Take the High Road

Crisp. Dry. It could describe any winter mountain scene, but this is actually my triple-strength coffee. Hot. Wet. Not a tropical paradise, but in fact my trousers. Like they say, you shouldn't drink and drive.

Caledonia is a land of beauty and great contrast, and a fabulous way to experience it is by car (and well sealed waterproof). But to do that, you have to get there, and the journey can be almost as epic as the destination, particularly in winter.

These days I always begin my journey at the eleventh hour. Nothing to do with spontaneity, but a question of conscious timing. Starting the 10-hour journey just before midnight means arriving in the Highlands in time for a sizzling Scottish breakfast and a warm slice of hospitality.

The journey is one of solitude, shared mainly with long distance truckers and snoozy coppers hidden in lay-bys, whose presence is marked only by a momentary flash of luminous yellow and blue.

In a primitive way, it is easier to measure progress simply by the movement of the sun. Although on this particular brisk night, the empty sky is filled with the crystal-like sweep of comet Hale Bopp. It's almost Christmas and its biblical gaze makes me wonder if I should stop at the next service station to pick up some gold-points.

This first landmark is the appropriately named Scotch Corner, although ironically it is barely half distance. Nor is it a corner. One sandwich and a trouser-drying session later and the steady rise west through the Pennines begins. It's easy to glaze over the grey detail of the undulating road underneath as the sun tentatively begins its dawn climb directly ahead. The sky is a cocktail of deep purple and orange, mutating through reddy pink. At its most intense, this vibrant palette lasts but a moment - any loss of concentration and the backdrop is rapidly approaching commuter-blue.

In this clear weather the road allows good progress. Only the need to negotiate the odd tractor serves to remind of the daily life that goes on outside my metal cocoon.

Half distance is marked by a pleasant change of direction north onto the M6. A dreary road, but swift. Besides, I have my radio for company, at least until the heights of the Lake District. Soon, the traffic reports begin to interject, and those luckless London-bound workers disrupted by carriageways of spilt milk seem a world away. That reminds me to sip my coffee. And slowly my mood rejects urban insanity and turns to the tranquility of the islands and drama of the snow-capped mountains.

Glasgow is the next target. The steady progress means I'm soon passing the very "Welcome to Scotland" sign. The lack of an immediate "Welcome to England" on the reverse once more makes we wonder what territorial antics are possible in no-man's-land between the signs?

Right on cue, the sky begins to loom with precipitation. Not sinister, but the characteristic dreich grey is best hidden by the sun visor. So much for telling the time by the sun.

The City of Culture beckons, and the twisting Lowland passage soon approaches the once-industrialised landscape of the Glasgow environs. Almost spontaneously I'm surrounded by civilisation. Traffic, tower blocks, and roundabout hell - the curse of the 60's 'New Town'. I'm fighting my eyelids which are adhesively heavy and gulping my liquid Java breakfast. In a stasis somewhere between reality and commuter madness, I'm drawn onward by the bold orange orb of sunlight, faintly piercing the city mist. Stage 2 complete.

The home run, as I like to think of it, requires a change of pace. This is the gateway to the Highlands, and the word 'haste' is not in the dictionary. The journey is spectacular, the weather unpredictable, and even the mobile phone drifts into solitude. By now, the main threats to journey time are stray sheep, black ice, or an irresistible urge to 'give it some welly': although with care, the first two are avoidable. The sensuous curves of the road make driving a thrill.

The "low road" twists along the craggy banks of bonny Loch Lomond, her surface churned up by a chilling breeze. Squeezed between the overhanging stone wall and tree-lined shore, the poise of even the most confident of drivers is challenged. It's too cold for a morning dip, with or without the car. (Anything to avoid wet trousers again.) The crackling into radio silence signifies a transition to the "high road". The well-maintained tarmac trail soars over Rannoch Moor; bleak and barren, inhabited by hardy deer, circling eagles, and lonely mountaineers treading the damp heather. It's the top of the world, but being frozen and exposed, there's no incentive to stop. Not even if nature calls.

Eventually, the trail tumbles through the glaciated landscape of Glencoe. A landscape characterised by the spray of waterfalls, craggy outcrops and slightly less lonely mountaineers. Over thousands of years, the river beneath has cut through rock as if it was butter. This is Ben Nevis country, and on either side, mountainous giants of the Ice Age stand guard, never faltering, leaving me feeling vulnerable and humble. This timeless vista deserves respect: for it claims lives. And yet the silent panorama kindles my thoughts of the warm welcome that soon awaits. (And the chance to dry my trousers).