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Mountain of the corrie and the red deer March 9, 2009

Posted by Jenny in hiking in Scotland, Munros, travel.
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Click on pictures for larger view.

Beinn Eighe was one of the two “Munros” that Bob and I climbed on a trip to Scotland in early summer 1998.  It was a beautiful mountain.

Bob climbs out of the corrie

Bob climbs out of the corrie

Beinn Eighe is located near Loch Torridon, on the northwest coast of Scotland across from the Isle of Skye.  It lies in that part of the map that always sparks my imagination.  Any place on the map that suggests vast empty northern spaces does that, for reasons I find hard to explain.  It must be that the direction north in and of itself transfixes my imagination, the same way it transfixes the compass needle.  I seem to be enthralled, whether we are talking about limitless forests of white spruce in Canada or the treeless horizon of the Scottish highlands.

At our latitude of 57 degrees in early July, light completely dominated over darkness.  The light didn’t give up ownership of the sky until after 11:00 at night, and then it reclaimed it before 4:00 in the morning.  We stayed at a small B & B on a bare, stony hill overlooking the loch.  No need to get an early start for our 11-milescotland-15, 3000′ vertical outing, so we had a comfortable breakfast before driving up the road through Glen Torridon.  We passed the stark mass of Liathach with its razor’s-edge ridge of crumbling sandstone and then started our hike alongside a rushing stream.

Fog swaddled the mountaintops, but down in the rough moor where we walked, we were bathed in warm sunlight.  The valley seemed alive with running streams.  We circled around the western end of the wide Beinn Eighe massif and then curled back southward to climb into a high tucked-away ravine, called in Scotland a corrie.  The name of this one is Coire Mhic Fhearchair.  At the center of the corrie resided a beautiful loch of cold, clear water, deep green in color when you looked at it up close, shifting magically to luminous blue when you moved further away.  Bob tried fishing for a few minutes, but the fish were not cooperating.

Coire Mhic Fhearchair

Coire Mhic Fhearchair

We continued toward the southeast corner of the corrie, following a rough herd path between pools and waterfalls toward a steep scree slope, then climbed up the scree into a deep couloir.  The rocks to the side of the gravel chute made for good scrambling up to the top of a broad ridge.

The high mists were just starting to drift away when we saw a red deer standing on the ridge.  It seemed to me like something in a dream, an apparition.  We watched for a moment as the deer disappeared over the far side of the ridge.  We climbed over easy open tundra a half mile to the summit.  The point we reached is called Ruadh-stac-Mor (3100′), the highest of Beinn Eighe’s subpeaks.  The view was the kind that demonstrates the uselessness of those threadbare superlatives like “breathtaking,” “stunning,” “spectacular.”  Bob made a good stab at it in his hiking journal: “The horizon was defined by endless waves of high mountains over mists.”

scotland-22

No roads, no fences, just mountains

The craggiest of the Torridon peaks stood to our west, but oddly enough I found the rolling open spaces directly to the north to be even more fascinating.  It struck me that nowhere in that vastness did I see any roads, houses, telephone poles, or even any fences.  I felt the strange pang that comes in the face of the limitless.

Another hiker joined us on the summit, telling us he’d spotted two deer and a ptarmigan on the ridge.  We rested for a long time before we made our way back through the distinct stages of the journey—ridge, couloir, scree, corrie, loch, moor—that seemed like chapters in an engrossing book.

On the ridge as it was clearing

On the ridge as it was clearing

The man on the verandah December 16, 2008

Posted by Jenny in literature, travel.
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W. Somerset Maugham

W. Somerset Maugham

“I was at Pagan, in Burma, and from there I took the steamer to Mandalay, but…when the boat tied up for the night at a riverside village, I made up my mind to go ashore.  The skipper told me that there was a pleasant little club in which I had only to make myself at home; they were quite used to having strangers drop off like that from the steamer, and the secretary was a very decent chap; I might even get a game of bridge.  I had nothing in the world to do, so I got into one of the bullock-carts that were waiting at the landing-stage and was driven to the club.  There was a man sitting on the verandah and as I walked up he nodded to me and asked whether I would have a whisky and soda or a gin and bitters…”

And so a story begins.  We have entered the world of the languorous tropics, where the men and women of the Empire sought commercial opportunity or romance or escape.   And those people thrived or stagnated or sometimes abysmally failed, dying of fever or languishing in opium dens.  Just as rot sets in quickly in warm climates, the pace of spiritual decay seems to accelerate when it occurs in Singapore or Jakarta.  Fate seems to have brighter colors, harsher consequences there.

