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Monday, July 22, 2019

Scotland 2019

"Travel isn't always pretty.  It isn't always comfortable.
Sometimes it hurts, it even breaks your heart. But that's 
okay. The journey changes you; it should change you.
It leaves marks on  your memory, on your consciousness,
on your heart, and on your body.  You take something with you.
Hopefully, you leave something good behind."
Anthony Bourdain 

I don't know why I have this strange desire to go ride a bicycle in Scotland.  There are so many places here in this country that I have not seen.  They would be cheaper and easier to visit. There are so many other countries that I have not visited. I have been to Scotland before. My first memory of Scotland is from when I was a child visiting a farm on holiday with my parents.  The memory is not a pleasant one but one of cold, indifference from the farm wife when I became ill (the woman would not give me so much as a slice of bread since I was ill at supper time and missed the meal) and of fear when the next day a goose scared that dickens out of me, chasing and pecking me with her bill.  The second visit was as a mother when I did a quick drive through visit with the children. We did get to see some of Edinburgh and watch the Tattoo.  Perhaps it is the breathtaking scenery during this drive that draws me.  But for whatever odd reason, I want to return.

I have been through Hospice  three times since the end of 2014.   I have lost my husband, my mother, and my brother. I don't complain.  There are those that have lost more.  Death, inevitably, is a part of life.  But as I tell a friend, the loss that has laced my life has taught me that if there are things I want to do, I need to begin doing them and doing them now.  Time is a thief, illness pounces unexpectedly,  and I suspect that as the end nears and our abilities diminish, the biggest regrets are those things that we did not do as well as those things we did that caused others pain rather than joy.  During last moments with my husband, mother, and brother some themes from each were constant despite their varying lives, and one of the strongest was regret for things that had caused pain to others. 

Somehow I know Lloyd would be happy that I am doing this, venturing forth and exploring. He was the one who urged me to go to France for Paris-Brest-Paris. He was the one who came to my first road race. He was the one who sat waiting when I completed my first triathlon.  He was the one who bought me my first bike as an adult and urged me to try new things.  Even in death, memories of things he said encourage and support me though he can no longer hold me or pick me up when I make the wrong decision and fail, something that happens quite regularly I might add. Yes, I have lost many of those I love, but I am grateful for each of them and what they meant to me.  I am grateful for the memories with which they laced my life and of the lessons that they helped me learn.

Instead of Scotland, there are balconies overlooking oceans in warm lands where I could go and sit with a glass of wine in hand and read a novel, another favorite passtime.  There are beaches that beg for bare feet to leave an imprint and shells waiting to be found and examined. There are cruises to exotic places with strange names geared to tourists and pleasure.   But there it is, weird as always,  I  have the desire to go to Scotland, the land of Mary, Queen of Scots, and her Lord Bothwell, characters that have intrigued me since I was a child and read how she was outsmarted by Queen Elizabeth.  I fear my father was right and I am a dreamer.  I don't forget the look of disgust on his face when he said this, but I forgive him.  I can't help who I am, but he could not help who he was. And yet, death has taught me that for all our differences, we are kin. "Blood is a sacred poison."  (I can't remember who to attribute that quote to) And no, so far as I know having never done genetic testing,  I have not one drop of Scot blood in my veins. Native American, Italian, German, and English, or so I have been told from family lore.

During the cold of the Indiana winter, I begin delving into information on the internet on bicycling in Scotland and tentatively decide on a company:  Wilderness Scotland.  They have numerous options to choose from and I actually contemplate the possibility of a walking tour rather than a bicycling tour. Originally I even toy with the idea of just going unsupported, using a company for routes to follow but riding on my own; however, I am concerned about whether I would have cell service and whether I would feel safe traveling alone. What if I have a serious mechanical that I can't fix?  What if I get hopelessly lost?  What if I take a tumble and get injured and there is nobody there to help? All of the anxieties that  haunt me when I diverge from my familiar paths. All of the fears that have conscripted my life at various points and against which I have had to fight relentlessly. At some point in this process, I don't really remember when, Amelia Dauer expresses some interest in going with me.  I do know it is before I have paid any money or made any travel arrangements as she actually does most of the work in that area. And perhaps, despite my  trepidation at having a traveling companion and the obligations that brings along with it, that spurs me onward.  Dreams do, indeed, need foundations to become more than dreams.

