'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.
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,
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.
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.
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 with blow this entire building's electrical infrastructure?'
'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.
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 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.
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.
It was. There's nothing quite like being woken up by what initially appears to be a planet-killing meteor impact. 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.