For someone who grew up in the flatlands and was only able to get to the hills occasionally, the dream of living in the mountains was always a seductive one. My first chance came in 2008 when I was 22 years old. In 2008, I was uncertain about a lot of things, but knew two things for sure: I wanted a life with adventure in it, and I did not want a career in my field of study. The stars aligned. An opportunity came up to work at the Clachaig Inn, Glen Coe. And I moved to the mountains.
For many people, the story would end there. Happy ever after. Frolicking from peak to peak. The hills alive with the sound of life satisfaction. Except it didn't really work out that way.
The thing about people when they're 22 years old is that they often don't know what they really want or who they really are. If you knew me at that age, you might recall me as a dreamer – that part hasn't really changed – who had a rather one-dimensional personality. I was 'into the outdoors'. I wasn't really interested in anything else except writing, but the Clachaig reality vortex eclipsed even that. I wrote no fiction at all during my Glen Coe years. I knew that I wanted to write fiction, and I made half-hearted plans to write the book that later became The Only Genuine Jones, but the reality vortex consumed everything.
I had no space for anything in my brain except for the potent cocktail of emotion and passion and romance and adventure – the quest for ice, for howling at the moon on a summit after a hard climb at dusk, for the epic near-disaster that would be spoken of at the bar for years to come, for exploring the dripping moss-draped trods of Aonach Dubh where nobody had been for a hundred years. The quest to write myself into my own personal mythology and into the mythology of the place. Stories, in other words. The creation of narrative. It has taken me this long to figure out that I was writing that whole time.
The problem with passion like that is that it burns fiercely and can burn itself out. And burn out it did. By 2010, the magic had faded a little and I found myself resenting the bad-weather days. I was more likely to stay in bed unless the weather was perfect when I got up. And I started to wonder if my time there was ending. By summer 2010 I'd met Hannah and my heart definitely was not in the Highlands any more; by mid-2011 I had moved away.
Living in the lowlands for 12 years after the departure from Glen Coe taught me many things. For the first two years it was extremely hard. At times, it felt like a gaping wound – a tangible form of grief that I wasn't prepared for in any way. It would come upon me suddenly and I'd stand there absolutely stricken.
I was writing again, so I channelled a lot of myself into that, but I had to work at Carphone Warehouse to pay the bills and I loathed it there with every fibre of my being. It was a small, mean-spirited job in a small, mean-spirited place that killed me a bit every time I started a new shift. I was extremely bad at it and it made me a worse version of myself.
Hannah was my reason for staying there, and I'm glad I did. But I won't deny that it was hard at times.
Over years, this distance forged perspective in me, and I believe that I've been able to write effectively about mountains since leaving Glen Coe precisely because I no longer have them on my doorstep. It isn't as simple as distance making the heart grow fonder. It's like the alpenglow of a distant sunset lighting up the crags for a moment before dusk – illumination, in other words.
A lot has happened to me in the last 12 years. I've started a new career, become a published writer, met countless new friends and colleagues. My dad died and I got married. And I started to realise that I no longer needed distance to illuminate and be illuminated. Or, more accurately, I could carry the flame of that distance within me – the distance from adventures a past version of myself had lived through. I knew that I could return to a place where new adventures could unfold without losing the perspective I had so painstakingly gained. Perhaps I've just grown up a bit.
We don't get many second chances in life, do we? But I made one for myself. I moved back. This time I'm not living directly beneath the immortals of Glen Coe, my dreams and every waking moment filled with their awe, their mythology, their power; I have maintained a bit of physical distance still. I think I'll always need that. In moderation, at least.
I live in the Scottish lowlands now, near the Angus/Perthshire border. I can be in the Cairngorms within an hour or two, and if I go for a walk down the lane I can see the sun shining on the tops of the Glen Clova hills. Life now feels more balanced. Of course, I'm older, and my head is not stuffed to the gills with legends and urges I barely understand. 'You put a lot of pressure on yourself back then,' a friend told me, and she's right – I did. 'Perhaps,' she continued, 'if you get back into rock climbing now you won't find it such an intense, all-or-nothing experience.'
But as much as I've gained age and perspective, as well as a far richer life overall thanks to a greater diversity of interests and friends, sometimes it can feel just like the old days again – in the best possible way. I can jump on a bus with a grand, half-baked plan and wake up high on a mountain, my tent filled with frost. I can howl at the moon in the middle of the Cairngorm Plateau if I want to. I can spend every weekend in the hills and I don't even have to work behind a bar for the privilege. I suspect that it wouldn't matter if I were near to any other mountain range; the important thing is that I can go and write myself into these stories. The Lakes, Yorkshire Dales, Snowdonia, or Dartmoor could all do it for me. I have a personal connection with every one of these places, and for me that is what matters.
Sometimes it's important to pause and realise when you have a good thing going. I don't think I ever did that back when I was in the reality vortex; I just let myself get carried along with it, barely holding on for the ride. I was young and an idiot! But I am reflecting deeply on this today. Life can be so precarious, good times so fleeting. We never actually know how much time we have left on this earth. The joy of a burst of light high on a mountain is one that can never be repeated. To turn away from it without experiencing, without feeling truly, would be an unfathomable crime.
Will I ever move away from Scotland again? I don't know. A friend and I have spoken at some length about the places where we feel at home. Did I ever feel at home in Glen Coe? Maybe, but it was as an eagle feels towards its eyrie – a dynamic, energetic bond that drained as much as it nourished. Do I feel at home right here, right now? I haven't been here long enough. Towards the Scottish hills I feel the beginnings of a diffuse sort of sense of home, but it's hard to pin down and feels delicate.
Never say never. But I do know this: third chances are even less likely than second chances.
The photos here have been selected from my November in the Scottish hills. All images © Alex Roddie. All Rights Reserved. Please don’t reproduce these images without permission.
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