Monday 20 May 2019

A Highland Walk

On Friday I wrote four articles and then ran around collecting items for a 2-day hike in the Highlands. My friend is going on the Chartres Pilgrimage, and I promised to help her train. Besides, there is nothing like spending the weekend in the countryside after a week at my desk.

The weather forecast in Braemar was for rain, though, and after getting my beloved 2-man tent out of the closet, I wondered how I was going to feel carrying it for 20 miles. Since my principal New Year's Resolution was "Our Health First", I left it behind and trusted to either 1. my friend bringing a tent or 2. a mutual decision not to camp in pouring rain but to return to my friend's house instead.

B.A., by the way, had already left for a retreat in Pluscarden Abbey.

Soon after I got on the train, I felt all stress and frustration slip away because trains are magic. I read an entertaining self-help book (Positively Primal) and crunched corn nuts all the way to Cupar, where my friend picked me up and took me to her farmhouse, where we had herbal tea before going to bed.

Then my phone buzzed and a text told me, in British, that a hospitalised friend wasn't going to recover and was going home to die. And then I discovered that although I could get texts in the countryside, I couldn't send them.

There passed a terrible hour in which I roamed the house trying to find a signal and then finally called both B.A. and my sick friend's spouse on the landline, leaving messages and waking poor B.A., who phoned the landline back. Then there was nothing to do but cry, pray the rosary, and try to get some sleep.

The next morning my healthy friend and I discussed whether or not we should give up the whole plan and go to Edinburgh or go on a day's walk, the camping plan now being abandoned because of the forecast. My sick friend's spouse called, and as a result of that conversation, my healthy friend and I determined we could, at least, go on a day's walk and then go to Edinburgh on Sunday morning.

And I was very glad we did go on our walk, for there are few places on earth (I gather after a childhood of reading National Geographic magazine) more beautiful yet still comfortable to walk in than the Scottish Highlands, and few better ways to unwind. The fresh damp air smells of pine trees, and the trails wind past low green mountains wreathed with mist. The nasty urban world of decadence and decay no longer exists; the only people around are also walkers or, astonishingly, doughty cyclists. The forecast had exaggerated the rain, too, so instead of the downpour we were expecting, we had dry periods, Scotch mist and mild drizzle. Even better, the biting midges had not yet arrived.

We walked for three hours and then sat down off the trail in a flat green place partly protected by trees to have tea and coffee. Two middle-aged Dutch hikers came along to ask us about a nearby both, and I invited them to have a cup of tea. So we all sat around and drank tea (or coffee), and my friend asked them about pilgrimages in the Netherland and eventually gave them Miraculous Medals as the younger one tried to remember the English for "spiritual but not religious."

The Dutch hikers were terribly moral about the environment, having come the the UK by ferry instead of plane. They always spend their entire two week annual holiday walking in the Highlands before going to Edinburgh to eat at delicious restaurants. While they were clearly not religious and probably ordinary contemporary PC Western Europeans, I could at least comfort myself that we probably seemed wonderfully exotic and had provided them not only with tea, biscuits and Miraculous Medals, but also an amusing anecdote. They had also broken bread with a real-life Scot (my friend) which, let me tell you, is not a daily matter for foreigners in Scotland.

We had an elderly black lab with us, too, who, although a bit arthritic, frisked about and brought us sticks he hoped we would throw. Although I imagine two women are safe enough walking in the Highlands, having a big dog made me feel even more confident, and if we had camped, I would have felt perfectly secure under his protection.

Anyway, it was marvellous. We prayed all fifteen decades of the rosary for my sick friend, the mysteries spaced out--Joyful and Sorrowful on our way through the hills and Glorious on the way back. My French Scout hat, which makes me painfully self-conscious in the city, kept off the rain beautifully and my old hiking boots, with new gel insoles from the Boots in Blairgowrie, were still up to the task. At one point on the way back we walked along the River Dee and admired a black sheep among the white on the other side, hills in the background, and I marvelled at the beauty of the scene. I sincerely wondered why I don't go walking in the Highlands more often.

The answer, of course, is that when the weather is really good and calls Scots out-of-doors, the midges are waiting to bite them. They start biting in early June and don't stop until the end of September, and really they are horrible. I prefer to cower in the south and walk in the Borders, where midges are few and far between.

Eventually, when we were very tired and sore, but not yet exhausted or blistered, we reached the car again. We did some preventative stretches and drove away in high good humour back to Braemar. There we went to the Flying Stag pub, which was packed, and after being refused by a regretful waitress, my friend charmed a waiter into finding us a table and keeping the kitchen open a little later.  To our delight we were seated in leather armchairs by a window and were soon tucking into fish-and-chips and a Highland-beef-with-marrow hamburger, which we washed down with a half-pint of IPA (my driving friend) and TWO half-pints of bitter (your correspondent) while the dog charmed the other patrons.

We had reached the Flying Stag before sunset, which in Braemar was about 9:30 PM, and thus it was still light when we ate, but it was dark when we got on the road. The highway south was rather exciting for, although there were few cars, there were many deer and rabbits scampering across it. But despite these alarms, I fell asleep after Coupar Angus and woke up only at the farm. It was midnight.

The next morning we walked through the countryside for another two hours, saying 15 more decades for my sick friend, and then we drove to Edinburgh for Mass. After communion I popped into the Church hall to turn off the lights and the hot water machine and affix a "No Tea Today" sign, as the only trained tea person around was me*. When Mass was over, my kind friend drove me to Waitrose where I bought roses for my sick friend and a moussaka for my friend's spouse, and then I took the bus and found my sick friend entertaining friends and, despite late-onset diabetes, eating sweets.

"At this point, you should do what you want," I said, meaning "eat what you want."

"Yes, that's what I think," said my sick friend.

*There is the most awful row if there is as much as a crumb left behind after the Trad Mass has its Cup of Tea of Peace, so I felt that this decision, though it would disappoint at least a dozen people, including cookie-loving children, was the right one.

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