing to commuting by bike and camping, two activities hardly considered perilous.

It's been suggested to me more than once, however, and usually by coppers, that thieves and muggers may identify me as a target. I think those who consider such things are completely unfamiliar with three particulars of travelling this way:

1. Probably 95% of my time is spent in the countryside and wilderness, where roaming gangs of criminals aren't.

2. The overwhelming majority of people are nice. Police officers and the military are particularly bad at recognizing this, as most of their working days are spent dealing with liars and delinquents, which of course includes members of their own hierarchies as well as the politicians who tell them what to do (I realize it's unfashionable to criticize the military nowadays, if not the police, but I count too many members among my friends not to). By contrast, I run the gamut of regular folk daily, from the basest scum to the airiest twat, and am happy to report truly evil people are rare indeed.

3. Me, personally. I'm quite prepared to fuck a mugger up, and have extensive training and experience in the art of doing so. However, I'm completely aware that multiple assailants form the core of our mugging fraternity's methodology, which is why I bristle with improvised weaponry: my retracted hiking pole is a handy club with telescopic sleeve locking levers that protrude at brutal flesh-ripping angles, and my bike lock a thick chain with a weighty padlock that can serve as a rather intimidating medieval flail. I've not had a single instance of trouble, though I have probably been sized up by potential muggers who decided better of it. In fact, I know I have: one does not acquire nor maintain such immutable swagger without learning a thing or two about such human behaviour.

In addition, the time I spend in towns is fleeting, during daylight, and mostly to buy food. I like that supermarkets are usually on the outskirts, so I can circumvent the innards if I have to, but this is to avoid tiresome navigational issues (such as counterintuitive one-way systems, unmapped brick walls, and in one dramatically profane encounter, a cliff), rather than whatever the complimenter might deem dangerous. Most of the time, however, a town will contain at least a couple of things I want to see, and of course a library to work in (which is also kryptonite to the criminal mindset).

Anyway, it was time to leave Fort William.

After a week I'd grown quite fond of the place. I'd met Bricks here the first night after twenty years, and became somewhat melancholy afterwards. Well, not melancholy precisely; contemplative, perhaps? It proved to be a milestone, a waypoint to review my progress towards enlightenment, and I decided I wasn't drinking nearly enough.

I dragged my feet breaking camp, hesitant to leave the convenience of nearby shops, and finally got out of there after two hours and a final lingering look back at the towering Ben Nevis.


It may not the highest of mountains, internationally speaking, but has a topological prominence to rival many far taller.


With a sigh I mounted up and the Caledonian Canal bike path conveyed me directly to Neptune's Staircase, a series of locks and swing bridges that form the freshwater entrance to the sixty mile waterway, which, two centuries ago, took Thomas Telford and three thousand men nineteen years to build.


Unfortunately the endeavour was never really rewarded with commercial success: by the time it was finished the Napoleonic naval threat was over, the invention of the railway loomed, and the move from wooden hulls to steel saw cargo ships outsize the safe new corridor. Nowadays it is owned by Scottish Waterways and run primarily as a tourist attraction, and a spectacular one it is, too.








A few miles up its length I rode off on a tangent to see the Commando Memorial at Spean Bridge, as recommended by my younger brother Dave, the ex-Royal Marine. This statue has to be situated in one of the most breathtaking spots in the highlands, with a 360 degree view that made me want to shoo off the teary-eyed old codgers moping about the place, flatten the memorial and throw up a log cabin. The only thing stopping me was the threat of swift justice at the hands of the aforementioned, who likely knew a few tricks about terminally dispatching irreverent young men. That and universal ostracisation, of course. Oh, and laws.




On the road back to the canal, I did make mental note of what looked like a small abandoned chapel, too overgrown to really tell, which would certainly work as a fixer-upper. If I ever do settle in one place, this was as fine a location as any.

