Hike Southbound through Britain with Daryl May
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DS4 Old A9 bridge
DS4 Roadside benches 2
Days S1 - S20                                                                  Scottish Highlands
Day S4 - Dunbeath to Helmsdale
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Northbound Home
Monday, Feb 11, 2008

Time of departure: 8.00 am
Time of arrival: 4.00 pm
Place departed: Dunbeath, Highland
Place arrived: Helmsdale, Highland

Miles: 18
Cum miles: 59.7
Percent complete: 6.1

Bed sign Kerloch B&B, Helmsdale **
Cost for bed and breakfast: 17 ($34)
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DS3 Berriedale hill sign DS4 One-eyed dog
DS3 Birds' nests
DS4 Road-closed gate

For those of you who expect Dunbeath to be in Caithness, and Helmsdale in Sutherland, you are, of course, quite right. But perhaps out of date. As far as I've fathomed it, Caithness and Sutherland (and other former counties) are now merely districts. A newer and larger entity, recognized by the European Union, incorporates them and is known as Highland. In due course, I will be in Ross-shire but still in Highland, and perhaps in Inverness-shire but still in Highland. I have yet to understand this fully.

Mrs. McDonald packed me a tasty sandwich for my lunch, an act of kindness that I found at many British B&Bs.

I'd soaked my blister in the bath last night, and coated it with antiseptic ointment. During yesterday's hike, in which I'd worn thin nylons under my wool socks to serve as a "lubrication liner", the blister had nevertheless grown quite substantially. I can better-describe its position, which is under the foot immediately behind the middle three toes. My boot interiors are contoured to "receive" the foot. The left and right boot contours felt identical and yet the blister was only on the right foot.

Examining my gait, and I largely employ my left hand for the hiking pole, I theorized that the pole is relieving weight on the right heel but increasing it on the right toes. I decided to hold the pole in my right hand more often.

I ought to add that I'm unable to actually see this blister, because of where it is, even in a mirror. Old-age stiffness probably contributes to this difficulty. But I can feel the ruffled up skin, the swelling, and the tenderness of the exposed wound. (I expect I'll smell the gangrene too, before my foot drops off - hardly a joke, of course.)

In the morning, it was most uncomfortable to put any weight at all on my right foot. Things didn't improve when I applied a large band-aid, so I added "mole foam" over the band-aid, which is a thick adhesive pad that supposedly protects the foot itself from rubbing. My experience with this product is that it doesn't adhere well, so I wrapped a crepe bandage around the foot and these two layers.

Now, standing on the right foot was not painful as much as darn uncomfortable. With this improvement, I put on my socks, readjusted the bandage under the socks, put on my boots, and departed Toremore Farm, and limped the 18 miles to Helmsdale.

It was perfect weather. Cool, calm, cloudless, under blue skies. This is one of the most desolate stretches of the coast, and by no means an easy hike. Leaving Dunbeath, one climbs steadily for two-and-a-half hours before a very steep descent to Berriedale at sea level. Then there's another very steep climb out of Berriedale. The gradients are both signed as 13%, and they run for a mile and a half in each direction from Berriedale. Before one reaches Helmsdale, there's a similar but longer descent. Many of you will recognize that descents tax the knees, so these downhill stretches were hard too.

While there are beautiful coastline vistas throughout this day's route, my foot discomfort made it hard to appreciate them. I also found the day extremely exerting, though I was more accepting of this when I remembered that I'd felt just this way on the first days of my northbound hike.

At Latheron yesterday, the A99 from Wick merged with the bigger A9 which runs from Thurso down to Inverness and points south. The traffic increased with this transition, but I was pleased to see that the A9 has been widened in places even since last year. For hikers, this sometimes means a 3-ft-wide shoulder, making dealing with traffic quite a bit easier.

Somewhere between Dunbeath and Berriedale, I was greeted by snarling dogs, and one of them bore a striking resemblance to a fellow whom I'd seen (and photographed) last year. I took some new photos, and I'll try to see later if he's the same dog.

Once in Helmsdale, where I stayed at the quite-basic but inexpensive Kerloch B&B, unfortunately with the smell of smoking, I headed out to the Fish and Ships shop, enjoying the freshest fish in a large serving. I am willing to swear it was landed at Helmsdale's harbor, and recently. (For any afficianados of San Francisco's Fisherman's Wharf, let it be known that Jennifer and I witnessed frozen, packaged fish deliveries there early one morning.)

Then I tarried a while in the Belgrave Arms Hotel, enjoying another 80-shillings beer. A rather inebriated Scot was holding forth to the locals, so I offered to teach him the limerick whose first line incorporates the name of this same pub, "There was a young man from Belgrave". This seemed a neat way to permeate the pub with a limerick in extremely bad taste, and then feign innocence. Unfortunately our man couldn't quite get his mind around five lines of verse. Rather than see this limerick wasted, I'll share it with you if you like. You'll need to write and ask for it - but only if you're over 18.

I've now covered in four days the same ground that I covered in three days last May. It all seemed so much easier then. Certainly I was fitter ending the northbound hike in 2007 than starting the southbound one in 2008, and the lure of finishing made the last of the northern miles seem easier. But I suspect that the passage of time has also attenuated my recollections of struggle in 2007, and there's been no similar attenuation period yet for 2008.

On the other hand, if it walks like a duck, and talks like a duck, it's a duck! For duck, think blister. I didn't have such a painful one last year. Perhaps that's the source of all woes? As you'll see later, I paid my price for not taking the blister more seriously right then, if not earlier.

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