The world is so full of a number of things,
I’m sure we should all be as happy as kings.
- Robert Louis Stevenson

Thursday, 27 January 2011

Chapter Six: Tales from the Trails (Part VI)

From here the path gets rougher, and some of it I only remember through a haze. Some of it I don’t remember at all. And some I wish I didn’t.
There isn’t much to tell you about Inverness. I staid in a hostel where I was woken at 5 in the morning by some Spanish backpackers sharing their checking out process with the world. My shoulder felt swollen and was hurting something fierce. Unable to find my way back into sleep I walked down to the harbour. It was a charmingly ugly and practical affair without any touristy frills. At a kiosk frequented by oil-stained labourers stinking intensely of fish and burnt diesel I got a cheap breakfast of kippers and bitter tea. The labourers made fun of me, of my too large army surplus clothes, and the fact that I belonged in school and not with them, but I could laugh with them and it made me feel rather good.
I answered some mails and wrote a blog entry at an Internet Café and set out for the outskirts of Inverness to hitch a ride along the A862 around Beauly Firth and then north, into Ross-Shire or maybe along the East Cost. That was how I got that lift with the plumber in his old white Ford Transit. He seemed fine at first, but it didn’t take me long to realize that he was pissed out of skull. I tried to get him to let me out along the way, but he wouldn’t ear of it.
“Whitfor?” he asked, sniffing suspiciously. “A thocht ye wis gaun tae Beauly?”
“I, er, changed my mind. I want to go West instead, to, et…” I racked my brain for some tourist attraction that might be West of where we were. “Loch Ness?”
“Ye think A’m fou, dinye?” he shouted accusingly. I didn’t know if by ‘fou’ he meant ‘full’ or ‘fool’, but I thought, either was pretty accurate.
“Ye think A’m tae fou tae drive, dinye? Bit A’ll pruve ye, A’m nae fou ataa!”
And he took both hands from the steering wheel and shook then in the air. Maybe he was thinking of bicycles and how driving without hands might prove your sense of balance, I don’t know. He laughed at me triumphantly. The van drifted into the opposite lane. There were cars coming our way.
I shouted and tried to grab the wheel. The van swerved and wobbled.
“Whoah!” he shouted, wrested the wheel from my hands, and got us more of less back on course. The honking of the other cars dopplered and faded behind us.
“Git yer hands oaf! Are ye tine tae kill us?!”
“You were…” I began shouting back.
He interrupted me with a slap to my shoulder that made me gasp with pain.
“A wis barrie! A haed aathing unner control. Twas ye what naur kilt us.”
While we were shouting e was only facing me and not paying any attention to the road ahead. I was afraid anything I might say would just make things worse, so I shut up.
For a while he muttered darkly to himself. Then, when we arrived at the turnoff, he said: “Wast he wants tae gae, wast we’ll gae. A’ll tak ye tae Struy, aye, bit nae faurer.”
The roofs of Beauly were already visible to our right, while the sign pointing straight ahead said “Struy, 9 miles”.
“No, no, I’ll go to Beauly. Let’s go to Beauly!” I tried to stop him, but too late.
For the next fifeen minutes I was quiet, securely buckled in, clinging to the handgrip, feet braced against the floor of the footwell, as he drove down the narrow, tree-lined country road, running the engine alternately at too low or too high revs, cutting curves, and swerving around oncoming traffic. He kept up a false cheer and talked to me all through, but I didn’t listen.
Finally he stopped at a telephone box in Struy, grinning, deeply satisfied with himself.
“See? See? I telt ye. A’m nae fou ataa.”
“Yeah, well, thanks, you crazy fuck,” I said, jumped from the van, and slammed the door hard behind me. I could see his face twist in anger behind the windscreen. He shouted something and shook his fist. Then he gunned hi engine, made a tight turn, and roared away back the way we’d come.
It was around noon. The sky was overcast and grey, but it wasn’t raining. Cured from any wish to hitchhike for a while, I decided that since I was here now anyway, instead of going back those 9 miles to Beauly I’d follow the road along the valley of the river Glass and see where that would lead. After half an hour the sun came out for a while and showed me that the trees were beginning to change into their autumn finery. Summer was beginning to end.
Eventually I came across a bridge to a crossroads and a couple of grey stone houses. I was still pondering my choices – shops, police station, and Glen Afric, or Glen Cannich and Mullardoch, or Drumnadrochit, public loos, and a camping ground – when a group of backpackers only a couple of years older left a shop ahead and came towards me. So I bummed them for smokes.
The next day I left when it was still dark. Everything was hazy with booze and shame. I couldn’t find my jacket, the M65 I’d bought back in Manchester, and the T I had been wearing was soiled. I took it off and left it on the middy ground of the camping site, put on my spare and the hoody I’d carried in my satchel.
