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.