I lay in my tent and considered my options. My aim was to reach Beattock, a village near Moffat, by the middle of the next day, in order to meet up with my friend Adam and walk along a section of the Southern Upland Way. When I had been in the route-plotting stage, I had found almost no footpaths in this part of the country. The area to my north was, however, criss-crossed with meandering tracks snaking into forestry areas and wind farms. In my desire to avoid roads and stick to wild areas where possible, I had planned to follow and link up a series of these tracks, even though they were far from direct, and went deep into rough and hilly country. Examining the route in detail now for the first time since I had plotted it, it just looked stupid. In a few places I had run out of track and simply cut through some forest to the next nearest part. What could be done with one click on a computer might mean ages of struggling through dense, scraping branches on the ground.
I went into my OS app and plotted out an alternative route. I wasn’t going to wander through the maze of tracks in Eskdalemuir forest. If I went by road northeast to Langholm, I could go along Eskdale, then pick up the Romans and Reivers Route, which would wind into Beattock, and sounded like it could be fairly scenic. This would be 58km. I plotted another route. If I went along the first bit of track I had initially planned, then took the road west after a few kilometres, I would then bend round and be able to follow a series of roads almost directly to Beattock. This would be 17km shorter and involve half as much ascent, There was nothing to suggest that it would be particularly scenic, but the choice was clear. It was time to change my approach.
I packed up with an efficiency brought on by being in a place that held very little appeal. Although I could point to where I was on a map, it didn’t feel like somewhere that was anywhere in particular, just a fairly empty bit of land between Annandale and Eskdale with no distinguishing features among the boggy hills of sheep and patches of forestry plantations. It was not a hive of activity. The Wikipedia page for Eskdale is three sentences long, one of which describes an incident in 1620 when continuous heavy snow killed all but 35 of a flock of 20,000 sheep. Maybe nothing has happened since. Maybe they haven’t got over it.
After following a road for about a kilometre, I turned onto a track that cut across a wide area of damp, hilly ground carved up haphazardly by drystone walls. It was still, and mist condensed into droplets on the curls hanging over my eyes as I walked. I passed an area marked on the map as Whaup Knowe, which is Scots for “Curlew Knoll”. I would have liked to have heard a curlew cry – it is a sound that speaks to the heart. It can reflect our feelings back onto us, its bubbling excitability lifting the heart when we are joyful but its mournful undertones coming to the fore when times are hard. It was the wrong time of year though, and the curlews were away on the coast, and the hills were muffled.
After following the mostly straight track up and down for a few kilometres, I came to another road. I stopped and sat down on my bag, and consulted the map on my phone weighing up my options one last time. I lifted my head up and gazed down the road I was sitting next to, so smooth and unobstructed, so hard underfoot. I turned to look at the hills above me, and found them wanting. My mind was made up.
I followed roads for the rest of the day. Unlike the stretch I did on roads all the way back in Flintshire, there was almost no traffic, so this was a peaceful trudge. I tried to find the best surface available. My feet were in their worst state yet, so I obsessively looked for any patches made softer by a thin layer of mud or gravel to tread on. Often the grass on the verge was long and wet, which would be awkward and annoying to stamp my way through, but there was a strip about four inches wide next to the tarmac where it didn’t grow so thickly, and I followed this, one foot in front of the other like a tightrope walker. Anything that gave my feet fractional relief was worth doing.
Surprisingly, I started to feel better. The thought of having cut out unnecessary distance and taking the most efficient route cheered me up a bit. I definitely wouldn’t have any trouble with barbed wire fences, overgrown hawthorn hedges, nettles, brambles, or disappearing paths. I passed a village where you could get horse-drawn carriage rides, and was barely tempted at all to ask them to take me onwards. The weather was classically autumnal. The wind got up and I had the odd shower, but nothing too bad.
It was on this day, though, that I had my first real discomfort in my back. As the afternoon wore on, a slight crick became gradually more painful. I shifted my pack around constantly, transferring its weight to different parts of me, but nothing helped. This was something I had been afraid of at the beginning, but I had been going well for so long that I had forgotten about the possibility that even after three years of recovery, I might be putting my back through something it would struggle with. I am sure many people are familiar with the feeling of having a crick in your back that you are desperate to get rid of. At one point the previous year, I had had that feeling constantly for an entire week of torturous discomfort, until lying in bed one night, I felt a satisfying, heavenly click, and was released. I stepped off the road into some trees, and tried to work out the kink using cat-cow poses and spinal twists. After ten or fifteen frustrating minutes of adopting various positions, I heard a click, and was thankfully able to keep going, although with some apprehension about when the discomfort might come back.
As the sky gained streaks of pink among the grey, I was up in the hills with the land rolling down to Annandale on my left. I was keeping an eye out for a possible campsite, and saw a corrugated iron shelter in what looked like an empty field. The first drops of a downpour started falling, so I nipped down to it to check it out. It was muddy and churned up by hooves – not ideal – but the rain was coming down in buckets, so I got out my stove and cooked supper while waiting it out. When it had stopped and I was finished, I discovered that just outside, an increasing number of cows had turned up to see what was using their shelter. I apologised to them and moved on, finding a better spot for the night under the branches of a conifer plantation. My decision to change tactics seemed to have been a good one. I had made good progress and was well-placed to reach Beattock and meet Adam.