The road towards Loch Mullardoch rose quickly out of the valley, and soon Strathglass and the Cannich camping ground were hidden behind a thicket of birches. I was shivering and didn’t know with what. I froze and sweated at the same tie, my shoulder hurt something beastly, the pain radiating out, joining forces with a headache and a sore throat and the pain from my kidneys where Trevor, or maybe Fred, had hit me when I wouldn’t hold still.
After a while I got out of the birch wood, and when the sun rose in my back my shadow leaped out in front of me, hurrying ahead and showing me the way. I followed, glad of anything that took my mind off the night I was leaving behind. And even though I felt sick to my stomach I began to run.
The valley opened up, wider and wider, and the mountains on both sides grew higher. The river flowed through several small lakes, and after a couple of hours I cam to a huge concrete dam, cutting across the valley. I climbed the last rise at the side of the dam and looked out over Loch Mullardoch and the lonely, treeless mountains that sheltered it.
I was seriously ill, and I knew it. It was more than just the effect of booze and the pot from last night. I was running a fever, and I needed a doctor to look at my shoulder and the ugly blue-red veins that were snaking away from the inflamed wound like little tentacles under my skin. But the road ended at the dam. I twas either turn around and creep back to Cannich or go on into the wild.
The fragments of last night that were stuck in my chest burned worse than the fever. So I stepped off the road onto the unmarked trail along the Northern shore of Loch Mullardoch.
Even today, a couple of years later, I can’t tell you exactly what happened. Oh, I remember the events, mostly, and frankly, the details are none of your beeswax. Yes, in the end it had gotten rough, enough that I might have the law on my side – though nancy boys should beware of such assumptions – but in my heart I knew that for the most part I could have stopped things. I could have fought harder, or run away, or called for help. In the end, I, some part of me, had let them do it.
It had begun friendly enough. I’d bummed them for that fag, we’d gotten talking, and they’d invited me to their camp fire. They’d shared their hotdogs with me, and their beer and the joint. We’d talked some more. They’d been from down under, on a pre-college trip to the old country, jobbing in London and travelling around when time and money allowed them to. I’d told them pretty much the truth, just sufficiently altered and vagued up to keep my legal identity and origins hidden. I had called myself Alan, and eventually sexual orientation had come into things.
On the shore of Loch Mullardoch I missed the bridge across a brook and instead followed the narrow path upward. Now and then I had to ford a tributary. Water ran into my boots and made my feet heavy and cold. Every step was hell. I sweated like a pig when I moved, but when I rested I trembled with chills. Halfway up the mountain I had to throw up, but I had this mad idea I mustn’t leave the trail but that I couldn’t, like, soil it either. I tried to hold it in, to get on where it touched the river again, but ended up puking the remains of those sausages all over my chest and arms and hands.
The path dragged on and on, past a couple of small waterfalls, and eventually lost itself in the heather and bracken of a wide, deep corrie. All around me the rounded humpbacks of the mountains rose and dove under the low, shifting sky. In the middle of the corrie a single dead tree stood at the convergence of the many little streams, bone white, and supplicating. I dreamed a gathering of people into the wilderness, and I heard drums and whistles, and then lost track of things.
You see, they had been curious, the boys from down under. I think that had been genuine. In the beginning they had just asked how it was, you know, to be with another bloke. And they got to musing how it is different to get a blowjob from a bloke or from a girl. After all, a mouth’s a mouth, innit? They made low cracks, jokes in high voices, flapping a limp wrists. Where exactly was the line across which those jokes crossed from crude to cruel, from sleazy to savage? When had I stopped being a guest and became a victim? And how much did I participate in this transformation?
I came to by the side of a small lake in a deep valley, with high, rocky slope behind me. My satchel was missing, as was any memory of how I had gotten there. All I could remember was a fucked up dream about some weird party, or maybe a procession? We had been walking somewhere, along some dark road. Or maybe it had been a boat crossing a vast underground body of water?
My palms were marked with fresh, uneven scratches, the kind you get from climbing rough rocks, as were my knees, the trousers torn above them. And, most annoyingly, the lace of my left boot was torn. Other than that I felt good. The fever had mostly passed. I was still weak, and very thirsty, but that was all.
I drank from the lake, repaired my shoe lace as good as I could, and got going. I crossed a couple of kilometres of wild, hilly country, and earthen, rusty heath, until I came to a large lake. The sky was a sickly shade of saffron, and the sun, hidden behind clouds, shimmered on the waves like hammered brass. And as far as I could see only untamed wilderness, except for one small rowboat far out on the lake.
I hollered and waved my arms. For a while nothing happened. But then I saw that the boat was coming towards me. Against the glare I could not make out who as at the oars until it was almost upon me.
“Hullo there, m’boy. Everything alright?” It was an old chap, tall and whip thin. He was wearing an old, long sou’wester, a thick, woollen jersey, dungarees, and tangerine Wellingtons.
“Hullo, Sir. Um. Can you tell me were I am. I seem to have gotten lost.”
