Boar heads in hotel: one (that we've found so far)
One of the big decisions in a Britain-end-to-end walk is deciding which way to go: north to south, or south to north. I think we made the right decision. One reason is psychological: walking north past the highlands really feels like you are approaching the end of the earth. I know we passed through parts of Northumberland that are more sparsely populated, and the peaks of the Pennines are more rugged, but somehow this place just feels like its getting increasingly remote. Maybe the coastline plays a role (coasts are at the end of the land), or maybe it's the accents, or the Klingon translations on the street signs, or the lack of good coffee (our last B&B offered a choice: "instant" or "fresh"). Not sure, but I do know that it feels like we are approaching the end of the world.
A more practical issue is that walking on the A9 sucks. Spending three days in the first week walking on the thin edge of this road would have been just brutal. I could imagine Dawn slipping me a mickey, and waking up on a train bound for the French Riviera. But coming this direction, with so much already invested, a few days of road walking seems like a minor obstacle between us and that signpost in John O'Groats.
One thing that helps make the A9 a lot more tolerable: after six weeks of rubbish, the weather has turned brilliant! When we left this morning, it was a quiet, cool, beautiful morning, and it just got better as the day went on. I didn't even have to hunt around for a nice forecast; all the online forecasts tell us that we can expect mostly sun with highs in the mid teens for our final four days. Perfect.
The picture is the Clynelish distillery, just a mile or so down the road from Brora, where we started this morning. Even after three months, I still miss easy things on the map. If I'd have been paying attention, we could have walked right past their visitor center, maybe even had an early morning wee dram, for just a few hundred extra yards of walking. Instead, we had to be content with a view across a couple of fields.
We've been admiring drystone walls throughout our walk, and in the last two days we've come across two of my favorites. One, from yesterday, is the iron age broch - a wall that was lasted over two thousand years. And today we have the amazing curved wall in the picture above.
These last two days we've seen a few cyclists who have that end-to-end look about them. There have been plenty of them all along, no doubt, but it's only now that we are all sharing the same road: one of the very few advantages of the A9. When we saw the small convey above pulled into a layby, we stopped in to say hello. The cars and camper were there to support a half dozen cyclists, who were on the last stage of their eight (8!) day Lands End to John O'Groats ride. That's just over 120 miles per day for their route. The ride is in memory of Tony O'Connell, and his daughter Amy, who both passed away over the past two years. They are raising money for charity on the way. Fun folks to chat with and we hope they enjoyed their champagne this afternoon!
Near Helmsdale, Dawn met a lamb. "Baaa, baa. Are you my Mommy?" asked the lamb. "Baaaaa-noooo", said Dawn.
Helmsdale is a wee fishing village with a small harbor, a couple of hotels (we're staying in one) and a restaurant with terrific fish and chips.
The hotel is festooned with dead animal heads on the wall, perhaps as a warning to keep animals from coming into the hotel. It's not working, there's a large friendly dog downstairs who does not seem in the least intimidated.
Tomorrow is our longest stretch on the A9 - fifteen hilly curving miles to Dunbeath. Hopefully Larry's matching run is on a more pleasant track!