Five Roads

Prologue – The Road

The thing about a motorcycle is that it’s just you and the road. Once you’re out of town and out of traffic and riding through the glens to nowhere in particular you can search for that rhythm that turns rider and bike into one being of leather, metal, flesh and plastic; sweeping low around bends before accelerating out, already anticipating the next turn; bearing down fast on stray vehicles, feet, hands, ears and eyes in total co-ordination, momentum judged to reach and overtake at the optimum point, smooth and relaxed, no need for brakes, eyes again scanning the horizon as the obstruction recedes into the purple distance.

Speed isn’t everything, especially here in the Highlands. Some days the siren road calls seductively, urging a pace that demands total concentration; on others it loosens its velvet grip, allowing a rider to cruise through the countryside, now lush and green, now rugged and snow-capped. On the best days there’ll be deer, half afraid, half curious, all tension as they watch from sheltering trees, ready to run; there’ll be buzzards circling, eyes missing nothing, or the rich red rush of a kite, startled away from roadside carrion as you negotiate a gravel-strewn corner on a deserted minor road, senses struggling to absorb the kaleidoscope of colours and scents of just another Highland day.

North of Inverness, on the road to Ullapool, is the village of Garve: a level-crossing, a blur of faded pink hotel, and it’s gone. The main road continues north, but a turn to the west is the gateway to biker’s paradise.

There’s a brief climb, then a series of bends and a slight descent ending with two tight right-handers at Lochluichart, a stone and slate hamlet that gazes dreamily down the length of the loch from which it takes its name. This is a dangerous corner – not because of the condition of the road or the sharpness of the bend, but because the clear, sun-dappled surface of the loch and the hills beyond insist on attention. From there the itch in the throttle hand is irresistible. The road is smooth and well-surfaced, begging for speed as the bike roars along the swift-flowing tarmac river that bisects Strath Bran. North, at the right hand, are dark, mysterious plantations of pine; south, the tumbling, turbulent waters of River Bran, dancing and flaming in the sunlight as they spill past, through Loch Achanalt and Loch a’ Chuilinn, to be harnessed by the hydro-electric dam at the foot of Loch Luichart, their peaty power not lost but transmuted into heat and light.

At Achnasheen the road forks: south-west, Glen Carron soars and swoops in search of Kyle of Lochalsh; west, the road narrows and slows as it picks its way along the boulder-strewn shore of Loch a’ Chroisg, the solid bulk of Carn Beag reflected on its face as the hills begin to take command of the horizon, the landscape punctuated by the broken skeletons of long-dead trees.

At the head of the loch the road curves away to begin its ascent of Glen Docherty, rising rapidly, leaving Abhainn Dubh an increasingly delicate silver thread among robust greens, browns and golds. The gradient steepens; the hills rise once again, gazing down on man’s fragile pathway; the summit is reached and the descent begins, plunging quickly, rounding one more corner to reveal a view that has you grabbing for the brakes, movement impossible while its impact is still swirling around your head. The hills soar on either side scored by dozens of burns, writhing white cascades decorating the sombre turf like silk ribbons; below, the road careers crazily down towards the blue promise of Loch Maree, framed by Gaelic giants – Beinn Eighe, Ruadh-stac Mór, Beinn a’ Mhùinidh – unmoved since the retreat of the glacier that created that impossible sight. And the giants speak, for this is no silent place, even away from man’s clamour. They speak through the howl and sough of the wind, the roar of the water and the cry of the birds. It’s a place to lift the spirit of any onlooker who has imagination and humility.

From there the wild west coast beckons, but there’s another choice: to turn around and travel the road from the other direction: a road now unexplored and with new secrets to yield. And tomorrow it will be new again, reshaped by the weather, the hour and the season, waiting for the rider and the motorcycle. For the destination is unimportant: the journey is what matters, travelling in hope with no preconceptions, no expectations, ready to accept whatever you find; just you and the road.

Yet biking need not be a solitary occupation, and once it’s been shared it can never be the same again, whether with a pack of motorcycles, one other bike, or a pillion. The collective experience, be it of beauty, speed or overcoming the elements, binds all together. And when the pillion is of the opposite sex, there’s more. Riding two-up is intensely intimate: the pillion is thrown into close contact with the rider, sometimes little more than a stranger, in whom she – for it’s almost invariably a woman – must place total trust for her safety. She must join with him as they follow the twists and turns of the road, becoming part of that rhythm, submitting to his benign domination. She’s completely in his hands. The rider knows his responsibility and is always aware of the woman behind him: he knows if she’s relaxed, moving with him and the machine; he knows if she’s scared, fighting to stay upright as the bike leans into corners, tense as it accelerates and brakes. There are no words, but communication is constant and immediate. At the end of the journey a permanent link will have been forged or an unbridgeable gulf placed between rider and pillion; however briefly, they’ve given themselves to each other, or withheld themselves; been accepted or rejected. That is the truth.

End of Prologue

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