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Quarandreaming the Cairngorms

David Lintern returns to the centre for his first post lockdown overnighter.

After dark confinement, air and space and the colours of summer. Down in the glen, the first blaeberries, voluptuous purple bell heather and the vivid yokes of bog asphodel line the path. Further up, fresh juniper, birch and pine shoots wave skinny young arms in praise of a warm breeze. Topping out, there are fluorescent green flushes with rust oxide hearts, sharp edged newly bolted deer grass, fluffy head-nodding cotton grass, clusters of dusky white, purple and pink Orchids. It’s an outdoor festival, a landscape in motion. The first flush of summer can sometimes seem showy and ostentatious, but after a silent spring of sensory austerity it feels less pomp and ceremony and more just rude, unbridled joy.

We can all travel now, but I’ve chosen to stay local for my first overnight trip to the mountains. Somewhere I’m more familiar with – a sort of second home. I take the same path to Carn Bàn Mor I’ve taken so many times before. The final section is no more of a grind than usual, but I have to make a Compeed stop after the junction, for my first heel blister in about 12 years. I’ve spent much of lockdown counting my blessings to be based here in the National Park and have kept fairly active, but clearly there’s been a softening at the edges, regardless!

I meet a few folk on the way up and more a day later on the way back, everyone friendly and delighted to be out. It makes a welcome change from overheated exchanges online. There’s not a single trailside tissue, and only one sweet wrapper. Maybe we haven’t quite forgotten how to be kind to each other.

I cross the plateau as showers come and go, hood vibrating wildly and windchill in my finger bones, to meet that incongruous track and finally the turning circle. There are still places where the road ends and that’s no small part of why we go. I cross the burn that will become the Eidart and climb onto and into it; this remarkable, fathomless place full of empty.

The Moine Mhor, or Great Moss is a favourite, somewhere time yawns and axes shift. I’ve crossed it’s sodden middle and been turned around in poor weather more than once, disorientated in the peat hags and the melt waters, a maze of burns, stone and moss. There’s no foreground here. Things that seem close are miles away, and perhaps because of that, the mind wanders off of its own accord.

Perhaps it’s the Bermuda Triangle of the Cairngorms? Or maybe ‘the zone’ in science fiction film Stalker, where what’s real shifts uneasily in its seat under a supernatural gaze. Here in the middle of things, my centre fails to hold. Maybe I am back in lockdown, adrift on a listing ship where both everything and nothing happened, where we all got turned around, where our usual methods of navigation and pacing weren’t quite up to scratch. On the Moine Mhor, time gives us a glimpse of how it really is – and with the winds calmed and the sun out for now, I can see the product of millennia on the skyline and it’s shocking all over again.

For now though, I skirt that chaotic naval and climb up onto the first of three Munros, following a new burn for me. A handrail – something to hold on to! My perspective skews again anyway as I scan the horizon above, swim bladder temporarily confused, until I reach a shieling ruin and look back beyond the belly of this universe to Sgor Gaoith, the windy peak.

The skies darken and winds scud again as I traverse the bulk of the big hill, Monadh Mor, but here are new aspects on old, bold hills, places that will never quite be friends. From this point, Cairn Toul presents as a giant in an intergalactic armchair, its massive hands resting on the arms of Sgor an Lochain Uaine and Stob Coire an-t Saighdeir. It’s madness to think of country this inhospitable and ungainly as home, but it is. I am back in the zone: sorely out of practice with soft heels and chilled hands and that old cycle injury in my right knee making its presence known, but back home all the same.

After the hill of the hound, Beinn Bhrotain, I double back, hoping the winds will drop overnight. My internal compass bubble wobbles again and it slips my mind to navigate at all, crossing blank faced plains the long way round with only the occasional crumbling outcrop to claim the eye. As the winds mellow along with the light, I’m in a kind of tired delirium, an absent-minded stravaig. There’s still no clean way to navigate the meanders in the middle, but I find a cairn I know and make for the edge of the pie crust, another anchor to hold on to. Making camp between two burns, I take an age fumbling with an unfamiliar shelter and realise I’ve overplayed the day. Still anxious from losing work recently, tired and hungry too, I pass through a range of emotions before settling. Some camps are lonely affairs, but that’s more than OK with me. There are months of lockdown dissonance to unpack, it won’t all dissipate at once.

The following morning is spent in a blissful fuzz, traversing the crust towards Sgor Gaoith – the Munro I can just about make out from my office window. The sun shines warmly and my mood and energy is reset. Willow warblers dance and sing together as I sip burn water and the last of a headache ebbs away. The terrain unfolds and, to my surprise, there are places here that I can remember, that I can steer by. This terrace; that lochan camp; a prominent ledge and a key stone overlooking Loch Einich. The Moine Mhor is still a place where the map and the territory don’t add up, somewhere built of folded time, but here on its perimeter I can begin to patch a mental map together. It’s a landscape jigsaw, where the corners and edges are easier to work with. Maybe one day, if I keep putting in the miles, I might figure out the whirlpool in the middle.

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Walking can be dangerous and is done entirely at your own risk. Information is provided free of charge; it is each walker's responsibility to check it and navigate using a map and compass.