From Beauly we follow the A862 south for a couple of miles then turn right on the A831 towards Struy and Cannich. At a small road signposted Kiltarlity 2 ½ Eskadale 4 ¾ we turn left and freewheel down hill, fast, towards Black Bridge over the River Beauly. My spirit soars, I am an eagle, a kingfisher, a pterodactyl, hahahaha, I’m laughing. I look back over my shoulder grinning at Glen and Pigsy, spurring them to race, “Car!” Glen yells, eyes front, I’ve drifted into the other lane, I swerve out of danger and back down to earth. ‘Must remember to pay attention.’
Kilmorack Dam is up river to the right of the bridge. Trees, gorse and pylons line the road beyond which we follow for about a mile. Just past the beware of cats sign at the white house with the low wall we turn right towards Eskadale where the road is single track and undulates past cows and sheep and Hughton and-
“That’s Eilen Aigas on our right. That island there, with the trees.” Glen tells us as he points at the river.
“Aye there’s a mansion up at the north end. There it is!” he’s pointing more urgently. The big old house comes into view as we pass the grove of pines that’d been hiding it. The house and the trees illustrate parallax as we become steadily more western. Ferns line the road below birch.
“We’re gonna need to do something when I’m back,” I had told Glen, on the video chat, “We should ride somewhere.”
Glen, being the experienced, equipped, touring cyclist he is, planned our route, provided me with the panniers I would fit to my stepfather’s rear rack, and generally took the role of chief project manager and head of logistics. It was a role he filled with characteristic respect for the expression “best laid schemes”, by which I mean Glen does not over plan.
Our two mutual friends most likely to be reliably enthusiastic on a cycle tour had been waylaid by prior commitments.
When Glen told me “I’ve been talking on the phone to Pigsy.” I burst out laughing. This was probably unfair. Pigsy, who we love unconditionally, is one in a million. A cantankerous, video-game-addicted, grindcore loving, welder who grew up on the Moray coast and is the last person I’d expect to be going on a cycle trip with. “Aye he seems really up for it.” Glen explained.
I’m thankful he’s here rolling along the back road to Cannich scorning Glen and my camp spot suggestions. “Nope. Fuck that spot. We need to get as far away from that house as possible.” He says waving his left hand at a painted stone home, set in a beautifully tended garden, overlooking the river. “I don’t want any fucker coming down to the tent in the night wielding an axe or a chainsaw and chopping us aw tae pieces!”
“They have a climbing frame on their property Pig, I doubt that’s an axe murderers house.”
“Aye well ah still reckon there’s a better spot further along the river.” Glen and I exchange glances.
“Zombies!” Glen says smiling as we continue to roll southwest, trying to imagine the horror movie playing out in Pigsy’s black metal listening, gore film watching, mind. Pigsy takes the lead while Glen and I hold back a bit and sit up, fingers stretched so just the tips touch the grips, cool evening wind in the hair and all that.
“I told Em I was going on a bike ride with my friend through Glen Affrick.” I tell Glen, “Who’s Glen Affleck? she asked.”
“Aye Glen Affleck. That’s ma buddy. His brother’s a famous actor. We’re going on a bike tour through the west highlands.” Glen suggests, grinning.
“How is Em?” he asks.
“She’s been pretty amazing really. It’s almost a little worrying. I can’t remember how I acted after I lost my old man, I was about the same age as she is now, but I think children experience grief different from adults.”
“Aye.” Glen nods.
“It seems that it maybe hits adults hard and fast because they can understand the implications, you know, they see in full light what they’re in for. For children it’s maybe a longer, more drawn out, muddier, process. She’s definitely been keeping super busy, and keeping my mum super busy too, going to the stables ‘n all sorts o’ stuff.”
“Aye it’s hard to know. I’d think a kid her age would certainly express it differently than an adult. She’ll need to be encouraged to get on with being a kid I suppose.”
“Aye, we should all be encouraged to do that.”
“How far is it to this amazing camping spot Pigsy?” I shout.
“How far now Pig?” We both yell.
Pigsy looks back over his shoulder, shakes his head with a smile that says fannies.
“This camp spot is going to be so incredible!” I say, loudly, to Glen.
