the actual mountain - The Black Mount
(part of the estate of Ian 'James Bond' Fleming's family)
(part of the estate of Ian 'James Bond' Fleming's family)
Where I am today, I can trace all the way back to that time on the mountain.
I suppose there are many people with similar stories but this one had so much impact on the rest of my life that I still think about it every day.
Prior to the mountain, I was just a guy who rarely thought of anything other than work and holidays. On one of those weeks every year, I would walk the West Highland Way with friends. It runs 95 miles from Glasgow to Fort William in the west highlands of Scotland. It can be a rough walk and usually is.
The first couple of times I went with my pal Freddie and his son. They were both very fit and enjoyed the experience a lot more than I did. We all suffered from blisters on our feet but my blisters seemed to have their own blisters.
I killed the pain by taking aspirin every morning – not a healthy way to walk. So I decided for the following year that I would get super fit and start to enjoy the walk.
And get fit I did. So much so, that we started not just to walk the 95 miles but to climb up every mountain over 3,000 feet along the way. In Scotland hills over that height are known as Munros after the man, Sir Hugh Munro, who recorded them.
Just before the walk reaches Glencoe, there is an estate known as the Black Mount which belongs to the Fleming family (as in Ian Fleming of James Bond fame). There is a path which winds through their estate and which follows the old military road built around 1750. About a mile or so into the estate there is a crossing called Ba’ Bridge. Freddie decided since it was such a warm, sunny, June day that we should climb over into Glencoe over the nearest munro.
We were in shorts and t-shirts as we ascended up the grassy slope. This took us on to a horse-shoe shaped area, and apart from the path we came up it was 2,000 feet down all around. The hills were sloped to the east and it was difficult to see to the west coast and appreciate what type of weather was coming.
We reached the top of the horse-shoe with little struggle. Then it suddenly got very cold, followed by a severe wind and then snow, lots of it – and all this in June. It came down so hard that it was impossible to see anything, a real whiteout. We were freezing and it was dangerous to walk any distance.
A few feet in front of us we saw a small wall of stones that had been built at the summit as a protection from the wind.And there we stayed as the weather closed in. It only got worse.
We sat looking at each other and freezing and I felt as if I was watching a film. How could this happen? It wasn’t meant to be like this, not here and now. Funnily enough the same feeling occured a few years later when we were landing in Helsinki airport and the landing gear wouldn’t come down.
Freddie and I covered ourselves and hoped it would pass and this was all before mobile phones. We hadn’t told anyone where we were going and we didn’t know ourselves until we were actually climbing the mountain.
I felt that if I was going to die of hypothermia then I may as well go for a walk and take my chances. In staying put there was a certainty of dying. Freddie decided to walk too.
What happened next you can interpret it as you feel fit. There was only one other way off the horse-shoe without falling 2,000 feet, a very narrow path (maybe two feet across) that provided a way across to the top of Glencoe.
Suddenly the sun came out – not across the sky but just one sharp sliver which had pushed through the clouds and lit up the narrow path; nothing else surrounding it, just the path. Although the snow was still falling, it was possible to see that the path led to a safe ledge and so we took it.
This is the part that made me change my idea of everything: when we got to the other side and safety, the sky clouded over and the sun disappeared. Not after a while, but right there and then.
We were able to walk down through the Glencoe ski area and reach the climbers’ bar at the Kingshouse.
We didn’t really talk that night – we both knew what had happened. We drank whisky and thought about things in front of a roaring fire.
When I got back home, I decided that if something wanted me to keep going then it might have an idea where I should go. Within a year I resigned my job and moved out into the world, a changed man.
Today, I write a little, act a little and sing a little all because of that day on the mountain. Hey, I'm poor in money but rich in everything else.
I know what happened that day and so does Freddie. I’m glad he was there or I might have doubted it.
It was yellow - that was the only way to describe the day. A sort of washed out yellow but then so were we - we too, were washed out.
The hotel itself was like an asylum decorated in muddy brown and the light, which fought the unwashed windows, gave the lobby an almost unreal quality. There was a woman at reception who was too busy flirting with the mail man to look over as she took our room keys.
