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015 — Finding refuge at the Clachaig
I’m Alex. This is Rambler. Let’s go back to a cold night in the Scottish Highlands. 

I stepped over the threshold, pulled in by a swell of heat that rushed out at me and shoved the cold from my back. The creak of old wood below my feet welcomed me, softening my first steps in as if to help take some of the weight of the day. I squinted as my clammy cheeks prickled from the swing in temperature. I felt my circulation returning and my whole head was filled with the fuzzy stinging you feel when you start walking after your leg falls asleep.

Looking around the Clachaig Inn there were thick wooden tables with benches and seats hugging small tables nestled in the shadows, almost becoming one with the dark stone walls. Warm light seeped from spaced out bulbs giving the room more of a cave-like ambience. The bar was set across the back of the room, much brighter with backlights shining through the glass bottles on display, clearly beckoning for attention.

Looking left I saw an open area with a pool table where a small group was lightly chattering. To the right I found the source of my relief, a large wood stove strong enough to warm the whole bar area standing sentinel over the rest of the clientele. Quiet conversations filled the room with a dull murmur, everyone seemingly content to sink into the comfort of their surroundings.

Yes, this was exactly what I needed. I found a table all to myself close enough to the wood stove that if I sat on the right side of the bench my skin sizzled. But a nice sear was exactly what I had in mind, the heat enveloping me and crushing the cold stiffness from my bones. Balancing the heat with a cold beer was a vastly better option than moving away from my new life source. After ordering said beer I asked the bartender what was good on the menu. The haggis, neeps, and tatters of course. Smothered in gravy for good measure. Many people scoff at the idea of haggis, sheep innards chopped up and often served in the animal's stomach, but after a long day in the highlands I figured they must know something I don't. All in on the Scottish way.

Returning to my table I exhaled, Vonnegut’s words coming to mind. “If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.”

The day started early in a dismal Glasgow. Rain soaked the city dampening sound and spirit. Fresh off a COVID scare that threatened to end the trip the night before, a little moisture and darkness wouldn't deter me. I was ready to start my journey north towards Loch Lomond.

My plan was half baked at best. Check out the famous loch, drive some scenic looking areas along the coast, maybe explore a trail or two along the road up into the heart of the highlands and Glencoe. I arrived at the same time as a gusting storm swept over it and wondered if this is what all my time in the highlands would look like.

I tentatively explored a few beach areas and short trails around the southeast side of the lake, exasperated by the weather. It felt like someone was fiddling with a light switch that controlled the rain, five minutes of beautiful sunlight would quickly be replaced by gale force winds and rain. I enjoyed what I could without being able to put much thought into taking photos until I decided to keep working my way north on a small road that followed the eastern shore. There I found a parking area with a beautiful view and a trail leading up towards Ben Lomond. Ben is the southernmost munro, a famous group of mountains over 3,000 feet in height throughout Scotland. The view was brilliant across the lake and in a moment of motivation during a clear period I decided to hike the first portion of the trail, which topped out on a nice bench of open land about a thousand feet up.

In typical fashion my motivation grew as I went higher. Even after experiencing my first few bouts of rain along the trail, my desire to summit surged. Before I knew it I was approaching the final headwall with a sweeping view of Loch Lomond below me while a steel curtain of rain quickly approached. Decision time. I took my backpack off, donned my full Goretex kit head to toe, and continued on.

Goretex is an incredible achievement. When else can you be embroiled in the elements—rain, snow, hail, gusting wind—and feel completely at ease? I took a full introduction to the Scottish highlands with a smile on my face thanks to this material. Every type of weather hit me in 10-15 minute phases before reaching the summit. As I moved higher the rain became hail, which then became snow. The Scottish highlands have a real attitude about them. No, they aren't high elevation, but don’t be fooled because similar to Iceland the elements will wear you down and get you in trouble if you’re not fully prepared. Enter Goretex.

Finally, the summit. I entered a cloud of calm. Setting my pack down against the summit pillar I did a full circle looking at the inside of a ping pong ball. White mist surrounded me, eerily silent and calm after the chaos below. The mountain somehow created an eye of safety within the cascading weather systems pummeling it. This is what purgatory must be like.

After enjoying an extended stay in limbo I retreated down through the maelstrom. My body was tired but my spirit bristled as I drove north to Glencoe. Three hours felt like one as I passed through the unkept landscape, with elk, snowcapped peaks, and red-orange brush extending past eyesight—a wild feast for the eyes.

The Clachaig Inn is nestled against a woodland on a backroad east of Glencoe. After checking into my hostel just a half mile down the road I drove to it in the dark, wind and rain still persistent as ever. As beautiful as the drive was I was drained. Elated, but spent. The Clachaig shown like a beacon. A welcoming aura in an unwelcoming environment.

My meal was late. I had to order another beer to wash down the wait. Such is life.

Then… carnage. It was almost an American experience, reminiscent of Das Essenhaus in northern Indiana where carbs live free and no ones waistband is safe. On a rectangular white plate sat three piles of mush. Haggis in the middle, an unrecognizable blackish mass, flanked on either side by mashed potatoes and turnips. In a fit of genius, the makers of the plate curved the edges upwards. A necessary innovation for the fountain of beef gravy that was slathered like a flash flood over the entire experience.

Glory. Salty, mushy, glory.

I ate, drank, and journaled until my bed called a half mile away. Beyond the hilarity and familiarity of my meal, the Clachaig offered exactly what my weary bones needed. A warm wood stove, a drink, a rich meal, and a welcoming place to enjoy it all for a few hours. I stepped back into the unforgiving night, protected by more than just Goretex.

This was a blast to write. I hope you could feel the warmth of the Clachaig through the words. Sometimes a place like that hits just right for what you want and it’s fun to honor that moment. Often it’s those small nice things that remain with us. I know I won’t forget that place anytime soon.

More updates, words, and photos coming. Oregon awaits. Thanks for reading!

—Al

This is Rambler, a bi-weekly postcard from the road. Share with your friends via this link.

Copyright © 2022 Alex Eaton, All rights reserved.



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