Dispatch from the Razor's Edge, the Blog of Michael Stephen Fuchs
2008.09.11 : To Kill An American
"I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: 'We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.'"
- Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

This made me cry.

It also reminded me, very pointedly, and if I do say so myself, of exactly what I wrote on the very first anniversary of 9/11.

[Note: To make this, the filmmaker, Mathew Modine, set up a portable studio and digital camera by New York's Washington Square Park and asked a broad demographic of passersby about what makes an American.]

2008.09.11 : West Highland Way
Day 6 : 19.5 Miles from Inverarnan to Bridge of Orchy
Part i : When Horsies Attack

Well, the Large Hadron Collider had gone online. And we were still there. That was a nice start to the day – not having been sucked into a small black hole, nor woken up to find that stranglets had devoured the entire planet, leaving only an inert hyperdense sphere 100 meters across. In celebration of this, we dodged the homeless sheep of Wigwam City, chortled heartily at the sorry-ass campers breaking down their tents, and had a nice breakfast at the campsite restaurant/pub.

<i>Mind yer hands and feet – there's sheep all over the place out there</i> <i>Hahahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha!</i> Ah – breakfast

The campsite store was a little marvel – like a good corner shop multiplied by a small outdoors store. I belatedly remembered the date and broke out the black armband.

Pot noodles! 1000-Miles Socks! An entire Compeed concession! Seven years, still seems like yesterday
Me: Let's get out of here. It's not going to suck itself.
Tim: Not many things really do suck themselves, actually.
Me: . . . Flexible men on porn sites.

It wasn't actually raining, which was nice, especially since we had nearly 20 miles to do today. On the downside, I finally turned up with a broken boot lace. (Something like 400 miles of walking later – not bad.) I tied it off and off we went.

Me: Maybe today's the day I finally master shooting on the hoof. (*)
Tim: Auto-settings? Auto-settings day? (*)
Me: [Taking out notebook] You'd also do well to stop saying clever things. (*)
Tim: Yeah, I've got to stop being funny.
Me: Today's internal soundtrack: Butthole Surfers, Shame of Life. Get the Flash Player to see this player.
Tim: That's good to know . . .
If it wasn't raining, it was damned well threatening And it was also, in short order, climbing

Pray For Flat / The Rain Dance

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We fleshed out some tentative theories of perceived rain causation. (I.e. the anecdotally very compelling evidence that taking off your rain kit makes it rain, and vice versa.) For starters, it occurred to us that by taking off your jacket, you will immediately feel maybe very light rain that you didn't feel with the jacket on – thus causing the feeling that the rain picks up whenever you unjacket. Obviously, the obverse is true – putting on your jacket will make the rain less noticeable and thus seem to stop.

Then there's also the tragic fact that one will generally wait as long as possible, until one is convinced the weather really has changed, before changing (i.e. from on-to-off or off-to-on). And if the weather is changing a lot (and in Britain it probably is) that means that, statistically, if you wait until it's been clear for some time before taking your jacket off (or vice versa), then a resumption (cessation) of the rain is probably right around the temporal corner. So, again, statistically it probably does start and stop raining a lot when you've just doffed/donned your rain kit.

I think these two theories had a lot of explanatory power. (And God knows we needed some, because the phenomenon is f&^%ing uncanny.)

Tim: How's the zipper today? (*)
Me: A little moody this morning.
Tim: Third member of the trip.
Me: Zipper & Me, A Memoir
Raindrops on the lens was going to be a major theme today – just too much coming down to keep it off Swollen rivers and engorged fordings would also figure prominently

Blazing A Path / Reality Show Hero

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Feel the quiet river rage Shielding the lens – a winning plan; plus a hell of a lovely, misty scene
Me: Zipper's perking up.
No, you couldn't remotely stand up walking through there When this cow looked up, she was genuinely like, <i>Oh, hi there</i> Oh, hi there

We passed into what the book warned us was going to be a very exposed stretch with no exit or shelter, so watch out in bad weather. And the weather wasn't great.