“I’ll say. Good grief. You look a fright.”
I looked down on myself. My black hoody was stiff with mud and dried vomit, so were my fatigue trousers, and torn. My hands and knees were scraped and dirty with peat. I had no backpack and no coat.
“Everything is alright, Sir,” I said hastily. “I just lost my way.”
“Want to come into the boat, m’boy? I can ferry you to the other side. Got a small lodge there. Catch your death out here like that.”
I hesitated but then gave myself a push and stepped into the rocking dinghy, careful not to step on the fishing rods and tackle box that cluttered the bottom.
“Better sit yourself down, m’boy,” he said, and when I had settled down on the seat in the stern, he offered me his hand. It was old, and bony, and very firm.
“Benedict Isaac Roth.”
“Colin Campbell,” I answered. He looked at me for a second, astonished. Then he laughed. “Alright, Colin. Come along then.”
He took me across the waters of what turned out to be Loch Monar, one valley over from Loch Mullardoch. Mr. Roth was there on a fishing holiday. In the lodge he had rented he had maps of the area and on them I figured out that I must have walked about 7 kilometers from the Coire an t-Sith to the northern slopes of the An Riabhachan, a path fraught with steep ridges and sheer cliffs.
“By rights you should be lying dashed on the rocks of the Sgurr na Lapaich, m’boy. I know what I am talking about. What were you thinking?”
I didn’t tell him. He told me some more of my monumental stupidity, made hot tea and baked fresh scones, which he served thick with melting butter and strawberry jam. Then he heated enough water to fill a small wooden tub and had me wash and warm up. I had a look at my shoulder but it seemed a lot better. There were thick dark scars now. The surrounding tissue was still ruddy and tender, but that angry throbbing was gone, that tight feeling of a tomato about to burst, as were the bluish-red veins.
“Where to now, m’boy?” he asked me when I had towelled myself off. “My trust chariot isn’t far.” At my raised eyebrow, he chuckled and added: “An old Daimler, very comfortable ride. If you want I could take you someplace.”
“Like where?” I asked.
“Like Inverness, or Glasgow.”
I put on my trousers and saw that he had patched the tears at the knees while I had bathed.
“Thank you, Sir.”
“My pleasure. Well? Look, let’s not mince words, shall we? You have got nowhere to go, have you? I used to be a lawyer in my old life, and quite a fine one if I say so myself. So, if there is some institution, some halfway house perhaps…”
He looked at my face and saw refusal written all over it. He sighed.
“Where will you go then?”
My T smelled pretty bad. I put it on anyway and grinned. “The world is my oyster.”
He smiled wanly and handed me a long, neon orange shoelace.
“So I noticed.”
“Wow, what did you get that one for?” I took the shoe lace and ran it through my fingers. “Really dense fog?”
“I can keep it if you prefer limping around with one unlaced boot, m’boy.”
I threaded it into the oxblood Doc Marten. The colours clashed horribly. I looked around for my socks, but they had been replaced by a fresh, dry woollen pair.
“I took the liberty of disposing of your old rags. Try these.”
“I couldn’t, Sir.”
“Well, you’ll have to go without any then. I burned yours.”
“You haven’t. You haven’t even got a fireplace in here. They’re probably just in the trash.”
But thinking of Huey and his lesson, I took them and finished dressing.
“Seriously, m’boy. Where do you think you’ll go now?”
“Seriously?” I showed him on the map. “I thought this trail here, and then to Skye.”
He gave me a couple of tips about the route, and a small nylon backpack, and some provisions.
“Take the map, also,” he added. “Don’t want you to get lost again, do we?”
Mr. Roth took me with his boat back across the lake. I tried to say my good-byes, but he just shook his head, waved, and rowed away. And I turned west.
Two nights later I arrived at the road circling Loch Carron, and I made an astonishing discovery: It was already Saturday, August 30th, 2008. It had been Tuesday morning when I had left Inverness. Which meant that I must have lost not one, but two nights and a whole day, delirious in the Mullardochs…
The next night, showered and dressed in a stolen pair of boxers and a fresh, black T, I was lying in a bed in a hostel near Kyle of Lochalsh. It was a shared dorm and there were a bunch of travellers in the room with me. Some were getting ready for bed, coming from or going to the bathroom, while others were lying on theor beds, reading guidebooks, or talking quietly. I had a top bunk, and I was on my back, staring at the ceiling above me, and suddenly I began to tremble. It wasn’t the fever or anything. And it wasn’t no relief either. I was just shaking with my whole body, enough to make the bed begin to rattle against the wall. I curled up into a tight ball and hugged my knees to my chest and tried to breathe evenly, until it passed.
I knew that Mr. Roth had been right. By rights I really should have been dead. My bones should have been lying in some gorge, being picked apart by scavengers and bleached by the rain and the sun.
