The top of a mountain. Somewhere on the northern coast of Scotland.
1:53 am 9.7.14
We watched from the rise as a thick cloud approached us. It crept up the hill and along the road. A great white wave. We had to get closer, to get inside it and feel the cloud on us. We rushed down the bank, a half-second to consider foot-placement in the darkness, we stepped between rocks, sunk a path through the marsh and hopped puddles to get to the fence by the road. The three of us moved with clumsiness and urgency, as if the cloud might change its mind and direction before we reached it.
Walking on the tarmac, into the whiteness, we started to feel the change. Damp in the air. Water vapour visible in front of us, countless tiny drops floating. It was strange to see its components, like the pixels in a photograph, and to wonder how moisture made something that seemed so solid. It tasted fresh and the sensation was like that of spray from a nearby waterfall hitting your face. Our hoods and shoulders became dotted with dew.
We sat in it with crossed legs and listened. It was silent. The north was silent. I could only hear the hum of my own body; blood pumping through my ears and quiet breaths. Nothing was close by, no people or houses, and even if they were, we wouldn’t have felt it. We were too high and too insulated. Any cars would have been heard from a mile off. It was the type of remoteness that you can feel rattling in your ribcage, a kind of excitement and melancholy together. Primal feelings.
These low clouds in the Highlands move like giant whales. They swim through valleys and levitate over lochs. They are thicker and more certain than fog. Everything that enters disappears and falls into a new world. In the heart of the cloud you can see only fifteen feet in any direction before everything fades out.
Earlier, we made it to Durness, stopping on the way for ruined castles, sheep and cows in the road, to look at a herd of stag—at least 15 of them on a pasture—and to investigate a seemingly abandoned bus. Regarding the bus; it was at the side of the road, some distance from any streets or towns and completely empty. When we tried the button by the door, it made a sound like a deep exhalation and the doors opened jerkily. We wandered in. There was a vague expectation that an angry bus driver might arrive at any moment and kick us off his bus but no one came. Ben got some wide-grinning shots in the driver’s seat, Yuri and I played with the automatic doors and then we all left.
Hundreds of miles were already behind us, the roads went where the landscape allowed and brought us to altitudes that made our ears pop. Travelling anywhere often meant circling impassable ranges. We’d already gone almost as far north as we could, at least without going off road or Thelma and Louising ourselves into the North Sea. So many of the lochs we past on route were perfectly still, they looked like mirrors on the ground and reflected the shoreline, the peaks and the sky. A parallel world only disturbed by the occasional ripple. Approaching them in twilight you’d wonder for a moment if it wasn’t the sunset clinging to the ground.
We made our way inland following the main coastal road through Durness. This was by accident rather than design. The idea was to find somewhere to pitch our tent but the ground was always too tough or water saturated or uneven. Having turned down several lanes without success, we decided to head back to the coast, to follow small roads until we had a decent perch to watch the sun. There was a view spot at the end of a gravel track, way off the main roads, that overlooked the sea and some small islands—rocky outcroppings with grassy caps—and on the other side were the cliffs of Scotland’s northern shore. We watched the sun sink and leave an orange trail across the water, broken by lines of blue from the waves. There’s a clearness in the northern waters, a change from the brown and grey ocean of home.
We sat with the fading sun, smoking a mammoth joint—the biggest of the journey, bigger than the two next biggest combined—and watched the underside of the clouds turn pink and the sun melt to a tiny point on the horizon. There was a small yacht at sea, someone else admiring the world. When the sun was gone and there was only a hazy yellow where it had been, the yacht turned and began its slow drift to wherever.
Later, we went searching for a petrol station or a spot to pitch again. Neither were forthcoming. Nor were hostels or campsites. At least, there were none within the workable radius our sixth of a tank would afford us. It became clear that we were finding nowhere, not off of these roads, and so we picked a place to pull over and spent the night where we were, stranded until places opened in the morning.