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Under the bridge

  • Submitted by: Aram McLean, Canada
  • Submission Date: 18th Feb 2009

The day started as most days do - in the morning time. Leigh and I decided to hitchhike to Ullapool; the thriving metropolis of around 2,000 people situated twenty-six miles away. Arriving inside its boundaries in time for noon we swiftly ordered a pint from the nearest pub, as you do.
Leigh was a workmate and indeed a friend of New Zealand nationality. The two of us ran thee olde Inchnadamph Lodge with our boss Chris and a few other random folk. We were a couple of castaways in the land of horizontal rain.
Ullapool was hopping as we raced through our first drink. Streets streamed crowded with four or five people and we fought jealously with the empty bar for one of the eighteen vacant tables.
T’was a regular rocking day in the Highlands.
A lovely German couple that had spent a few days at our hostel joined us, Valeria and Florian, and together we filled the daylight hours with rowdy eight ball and homemade Chinese food.
Night fell and the change in atmosphere was imminent. Rough-clad men emerged from a gritty day of work with instruments in their hands whilst tough-looking women donned their best frocks for a night on the town.
The fiddlers’ played like men possessed by their very own ancestors and the Scottish drums beat heavy accompaniment through the now smoky tavern. One could not sit still with a Celtic spirit in the air that lifted the packed room to a manic frenzy! Feet thumped the floor strongly, hands beat rhythms on anything in close proximity, tables’ shook and walls struggled to contain the increasing flow of energy. Swirling bodies were like shimmering, frantic apparitions as the ceilidh moved ever bolder and faster and lyrics screamed out the delights of purple heather and violent seas.
Time passed quickly in the heightened state of joyful togetherness.
One o’clock of the morning came into existence with little warning and called the bar to close up. The magic petered away and the final, fleeting note of a tin whistle cut like a foghorn through the thickened mist. Icy gusts of wind entered the open doors.
There were hugs of goodbye to our German friends, who were continuing on a homeward journey; one final cry of ‘Scotland forever!’ and three streets traversed in support of each other’s lean, before Leigh and I finally realized we were in trouble.
Twenty-six miles of winding highland cracked asphalt lay between our waiting beds and us and not a car was to be seen in this first hour of morning. We stood deterred for only a moment before deciding, in our admittedly slagged state, that there was nothing for it but to hoof it home.
“We can do it Leigh. We can make it!” I cried with a fierce determination born perhaps of one glass too many of that grand scotch, Lagavulin.
“Aye Aram, true enough, there will be songs of our accomplishment!” Leigh may have had a wee nip himself.
We left the town’s boundary line and our footfalls were soon echoing off the winding road and into sheer emptiness around us. Two o’clock passed and was followed rather quickly by the hour of three. Shadowed hills and dark inky stains of gaping lochs glided past silently. We trudged alone. No vehicle disturbed our passage. Our only company became the dehydration that gripped our throats to replace the happily consumed alcohol on the evening. The drink in turn resettled itself back towards that angry place inside the skull where hangovers lurk, impatient to wreak havoc.
Still, another traveller passing within earshot on this lonely night would have heard two voices singing loudly and off-key, attempting to keep optimism in the forefront of thought.
The fourth hour arrived and the carrying noise of voices screeching notes, that have no right to any existence, had died away. I found myself mumbling encouragement to my pounding feet while offering hellos to the nearby trees, stones and dozing sheep. My legs screamed in the glowing night. Each step began to feel like a dozen nails puncturing through my raw soles.
Leigh marched ahead of me in apparent oblivion to discontent and increasing pain. Such a night of torturous walking was obviously considered a sport in New Zealand. My breath puffed out like smoke in the chill air; my body struggled to maintain the hard pace my Kiwi companion set before me.
Ten miles traversed through dehydration, a growing hangover and extreme fatigue; I made up my mind that the remaining sixteen miles could be stuffed.
“I know a place we can crash.” Leigh offered in agreement to my decision.
We soon came to a small bridge and Leigh led the way beneath it. Crammed onto the relative dryness yet chilled rockiness of a small ledge I began to question the soundness of this plan.
“Perhaps we best get closer for maximum heat and increased survival chances?” I suggested. My idea didn’t go over with Leigh. His thick fleece jacket was feeling much warmer than my light sweatshirt apparently.
Resigned, I gave up on the pursuit of comfort and wrapped myself into my arms in a patient wait for morning light. Leigh promptly dropped off to enjoy a dream of happier times. He swears that he awoke to the sound of my snoring a few times on this fretful night, but I have no recollection of such bliss experienced. There were only rocks attacking back, cold infused into skin and relentless mosquitoes on the rampage.
Two hours of damp, dozing misery slowly passed and finally the homeless scene became too much for my brittle bones. I stood, joints cracking like sun-dried twigs, and made ready to leave. Leigh groggily awoke from whatever sunny beach he had been adventuring on in his dreams and mumbled after me.
“Right, wait for me then.”
It was now six in the morning and the two of us looked like we had done vicious battle with a stag in heat and lost by a large margin. Hair greeted the new day in every possible direction whilst clothes bore the stains and wrinkles of a none too comfortable night.
Stepping up to the road our tortured existence abruptly and unexpectedly came to a joyous end. An approaching fish truck bravely stopped at our outstretched thumbs beckoning, ignoring our ragged, ripped appearance, and we stumbled into the heated interior with grateful sighs of thanks. The door slammed closed just as the ever-ready rain tumbled down from the early morning sky. We were out of hell and with its passing I experienced an emotion that men newly released from a brutal prison must feel - absolute relief and unadulterated ecstasy.
A dazed, expansive grin plastered itself across my swollen, bitten face rolling through the final beautiful sixteen miles towards the most amazing bed in the world.
I was passed out till noon with that incredible thing called warmth to accompany me. Then it was back to work and a lodge full of final year Geology students to deal with.
The raindrops blasted past and another Highland chapter, somewhat self-imposed, drew safely to a close.
In retrospect, the unbeatable Celtic tunes and good folks company in a packed pub of amazing connection made it all feel worth it.

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