W.  Somerset Maugham based the story “Mabel” (excerpted above) on a trip he took to Burma in 1923.  His travels in the tropics began in 1916, were interrupted by what he simply referred to as “the war,” and continued through the 1920s.  His methods of travel were entirely different from what any tourist would experience in the 21st century.  He did it by boat and by rail, finding a berth on a small freighter steaming to Singapore, or hiring a rickety Ford with a driver to take him to a railhead in northern Siam.  And the web of the Empire made it all possible.  The little Polynesian island would be inhabited by the “D.O.” (the district officer) enforcing some version of a British notion of order, and perhaps there would be a tattered missionary or two.  Maugham could count on finding a room at the D.O.’s house and a club where a few sun-darkened, topee-wearing planters or merchants would be having their gin and their hand of bridge.

He seems to go everywhere, and in every little stop he makes there seems to be some person impaired by moral confusion or recovering from the whiplash of circumstance,  in a place where the sun flames as it sets over the palm trees and the jungle is full of ominous noises.

“I had been wandering about the East for months and at last reached Haiphong.  It is a commercial town and a dull one, but I knew that from there I could find a ship of sorts to take me to Hong-Kong….”

“I left Bangkok on a shabby little ship of four or five hundred tons….”

“When I left Colombo I had no notion of going to Keng Tung, but on the ship I met a man who told me he had spent five years there….”


A long-attention-span kind of thing October 30, 2008

Posted by Jenny in memoir, travel.
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Spend three and a half days driving to get from Gloucester, Mass. to the Rockies, when you could fly?  It’s hard to explain.

After writing my last post, which was about a hike in August 2004, I started feeling nostalgic not only for the Rockies but for the whole road trip experience.  Bob and I have done big road trips together twice, and he also did a six-week solo journey in 2000 that truly deserves the title of “Great American Road Trip.”  The solo trip featured an old red Tercel.  The 2004 trip starred a silver Echo (“Filbert”), and the 2006 trip put the companion red Echo (“Filomena”) through her paces.  In all of these trips, the back seat and trunk were completely filled up with camping and hiking gear.  These undersized road warriors penetrated into places where compact cars with Mass. plates are seldom seen.  For instance, the Cinnamon Pass shelf road near Lake City, Colorado, or the Stevens Gulch road up to Grays and Torreys.  We enjoyed our gas mileage, in the range of 43-45 mpg.  One day, with a persistent tailwind, we got close to 50.  (No, these aren’t hybrids.)

From Gloucester, the goal is to get somewhere near Akron, Ohio, the first night.  The second night is spent somewhere near the 92nd meridian, for instance Stuart, Iowa, or Independence, Missouri.  On the third day the 100th meridian is crossed, and that is when I feel that I am really getting out west.  A mysterious transition occurs somewhere in the middle of the tier of states that are stacked north of Texas.  On the 2004 trip we had spent the night in Missouri and drove for hours across Kansas.  Somewhere out at the west end of the state, near Colby or maybe Oakley, it was time to stop for lunch.  We pulled up to a convenience store and stepped out of the car into hot, dry, swirling winds.  The temperature was in the upper 90s, and grit was flying through the air.  A geezer got out of his dinged-up pickup truck.  He had cowboy boots and a cowboy hat, and it wasn’t a costume.  The air smelled like livestock, and the ditch was full of sunflowers.  I was happy.

We look for where the Queen Anne’s Lace stops and the sunflowers start, for our first prairie dog of the trip and our first antelope.  We go out to the Ponderosa pines, up to the Douglas firs, and down to the red rock canyons.  We admire vast forests of black spruce by Lake Superior, and perpetual-motion black oil rigs in Wyoming.  The transitions happen very gradually, as is enormously appropriate for the gigantic spaces of our huge United States.  We tune into Kansas public radio and hear a feature about deep-fried Snickers bars.  We drive through hailstorms in Pennsylvania and snow squalls in Utah.  We see the Corn Palace in Mitchell, South Dakota, and use the 11,312′-elevation rest rooms at Monarch Pass, Colorado.

It’s a long-attention-span kind of thing.  Like I said, hard to explain.

The mighty roadster

The mighty roadster