Amelia truly does most of the work arranging flights and places to stay.  Apparently, we have waited rather longer than is recommended for planning such an adventure.  Buying an airline ticket appears to be much like buying a car.  There is never just a price.  This is what we will take for that car or that flight. We get a better deal on a flight by renting a car that we will never pick up or use along with the flight, something that still makes no sense to me. Eventually, however,  it is planned out.  We both are going to London for a couple of days, then to Inverness where we will spend a day before the ride starts, and then the bicycle ride with Wilderness Scotland from Inverness to Edinburgh.   We then will fly back to London and I will fly home from there while Amelia will remain to do additional touring for a few days.

When we arrive in Inverness after a brief stay in London and awaken to go exploring, one of the first things that happens is that a bird decides to poop on me getting both my sweat shirt and my jeans.  Luckily, much of it misses me, but there is enough on me that I  go back to the room and change.  The inn keeper laughs as I tell him and then informs me I need to buy a lottery ticket, something I don't quite understand as he seems quite serious.  I later Google it and find it is a Russian belief, or at least that is what the internet says.  My daughter-in-law is from Siberia and did not mention it when I e-mailed what had happened, but who knows?  She may have been too busy laughing.  In other words, yes, a bird pooping on you is supposed to mean good luck is coming your way.  I don't buy a lottery ticket, but I hope that good luck finds me.

It is just too much to talk about London or much about Inverness, but I have to mention it because of being pooped upon. I must really be lucky.  You see, after we meet our guides for the tour, Tim and Scott,  and go to the Culloden battlefield to have bikes fitted, I find that my assigned bike also has been pooped upon.  I am beginning to feel targeted;-) They don't have wet wipes.  Luckily, I do normally carry some and that day was no exception.  I clean my handlebars and try it out.  The rental bike is a black Trek, a 49c rather than the 50c I normally ride, but it shifts flawlessly and feels feather light after my bike which is always packed with all the tools and repair items I think I might need while exploring on my own.  Amelia, who actually normally rides a smaller bike then me, is assigned a larger bike.  I offer to trade but she says that she will be fine and, as it turns out, she is. The bikes are equipped with a large front bag as well as a water proof carrier that one can put wallets and cameras and phones in to keep them dry.  We are told by the guides, Tim and Scott, that we also will have opportunities to place things into the van or get them out of the van throughout the day.  Briefly I think that it was, perhaps, a mistake not to bring my own saddle, but with the shorter mileage it turns out okay.  Another rider suffers a saddle sore, but my own butt remains fine throughout.

The first days ride is from the Culloden Battlefield to Grantown-on-Spey.  The strange names of the towns we visit and pass through are hard to remember, unfamiliar, slightly exotic.  Amelia and I almost miss the lunch stop.  Two other riders do miss the stop and the guides scramble to find them. I find I do best if I have them spell the town names, but still I forget and could easily have ridden by a stop. It is hard to get used to riding on a different side of the road, and this is particularly apparent at turns and round abouts. 

The Scottish scenery does not disappoint.   I find I can't get enough of it and even before the ride ends I know I would love to return. We ride for seven days through the Highlands down to the Lowlands and into Edinburgh.  The oldness impresses me.  For some reason, I normally prefer the old to the new.  I have a spoon my grandmother cooked with that I treasure.  My mother's silver hair brush and comb with the broken tooth. Stone cottages, walls, and bridges are everywhere.  Growth is lush and green from the wet and cooler temperatures. Some vegetation seems familiar, but some does not.  I learn that the yellow flowers are eggs and bacon enduring Tim's chuckle when I mistakenly call them bacon and eggs. Scott later laughs after telling us about faffing when I call if falafeling.  Their grins make me smile because they are kindly. 

  One day, before we leave the Highlands, we face an 8 mile climb with some 20 per cent grades.  I stop repeatedly throughout the rides to take photos, though not during the climb because of the dense fog and wanting to climb without stopping.  It would just seem wrong to stop, as if I were cheating.  It is a delicious climb and despite the length and grade, I am glad I have a wool base layer.  It is raining  and the mist is so thick that I can't see how far it is to the top.  I worry a bit about safety because of the density of the mist. Scott is waiting at the top and laughs when I giggle and ask if we can do the same climb tomorrow.  What a glorious feeling it is cresting a tough climb! I feel cheated on the winding descent, taken at a snail's pace due to the fog and the switch backs.  The climb itself reminds me of night riding during brevets where you climb and your light does not extend far enough ahead to tell if you have a little or lot of climb left or where you judge by the little red light from someone else's bike in front of you but I swear I have descended faster even in pitch blackness.  Near the bottom we turn into a quaint restaurant in the middle of nowhere to have lunch.  Everyone jokes about the short steep climb up to the restaurant.  Again I am reminded of brevets.  The Kentucky brevets start at a motel that has a very short hill that seems mountainous at the end of a 600K.  There are egg salad sandwiches and ham sandwiches with butter, dishes I remember from my youth.  The hot chocolate is rich and filling.  I switch to the dry socks I stowed in my handlebar bag to warm my feet. It feels nice when Tim compliments Amelia and me saying we are strong riders.

