Trails and trials of the writer who walks
A combination of bus pass and railcard gets me to the Southern Upland Way at Sanquhar, just north of Dumfries, for very little money but the January early dusk has beaten me to it. I’m relying on Scotland’s wonderful right of access laws, which include right to camp, to find a pitch very soon and am relieved to see a flat grassy stretch of river bank just on the edge of town.
I collect water and begin to erect the tent. The rear pole snaps for no apparent reason. Horror. This has never happened before. I am completely unprepared, paralysed with indecision for several minutes. Finally, Sensible Head tells me it’s too late anyway to get home so I might as well improvise with a walking stick for the night. The tent now has the back end of a slug, but stays dry. The morning is clear, frosty and wind-less, so I decide to continue. Sensible Head doesn’t entirely agree but keeps quiet.
It’s fairly common in Scotland to follow trails with no defined path, and this is one of them. The crunchy bog-hopping is slow but exhilarating in the vast silence of frosted hills, and a light fall of snow adds to the magic. A heavier, persistent fall of snow conceals the bogs and whites out the waymarker posts. ‘I told you so,’ says Sensible Head. ‘No problem,’ I insist. ‘I’ll just continue on a compass bearing and camp when I get to the forest.’ (I imagine a snow-dusted forest with a cosy little clearing somewhere within it.)
My poles poke the ground at each step to check for terra firma beneath the snow and I’m aware of a vibration in them that I’ve never noticed in normal conditions. It’s like having a mobile phone in each glove. Then I get the sensation of something falling off my backpack and banging on to my heels, so I turn to investigate, even though I know there’s nothing on my backpack that could fall off. A stone the size of a cricket ball seems to have attached itself to the inch of dangly elastic which sticks out from a knot securing my gaiters. It’s rock hard, orangey and translucent. And it refuses to budge. For a moment, I fancy it’s an alien creature, an orbicular bog-dwelling clam that preys on innocent pieces of elastic, swallowing them into its bowels and then turning itself to stone as an act of self-preservation while the elastic is being digested. I’ve been trudging along dragging a ‘ball and chain’ on my boot. Jabbing at it with my pole (and almost spearing my own foot) is the only way to break it open. In fact, it’s ice. After that, I check regularly for mini-snowballs hitching a lift and shake them off in their infancy.
Conifer forests do not, of course, have cosy clearings.
I collect a bag of snow instead of water, because it seems like such a Bear Gryll thing to do. (I’m thinking of re-inventing myself as Grandma Grill). I’m lucky there’s no wind because the ground is so wet, my pegs aren’t holding on to anything solid and I resort to long sticks and branches to secure the guy ropes (not the first time). Did you know it takes a whole Tesco carrier bag full of snow to make a litre of water?
The saggy posture of the tent means the outer is touching the inner which becomes wet and transfers quite a lot of dampness to my sleeping bag, reducing its performance, which is not what you want at -2°C. Sensible Head suggests I turn round in the morning and head back to Sanquhar. I agree.