Trousers were getting wet – but there was no shelter to change into Gore-tex Sun: <i>Hi and bye</i>

It was awfully cold. We debated whether the cold was just the crap weather; or whether it was colder because we were getting higher and norther?

Yuck, in a kind of majestic way

The rain nearly stopped, the wind picked up, and our trousers started to dry. Although, from notebook: "can tell from smudging – started again almost as soon as I wrote that." And you can (tell from the smudging.)

We passed a turn-off that indicated we were at the one-third mark on the day. On any other day, this would have been the one-half mark. We were sort of mentally dividing the day up into three discreet 6.5-mile walks, I think. One down.

I realised my right arm had turned into a sweat-fest. I'd been keeping it tight in to keep my day bag dry – and I'd also completely forgotten about the huge zip-open vents in the arm pits of my jacket. I yanked those bad boys open and dehumidified myself.

We'd also fallen into a 20-mile-day kind of unforgiving pace: When I would stop to scribble or shoot, Tim wouldn't wait for me, but instead carried on. And then when I caught him up at my catch-up pace, I wouldn't slow down when I caught him, but instead would carry on and stretch out my lead. By this means I did some catching up in advance. By this means, we moved at the quickest guy's pace, rather than the slowest's.

It was lonelier this way. But, to a certain extent, each man does a walk like this alone.

Plus, I think we both wanted to go strong while we were feeling strong – grind out miles while they were less painful. They'd be plenty painful later.

Way up ahead And now behind And now pausing to thoughtfully make the rain stop

I was also beginning to understand all this "You take the high road / And I'll take the low road / And I'll get there afore ye" business. Personal experience was attesting that the low road is significantly quicker.

We also thought about Highlanders hundreds of years ago, trudging around in their conspicuously Gore-tex-unlined sheepskins. If they'd stayed inside until it stopped raining, they'd have starved. We were dry, and our only exigency was getting some tea.

Passing under a viaduct and into a soggy field, we met a pretty lonely horse. And, not to ruin the suspense, but the son-of-a-mare bit me. In fairness, she just smelled the food in my bag and was having a go.

Nobody bites Tim, for some reason, oh nooo… I approached respectfully and cautiously enough There's that <i>Ooh, you're getting awfully friendly</i> smile we've all seen before Closeups! Closeups! <i>Sniff, sniff…</i> <i>CHOMP!</i> <i>Sorry about that, old man</i>

After escaping with my life, I darted back and gave her some of the yummy oat slice I'd been saving for lunch. Though Tim was horrified, I was just amused when she and I both dropped our oat slice halves at the same instant. They were very crumbly.

Me: I can't believe I was bit by a horse.
Tim: And then you still fed it.
Me: She didn't mean anything by it. Just smelt the food was all.

Next: The Coolest Shop Ever – The Strathfillan Wigwams Trading Post!

2008.09.11 : West Highland Way
Day 6 : 19.5 Miles from Inverarnan to Bridge of Orchy
Part ii : Tales from the Ben / Shops 'Til We Drop

My sister was bitten by a llama once.

I don't know, that line just seemed apposite after the horsie mauling incident. We kept trudging through the on-again-off-again-on-for-good rain.

Hey, you! With the face! Tim: Celebrity Shepherd to the Stars Trading post – kick ass

It turned out that Beinglass Farms weren't the only wigwams in town. While that made us feel a little less special, we were chuffed to stumble into their trading post – not least because Tim smelt tea.

Oat flips and bandana – I'd been trying to buy a Scottish flag bandana since Glasgow, with no success     And tea they had – but that wasn't the half off it. It was the most strange and delightful array of bizzaro merchandise I've ever seen in such a confined area. It turned into, for me, a mini photo safari. At first I just shot my in-hand purchases in front of an Indian spear. But soon I was shooting my head off.

Preserves, okay – but feather dusters??!! All your wild west theme party needs met here Meat, meat, meat, including lamb – and boar?! There was even wildlife photography to be done <i>Oh, hi there</i> A last temptation at checkout

In the end I emerged with only banana and bandana (I must have resisted those oat flips, which j'adore)     We took our tea and, erm, other items back onto the front porch – where we had the great good fortune to sit down with a very nice Pole who was on his way south on the Way. And the son-of-a-gun had just climbed Ben Nevis – on the Carn Mor Dearg Arête Route.