While I have worried about whether I was fit enough for the ride, Amelia and I are among the fittest riders and it is not a problem to stop for photos and then catch up.  Amelia tells me she never worried about whether she was fit enough, and I think of Lloyd telling me that if I said I was good at something, he knows to call the Olympics committee. Indeed, even if we were not as fit as we currently are, the guides repeatedly remind us that it is not a race and that we should stop when we like and take photos.  At one point, Scott and I do have a good romp where I was able to stretch my legs, but by that time we have left the Highlands and I am not so concerned about the scenery.  It felt good to use my legs and my lungs and to ride hard.  It is pretty at places in the Lowlands, but not breathtaking like the Highlands.  In the Highlands, I can believe in fairies and ogres and dwarfs, and  unicorns. I can see Lord Bothwell galloping, his horse's mane and tail streaking wildly behind in the wind. I see old backs, bent with years, faces carved by wind and rain, carrying hay to feed the Scottish cattle with their long forelocks or toiling in fields.  As we enter the lowlands, we see potato field after potato field: a crop I had not associated with Scotland. 

The guides, Tim and Scott, take turns.  Each rides a day or two then drives a day or two. At the start of each day, the plans and roads for the day are discussed.  I never have trouble understanding Scott and only had trouble understanding Tim once when he was talking with someone at a tea stop and they were conversing at a rapid pace.  Amelia said she struggles with the accents.  Perhaps because I spent a year living in England as a child and did visit Scotland?  I have heard that the brain screens language sounds that we don't hear or use as we age.  Indeed, I find the sound of both the Scottish and British accents soothing and melodic, almost comforting.  But remembering the names and spellings of the places we pass through is almost impossible for me. My memory, however, is becoming increasingly problematic, even at home.  Nothing to be done about it for I am growing old.

There are times when I stop and talk to people who are out in their  yards because it interests me to see how other people live.  The one man compliments the American Women's Soccer Team.  He makes me laugh when he said that if the men get hurt, they lay on the ground and cry, but  the women suck it  up and keep playing.  I learn he and his wife are staying there in his son's cottage for awhile helping out.  He is unable to help me with my mortaring question as it is not his home and he does not do the maintenance.  Another time, during a stop to photograph a Scottish cow,  I meet someone from Iceland who responds to my teasing by saying the door to his house is open if I want to visit.  Another man I talk to has three rescue dogs and has just moved to this part of Scotland.  He explained that the plastic tubes I see have trees inside and the tubing is to protect the trees from the deer.  He said he has not yet seen any deer, but he suspects they will come down from the mountains in the fall for the rut.  He talks about the many birds and he and I discuss the seagulls living so far from the sea.  Like me, he is a bit bewildered. He says that this has amazed him and his wife. Earlier that day I had spied a whole flock of them in a hay feet that had been recently bailed.  Crows and other birds also abound.  He and his wife enjoy feeding the birds and have numerous feeders handing.  I would have like to have talked more, but do not want to hold the group up so I move on.

One thing that interests me during rides or on walks through the villages is that not once are we chased by dogs.  I see numerous dogs throughout the trip, often not on leashes.  All appear so well trained, responding immediately when owners call.  I see not one pit bull, the dog that has become so common in the Kentucky/Indiana countryside.  I get the impression that here dogs are family members that provide companionship and love whereas at home the pit bulls are more about protection. For whatever reason, it impresses me.  I do intend to get a dog one day when my traveling is done, and it definitely will NOT be a pit bull.  During one conversation with a local, I ask about his sheep dog and if he works the sheep with them. He tells me that he does not, they are rescue dogs from the shelter and have no training. 