The next day would be the first day of school after the summer holidays in Berlin. Tim, and Samuel, and Florian, and also in another part of the city Leo, and Orcun, and Hector, they would all be sitting in their chairs in their various class rooms, tomorrow, staring out of the window. Only my seat would remain empty.
I had to think of the “The haunting of Hill House” by Shirley Jackson. Best damn ghost story ever, IMHO. Except maybe for “The Ghost of Canterville”. At the end of “Hill House” Eleanor, the main character, is driving the car and wondering: “Why am I doing this? Why don’t they stop me?”
That had been me. All the time I had secretly been waiting for some heavy hand to fall on my shoulder and stop me. To catch me and send me back. I hadn’t truly believed that I could actually escape, simply by walking away.
I knew, as I lay there, in that bed in that hostel, near the shores of Skye, surrounded by strangers, that I should turn around. That it would be the sensible thing to do, to go back to my mother, to get things back on track before they would spiral completely out of control.
I knew that I should do that.
But I also knew that I wouldn’t.
This wasn’t just something I was doing anymore. It was who I had become.

Monday, 17 January 2011

Chapter Six: Tales from the Trails (Part V)

It was raining again when I entered Glen Dee. The sky was as rugged as the ground, clouds, torn, chasing each other, sunlight coming through the ragged opening in scattered bursts, the way a gunman might occasionally strafe a besieged house with bursts of automatic fire. The hills on both sides of the glen grew into mountains and the path itself plodded ever upwards.
In the evening I reached a mountain whose lopsided peak jutted out impressively over the glen, like a cock straining against tight trousers. As I found out later it’s called “Devil’s Point” in English, which was the polite translation of its Gaelic name as it was told to Queen Victory when she travelled through these parts. A more literal translation would be “demon dick”.
There was a small stone hut at the foot of the Devil’s Point. I thought about spending the night there, but when I got close, I saw that a group of happy hikers were just getting cozy inside, hanging freshly washed socks from the window sill and busying themselves with the fireplace. I greeted them half-heartedly, without breaking my stride. I hurried past the hut and up a small path that lead to the ridge joining the Devil’s Point and several other peaks to a plateau.
I had not intended to climb any of these peaks. I had wanted to stay on the trail along the valley. But the path to the stone hut had taken me away from the main trail, and once I was there and saw that it was occupied, I only had the choices of either staying, or turning around, or walking on, uphill.
I didn’t want to stay. Helen and John had been all the company I craved that day. And I didn’t want to turn around, because doing so would have made it only to apparent to those hikers that I was avoiding them. And somehow that moment I couldn’t have born the shame of my cowardice becoming visible to them. Even if it meant having to drag myself up that devilish mountain.
I cursed myself every exhausting and agonizing step. Each made my shoulder throb with a deep, dull fire. And when the night had quietly done away with the last of the dusk I found myself in a large corrie, illuminated only by the wan light of a distant, gibbous moon – an immense natural amphitheatre made up of moss-covered rocks and steep slopes. And I felt very lost, and small, and terribly exposed to the heavens.
The corrie was lines with little brooks. I found a dry, sandy spot between two of them, had the last of Helen Campbell’s sandwiches, emptied the bottle, tended to my feet, and finally smoked my last fag and gazed down into the Glen, and the tiny flickering light of the hearth fire in the stone hut far below me at the foot of the mountain.
As I sat there I was still mulling over the things Helen had said. And her question whether I believe in God and in Jesus Christ.
Just to be clear on this, I do believe in God. I do. I do. But… how do I say this?
My Dad had been raised a Roman Catholic, and my aunt had converted to the Church of England when she married. My cousins had been raised Anglicans. My mum is from a family of strict Prussian Lutheran protestants. My oldest friend and neighbour, Orcun, was from a family of moderately devout Muslims. And Hector’s parents were lapsed Communists and strict and vocal atheists. From the beginning I had known that whatever anyone wanted to claim about religion, there was always a way to look at things differently.
My mum had me and my siblings baptized in the local Lutheran parish, and all but me went to Confirmation class from 12 onward. I was the only one to flat out refuse to go. But that was the extend of my mum’s involvement with the Church. The only times I ever saw her even talk to the vicar was during ‘Nette’s funeral, and at Nicky’s baptism 2 ½ years later.
Primary school offered religious instruction for Protestants and Catholics, but none for Muslims, so it mainly served as a segregator for the main ethnicities – the German kids mostly went to the Lutheran class, Polish kids to the Catholic, and the Turkish and Arabic kids had a free period (but usually visited a Qur’an school some afternoons of the week.) Again it seemed to me that somehow religion was less about truth and more about belonging, about identity and taking sides.