The Caledonian Canal slices through the middle of Northern Scotland, joining together several linear lochs to create a continuous waterway between the east and west coasts. This tear through the highlands is known as the Great Glen Fault, where two tectonic plates frottage like teenagers on supermarket cider, or at least used to, and still do occasionally, but less enthusiastically. The first of those lochs heading east is Loch Lochy, surely named by either a toddler, managerial groupthink, or some kind of raffle. Further evidence arrived in the name of the next one up, Loch Oich. People were obviously taking the piss, so I rechecked my map. Nope, that's their names.




On the trail I had a quick chat with a hiker labouring under a huge rucksack heading in the same direction. We met again up the trail at a lochshore campsite, set amid the kind of magnificent mountain scenery that multiples house prices exponentially.

The deserted site had an open-face log bothy for campers, and a ready-built fire to warm us, all gratis.


What a remarkably more sensible approach the Scottish Forestry Commission has to campers than its English counterpart, who seems to treat public access to nature with the same distaste most of us reserve for kiddie snuff porn. The contrast is really quite astounding. Scotland throws open its arms and welcomes you in like an old mate, while England slams the door and petulantly charges you to knock. I know where I'd rather be. I felt quite embarrassed to be English at this juncture, particularly because I was in the company of a foreign visitor. Scottish landowners, by simply acting like normal people in pursuit of the greater good, make the English ruling class look like the fucking Ferengi.

Which they are, let's face it.

On returning to England I've broached this subject many times, and several people have curiously tried to defend the official Gollum position of their 'higher ups', citing ludicrous notions like Scotland having less people, so can afford greater hospitality. I've never heard such illogical and loathsome nonsense. It's justifying selfishness and legislating against freedom, nothing more: exasperatingly excusing utterly cunty behaviour.

Anyway.

The hiker's name was Liad, an Israeli climber in his mid-twenties exploring the highlands. He'd hiked and hitched across most of Europe after the end of his military service as a computer dude in the IDF. We decided not to use the bothy as we both preferred the water- and wind-proofing offered by our tents. We camped on the beach and chatted into the night, and he shared some Turkish coffee with me the next morning. He packed up more quickly than I did and set off, while I took a little longer to enjoy the misty alpine scenery.


On the bike I powered up the first hills like a man possessed, despite being unable to access my lowest nine gears (my front derailleur had been playing up the last few days, and I didn't have a clue how to readjust it). I initially put this down to the caffeine jolt from the coffee, but it was more than that. I was sprinting up the slopes like a penis helmet pro, experiencing little in the way of fatigue. I was finally getting fit, that's what it was! It'd been so long I'd forgotten the feeling. Like a cardio maniac I relished the uphills even more than usual, attacking them all the more aggressively, pushing myself to see where my new limits were. I couldn't reach them. Overnight, somehow I'd gone from a struggling wimp to a thunderous explosion of muscle, barely contained by sinew, bone and skin; svelte, powerful, and the master of all I pedalled. My lungs laughed at hardship. My heart pumped anew. Thighs roared at the mountains like great swooping beasts. I'd never felt such physical elation.

As I neared the village of Laggan I dismounted for a farm gate, and, epic plonkerdom ever ready to pounce, realized I'd left my loaded trailer back at the campsite.

I sheepishly retrieving the thing and found the return journey distinctly less worthy of comment. I pushed on towards Fort Augustus, passing the curious and temporarily closed Eagle Barge Inn, a pub on a barge. I'd planned to work here, but wasn't too miffed as rain threatened and I wanted to make more progress before camping.


Several miles on the trail on the east side of Loch Oich became too roughly strewn with tree roots to ride over: my rig could probably handle it, but water bottles kept bouncing from beneath their bungees and I lost another one I didn't hear hit the ground. I got off and pushed. Navigating a gated bridge (where I have to prop up the bike, open the gate, push through, reprop, close, unprop and carry on) the hiking pole I use as a kickstand slipped on the mossy footing and the rig keeled over, snapping the footlong pivot pin that attaches the trailer arms to the body of the trailer.

I did some swearing and then silently despaired for several minutes, considering who I should call to come and rescue me, but shut that shit down with a finality that frankly surprised me. I was ten miles from nowhere. Construction Foreman Stef took over. I unloaded the trailer, surveyed the damage, and began to formulate repairs with the resources I had available.