During the rides, we stop at various places for lunch and for tours.  We have drinks and snacks outside a castle.  We stop for a tour of a whiskey making facility  and have a picnic that Scott prepared (I could not participate in the tour as the smell of the malt made me nauseous so my vow to take a sip of whisky for the first time in my life was not fulfilled). To me the smell is an angry, dark smell, absolutely repellent, and I wonder why for others love it.  We tour Balmoral Castle and Glamis and other places. Some I have read about and some not.  I think it is fascinating how interests vary.  One man on the trip, John, says if you have seen one castle you have seen them all.  His interests lie elsewhere.  Me, I could stop at each and every one and go exploring.  I dream about what it must have been like to live here, now and 500 years ago.  At one point, I tell the guides that anyone who lived in the Highlands must have been strong, for the weak would not have survived.  They agree. Even with modern heating, I suspect many of the dwellings are cold, drafty,  and damp in the wintertime. The weather is great for riding as it is so cool, but never really gets hot.  The sun flirts with us, but never truly shines for any length of time.  Rain and mist taunt us throughout. Like home, proper riding clothing is essential for comfort, but the packing list they provided was good and I am never truly cold or hot.

At night we rest at quaint motels where the beds are surprisingly comfortable and, as per my last European visit, I struggle with figuring out the plumbing.  At one inn, you had to turn the shower on from outside of the bathroom.  (By the time we figured this out I had given in and taken a bath instead of a shower, something I don't normally do in hotels).  As I tell Amelia, it is an IQ test and normally I fail.  Meals are taken late.  Normally we were seated at 7:00 or so.  Then the food appears a half hour or so later.  I find I am distressed at the change in my routine.  I don't like to eat so late or to go to bed on a full stomach.  I miss the rhythm of Texas Hell Week where we would spend the day riding, shower, eat, and go to bed to ride again.  If nothing else, this trip makes me realize things about myself:  some good and some bad.  My inflexibility is one of these things and certainly is not a strength.  Amelia is more fluid and adaptable and I admire that trait even while not emulating it, but then she is sleeping well and I am not.  Still, I feel sorry for her having to room with me.  Both of us are used to lots of alone time, and while we get some of that on the bike, we get little in the rooms we briefly stay in.  Perhaps lack of sleep plays a role and perhaps it does not.  Most nights I sleep a mere three or four hours.  This remains an issue throughout my time away from home.  Still, I fear it is my personality more than anything else.  Amelia does point out that it is always light here.  It does not get dark until late, 10 or so, and by 4:00 a.m. it is daylight again.  Indeed, a few days I got up and went out for a walk because I was up and breakfast did not open until 7:00 a.m. or later.

As the trip ends, I realize that there is a beauty in this lifestyle and wish I had been able to develop more of an appreciation.  I am disappointed in myself for not being able to better manage being outside of my comfort zone.  Dinner is, perhaps, supposed to be an experience, a time to relax and share company and stories, for filling the mind as well as the belly.  Shops should, perhaps, close at 5:00 p.m. Different is just different, perhaps, not better and not worse. Perhaps the lack of fast food in the small villages we pass through and stay in account for the lack of litter because I see very little trash alongside the roads.  Sometimes during the trip, however, I feel like all I am doing is eating. Yet somehow, and I truly don't see how it is possible, I don't gain weight during the trip, something I was sure would happen.  Indeed, out of curiosity, once I get home, I google the requirements to immigrate to Scotland, but of course I am old, unskilled, and not rich so would not be wanted there other than as a visitor. But perhaps I did leave something there, a bit of myself, in the remarks I made to our guides and to the random strangers that I stopped to have a conversation with. I certainly brought home memories, many more than I could ever recount in this blog post, memories that will make me smile and make me cry and make me feel.  Hopefully, I also learned a few things and will be a better, more receptive traveler in the future, for I intend to visit more places. Perhaps one day I will even be lucky enough to return to Scotland again.

One thing that surprises me throughout the trip is how much, for some reason, it makes me miss Lloyd.  It is almost as if I just lost him again, as if he is here and if I just turn quickly enough I would see him, hear him making some smart ass remark that would stretch a smile across my face and a giggle to arise from my stomach.  As I ride, he haunts me repeatedly and I ache with longing for the sight, sound, touch, and smell of him.  As I ride I realize that a part of me will die when I am no longer able to do this, to ride roads and feel the wind, to soak up scenery and to dream unfettered and I am so grateful for my health and for bicycles and for Scotland. And again I am thankful to my husband because he bought me my first bicycle, a gift I had no desire for at the time. (Silly me).  And in a sense, he gave me this trip, this adventure, and these new memories.  Thank you, love.  I am going to have so much to tell you about when we meet again. 

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