I remember how astonished I was when I finally received religious instructions how boring and meaningless everything was that I was being told about God and Jesus. How God – supposedly almighty and all-knowing – was this soppy stern chap who in some never fully explained way was supposed to love everybody (like, what does that even mean?) and watch over the entire world and every littlest critter in it, and who for some reason was to be credited with every good turn but never to be blamed for everything that went wrong. And Jesus, the son (or incarnation, they never could tell me which) of this almighty God, had brought even more love and forgiveness into the world – I kept wondering what a perfect God needed a version 2.0 for – but then got killed rather badly for it.
And then I looked around in my world, and inside myself, and saw all the violence, and the callousness, the pettiness, and how messed up and dirty and run down everything was, and I thought, kurwa, He sure is doing a terrible job.
I also began to seriously resent my teacher, and God, because if there was any truth in what she told me about God’s intentions and power, then God must either hold one hell of a grudge against me, or – and that was even worse – I must be so unimportant that in all his omniscience He never noticed me.
And then ‘Nette started her confirmation classes, and in the nights we would talk about what she had learned, and what she was thinking about all of it. And we’d try to make sense of it ourselves. And once again I was astonished, this time because the stuff we read was nothing like that boring, pedantic, and utterly ineffective God the grown-ups had been telling me about.
The God of the bible is a truly wicked bloke. He is rash to anger and totally overreacts to everything. He blunders along and often acts before he thinks and then comes to regret it later, or changes his mind in mid-stride. He blusters and boasts, sulks, and refuses to admit when he’s made a mistake. He’s bloodthirsty, and untrustworthy, and incredibly vain. But He is full of love – and not that boring, serene love my dried-up teach was going on about, but a love that years, and hurts, is proud, and tender, and that knows how to forgive, not for morals butt for passion. Who could read the story of God and David and not be moved by the flawed, fiery passion for one another?
The bible is full of great folks, and I was pissed off that the teach had made them all sound so dull. There was David, and his suggestive, well, not even love-triangle but love-quadrangle, with King Saul and Saul’s son Jonathan and saul’s daughter Michal. I mean, talk about kinky. David’s career as an outlaw and rebel, his ascent to kingship, his trouble with his own sons, and his less than glorious old age.
Or take Jacob, the thief, liar, and runaway, who got into actual fisticuffs with God, and who God loved so much that he re-named him Israel. Or Job, who took God to court and forced Him to show His true colours. Or Moses, who I think it can be argued is the only person other than Mary who has a reasonable claim to the boast that God made love to him, but who was still turned back at the border of the promised land and had to die, alone, in the desert.
At the age of 10 the New Testament was a bit boring for me and often very hard to understand. But even there were hidden gems that the grown-ups had withheld from me: Why do they gloss over Herod’s mass child murder in the Christmas Story? And who came up with these three boring old kings, when the actual text tells of an numberless group of wise men – possibly wizards! – from the East? And then there are moments like the one when Jesus begs God to spare him, when he is filled with fear and doubt, but God refuses him and Jesus is nailed to the cross anyway. Later when ‘Nette’s tumour had metastasised into her bones and she had to be given morphine, an still it hurt her so badly, I had to think of the crucifiction and what it would feel like to have nails driven through my wrists and the spans of my feet.
This God of the bible was a God who made sense, a God who fit the world I was living in. It wasn’t a God I could approach about a new bicycle or a Playstation, sure, but it was one I could somehow respect.
Until he murdered my sister.
That long Saturday afternoon, as I walked up Glen Dee and climbed the Devil’s Point, He was a lot on my mind again, and for the first time in years I asked myself if I still had faith. If I was, as Helen had said, putting my fate in the hands of God.
The idea bothered me, it bothered me a lot. I mean, if I allowed for God as the charioteer of destiny, I could hardly avoid it, could I? But it rankled with me: Since her death I had never begged. I preferred to take what I wanted and be damned the consequences. I didn’t want handouts from Him.
When I was sitting up on the mountainside, shivering in my damp clothes in the night’s chilling breeze, I tried to see the world through the Atheist’s eyes. It was surprisingly easy, under those racing clouds, with the cold and distant stars blinking through them from afar. It was easy to imagine the vastness to be empty not only of matter or warmth, but of meaning. But it remained a thought experiment. It didn’t truly relieve me of my conviction.
It did make me remember those nights, though, when I’d lain in my sister’s bed, had felt the warmth of her body against mine, smelled her skin and the shampoo in her hair, and when we had gazed out through the narrow window, so high on the wall – the same window that I would try to flee through from that lady rozzer only a few years later, condemning myself to jail and all that followed – and through which we had looked at the very same stars that I was seeing now, from the slopes of the Devil’s Point. And the memory hurt. It hurt with a raw, sudden intensity I had not expected, and I wanted to cry out in pain.
Instead I bit down on that pain, and spit it onto the gravel, and snarled: “Yeah, well, fuck you, too!” And I curled up as tight as I could, under those cold stars, and surrendered myself to the nightmares once more.
It would be easy to leave it at that and to move on to the scary White Van Man from Beauly, and that beastly night in Cannich, and my near death experience in the Mullardochs, but that would be dishonest.