Just then, who should come down the path but Liad and a freshly befriended female backpacker: a Canadian girl called Emily. They had missed the next turning and had to backtrack, discovering my predicament. Liad stopped to help out while Emily kept going, citing a pressing rendezvous, and we managed to jerry rig a replacement pin from two tent pegs, wedged in place by a length of paracord, wound with duct tape and bound by a tight bungee. Not perfect, but I figured it would get me to a metal fabrication shop in Inverness: not that I had enough money for such extravagances, you understand: I needed to get online and canvass for some more writing work.


Liad headed off as I repacked. I took the wrong turn and had to double back myself, catching him about an hour later; the boy moved fast for carrying such a huge pack. Back on the trail we decided on a canalside patch of grass for a campsite. Darkness was descending on nearby Fort Augustus, so we headed into the village for the small supermarket without pitching our tents first, which turned out to be a mistake as it began to rain on the way back. In changeable weather when deciding on a tent pitch, it's always best to get one's shelter up at the first fair opportunity. I don't get wet while camping or even on the bike so much: it's during the transitions. So we got soaked. Liad got his tent up first, and then helped with mine as the rain bucketed down. I'm not sure I would've done the same, and felt both humbled and inspired by his fellowship.

I set up the candle heaters to desperately try to dry out gloves, socks and boots, and had a £1.49 tin of Morrison's Irish Stew for dinner, which I wasn't looking forward to as tinned meals tend to smell a bit like dog food when you open them up. The stew, however, was a thoroughly pleasant surprise; very tasty, and mopped up with some fresh bread I couldn't have been happier. I think I've found my brand. I finished off my repast with a box of Mr. Kipling's Chocolate Slices and a few chocolate digestives, washed down with a cup of coffee, and snuggled up in my sleeping bag to listen to the rain.

The sky was clear the next morning, and Fort Augustus is gorgeous. The sunrise dramatically lit the mountains, streaking shadows across their faces at such acute angles you could actually see them change expression.



Liad again finished packing first and headed to the coffee shop, while I took my time to enjoy the surroundings, idly chatting with passing locals. I caught up with him at the village bridge and we said our goodbyes, as he headed for the Isle of Skye and I continued on the Caledonian, promising to visit him in Israel. The cycle route followed the road here onto the east side of Loch Ness, up into the mountains and away from the water.


It was some serious climbing, and most of the morning and early afternoon were spent off the bike and pushing (I still hadn't adjusted my front derailleur, primarily because I didn't want to fuck it up further. I needed to get to somewhere with WiFi so I could watch a YouTube instructional or two). The rain started up mid-morning and set in for the day, unfortunately taking the edge off the spectacular views to be had.



After two hours of punishing gradients the miles of downhills began, and swept me into the pub in the village of Whitebridge. I got there at 2.35 pm, however, and they closed at 3, but the barman invited me to stay in the hotel lounge to dry off, such was my sopping condition. What considerate people. I got the fire going and began the process of drying out, meanwhile breaking out my laptop to put some proposals in on prospective writing jobs, and watch the first of a few videos to decipher the mysteries of bike gearing.

After three hours or so most of my kit was dry and the rain had stopped, so I packed up and rejoined the downhills, and found a very fetching spot to camp among the ferns by a tumbling burn outside the mountainside village of Foyer. I fell asleep excited by the prospect of the next day's ride along Loch Ness.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Deery Me

The howling tempest blew my fifteen stones completely over twice, and fellow climbers with slighter frames were forced to either crawl or turn back. 

The storm began to rage at about three thousand feet, a horizontal arctic blizzard painfully sandblasting any exposed skin. I didn't have my sunglasses with me, so I was forced to march leaning forty-five degrees forward with my head bowed in the classic mountaineering pose, digging for purchase with my one good hiking pole (the other had seized up in the telescopically retracted position) and feeling very Captain Oates. Temperatures plummeted into the negative teens. So this is why people are always dying on Ben Nevis, I mused, stepping around more sensible souls setting up emergency bivouacs. With visibility down to less than twenty feet and snow violently ripping across the rocks to drift waist-deep in blasted leeward pockets, wandering from the obscured path and over a cliff became a real possibility. And I'd waited a week in Fort William for good weather.