“I swear this place ain’t seen paint since Eisenhower’s day” and as she laughed, she sweated even more and didn’t care that the whole world could see she only had one tooth in her head.Her neighbour, who lived just down the street in Pennsylvania Avenue, was Jimmy Carter but she didn’t see too much of him.
Then there was me and my pal Stu, two kids who were simply travelling and had decided long ago that planning was for other people. So on that hot and yellow sticky day we were aiming for the bus station and heading ‘somewhere south’.
As we passed the FBI building, I was trying to remember a while back when I had been here with my family. We’d got caught in a downpour and had run into the J. Edgar Hoover building looking for shelter. We'd thought it was a bus station – as you do, didn’t take us long to find out it wasn’t.
Yesterday had been the Fourth of July.
After the parade, we had found ourselves sitting across from the White House where we saw what we thought to be a music concert. Cross my heart and hope to die, we honestly did think it was a music concert; there was music and there were people, what else would you think?
There was an old man throwing marijuana joints from a bag to the crowd while singing the Beatles ‘Eight Days a Week’. This was the summer of ’77, people did things like that back then. It was only when the cops on horseback started to move in that we realised it was a ‘legalize cannabis’ demo. I swear to God, it was only then.
I think it was Stu who shouted “run” and that’s what we did, all the way around to the other side of the White House where we lay on the grass next to the Washington Monument and waited for the fireworks – the ones that explode in the night sky, not the metaphorical kind.They never happened.
Some non-American guys made a camp next to us and by non-American, I mean we found out they were all from a well-known Australian rock band. One we’d actually heard of and they were good. The funny thing about this life is how it drops clues into your lap when you aren't even looking for them but I’ll come to that a bit later.
The guys from OZ spent the evening making weird and wonderful shapes, many of them pornographic, out of inflatable balloons. These kids could entertain even when they weren’t on stage and, all in all, Independence night, 1977 turned into a good one. We were still talking about it all the way to the bus the next day.
We were soon heading for a place somewhere north of Savannah, Georgia - that’s as much as I want to tell you right now. We travelled through the night and hit an Atlantic resort just as the town’s thermometer was showing the high eighties and it was still only breakfast time.
Some places just don’t do it for you and this was one of them. It had everything and nothing and so we decided to move on as quickly as possible – or rather return north. A couple of stops back was a place in the middle of nowhere, we’re talking a couple of houses and a horse at most.
What we had noticed as we'd passed through the first time was that this little town had the same name as the Oz band we’d been sitting next to the night before; see what I mean about the world working in mysterious ways?
Boy when the local bus dropped us at ......, no I ain’t going to tell you the name but we were ready for passing out. The air con didn’t work and there were far too many people on board.
Here we were in the middle of nowhere, so Stu said let’s just walk and we did, for several miles.
Until we hit the Intracoastal and to save some time here's the Wikipedia explanation:
The Intracoastal Waterway is a 3,000-mile (4,800-km) waterway along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts of the United States. Some lengths consist of natural inlets, salt-water rivers, bays, and sounds; others are artificial canals. It provides a navigable route along its length without many of the hazards of travel on the open sea.
Next to the Intracoastal was a solitary motel, a little like that one out of Psycho and yet a bit of a momma and pappa place too - you know homely as well.At the reception was an old drunk lady who was picking fleas from her dog.
“Can I help you boys?”I told her we wanted a room - and to make it cheap.“That’s the only kind we got in these parts honey. My husband will be along shortly to escort you young gentleman to your boudoir.”Looking back I remember that’s exactly how she said it ‘boudoir’, like she had been invented by Tennessee Williams.
She thumped an old brass bell on the reception desk as if folks were going to come jumping out of doorways any minute, but nothing much happened for a long time. We could hear the noise of an old worn out golf cart and then we saw his leg.
As he drove manically into the reception area, his army charge was led by his broken leg sticking out a good two feet in front of him (if you’ll pardon the pun).
“Hi boys, hop on.”
"The Atlantic Room." She said.
And her husband drove us like an insane person over to one of the far rooms.
“Not too many folks staying at the moment, so you boys can party all night. Now, you’ll need to excuse me.”
And he slapped his leg. “Here’s your keys boys, you can let yourselves in.” And with that, he was army charging back to the inebriated wife and the infested dog.