When I woke up I was very cold and did a double Aikido session before walking back down from the Devil’s Point. The day was misty and gloomy and I was hungry and very thirsty. By the time I reached the hut the hikers had moved n. I looked around inside, vaguely hoping to find some left over food, or to warm myself on the ambers of their fire, but only warm ash remained, not enough to do me any good.
My shoulder hurt if anything even worse than the day before. It made me think of Ponyboy, and I knelt down in the middle of the room and wanked. That made the pain flare up, but I gritted my teeth and brought myself to a sad, whimpering ejaculation onto the floor. Still kneeling I pissed on it as well. Then I buttoned up and left.
I drank of the cold waters of the Dee, filled up the bottle, and walked on. The sun came out for a while, and to my right be Ben Macdui reached for the sky. Clouds came and went, but the mountain remained, its peak dipping in and out of the wisps of mist.
I don’t know if you’ve ever seen the mountains in Scotland, but they are nothing like the Alps, or the mountains of the Balkans. The Cairngorms may have rocky cliffs here and there, and sometimes there are clumps of trees at their feet – pine, and birch, and aspen, and bushes of juniper and rowan – but other than that they are these rounded humps, steep, but startlingly smooth, overgrown with heather and lichen in the valley, but the tops  bald and covered in immense fields of lose, round, fist-sized stones. Walking amongst them is like paddling a small sealskin canoe through an immense herd of gigantic whales.
And so, their steep, smooth walls flowing out ahead of me along the valley’s sides, the valley floor itself rising like a wave to the distant pass, in spite of my anger and resentment, it made my spirits lift.
And when I passed a gushing creek coming down the mountain I veered off the path and began to hike up a pathless mountainside. It was hard going, and soon I was out of breath, but I didn’t slow down. My eyes were constantly on the lookout for the next good foothold, my brain kept calculating distance and balance, and once again it was his magic of movement, the trance of the trop, that pulled my heart along.
From time to time it rained, and the cold water ran down my body underneath my clothes. Then the sun came out again and dried me. And then, finally, in densest fog, I reached the heap of stones that marked the highest peak of the Ben Macdui, the highest peak of the Cairngorms.
Look, I don’t want to take back anything I just told you about my relationship to God, or life, or anything. It didn’t change anything, it didn’t convince me of anything. But still… while I stood there, catching my breath, the sky tore open, the mists around me blew apart, the world unrolled all its horizons, and the sun set everything ablaze. All the wetness caught and magnified her fierce fire, like a universe of jewels. No religion or philosophy dreamed up by humans can say as mayn good tings about the world, or say them as convincingly, as the sun, the air, the water, and the rocks did just then.
After that it was all downhill. By afternoon I surrounded by trees again, where I promptly got lost. By nightfall, tired beyond endurance, I ended up in Inverdruie, where I spent the night. Monday I first had a look at the Aviemore Centre, a piece of daring architecture from the 1960s so incredibly uncool that it is actually kind of cool again, and hitchhiked to Inverness, where I arrived in the evening.

Sunday, 16 January 2011

Chapter Six: Tales from the Trails (Part IV)

When I opened my eyes it was well after sunrise. Two people were coming up Glen Tilt. They were still away enough for me to take a leisurely leak against the rocks, straighten my clothes, shake the ants from my hair, have a drink down at the stream, and light a fag.
My first impulse had been to scramble uphill and go into hiding somewhere, but I figured, they’d see me running away, and I didn’t like that idea. So I sat down on a rock by the side of the water and waited.
It was a bloke in neat blue jeans, and a neat, zippered sweater in dark marine, and a baseball cap in the same colour, and a lady in a grey tracksuit trousers, a sweater in a startling cool magenta, and a white baseball cap with a black bill. Both seemed to be in their 30s or so.
“Hi there, young man,” the bloke said, when he reached me, and wiped the sweat off his face. He had that athletic chubbiness that seem to be specific American. His eyes were brown and friendly, in a rather patronizing way. Hers were a water blue and shifty, as she sat down her backpack and sat down heavily next to it.
There was a funny thing going on between the two of them. One thing Uncle Valya had taught me is to never trust people’s words but – if anything – their bodies and their eyes. And looking at the two of them, beyond their surface behaviour, this was what I saw: His attempt at friendliness towards me, his smiles and words, was an act – meant to put her at ease. That she, while outwardly calm, was in the grip of panic, like a deer staring at you frozen in fear and ready to bolt. But she wasn’t afraid of me, nor of him. I think it was the mountains. I think it was their age, their silence and loneliness.
“Hull,” I answered, put the fag between my lips, and offered him my hand. A little bit astonished he shook.
“Hey,” he asked. “You wouldn’t be on your way to Inverey?”