I'd arrived at the town, nestled in a valley at the foot of the mountain, wet and knackered after two days of determined cycling over exhausting highland roads. I'd made this mad dash through Glencoe from Callender because an old rugby mate I hadn't seen for twenty years was passing through on his way to a family holiday on Knoydart, a remote peninsula to the north, and we'd arranged to meet for a pint. I rode ninety miles in two days, hauling half my weight again, over mountains, in the rain. For a pint. I want to make sure everyone understands that bit.

Of course, it was to see James Brickell too, and meet his lovely family. Of course it was. I'm not an animal.

Even so, I hold that the first pint of ice cold beer after a hefty day of physical work to be one of the true wonders of humanity's agricultural endeavour. You can keep your cups of tea, coffee, Mexican cokes, Pinot Noirs or flutes of champagne. It doesn't even have to be good beer, just lager at the point of freezing. To me, it will always sound the end note to a hellish day, a sluice of civilisation scything through the choking dust and murderous heat of Texan summers, and the first bell of sitting back with good company, suspending the dread of tomorrow's forever Dantean descent. That first draught evokes all the firsts I've quaffed before, compounding the refreshment with thoughts of tougher days. It's the realisation of an American beer advert. And I figured, after two days of sweaty and aching unpleasantness, that first pint might just be twice as good.

I'd modified my route while camping on the edge of Loch Venachar, southwest of Callender, a more dreamlike location I couldn't easily imagine. I had the entire lake to myself, and spent the broad evening hours reclining against an ancient oak, gazing over rippling quicksilver, tracing the alpine crags beyond the far shore as they blushed with fiery streaks of pink and crimson, pondering humanity and our place in the Universe. Well, I would've, if I hadn't inexplicably developed the liquid shits again and spent the entirety of this potential poetry pageant crouching behind a bush, dismayed by my rapidly dwindling toilet paper supply, and personifying a far less elegant but likely more accurate summation of the human condition.

I really should switch to leaves, but fear the experimentation with unknown species. What if I inadvertently wipe with something toxic or abrasive? These grim details are the vital hints survival manuals and TV programmes curiously neglect. Ray Mears never seems to ask his wizened native shamans about this particular topic, you'll note. One can cope with an heroic dose of hardship while one's unmentionables remain dry, unchafed and lesion-free, but introduce something as innocuous as a paper cut to a strategic location and the romance drains from a wilderness journey like dignity after a vindaloo.

The next day I waited for the rain to stop, which it did around noon, decamped and hit the road. I stopped to do a quick smalls laundry in a highland brook and quickly realized I was washing my underpants in water enterprising Scots bottle and ship to the world's wealthy and gullible, and felt quite devilishly ennobled. 

I managed fifteen miles that afternoon through the most incredible scenery I'd seen yet, passing a grand total of five people after Callander, and rode past Loch Lubnaig. I took a peek at the very lovely Loch Voil the next morning where the bike route hairpinned around its valley, then switchbacked up the mountain by Lochearnhead. On the way I stopped at Strathyre's The Inn Bistro for refreshment and a recharge after my wallet took another arse pounding at the village general store. You know it's in for a raping when you see multipack soda cans shamelessly displaying their NOT TO BE SOLD SEPARATELY labels from the shelves. They could at least have the decency to Anne Frank them in the fridge, for crying out loud, that way the larceny comes as a nasty surprise at the end rather than a gathering dread. More ardent stereotypers might blame the Scottish predilection for frugality, but the owner was a cockney who'd moved north of the border, no doubt, to join in the merciless fleecing of wide-eyed tourists.