“Oh aye.” Glen replies, “the softest mossy grass guaranteed.”
“Fuck yiz baith.” Pigsy says with mock aggression.
“Ats aw fuckin swamp down there anyway!”
“Haha, ‘fuckin swamp’” Glen parrots and we roll on, smiling as the earth continues to spin, and the sun sinks for us as it rises for others.
The hillside steepens to our left and we turn right by a wood slat fence concealing what sounds like a hundred demented barking hounds. We cross the river at Mauld bridge and take our first right into an, unused at present, sheep field. In the twilight we walk our bikes back up the north bank, towards the fishing pools. The river flows smooth and quiet here, there’s a wood pigeon cooing somewhere. “Aye ahm ready fur some fuckin’ food like.” Pigsy says louder than necessary, chuckling. The hounds across the river go mental again. They hear well. I park my bike by a fancy looking carved, glazed wooden sign, ‘Junction Pool’ it reads with an arrow pointing north. There’s a gorse bush to conceal us a little, and some trees. We look southwest up river towards the bridge. This’ll do. We are on the bank of The Farrar near its confluence with The Glass beyond which, to the northeast, the water’s all referred to as The Beauly. We set up camp. Pigsy pulls his bottle of beer from the holder on his seat tube.
We walk back across the bridge as the daylight bleeds over the hills to the west. We make for a pile of boulders, a suitable place to build a small fire, cook some sausages and look at the stars. Sitting by a river is a good place to talk with friends about chaos and the universe and all that shite. Pigsy provides a soundtrack on his tinny wee speakers.
Later, eyes closed inside my bag, I see swirling patterns. No words just smog purple dark mist, swirling and racing and dispersing against a black background. Green thinly lines these storm clouds, like the oxygen emission green of the polar lights. Is it just an imagination idling? In terms of numbers of processes at any given time is consciousness more or less complex than the clouds forming, swirling, growing and condensing in the earths atmosphere? Or in a nebula or a galaxy? I’ve heard the claim that the human brain is the most complex organic thing in the universe. Is this a fair claim? The dark clouds take on forms. Loose Rorschach shapes that quickly begin to reveal skulls, apophenia in action. We tend to make skulls in old tree roots, the swirling chaotic patterns in old marble or oil floating on water, or the pattern the carbon makes when we’ve left bread in the toaster too long, or blood spattered on the wall of a church after a maniac has rampaged, if not a skull then a rabbit or a chicken or the face of Christ. Dark, roughly round eyes above two dark round edged patches to frame the cheekbones with some shadow where a mouth might be. According to the Cloud Appreciation Society “clouds are for dreamers” and “all who consider the shapes they see in them will save on psychoanalysis bills.” I’m uncertain. Why do I get lost in these pissy trains of thought? Searching for impossible answers. I have so much anger I want to destroy everything. At the same time I know that’s stupid, naive and childish but I feel it, intensely.
Then there’s a voice outside the tent “Oi. Ahm the ghillie here by the way” The voice says, “You in the tent there. You down here tae poach fae the river?”
“Naw man me n the boys are ridin push bikes through the Glen like.” I tell him in a weird Glaswegian accent for some reason.
“So do you think it’s healthy, or “right” to blog about what happened?” the ghillie asks sharply changing the subject. He can read my mind but that doesn’t seem weird, which is weird.
“Who knows? Not really. That’s probably why I removed that paragraph that was too honest.” I tell him.
“You removed a paragraph?”
“It was too honest?”
“It was too raw. It wasn’t all dressed up and disguised by narrative.”
“So what is it you’re blogging about?” When he asks this I know he already knows the answer better than I do but I answer him as best I can anyway, like I said, it was weird.
“I suppose I’m blogging about my reaction to what happened so maybe it will be helpful somehow. Sharing it might diminish it. Maybe there’s a chance to get a dialogue going that proves useful for someone dealing with something similar. ‘Blogging’ I wish there was a better word. ‘Blogging’ sounds so shit.”
“Do you think your sister would approve?”
“What she might have thought is irrelevant now.”
“Come on it’s worth bearing in mind.” The ghillie snaps.