I should elaborate, as I have not previously, that, as with Ben Lomond, there are two ways up Ben Nevis. (I might also elaborate that climbing Ben Nevis, the tallest peak in the British Isles, was to be the concluding triumph (or catastrophe) of the trip.) One is the rather mis-named tourist route: while a somewhat uninspiring plod straight up the front, the tourist route can still get you killed – people die on this mountain every year. (Albeit it's usually like two people, and their deaths are generally salutary to the gene pool.) The other follows the tourist route initially – but then (from guide book) "detours under the spectacular north face to climb Carn Mor Dearg (CMD), a significant mountain in its own right. From here it follows the narrow, rocky, crescent line of the Carn Mor Dearg Arête and then up the Ben's boulder-covered south-eastern slopes to the summit plateau." Basically, it's supposed to be an awesome day out.

However, it's also, depending on who you listened to, or which book you read, a bad idea for people without some decent mountaineering skills – at the least good map-and-compass reading and orienteering. Some of the sources said taking the CMD route was a world-class bad idea in bad weather. And, remember, this peak is a bad weather zone – blanketed in cloud 300 days a year, with the possibility of cloud and snow hemming you in in minutes. Plus the summit plateau is featureless and ringed by sheer drop-offs. This is a mountain with "a fearsome reputation for accidents."

On the other hand . . . well, we really wanted to do it. We'd done our book research – but it was hard to tell how genuine the perils of the CMD route were. Basically, we'd been asking everyone we met on the Way so far if they'd actually done it. And today we finally found a guy who had.

He told us he never used his compass once. He said that, on the one section we were really worried about – a descent and climb between two trackless ridges where you can really get lost in bad weather – he'd just navigated by a series of metal posts on the target ridge. But he also told us: he had absolutely perfect weather. Brilliant sun. No cloud, no rain, no snow. A totally clear summit. A one-in-a-hundred day. The lucky bastage.

Our takeaway, at least for the moment, was: great weather – CMD route. Dodgy weather – tourist route. We talked about how our greatest danger was an inconclusive forecast, and us getting optimistic and going for it – and then suffering a very bad turn of the weather (which can awfully easily happen). We determined to be cautious. Over time, our determination wavered.

But the Ben was still a few days – and quite a lot of miles – away. We got walking them.

There was still a lot of water on the ground in awkward places While Tim forded this the old-fashioned way, I decided to be clever and try to find a way around Tim enjoyed photographing this adventure – especially as I ended up crossing the stream on a single sagging 2x4, then climbing over barbed wire I am teh awesome; and I think that bit of blue is actually the camera LCD!

We continued our slightly anxious Ben Nevis discussion – for instance, the stark importance of (if we took the CMD route) setting off at the crack of dawn.

Me: Could you imagine being stuck up there in the dark?
Tim: We've got torches. I've got an amazing torch. (*)
Me: Bastard.

Me: Any idea what those are?
Tim: Yes. Firebeaters.
Me: You mean it stops raining here long enough for there to be a fire?

See that sword? Yes, this is evidently the lake with the lady in it This was formerly the site of a lead smelting mill… …where nothing has grown for 150 years I am teh wet <i>Legs fucked? Completely hating life? Wishing you were back home in bed?</i>

<i>Man can get hungry in 45km</i>     The book had warned us about this sign – and that it really was accurate, so we might want to do some stocking up.
Tim: I like his advertising.
Me: Yeah. Shop with us or you're fucked.

We made our way over a last fording (read: opportunity to catch the other guy doing a massive, splashy face-plant on film) and into the mountain-nestled hamlet of Tyndrum.

<i>Bite it, bite it!</i> <i>Ha, ha – no, YOU bite it!</i> <i>I may just bite it from laughing so hard</i> This is what a mucky lens looks like And this is what proper Highlands scenery looks like We'd be seeing a lot more of it when we walked out of Tyndrum
Stepping into the guidebook again; yip
    At the last shop on the Way for 145 million miles, we pretty much just bought postcards. (We were already pretty well-provisioned.) Although, strikingly, the very nice shopman cheerfully filled Tim's hydration sleeve with water. No charge.

