The hill is a maze of tracks: tyre treads on the banked-up vehicle routes, yesterday’s bootprints punctured into snow and, keeping pace with them, the narrow leaves of a dog’s paws; all running ahead or moving back towards us. Urban dwellers, we don’t understand time in these traces with more than a clumsy approximation. We know they’ve preceded us but we read them as contemporaneous with one another: a pattern on the snowy ground.
xxxxBelow us, on the road we drove north on this morning, the tyre treads accumulate second by second, dark rubber on asphalt. Our own tracks, already overlaid, are less visible even than traces on snow: the instant archaeology of our lives in cars.
xxxxOn the hill, crossing and running parallel to the traces of people and dog, are the elongated paw-prints of mountain hares. They stitch the snow beside the path as if, curious observers, the animals had skittered alongside us or once the hill was quiet followed our trails; though it’s we who tread the hares’ habitual paths, we who’ve entered their territory.
xxxxThis morning, speeding through long streaks of fog, under flashed-up warning signs, we met the red and blue of police lights and were diverted in a thin stream of cars looping away from the closed A9 towards Blair Atholl. In the thick fog of early morning two lorries had collided, jack-knifing: metal giants suddenly vulnerable; a driver trapped and cut free.
xxxxOn the hill, from almost under our feet, a hare springs away from us, then another, coats half-turned, winter fur coming in, pale fluff under their bellies: half light, half dark as the hill. The grey-brown fur of their backs shows on the snowy tussock, the white of their bellies makes them kenspeckle on the dark ground.
xxxxThe hills we’re on, A’ Bhuidheanach Bheag and Càrn na Caim, are a couple of lumpish Munros, ribboned (though that’s too pretty a word) by a gravelled road to a quarry and the tracks of ATVs; but the hills are made new by snow. The quarry, no more than flat strips of debris, is hardly visible; the ATV tracks are white zigzags. Beyond their packed-down treads, the snow is powdery: it clings to the grass stalks, even high up the round stems, is blown against axils and feathery seed heads, untouched and perfectly frozen: a momentary record held in the chill of the air.
xxxxIt’s the first of November; our first winter hill. There’s sunlight and a dioramic view of snowy massifs under furbelows of cloud; but when we stop for lunch we lose heat fast and when we enter cloud shadow the wind chill is merciless.
xxxxAs we start to descend from Càrn na Caim, the sky to the south-west is banked up with cloud so purple-dark it feels as if all light will go from the world. The air has the edge of weather about to turn, our being here about to turn from play to crux: no longer be able to survey the tussocky slope, the flattening out, the fixed points of burn and track, all we’d recognise of direction would be gradient. It’s an instant only, that flash of risk, but its warning keeps me jolting downhill, concentrating on the balance of my body on the slope. I know there’s no real risk, no likelihood of a slowed-up descent lit by headtorch in the dark; still, I watch my footwork, keen to be down before the cloud breaks and it’s only later I’ll look up to find the sky cleared to a luminous turquoise.
xxxxWe’re well down the slopes by then, into safe country by any judgement, Tom far ahead of me. We’ve left behind the hares’ spacious domain and have come into grouse territory. Between us the odd bird clacks and rises up out of the heather in a fuss of wing beats. A hare, smaller than the others we’ve seen, bolts from a clump of pale tussocks and bounds away uphill into its high habitat, going up to shelter as we go down.
On the road, in the warm car, blissfully free of boots and with just the long drive home to be accomplished, out of the early evening dark the carriageway is blocked by a police car’s flashing lights. Again we’re turned off in a stream of vehicles, this time onto the narrow back road to Dunkeld. Below us in the dark a static chain of tail lights is strung along the dual carriageway. Better here than there, though we’re in traffic for an hour, rolling in a slow thrum of radio chatter and engine noise and exhaust past the golden woods of Polney. Bumper to bumper: drivers and passengers, conversations, vehicle treads rolling, lives accreting layer on layer.
xxxxAt four o’clock on the A9 treads bunched and skewed across the carriageway. In the fading afternoon a man died. The track of his life stopped. No more layers of thought and talk laid down. How shockingly easily we become no more than traces.
xxxxAt six o’clock in the dark on the back road below Polney the gold leaves spiral down into the flood of headlights and exhaust: spinning, flying, scraps of light, pieces of life.
xxxxOn the hard cold hill in the darkness what are the hares doing? Are they asleep, hunched into their forms, long ears flat against fur or are they bounding, free of humans and vehicles, at play in the snow glimmer?