“No, no,” he laughed, strained, and put more of himself between me and his lady as if to shield her from whatever I might have to say. “Inverey. A little, er, a little village, that’s… look…”
He pulled out an ordinance map from his pocket.
“Here,” he pointed to a small hamlet at the end of a tiny road in the middle of the mountains. “And, we’re rught about, er, here… right?”
His stubby finger poked vaguely at an area covering several streams and trais somewhere Southwest of Inverey. I took the map and looked for Blair Atholl an Glen Tilt.
“I’m not certain, Mister, but we should be somewhere in this valley, here. Probably near the end.”
Together we determined our most likely position. It was almost funny how they both began to visibly relax, like little kids that had just made it out of a haunted house, or peeps who just barely avoided a dangerous accident. I doubt it had much to do with the meagre and uncertain information I could provide. I think it was mostly the fact that the mountains had yielded another soul, a human face to speak to without feeling crazy. I wondered if they would have felt the same in some stretch of wilderness in whatever US State they came from, or it was in part due to their sense of being so far from home.
While he and I were brooding over the map, she put down her backpack and began to produce a surprising amount of food: Sandwiches, cut into little squares and neatly wrapped in cling film and stowed in little Tupperware containers, apples and carrots, peeled and sliced to finger size, and small PET bottles of Isotonic drinks.
“Can I offer you something too?” she asked. I studied her face, the one behind her mask. She really wanted me to share their food, to stay with them.
“We also got some Mars bars, somewhere,” she added, almost pleadingly, and began to dig for them.
“That’s my wife, Helen,” the man said. “I’m John. John Campbell.”
We’d already shaken hands, but he’d been too tense then for introductions, so there was a brief, awkward moment now.
“David,” I offered in return, clearly pronouncing it dah-vid, not day-vid. “David Silberknopf.” Sil-bur-kuh’nobf. And to Helen I said: “Wouldn’t say no to a sandwich and a drink, ma’am. Ta.”
She handed me both with a thankful smile.
I asked John: “Could I have a look at your map again?”
It was the first time I’d looked at a detailed map of the area, and I decided that I wanted to head north, through Glen Dee, towards Aviemore.
Helen looked around. “Are you alone, David?” (Of course she had to pronounce it day-vid.)
“Yup,” I said.
“Where is your family?” she asked.
Defiantly I looked her straight in the face. Then I pointed roughly East-Southeast. “Thataway, ma’am.”
She didn’t get it and actually craned he neck to look at the steep, bare hillside. I sighed.
“About one thousand kilometres thataway.”
“Kilometers?” she asked and frowned. Then she said: “Oh,” and after a moment, again: “Oh.”
I busied myself with the map, but I could feel her eyes ravelling all over me, over my oversized M65 jacket with the sleeves rolled up, and my face still bruised and scabbed with the traces of Ponyboy’s caresses.
“How old are you, David, if I may ask?” Day-vid again. This time from John.
“Sixteen,” I lied without looking up.
More silence while we ate and I studied the map.
“Are you a runaway?” Helen sounded timid, but she couldn’t let it go.
I looked up again and debated making up some story. But somehow the strange balance of power between them and me made me feel unnecessarily mean if I did so. So I answered as straight as I could: “I suppose that you could say that.”
John had watched me as well. I handed him back his map.
“Where are you headed?” he asked, as he took the map and looked down on it. I showed him, none too precisely.
“We’ll have the same route up until here,” he observed.
“Yup,” I said again.
“Do you mind if we walk with you?” I smiled, though I didn’t much care for the looks passing between him and his wife.
As we walked Helen wanted to know if I’d been abused. If I had been beaten. And she gestured towards my face. When I refused to answer that, she dragged her husband into this. They both began to offer me “solutions”, from finding some church organisation that would put me in a new home with good, Christian folks, to going to the American Embassy and asking for asylum (like, huh?). It was only when she tried to drag God into things, too, that I got seriously annoyed.
“I’ll square with God myself, and I’d appreciate it you stayed out of that, thank you very much, ma’am,” I said through gritted teeth.
“So you believe in the Lord God, and in our saviour Jesus Christ?” she asked, half apprehensive, half relieved.
I thought about quoting Riddick at here – I absolutely believe in God, and I absolutely hate the fucker – but then thought, that would only lead to more hassle. I certainly wasn’t going to tell her the fully story, was I? So I just nodded curtly and walked on.
After t hat we walked in silence for a while. Not much later, John, still trying to ease things for Helen, proposed a rest. They offered me more of their food, but I declined, probably somewhat haughtily, in favour of an apple of my own. We’d left the river Tilt and had not yet reached the Dee, so I had to do without drink.
Helen drew John away from me under the pretence of wanting to show him some part of the scenery, and when they returned, he said: “David, we have decided that we will accept your decision to run way” – as if it was theirs to accept – “and we’ll not speak of it any more. I apologize if we came on strong.”
And Helen chimed in: “If you are willing to put your fate in God’s hands, we shall have faith too.”
