Tuesday, July 11, 2006


True Thomas lay on Huntlie bank;
A ferlie he spied wi’ his e’e;
And there he saw a ladye bright
Come riding down by the Eildon Tree.

We weren’t on Huntly bank, or anywhere close to it, but among the bare rolling peaks of the Cairngorm mountains, ancient with rounded tops and valleys sculpted by ice. Nevertheless, as we paused by a clear brook that tumbled out of the hills and babbled under out feet, its waters dark and clear, I wondered if I’d look up and see the Queen of Faerie come riding along. Whether she’d point out the gate to her kingdom as she long ago did to Thomas:

“And see ye not yon bonny road,
That winds about the fernie brae?
That is the Road to fair Elfland,
Where thou and I this night maun gae.”

Early in the morning we did not meet anyone on the trail. It climbed, and climbed – then some more. Soon the valley floor was far below, and Loch Morlich shrank to the size of a pond. Amber asked where all the water in the creeks came from; I suspected that at the foot of the tall cliff that drew closer to us we’d find a corrie (Scottish for a glacial lake.) Though neither of us had found our mountain legs, having spent twenty years in the Houston flats, I wanted to climb high enough to see the corrie. Except for the trail, lined with granite boulders, you didn’t see any sign of human activity. We could have stepped a few hundred years into the past and not known it. We stopped at the edge of the ridge and lay down in the bracken, finding it soft and dry. Lulled by the sweet magic, like a tune played beyond the range of your ear, you could easily fall asleep there and wonder where you were when you awakened.

As we climbed on, and the open sky drew closer, the clouds descended and drew their veil about the peaks. A bitter wind blew in our faces, and soon the effort of placing one foot before the other grew more demanding. The corrie came into view, a small dark lake far below. To touch its waters you’d have to hike cross-country – not difficult but something you’d think before doing. Weather can change quickly to rain, in winter time to snow. Many have frozen to death among those valleys. As we started our descent, a cold wind blew from behind: the clouds drew tighter over the hills. Picking our way over the rocks and ledges demanded all our attention, and seemed as slow as the ascent.

We passed several groups of kids, mostly teenage guys with a gray-haired man bringing up the rear. Armed with maps and compasses they were learning the art of exploring the wild, later to go cross country with only the map as a guide. They said, “Hiya!” as they passed. Like other Americans we tended to say, “Hi.”

Back at the ski center lodge, we ordered a cup of vegetable soup. The medley of carrots, onions, leeks and barley could never have felt more welcome. Bringing us back to life.

In winter time, after a good snowfall, the lodge wakens up; ski lifts hum and the mountain funicular buzzes up the peaks. A different place, but then solitude and magic is probably not what the snow lovers seek.

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