For the whole of an endless gray morning the rain has been whispering into the Glen. My face is slick with drizzle and every time I take a breath the crowded waterdrops irrigate my throat like a
After what seems a long time, I stop walking and squint up at the horizon. The desolate hills are hatted and cloaked with mist. The surrounding immensity presses in from all sides, somehow breaking the thin veil that separates me from the land.
She rolled over and fell back asleep, my trekking partner, so here I am alone, tingling with anticipation, clamped to a lonely path that twists higher and deeper into the unknown.
Some deep-rooted instinct taps me twice on the shoulder. Then it grabs my elbow and pulls on my jacket. Turn back. I have grown weary of order, routine, logic, of one thing following another, so maybe this chartless walk will thicken the thinning fray of my latest life.
Suddenly the mist falls like a blanket and everything slowly disappears. I recoil as icy fingers slither under my clothes and touch my skin. I zip up my jacket and snug down my hat against my head.
A ghostly white world floats down and vaporous fingers tighten their grip around my bones. Phosphorescent spectres swirl in the half-light and solid objects melt into a milky sea of nothingness.
The outer world recedes like a tide and the familiar concepts of work, home, time lose all their meaning as I float somewhere between heaven and earth. Every time I try for solid ground the moorings float out of reach as I swim between horror and ecstasy. Gravity returns me to the earth and stone that is my path.
I walk onward, putting one foot in front of another, the solid ground pushing back at every step and nothing but my muffled breaths trouble the air for miles around.
The muddy path is lined with weeping black walls and gurgling streams twist down from the hills like living threads. As I stare through the thick mist I imagine the black liquid metal of the lochs.
I sense the hum of life all around. Not the hum of living life but the eternal life of mountain and river and ancient stone. With each forward step I seem to trace a backward path in time and to cross over the pathways of giants.
The squelching path turns to water so I jump the stiff hummocks like a frog hopping lilies in a pond. Soon the path comes up for air and leads me across a primitive bridge that creaks high above the rush of a blue stream.
On the far bank I reach a stony gateway. A pair of rocks, shriveled by the suck of moss, point to a cluster of hills that seem to creep along the still surface of the earth. The mist is playing tricks on me, bringing still things into sudden motion.
I scan the drunken horizon for some coordinates. The first hill is right in front, but the others are still lost in the mist. The path is still my only guide. The hill peeps out, pulling me like a magnet, itching to feel my feet treading on its rocks.
A feeble ray of sunlight pierces the mist like a bent nail. Dull crooked gleams creep through the heavy air. Everything retakes its former shape. The hills peep out, the horizon regains its jagged line and the silvery disk of the sun comes and goes like a dim bulb sputtering out the last of its life.
Solid objects are a welcome sight, like the feel of hard land after weeks spent on tilting sea. Yet I hunger for lost bearings, for the loss of reason and clarity, for the milky nothingness. Some secret part of me wants to retreat from everything and everybody I know, to live far and unknown.
I have reached the depths of solitude. The mountains and lochs press in with primitive force, looming over me, staring down at me, wrapping my body in a tightening grip.
I am thinning and compacting, disappearing into myself, flowing into a part of me long unvisited. I want to stay forever, abandon the ailing world, lose myself in this complete and perfect stillness. I have met the distilled essence of life and try as I may I cannot think of a better place to spend eternity.
The best mountaineering narratives sometimes speak of an imaginary companion who appears as a vision to aid a stricken climber at the moment when he is about to meet with death. If he dared to appear, I would repel him with all my strength. Solitude is too precious a thing to ruin it with company.
I was grateful that during the whole day I do not meet another soul, because the sheer penetrating force of the place cuts deep grooves into my memory, as a plough cuts furrows into the earth and places my trek in a sacred region that lies beyond the power of forgetting.
I look back along the path, now visible for the first time. The long jagged line of hills shifts from purple to black. Loch Sligachan seems to float in a valley of light. The tidy dome of Glamaig rises from the valley floor. Dark cloudprints creep across the undulating hills and strange figures appear on the mountainside--a dragon, a dog, a witch--shifting and changing like they were posessed with a living soul.
Through the whole journey I have not spotted a single tree but the water is everywhere: it plinks into eternal pools, drips off the ends of twigs, oozes through the black earth, babbles through stony fords and reflects upside-down mountains in the face of crystal pools.
When I stop to re-lace my boots I catch something out of the corner of my eye. I look up to see a ghostly white face pouring out of the ground like a mist. The face hangs in the air, moving slightly, as if projected on an invisible screen. The sinister vision troubles my mind then it darkens into memory.
High above, there is the lonely speck of a circling crow; black-faced sheep stand on pinnacles, balancing like flames on a wick; the russet heather spreads across the hills and stretches into infinity. Everything seems perfect, is perfect, as if some conjurer swept down from the heights and enchanted the landscape with a touch of his magic wand.
People have great reverence for this place. Nothing lies on the ground except for the place itself. During the whole day there is not a single piece of rubbish--not a can, bottle, wrapper or even a stray tissue.
Far below, Glen Sligachan is ribboned with glistening streams that rest in tiny blue lochs before they gather into little waterfalls that spout like whales' backs. In the valley below the rocks stand in like sentinels. I fancy that once I have passed, they will huddle in a circle to whisper of stony things.
The path has changed so much--rising, falling, crossing streams, submerging and reappearing. It has been a constant companion, sometimes impassive, sometimes comforting, always locked to my side like a belt. It never became thin and vague as some paths do when they start to peter out. But when it comes to an abrupt end, I feel betrayed, like I have been cheated by a lifelong friend.
I strike upward, now pathless, along a steep ridge strewn with gray rockfall. As I labour heavily over the uneven ground, I get the strong feeling that the new route is warning me to stay away. Perhaps the land is re-routing me to a safer place.
As I crest a hill the splintered jags of Coire a Bhasteir cut the aquatint sky like a saw. The weather is perfect for an attempt on the summit. The mountain seems to lean down, draw close and offer an arm to lift me up.
I start slow at the base and build my pace as I ascend. My lungs sear as I forge toward the heavens. Then the sweat starts so I strip to the waist and feel the velvet air against my skin. I want to poke my head through the white fleece of the clouds, part the curtains of the dark twinkling vault and disappear forever into the darkness.
If only I could inhale everything that graced my eyes on this blessed day. Bring it into my lungs and mix it with myself. One deep breath to draw it all in--the air, fizzing with life, the craggy peaks, the soughing wind, the blue lochs, the tricky clouds. But they would perish inside the prison of me. I must leave them here where they are.
When I reach the summit I stand on a flat rock and soak in the feeling of triumph. The experience lies beyond the weakness of words. The mountains that rise from the glens seem to stretch up toward the heavens. The skies have cleared and countless shafts of sunlight fill the air with their radiance. I lie flat on the rock and let the highlands gather around and pour their blessings onto my upturned face and God I can never leave this place now that it has entered my soul.
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