We found the solitary store which sold beers and chips and we made do with that for our evening meal. The next morning there was a knock at the door. Outside the owner was hitting our motel door with a large stick.“You boys up yet? I got a proposal to make to you. Come on down to the house when you’re ready.”
So we’re sitting there with the drunk wife (yep, that time in the morning and she was already gone) picking the zoo of creatures from her dog’s back, and the husband who had slid himself on to a stool. I had started to wonder if he slept in the golf buggy.
“Me and the good wife have been talking. Now until this leg...”
and he knocked it three times on the cast “well,until it’s mended, I’m going to need some assist-tance” that was just the way he said it ‘assist-tance’,
”You boys can have a room between you and some cash. Can’t say fairer.”
Stu and I decided that was fair and we accepted. It was six bucks a day, our food and a room. Not the one we were currently in however but a more damp ridden one around to the rear of the hotel. It had a roof and beds and that was it.
For six bucks a day we had to clean the rooms, clean the pool and empty the trash, work in the kitchen and Stu (only because the Southerners could understand him better than me) worked in the bar. If I’m being real honest Stu was given, and gratefully received, all the easy jobs – if you’re reading this buddy, you know it’s true.It was a wonderful time, even if working in almost 100 degrees made the job that little bit harder.
My first activity of the day was to clean out all the vacated rooms then put on new sheets and generally clean up - Stu’s job, at this time of day, was to empty the garbage then as I far as I can remember play the large old church organ which lay at the bottom of the steps in the big house, until hunger made him move.Now I may be doing Stu a disservice here but I don’t think so.
We both worked in the kitchens around lunchtime and as anyone who works in a kitchen will testify, it doesn't make you want to eat in the place.
We did terrible things to peoples’ food. Taking anything that could be saved from an incoming plate, putting it on an outgoing one after heating it a little. Still there are some things in this life that you’re better not knowing.
Everyone had a siesta in the afternoon as, by then, it was well into the 100s. In the evening I served tables as Stu played the cocktail maestro.
Now we both come from the same part of Scotland, although Stu’s lawyers have asked me not to be specific about the location as he has been telling terrible lies about his birthplace in recent years. However those people drinking in the bar could understand his tongue as if he was born there. Me? Well they always asked why I spoke all that weird Spanish – go figure.
It’s the next bit that has been troubling me all my life.
Really, this is the point of this story and why I am reluctant to tell you where it is.
One of my odder jobs in the morning was to get an old man out of his room, let him have some fresh air then stick him back in his newly cleaned room. Oh yeh, and put a new bottle of bourbon on his bedroom table. After that I had to ensure that I locked the door.
Yeh, you read it correctly, I’d lock the door. I had to unlock it and let him out in the morning. Now he wasn’t actually old, probably only in his forties but with my young years and his drinking, it made him seem a lot older.
I used to sit him by the pool and away from any of the other guests – those were my instructions – and when I cleaned his pee-stinking room, changed the sheets and replaced the drink, I’d help him back in.
Sometimes he would grab my hand and smile, other times he would say only one thing, the thing that has haunted me all those years: ‘help me’.
One night, just before we left the motel, the question of the man in room 17 came up and a young Inuit (or Eskimo as we called her then) told me his story. It seemed that he’d been a top class, grade A lawyer but he’d murdered his wife. When some technicality or other had made things complicated, he had appealed and been released from prison early.
However someone, and no one knew who - or so they said - paid to have him stay in a small room in a stinking run down motel in the middle of nowhere.He was to talk to no one and be kept with as much alcohol as he wanted.You’re probably thinking how stupid I was not to have seen what was happening. It still wakens me up in the middle of the night thinking about it. I was his prison guard and all he wanted to do was tell someone, something – maybe the truth.
All I can say is how truly sorry I am.
Stu and I had to leave in a hurry as some guy from the British Embassy was staying with his family and he warned us if we continued to work, he’d have to turn us in. So once again we headed somewhere south.
The place isn’t there now and I guess most of them are dead.
The guy with the broken leg had been beaten up by three native Americans who wouldn’t pay their bill.There’s more I would like to tell you about that place but I’ll save that until the next time we meet.
Until then don't let anyone lock you in any room.