Glencoe
As darkness fell I found a likely campsite in a deserted parking area high in Glencoe. I was startled to discover a huge highland stag standing on its edge, about the size of a pony but powerfully built and with a full set of antlers. It seemed less surprised than I was. Like a typical townie twat, I cooed at my luck in happening upon such an elusive creature, and gingerly pulled out my camera for a shot in the fading light, wary about startling him. Strangely, though, as I slowly approached, the animal didn't move, and stared at me. I found this a bit unnerving, as I considered myself much more of a threat that it obviously seemed to, and his headgear began to look a little more ominous than a hat rack. 


After a minute or two I made a sudden movement to test his moxie, careful to keep my rig between us. He huffed once and nonchalantly sauntered off rather than fled in a panic. What kind of 'shy and elusive' behaviour is this shit, Attenborough?

I found a flat area of grass off the hard standing and put my tent up, somewhat troubled by the encounter. As soon as I was situated I found I actually had a good data signal despite my remote location, and got on the Google. Turns out red deer rut in October and November. It was late October. Great. It was either going to kill me or shag me. Should make for a lively night. 

I got some dinner down me and hit the hay, allowing the mating calls of the other stags scattered about their territories across the plateau to lull me to sleep. 

The beast returned during the night, however, and began patrolling his own domain, bellowing his location to the hinds. He seemed to be staying away from the tent, which is a good thing. I found the situation faintly ludicrous, and therefore perfectly worthy of comment on Facebook, as I wasn't going back to sleep anytime soon. My transatlantic friends, still awake with the time difference, of course, found the deadly situation highly entertaining, and sympathy was thin on the ground. Even James Brickell, or 'Bricks' as we call him, the university rugby friend I was to meet in Fort William, and now a noted natural history documentarian, dismissed the peril as naivety on my part and marvelled at my luck at having an interactive opportunity with a five hundred pound feral hormone fuck monster twenty miles from the nearest hospital.

I pictured antlers suddenly plunging through the tent walls above my head, and decided to prepare.

When Animals Attack videos are the limit of my experience with fang and claw combat. I figured Romeo had a headful of handles, so one option would be to get my mitts on those to prevent it stabbing or slashing me, getting behind them and twisting its head round like a rodeo cowpoke wrestling a steer. Then I remembered they'll also kick with their front legs, so instead I might need to keep it at bay with something to allow a good strike with the hatchet. Hiking pole! I got one out and telescoped it to its maximum length. If it charged with its antlers I could fend it off before dropping the weapons to grab and twist it to the ground. 

This presented an entirely new set of problems, though. Can you armbar a deer? Triangle choke? Hardly. Sod that, then, stay on the feet, keep it at bay and hit it in the head or neck with the hatchet, that would be the best option. Thus formulated my plan. I'd need my headlamp on to see what the hell was going on, too. And wear my shoes rather than my slip on camp sandals: secure footing is important in any fight.

Turns out the beast was disinterested to say the least, as he stayed away and I eventually drifted off. At 3 am, however, he let out an almighty moo literally inches from my sleeping head. He was right beside the tent! I spasmed three feet into the air with a falsetto shriek, while swaddled perfectly horizontal in my mummy sleeping bag. I hung for a Michael Jordan moment, reality slowed to a smear, before bullet time recalibrated and I crumpled back to earth. My embarrassment at the sound I'd made coupled with the short-sighted fug of the rudely awakened stirred me to violence. I struggled out of my sleeping bag and started digging for my hatchet and shoes, roaring with fake bravado, 'IF I HAVE TO GET OUT OF THIS FUCKING TENT....!!' 

I heard him move away, sniggering like Muttley. He didn't return, and I, of course, couldn't return to sleep. I spent the rest of the night fully clothed and headlamped, senses scrambling to every imagined sound, improvised weaponry at the ready. I've never been so grateful to see the sun come up.

Fort William
The ten miles of mostly downhill to Glencoe had to be one of the treats of the tour, despite the rain, which, to be honest, never really got going until I turned northeast towards Fort William. 





The rain and a stiff headwind meant I draped on my US Army poncho, which is great for keeping the rain off your top half but does trap the heat when you're working hard, so I ended up drenched in sweat anyway. I got into town about midafternoon and google mapped a bike trail around the estuary, which I followed until I found a remote camping spot. I managed to get the tent up without saturating everything else, ate two tomato sandwiches and the rest of the quite ordinary but prohibitively expensive toffee cake I'd bought from the cockney criminal mastermind in Strathyre.

