This morning I woke stiff around the joints, having slept in the car at Tomintoul, a small village in the heart of the Cairngorms that boasts the biggest bottle of whisky in the world . . . that is to say, it will until the bottle Bell’s commissioned last week emerges from the big whisky bottle factory.
I never did quite get the knees straight last night, back seat, front seat – a fold out stool in the driver’s seat would have been good.
I drove through misted rain in the early light around to White Bridge, looking for the start of a trail through the Glenlivet Crown Estate; pulled in, threw snow peas and goats cheese into the pack and a bottle of water into each pocket; checked out the trail on the signpost, hoisted the pack onto my back and walked into my morning.
It’s at this point in a walk, any walk into the unknown, that a little smile of excitement bursts through me, reminding me as it does of my hunting days in New Zealand, trailing the wild boar and deer through the forests.
I’m confident in the trail; it looked clear on the toy map and the old woman in the Tomintoul information centre had looked at me like I was stupid yesterday when I quizzed her about the markings on the trail, assuring me it was ‘waymarked’ all the way. I wasn’t that confident in her response at the time, as I’d walked in at 30 seconds to five and she wasn’t remotely interested in my questions.
Besides, she looked at me like I was doubly stupid when I asked her if she’d walked the trail herself.
The track was easy and wide, soon narrowing to a small mossy trail that climbed gently around a pine forest. It was raining, softly, a beautiful day for a walk. Across the glen I could see the Victorian Sporting Lodge, one of the features of the walk listed on the back of the signpost at the start of the track.
The hills were rolling green in the grey day, now purple with the heather, now grass for swollen sheep; small pockets of straggly forest bruising the landscape deepest darkest green.
It was early, the sun a watery glow behind the clouds. I climbed over stile after stile, now on soft mud, now following a brown trail of dead leaves through a mossy beech forest. The light dimmed; mushrooms glowed orange from the forest floor.
It was easy walking, small bright blue circles nailed to posts guiding me at forks in the path. The track widened, wound past a farmhouse, over a stile – and there, on the edge of a wide watery track, my day wheeled about. A tall sign pointed clearly in three directions. I stared: Dorback was 6 kms away, and I was confident that wasn’t me because my circle track was only 7 kms long and I’d come a hellova lot further than a kilometre; Bridge of Brown was 2 kms away – that could be me, but it was the wrong colour bridge; Tomintoul was 4 kms and that really wasn’t me.
I decided to follow Bridge of Brown, partly because it was only 2 kms and wouldn’t be a complete disaster if I had to turn back, and besides, mathematically it made the most sense.
The trail to Bridge of Brown followed a fenceline beside a scraggly pocket of trees, uphill. The ground was boggy; two black sheep stood in my way but scattered soon enough as I climbed the hill; a cow burst through the wire fence, sending a hum into the morning; she stood firm on the track, staring staring staring, right at my face. I looked away, lest she be head cow, and moved closer to the fenceline.
The track was steep, pockmarked with muddy clods of earth. A nagging sense that I was on the wrong track set in, fuelled by three things:
1. the note on the back of the signpost said there were small steep fragments on the trail but none were hard going; this was seriously steep and would not be easy going for the less than surefooted;
2. when the cow had stopped me I had looked back down the hill – there was a farmhouse ruin nearer the trail, which had been noted on the list of features on the back of the signpost;
3. two sheep and a cow had tried to stop me.
I kept going, up, up, up, thinking to make the top of the hill and get my bearings from there. Naturally, as is the way with hills, the top is only the beginning of the next hill. At the crest of the third ‘top’ common sense kicked in. This was not my path.
I rolled back down the way I came, soaked to my knees with the wet grass, and stared at the rogue signpost all over again; settled on Dorback and startled the sheep near the farmhouse ruin. Five minutes later, I crossed a stile and the track disappeared, all together; just like that I faced a sea of heather, a hundred sheep and another staring cow.
Wherever Dorback was, I wasn’t going there. I backtracked to a fork in the wide farm track and followed the fenceline – up up up . . . until I met the boggy track I’d abandoned in the first place.
I walked on. And on. And on. Up, up, up. Over one crest then another, and another. On and on, using the fenceline as my guide, until it was about to tip me over the top of the day towards a long steep stretch of road in the distance that I knew I had not driven that morning from Tomintoul.
The track forks and I turn towards the sun, walking into the pockmarked purple sea now unfurling all around. Utterly, hopelessly lost, at the top of the world, I stop to take a breath.
I become conscious of the word and my world turns.
Lost is always an opportunity.
For courage, if nothing else.
I stop in my tracks, double over, my arms hanging low while I catch my breath and give my back a break from the pack.
The moment I straighten up the mental fuzz of lost clears: the light shifts, colours in miniature brighten, small flowers shine, my senses sharpen.
I smile, wide and full, cradled by the top of the world.
And walk on.
The track peters out and tall posts mark small horizons. The tall posts disappear and then I really am on my own. I plough on through the heather, my feet seeking high clods of grass, unsure how deep the puddles that lurk beneath the grasses might be. In the distance I can see Tomintoul, a river, a farmhouse. I tramp on into the morning, thankful for the cool rain – on a walk like this I’d take the wind and driving rain any day over the merciless heat of sunshine.
The mountain tips towards the valley below. I look around, certain I do not want to walk into the forest ahead of me – which is where I discover, over the barbed wire fence to my left, a large conical cairn beaming brightly from the mountainside. I scramble over, there is a seat beside it – and far in the valley below is the Victorian Sporting Lodge.
I dig deep into my pockets for the small white pyramid shaped rock I’d picked up from the steep incline above the farmhouse ruin, token of confusion, touchstone of lost, and tuck it neatly into the cairn.
I plough on and on through the heather, meet a watercourse and slide with it down the mountainside, until I meet a muddy puddle with a boot print – I test it and find it’s my own.
I peek around a small wooden post to see the blue circle with an arrow, pointing me up the way I have come, backtracking now until two hours later than I ought to be I see her, Hi Ho Silver, sweet chariot waiting faithfully beside the signpost at White Bridge: my transport, my home.