John o'Groats Trail - Day 2 - 17.4 miles - 'Countdown'
With a walk as dull as today's the most you can hope for is a swift and merciful end – which is what I gave it, knocking back the tarmac miles in a new personal best time just so I could put it out of its misery.
But that's fine by me. At this stage in LeJog I feel like I'm counting down the days; the quicker the miles slip by, the better.
My rest day in Evanton was – as has become typical – short on rest.
Not only was I booking accommodation for the last leg of my walk, I was also continuing to debate the merits of choosing the as-yet-unfinished John o'Groats Trail over the A9. And as the day wore on, and I spent a little more time reading blogs of those who've attempted the Trail, I became more and more wary.
I love the idea of completing LeJog on a clifftop high. But there are too many cautionary stories out there from LeJogers who've passed this way in the past few weeks and who've given it their best shot then given up. The most frequent complaints are about impassable thickets and disappearing paths. But there are horror stories too: tactical retreats from fast flowing rivers, exposed cliff ledges – even an aerial bombardment from an angry osprey.
The fact is that the JoG Trail the trail is not just incomplete, in many places a final route hasn't even been decided upon. Its official website doesn't post the route – presumably because no-one wants to take responsibility for the misfortunes of wayward walkers. And the route depicted on Walk Highlands is out of date. Which makes it tough to know where to go.
I'm not a trailblazer walker. I'm happy for a bit of lively adventure on a walk, but hanging onto barbed wire fences 200 feet above the sea is a hard limit.
My erring commitment to the JoG Trail was further shaken after a chat while booking my B&B in Dunbeath. "I wouldn't even try it," was my host's advice. "I say that after hearing plenty of tales from people who have."
So I ummed and aaahed (autocorrect wants to change this to 'bummed and ached'), had a pint, did some more research, looked for the umpteenth time at the maps, had another pint, watched Jonathan Creek, ate a lot of Tunnocks Wafers, read a few more trail bogs ... and was still none the wiser.
By this time – 5.30pm say – the regulars in the Novar Arms were well oiled. A previous LeJog blogger noted a certain amount of effing and jeffing (autocorrect wants to change this into 'offing and heffing') in the bar, and I can attest to the fact that he didn't witness a one-off. The place was LOUD, with language you wouldn't want your grandmother to hear, and filled with an odd mix of tourists, locals, travelling salesman and JoGLe cyclists resting after their first day on the road.
I left the effing and jeffing Novar Arms as soon as I could after breakfast and with rested, blister-free feet made super fast time along the B817 to Alness. Although the roadside cyclepath wasn't picturesque, hats off to the fantastic Sustrans for funding it. Before LeJog I had no idea who Sustrans were, but they're a charity that work to provide safe cycle and footpaths to get more people out of cars and into the fresh air. Forty years old this year, the charity – which started life as a few friends from Bristol fed up with the dominance of the car – has been one of the key forces in establishing the UK cycle network. I've walked a few Sustrans trails as I've headed north – always safe and well maintained – and I've appreciated them.
Into Alness, which for many years dominated the Scotland in Bloom and Britain in Bloom flower competitions. The budget for the flowers has – inevitably – been slashed, and the prizes have stopped coming. It's mainly volunteers now who keep the blooms blooming – and they looked blooming good.
Not that the town smelt blooming good. On the contrary, there was a lingering smell of rotting meat hanging over the mainstreet. I couldn't work out whether it was an odoric hangover from Saturday night or whether it was Sunday lunch being prepared, but it provided yet another reason to up the pace and get a move on.
The main point of interest on the subsequent Easter Ross miles came from views over the Cromarty Firth, where oil rigs were queuing for repair in Invergordon. Invergordon plays an important role in Scottish energy production, not only with its repair yards and dry docks, but also with deep water facilities for cruise ships and bulk cargo handling.
All very interesting, I'm sure, but there were limited picnic facilities from which to enjoy the distant industrial skyline so on I whizzed, along rural lanes lined with dry stone walls and rosebay willowherb, and through woods in various states of deforestation.
Then, just past Marybank, it was off the road and into the forest...
The trail through the forest – Morangie Forest specifically – was the first time the official JoG Trail route (or the variation of it I'm following anyway) left tarmac since Inverness.
Unfortunately my planned celebration of this novelty was short-lived thanks a navigational blunder that ended with me following forest tracks more suited to hardcore military training exercises than a gentle walk in the woods. Track ruts that reached my middle were to form my path for the next mile, punctuated by regular climbs onto trenches then descents into claggy swamps. In the space of a quarter mile my 3.5 miles an hour speed record tumbled to 1 as I battled over splintered logs and around knee-deep mud to find – eventually – a more sensible forest track.
Still, the blunder was my fault, and wasn't entirely unwelcome; after 14 miles of tarmac the SAS assault trail had, at least, offered a variation in terrain.
Once out of the forest it was only another couple of miles to Tain, a lovely seaside spot on the Dornoch Firth which gets a lot of visitors wanting to play the world famous Tain Golf Club then celebrate at nearby Glenmorangie Distillery.
I won't be taking advantage of either. Not just because I dislike both golf and whisky, but because I've run out of money for anything but the bare essentials.
So instead I will use up all the free teabags in my B&B condiments tray, and then for pudding eat a packet of hot chocolate powder.
Then – for an even bigger treat – I'll mentally score off one my day from my LeJog advent countdown.