I smiled wearily, but  wasn’t especially sorry that I had made use of the time they’d been away to go through their backpacks and take 60 quid from thm. Since they’d been taking pictures during the break, I also decided to relieve them of their camera before our ways separated, to make certain they didn’t keep any record of our meeting.
True to their word they didn’t mention the topic for the rest of our time together. I the early afternoon we reached the White Bridge across the River Dee. They would go East from there towards Inverey, and I’d turn Northwest, along Glen Dee, deeper into the Cairngorms.
Helen insisted I take several of their sandwiches, and a bottle of isotonic drink.
“We will pray for you,” she assured me, as I reached with my right hand past John to shake hers, and lifted the camera from the pouch on his belt with my left.
“That you for the food and the company, ma’am,” I said, slipping the camera into my back pocket. “Have a good journey. God bless.”

Saturday, 15 January 2011

Chapter Six: Tales from the Trails (Part III)

The day began misty and grey and eventually it started to rain, quietly at first, then harder. Walking I enjoyed the way the Doc Martens felt different from the Chucks I’d worn all those weeks before. The Docs were much heavier, of course, but also with the Chucks you can feel every last pebble and ridge of earth through the soles, and through the canvas top even thick and tall grass can be felt. With the Docs, new as they were, the leather not yet quite broken in and the sole still stiff, it was as if a red carpet had been rolled out underneath me, as I made my way through grass and bushes, through puddles and mud.
I followed first the Perth-Inverness railroad tracks to Pitlochry, where I got some grub and more fags, and then the B8079 that in turn follows General Wade’s old military road from around 1730 through the Pass of Killicrankie into Blair Atholl.
Hey, have you ever noticed how things that are normally considered beautiful, like winter snow and summer rain, turn ugly when you encounter them alongside a road with heavy traffic? How things otherwise pure and innocent get corrupted by the noise and the dirt and the haste of modern life? And have you ever noticed how in all that corruption and ugliness, in headlights reflected in wet tarmac, in the blackish sludge and gravel of a road shoulder meeting the lifeless, oil-soaked soil, in the nagry hum of traffic buzzing past in the rain, and in the way all passers-by lose their faces helmeted with hoods and shielded with umbrellas, how in all of that there still is so much beauty?
Well, when I reached Blair Atholl that Friday noon I was thoroughly sick of that stark, industrial beauty. Aside from a few mornings in Edinburgh’s Holyrood and park this morning’s swim in the river had been the first time in almost 3 weeks – since coming into Marsden out of the Pennies – I had been away from the company of Peeps, and I was sick of them. Sick of their noise, of the smell, sick of their gazes, of showing up at all in any other person’s mind, or them leaving dirty tracks in mine. I wanted to get where I would be all alone. So I forwent a visit to the sterile looking Blair Castle and headed straight for Glen Tilt, the river valley that leads into the Grampian mountains, whose peaks had beckoned me since I had seen them the day before.
Just for the record – What I did was dead stupid, okay? I went into the mountains with nothing but a single change of clothes, a water-proof poncho, a couple of apples, 2 cans of tuna, and some cheese and sliced bread. I didn’t even have a water bottle, let alone a map, or a compass, or a tent. Even if I stuck to the valleys and voided risky climbs, and even if there was still some tourists around, in spite of all the rain, this is how peeps get killed. It was plain stupid, and even a city boy like me should have known better.
Also, it turned out that Doc Martens are not exactly ideal for wilderness walks. Not enough profile and the soles get slick when wet. The first two days I had some trouble with sores and blisters, again, though that was mostly die to the newness of the boots. But Huey had taught me well enough, and I was equipped to deal with that, so I stopped every hour or so to lance, wash, dry, and dress the blisters, and to tape irritated skin, and that went okay.
For the rest of the day I walked uphill along the stream, between the steepening, mostly treeless hills. Eventually the little road made way for a narrow stony path, still following the water. I rested when I had to, but I always kept walking on. Only when it got so dark that I could no longer be sure of my footing I found a soft, grassy knoll partly sheltered by a rocky outcropping, and simply curled up in my poncho.
I stand by what I said about the danger, you understand? But if you’ve never done that, just walked into somewhere with no clear idea where you are, and just laid down to sleep on the bare ground under the naked sky, far from any other human being, well, you don’t know what you’ve missed. It’s uncomfortable, it’s cold, and the hunger can be a bitch, but the sense of freedom. Man, there is nothing in the world that can beat that. Nothing!
It took me some time to find sleep, and I was woken by bad dreams twice that night, but each time it was still too dark to walk on. The second time, however, the rain had stopped and the clouds had opened up to reveal a magnificent, starry sky. For a while I sat, Indian style, on the slope, smoked, and looked into the incredible vastness above, before settling back down for a few more hours of sleep. That time it was deep, and lasted until I was woken by voices echoing from the rocks.