Next, in Part iii : A Cemetery of Ghosts, The First Genuine Hard-Core Highland Landscapes, the Bunkhouse on a Working Rail Platform, and the Return of the Colombian Chicks

2008.09.11 : West Highland Way
Day 6 : 19.5 Miles from Inverarnan to Bridge of Orchy
Part iii : The Moment You've All Been Waiting For: Fuchs Bites It

We picked what we thought was the right way out of Tyndrum – and figured it had better be, as it involved a significant climb.

Tim: I quite like that word – "dipshit." You've cheered me up.
Me: Did I use it? In what context?
Tim: [amazed] You don't listen to yourself, do you?
Me: [defensive] No. Why should I?
Tim: You said, "We're going to feel like real dipshits if this is the wrong way."

Sure enough, I'd said that not 30 seconds earlier.

The road out of town took us by the Tyndrum Cemetery. See if you can determine what's wrong with it from this picture:

Tim: Only two people have ever died here?
Me: It's like Rivendell – the place of immortality.
Tim: Maybe they're expecting quite a lot of people to die.

In fact, on closer examination, what we thought was one of the two tombstones was actually just a general placque for the cemetery. So only one person had ever died. But, if you look again carefully, just over the fence . . .

Me: Ah! That rarest of things on the Way – a bin. [stretches over fence]
Tim: If you sort of fling it . . .
Me: But if I miss, the dead will haunt me.
Tim: But only one of them.

We carried on out of town – pursued by a lone ghost or not – and into what proved to be the most Highland-y bit of the Highlands yet.

<i>Choo choo!</i> <i>Gurgle, gurgle</i> Really big mountain Really big mountain that was directly in our path
Me: I wonder what mountain that is? And, more importantly, how we're getting around it.
Tim: Left is looking like a pretty good option.
Those amazing vertical sheep Miles of vertical sheep Up Down And down And still down

We descended into the dramatic valley, on what was, essentially, a rocky streambed – steep grass-and-sheep-covered mountains springing up on either side. Mentally looking back from this scenery, at the crap I shot in the first couple of days, it was like: Ooh, look, here's a pretty bush. Now, suddenly, here was the real deal. This was the Scottish Highlands we had come to look at.

The Real Deal Mmm – nanas

We found ourselves on what was starting to seem like a really long-ass road – heading toward the biggest mountain, the biggest we'd seen yet, somewhere off at the point of infinity. Remember that we'd been walking a long time now – and were in the last however many miles of a 20-mile day. My legs, for two, were hurting. And it was raining again. But it was damned dramatic place to be wet and in pain.

Using my mighty 18x zoom… …Shooting sheep way up on the ridge lines Such a pretty neck
Me: Wow. Look at that. It blows away anything I saw in the Lakelands.
Tim: That's the thing about Scotland: really big shit.

We turned the bend around this monster – and stumbled upon the most sublime scene of light and shadow moving between the drama-dripping peaks. We stood there, stupidly, awed, flapping our shutters for some time. Here's my best shot (of a lot) and Tim's best shot (imo) and a close-up:

With the sun out again now, we got a view of an entire stretch of forest, off to our left, steaming itself dry. And it's amazing how heartening a little sunshine can be – not to mention trouser-drying.

Plus a double rainbow.

These next three shots are pretty awesome, if I do say. (You can tell the ones I think are good because they're really big.)

<i>FEH!</i> So it was right along on this here road, when we were knackered, and it was muddy, that I finally took a careless step and bit it massively. Tim was ahead of me. When he turned, he not only went for a camera before asking if I was okay – I would have expected no less – but his major dilemma, resulting in nearly fatal delay, was whether to go for the phone-cam (for instant publishing to the mo-blog) or the cam-cam (for higher quality). In the end, he went for the former, which I'm sure was the right call. This photo is borrowed from that mo-blog entry (comments worth reading).