“No! I can’t. I can’t presume to know what she might have thought. To do so would demean her memory by assuming I knew her every whim. That would be arrogant and ridiculous. She might well have encouraged this exercise. Who knows. We got fucked over.”
“Aye well, dinnae poach and good luck wi the ride,” the guillie says, “and yer right, blog is a shite word.” He adds, receding.
I hear the patter of light drizzle.
When light begins to seep through the fabric of the tent, and in turn the fabric of my eyes, I unzip the door to reveal an actual cloud, the cool, wet kind. I take a heartburn pill, eat some chocolate, pull on my jeans, slip on trainers and go for a walk down the dew soaked riverbank. These jeans are the only trousers I have and it’s well known that jeans are exactly what you don’t wear in the fickle highlands with its mountains that eat people.
I imagine wet denim clinging to my cold skin, drawing more and more heat from my blood. I call Nick, my cousin, an intrepid family man currently managing a psychiatric care home, well versed in all matters highland. I ask if there’s somewhere to get waterproofs in Cannich and if he thinks we’re biting off more than we can chew and, what I want to know really, is what will the future bring? And, between the lines, I’m asking will I have to be airlifted out, hypothermic?
“Och no. Good stuff. Oh aye you’ll be fine. Touring bikes through Glen Affrick? No bother. Strong young lads like you guys. Cannich? Aye there’s a wee shop at the caravan park but the weather looks good you’ll be fine just in yer lycras.” He says and I thank him for the encouragement.
I walk back, feet soaking, to find the others.
“What trite poetic shit should I write today?” I ask Glen as he sets up his camping stove.
“How about the books of our lives are written in pain.” He immediately replies.
“Haha. Excellent!” I say, noting it down. Glen’s good like that.
Pigsy emerges, we breakfast, pack up and walk our bikes back across to the road talking about the push through Glen Affrick. Aye will it be boggy and marshy like? Pigsy asks.
Aye, um, maybe a little bit. Glen says as the images of determined cyclocross enthusiasts, struggling, waist deep in rivers, bikes held aloft above mud-splattered faces, flash through Glen’s and my mind. Pigsy hasn’t seen that particular brochure and Glen and I’ve decided the best course of action is to lead him on into the belly of the beast with only the barest idea of how difficult it might possibly be; he’ll be fine, we’ll all be fine and by that point it’ll be too late to turn back.
Well as long as I get tae dry ma shoes while the sun’s still up it’ll be awright but if they’re still wet when it gets dark, he chuckles and shakes his head, it winna be a happy night. I’ll hifftae set ma fuckin feet on fire.
We mount up and pedal on, heading to where this wee road joins the A831 again. As we ride Pigsy tells us about the job he’s most recently been working. “This massive machine drives these great fuck off girders into the floor o’ the harbour and then we go in”, he waves his hand manically in the air as if trying to swat a swarm of flies, “and weld aw the fuckin cross beams to reinforce it aw.” The swatting represents a matrix of steel, the skeleton of the new harbour wall along the southern edge of the mouth of the River Dee. For months he was out of work. He would get up late, drink tea and play online war-games with a clan of beings, represented by electrons he originally knew only by code names. “Aye wiv got a facebook group now, so we can see who we all are.” He told me. It’s as arbitrary as any relationship based on a shared pastime but for a minute I felt a detached, alien creepiness associated with such a brave new community and such numbed, castrated interactions.
Pigsy is realistic to a fault. He is a welder’s welder with a deep appreciation of metal. I realized he harbours no illusions whatsoever regarding the limited level of these relationships. Surely anyone that’s ever gone to a nightclub on a regular basis has acquaintances based on flimsier mutual experiences than the online gaming community. Don’t they?
At the junction where Drumnadrochit is 11 miles to the left and Cannich is ¾ miles to the right we strip down to tee shirts in the sunshine. “That thermal’s nae needed.” Pigsy states, proudly stuffing the garment into his bag. (The statement is infused with patriotism. He doesn’t need the thermal because his glorious country is providing him with a balmy warmth comparable to coastal California but superior because it’s here, real, down to earth and we are old friends, together.)
We bomb the steep hill, six eyes watering, and follow the bend right, past the chalet park and on into Cannich, the gateway to Glen Affric.