I got a text from Bricks to say he had arrived at the nearby Premier Inn, and was sitting down to dinner in the attached Brewer's Fayre restaurant. I biked down in the rain and spent an entertaining evening meeting his family and parents, who were polite enough not to mention my unkempt appearance and slightly unwashed fug, while Bricks and I had some fun catching up on twenty years apart, desperately trying to curtail our swearing. It turns out he wasn't the tea boy on the children's natural history show Deadly 60 at all, or even a production assistant, but the actual head honcho. So the BAFTA it had won was, in fact, on his mantelpiece at home. 

Suitably impressed that someone I've seen drunk and naked more times than I care to remember had actually amounted to something, I went for a piss and caught sight of myself in the mirror for the first time in a few weeks. I looked like a caveman from a fifties movie. Hair sprouted from each ear like a cliffside alfalfa crop and and a glistening thicket of nose hair tumbled into my mustache. I'd dropped significant weight, too, but as I was somewhat rotund when I set off, this was no bad thing. I shoved the nose hair home with an index finger, wiped myself down as best I could and returned to the table, apologizing for the horrific sight I was inflicting on everyone. They graciously pooh-poohed my apologies and shoved another drink in my hand. Awesome company.

Saturday, Day 34
I woke around eight, and had a hangover lie in with a couple of episodes of Rome. Casually google mapping, I realised I should be able to see Ben Nevis from my campsite, so I rolled out of my pit and lo, there it was. 


It had been obscured by the rain yesterday. I decided I had to climb it, but only when the saddle sores had at least begun to fade. I checked the weather and Tuesday looked promising. I tidied myself up with a little grooming, haunted by the image in the mirror from last night. 

I rode into town for the library: there was no WiFi and only one thirty minute computer slot per day was allowed, but I was permitted to plug in, which was at least something, I suppose. I left at one and shopped at the extremely busy Morrison's for some cheese, bread, tomatoes, and a couple of tins of ravioli. They had no Jamaica ginger cake, curse the heavens. I decided to try and use my new bank debit card. I'd just opened my first British bank account a couple of months earlier, and was woefully behind on this chip and pin technology lark, but I had to learn sometime. At the self-service checkout, I stared intently at the unit for several silent minutes but couldn't find anything approximating a credit card slot. With nothing obvious and a crowd gathering, I began wiggling the card into every crevice on the machine in a process of elimination, occasionally turning to shrug at my audience, rolling my eyes at the growing gulf between a spiralling society of technophiles and the prosaic wisdom of the common man. Fortunately, the woman came over and saved me. She said I was the best one yet.

Back at the tent I cooked up the last of some hot dogs with fried onions and ketchup, just about one of my favourite food combinations in the world, and when the rain broke I erected a washing line and hung out the wet gear from yesterday, and set up the candle heaters to dry my boots.

The next few days were spent alternating between the tent and the library, occasionally visiting a pub for the WiFi. Despite timing my runs back and forth, I invariably got caught by the rain at least once a day, so my attempts at drying out became futile. The estuary began to flood, too, especially at high tide, and the footbridges in the parkland I was camping in were often under several inches of water.



One particular time in the library, two librarians were organizing books where one of my batteries was plugged into a wall socket. The elder one, obviously in charge, a stooped Miss Jones from Rising Damp lookalike, with rounded shoulders, a pot belly, and hair dyed so black Picard would send in a probe, admonished me, saying we were only supposed to charge the device we're working on. A demonstration of her supreme authority to her underling, no doubt.

Weary, by now, of this jobsworth nonsense, I avoided exploding, and responded; 'Well, put a sign up, then.'

'We shouldn't have to.'

'You have no WiFi,' I began, evenly, 'you have extreme computer use restriction. Be quiet, I'm talking. You'll have your turn when I'm done. You've used up more actual monetary value in the time it took you to even process that thought than it takes to recharge that device, never mind verbalise it. That's how little it costs.'