Happily enough, I found that with the adrenalin blast from the fall, I was no longer tired – and my legs had stopped hurting! Nice.

However, with that last bit of dramedy, we were nearly at our destination – the West Highland Way Sleeper.

Sheep and rainbows – a winning combo Our first glimpse of this curiosity Tim: <i>That's because it's now our accommodation.</i>

How to describe this place (other than "even odder than the wigwams")? At some point they'd shut the station (though not the stop – people still got on and off the train here); and some enterprising soul had found a novel use for the building. The guidebook described it as "delightful" and "a tiny but comfortable bunkhouse and cafe." I'd describe my feelings when I read this as, "Okay, what the hell." Of course, that had been before the nice fellow in Glasgow explained that the trains still went right by the front door. But there we were.

Our room Our room after Tim collapses and my lens starts fogging up The woman who checked us in at a tiny kiosk was very sweet and efficiently led us to one of the several unisex rooms – where the bunks (with pretty privacy curtains) were piled three high.

We both got our aching feet out of our boots, got nice hot showers, and got cleaned up. We were joined by a nice Dutch woman called Ana who had shoe trouble. Uh oh. I found the drying room around back, dumped our dripping stuff in it, and then we lounged around deleting photos, reading, and relaxing.

While Tim had his nightly chat with Liz – pacing up and down the platform in the near-dark – I decided to do a quick recce around Bridge of Orchy. After finding my way down off the platform and onto the main road, I was amazed to discover that BoO has both a post office and a fire station – which together make up one-quarter of all the structures in the entire town.

When we headed out formally, for drinks and dinner in the Bridge of Orchy Hotel, whom did we find but Lena – reunited with her walking companion Rocio! I kind of thought Rocio was a ringer for my sister Danielle. She was also Colombian, and they had met studying English in London. Lena looked very nice all cleaned up – and with her hair in two ponytails, looked to my eye kind of Native American, though she said her roots are mainly Spanish. She was also wearing Chucks, which always wins. Tim went crazy, ordering the Roast Loin of Highland Venison, at £17.50. We had some Scotch.

Next, Day 7 – 13 Miles from Bridge of Orchy to Kingshouse, Including : Even More Stunning Highland Scenery, Run-ins with "The Quiet Cockney" As Well As a Crazy Canadian Who Looks Like a Victorian Gentleman but Talks Like an IT Geek, and Finally the Stunning Kingshouse Hotel Nestled at the Foot of Buchaille Etive Mor (Scotland's Favourite Mountain) Where We Luxuriate in Unaccustomed Luxury
Look - we had to find SOMETHING to talk about ok?!         (hide)
I'm pretty sure I left my last mini torch in a hostel in Arusha, Tanzania. Anyway you missed out the important part that the torch you bought me turned out to be way brighter than your own! hahaha… [Oh, yeah. Bastard. - Ed.]         (hide)
Wow - what a truly monster day! I'm tired just from reading about it.         (hide)

  9/11     america     danger     interwebs     mountains     music     photography     tim     video     walking     west highland way     wildlife  
close photo of Michael Stephen Fuchs

Fuchs is the author of the novels The Manuscript and Pandora's Sisters, both published worldwide by Macmillan in hardback, paperback and all e-book formats (and in translation); the D-Boys series of high-tech, high-concept, spec-ops military adventure novels – D-Boys, Counter-Assault, and Close Quarters Battle (coming in 2016); and is co-author, with Glynn James, of the bestselling Arisen series of special-operations military ZA novels. The second nicest thing anyone has ever said about his work was: "Fuchs seems to operate on the narrative principle of 'when in doubt put in a firefight'." (Kirkus Reviews, more here.)

Fuchs was born in New York; schooled in Virginia (UVa); and later emigrated to the San Francisco Bay Area, where he lived through the dot-com boom. Subsequently he decamped for an extended period of tramping before finally rocking up in London, where he now makes his home. He does a lot of travel blogging, most recently of some very  long  walks around the British Isles. He's been writing and developing for the web since 1994 and shows no particularly hopeful signs of stopping.

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