HALFWAY House is many things. Metaphorically, if I live to the age of 106, I’m on the landing now. Halfway House is a little structure beyond the head of Glen Derry, with a rudimentary seat under the window for weary travellers to rest their legs and take some lunch. Halfway House is the summit of nearby Beinn Mheadhoin if – and only if – circumstances dictate it is number 142 of the 284 Munros a person intends to climb . . .
Halfway House is a download-only album by rapper Joe Budden; an Ellery Queen novel written in 1936; a 1944 film that tells the story of ten people who stay in an old hotel in a remote Welsh village; a historic inn and toll house on York Road at Parkton, Baltimore County, Maryland; and a place where people with problems reside while reintegrating into society.
I’m sitting on a plank outside a Halfway House, reintegrating with the mountain environment. This one’s known as the Hutchinson Memorial Hut, a bothy in the wilds of the Cairngorms. For the sake of symmetry, I’d like to say I’m listening to Joe Budden’s download-only Halfway House album on my iPod, but to tell you the truth I’ve never heard of him. I don’t even own an iPod. But I have heard of Ellery Queen, so that’s all right.
Let’s talk about Glen Derry. I’ve just walked up it after leaving my bike at the remote and boarded-up Derry Lodge. This is a sad place. Not too long ago the lodge echoed to the sounds of laughter and dishes being washed. Now it lies silent beneath graceful Scots pines.
The pines continue along the glen into the Lairig an Laoigh, first as an airy forest which is always a complete joy to walk through, then as individual trees bent by the prevailing wind. And God, they are so haunting, and so beautiful and primitive. They embody the very essence of the earth. Is there anything more stoically Scottish, more representative of this mountain wilderness, than the twisted trunk of a Scots pine – with its cracked red bark and wiry branches – clinging to turf and rubble in a land where barely nothing else grows?
It’s in this pensive frame of mind I sit outside my Halfway House, gazing back down the glen, having a Robert Louis Stevenson moment. Stevenson liked pine forests. He liked chestnut woods and orange groves too, but there are not many of those in the Cairngorms. Or perhaps there are – I just haven’t found them.
Above me, high in an icy wind that’s scything from the north-west, is Beinn Mheadhoin, my 142nd Munro – a Halfway House. Leaving one Halfway House behind, I climb to the blustery banks of Loch Etchachen, where a snow-covered Ben Macdui rises bleakly in the background.
Beinn Mheadhoin’s summit is an incredibly bleak and stony plateau, topped by a number of granite tors – or barns – the largest of which forms the highest point. This is a struggle to climb, but on the second attempt – after ditching my camera and sandwich – I notch up another milestone. Only another 142 to go. It should all be downhill from here. But unfortunately the downhill bit includes the Cuillin Ridge. Oh, and Liathach, which gives me bad dreams.
In a howling storm that springs out of nowhere I wander south to the summit of Derry Cairngorm, which is a bit of an anticlimax – considering there are great snowy corries and crags to its west. Derry Cairngorm is a long, drawn-out ridge – covered with rocks for a great deal of its length, which makes progress hard and slow.
From its most southerly point, Carn Crom, I drop down to Glen Derry in the late afternoon sun. On a warm breeze beneath dark branches I detect a hint of orange blossom. Honest. And there between the cracked and creaking trunks of ancient Scots pines, in a sun-warmed clearing, I stumble upon an orange grove overflowing with intoxicating scents.
Oh. And I’ve just discovered yet another definition of Halfway House: a state of mind somewhere between reality and another place.