She began to respond again, somewhat taken aback at lucidity from a hairy, smelly transient. I didn't let her.

'Would you like me to prove it to you? Okay, let me Google it. Oh wait, that's right, I can't, because there's no bloody WiFi! Luckily, I have my own portable WiFi hotspot set up, which is one of the reasons I have to charge this battery. Now, maybe if you didn't have four librarians working in a small, empty, provincial library, your county council would be able to afford a £12 WiFi router. You've got more staff than Gandalf.' (I'd been waiting to use that last bit for months, but the opportunity had never presented itself.) I softened a little, 'You should never have tugged on this thread, luv.'

'Actually, I'd be quite interested to see how much it costs, but there's no need to take that tone.'

'An iPhone 5 costs about 1/7th of a penny to completely recharge, and I can prove it. Your objection to my tone is noted.'

I went back the next day. Not because I needed to, as my work was done, just to plug some more shit in. 

Ben Nevis
Luckily, my experience of working outside in the arctic conditions of the Canadian winter stood me in good stead for the blizzard on the top: I've been below -50 Celsius many times, so I knew what to expect. I was layered up enough to be quite comfortable as long as I kept moving. My fleece gloves and decrepit hiking boots were inadequate, but it was so cold the snow was dry and didn't melt through, which is where the trouble would start.

The peak of the 4,409' Ben Nevis is a plateau a few hundred metres across. The trig point marking the actual summit was on the far side, and the path to it was indicated every fifty yards or so by a stone cairn, constructed so climbers wouldn't lose their way in snow or low visibility. A group of seven of the hardier (or foolhardier) souls, all men, I noted, had congregated at the first cairn at the edge of the plateau, as if at a bus stop, debating whether to carry on. 


With the addition of me, we had the numbers to form a human chain out into the storm to scan for the next one. This we did, found it, and followed each other there. We repeated the process for the next few, and our GPSs told us we were within 200 metres of the summit when two of our crew, clearly frightened, asked to turn back. There wasn't much resistance. 



On the way down I got talking to a trio of our summiting group who'd been on a three peak odyssey: over the space of three days, they'd climbed Mount Snowdon, Scafell Pike, and now Ben Nevis (the highest mountains in Wales, England and Scotland respectively), which is seriously impressive going, especially in late October, but not my idea of a vacation at all.

Descending was actually harder than going up, as I was already knackered. My rugby knees started complaining, closely followed by my roofing hip, well before halfway, and my new friends left me far behind.


I hobbled the rest of the way down leaning heavily on my one hiking pole, to arrive at the pub at the bottom like Peachy Carnehan returning from Kafiristan, six hours, ten miles and a thousand years after setting off, just in time to watch England versus Australia in the rugby. Unfortunately, there's no TV at the Ben Nevis Inn, and I neglected to ask about WiFi, instead unlocking my bike and gingerly pedalling to The Crofter in Fort William, trying to avoid exacerbating my raw bits, my longing for a pint temporarily suspended. It seemed I unconsciously knew if I settled into one at the Ben the rugby could've gone and fucked itself.

I got there in time for the second half (England lost despite a spirited performance), then stopped by Morrison's for curry ingredients. The previous week's rain had resulted in the estuary flooding at high tide, but my astute site selection meant my camp was dry, even if getting to it meant riding through a foot of water on the two footbridges. Always live on a hill: rule #1.

It started raining on the way home, and I suddenly remembered today was Halloween. And it was nice to see, in the perpetual transatlantic cultural exchange, the arrival on our green and pleasant shores of the scantily-clad Halloween slut.

And I met a French hiker on the path, who was obviously looking for a campsite in the flooded landscape. I invited him to share my pitch, but he seemed nervous about talking to a large stranger in the dark and in the middle of nowhere. While I was cooking in my tent foyer I heard him wander back and forth in the dark a few more times. I've been there and it sucks. Poor bastard. 


So was that first pint worth all this effort?

Absolutely. It always is.