Friday, January 1, 2016

Scotland - Part II

I was officially on my own. Headed northwest for Inverness, I cruised along the motorway in my silver Ford focus weaving in and out of traffic. A short two hours later I arrived at the capital of the Highlands. The trip was off to a good start as the manager of the hostel showed me where free parking was and gave me a small discount on my room.



Inverness is a small village nestled in the mouth of the Great Glen fault. I wandered around, immediately acknowledging this little town’s charm and allure.  Divided on either side of the Ness River, the town is filled with historic legacy and tradition. Crossing over the first suspension bridge I decided to go enjoy my meal of the day, as I was officially on backpacker budget, at a delectable little bistro that overlooked the ebony colored river. With a perfectly full stomach and light heart I carried on to St. James Cathedral where I kneeled and asked for health and happiness for all my loved ones.



As River Ness expands and evolves into Loch Ness a few small islands are scattered throughout. Delicately decorative iron bridges connect the islands together and to the mainland. I moseyed through them, surrounded by tall pines and hanging lanterns. The mixed perfume of earth and water was intoxicating.  Leaving this mini archipelago, I wandered over to the Inverness Castle with a clear view of a lush valley and the distinctive river. There I took a few pictures for a friendly French couples and chatted with an Italian family, taking in the familiar dose of European company.

 A dark cloud rolled in from the west, saturated with rain and impatiently waiting to burst. Within the first few drops I found myself next to Leakey’s Book Shop and entered for refuge. First came the smell of well-loved books, and then came the sight of thousands and thousands of books towering over a white haired man who sat next to a wood burning stove. There, in Leakey’s Book Shop, time stood still for a few hours while I got lost in the works of Robert Burns and J.M. Barrie.  Perusing the shelves and admiring the old maps, I imagined my library one day, hoping to encompass the magic that Leakey’s held. I spent the later afternoon on a footstool with a pile of old hard cover books, in my glory and perfectly content.

After Applecross, I was not sure if anything could live up to that epic pass, but to my pleasant surprise, the Highlands continued to impress. On an adrenaline high, I drove around Loch Carron, finding myself in a curvy tunnel of blooming rodedendrums. As the thick vegetation cleared, the one-way road led me to Plockton, a seaside village with palm trees and crystal clear water in its harbor. After spending some time looking out onto a lone island, I found a few shops selling local crafts and admired the pottery and paintings. The pang of missed opportunity reappeared. Always throughout my travels I find objects that I would one day love to have in my future home –local artwork, plateware, garden pots, pillow covers. Nevertheless, my life fits on my back and there is not much more room for house d├ęcor. So I reason to myself that I will just have to return one day to purchase that coveted sculpture. 



When I reached Skye Bridge, the overpass arched so drastically it seemed as though I was embarking on a roller coast ride. Finally on the famed Isle of Skye, I went straight to Portree where the bustle of the harbor town was a stark difference from the quiet, winding roads that led me there. The capital town sits on a hill and overlooks the harbor where seagulls loyally guard. Pastel painted houses enjoy the same view, as well as the constant appetizing smell of fish and chips being made in the taverns below.

 With the sun not setting until well after 10pm, time was on my side so I followed the signs to the Fairy Pools. The steely Cuillin Mountains met my gaze as they towered over me. A glistening stream poured out from their heart center, their essence collecting in the pools at their feet.

The path to the Fairy Pools crosses a few meandering streams with oversized stepping stones leading the way. The river of Glen Brittle escapes the domineering Cuillin Mountains and transforms from a silver riverbed to turquoise pools separated by small but mighty waterfalls. Although there were a handful of tourists about, I was in my own ethereal world while climbing up the mountain side. With every passing moment I was transported to Thailand, Croatia, or New Hampshire. Thailand’s layered waterfalls and pools, Croatia’s blue water, and New Hampshire’s White Mountain’s landscape revealed similar nuances within Scotland’s Fairy Pools. I climbed higher and higher, leaving the sparsely wandering tourists behind and watching the evolution of Glen Brittle go from enchanted to eerie. Away from anyone’s vantage point I found myself alone at the base of Cuillin, with the sun poking through the clouds and casting rays of golden light on these dominating giants.



A chill came and never left, marking my time for decent. I checked into Skye Walker Hostel where mixed nationalities and mixed ages congregated in the outdoor dome to swap travel advice and quietly hope to see the Northern Lights. After an evening of therapeutic writing and lively conversation, I retired to bed with an alarm set for 3am. The owner of the hostel received a Red Alert, noting that it was very likely that the Northern Lights would be visible that night. I woke minutes before my alarm sounded and silently slipped off the top bunk and tiptoed outside. To my shock, at 3am the sky was still a glowing grey. The sun set a few hours prior and was due to rise within the next three. Perhaps I missed the darkest point of night or perhaps it never came, nevertheless I returned to my bunk for a few more hours of rest before it was time to take off again.


I parked and exited my little silver car at one of the most peculiar sights. A wispy fog brushed up against me as I stood in the midst of Fairy Glen. Massive cones of layered earth were stacked around me. Rogue sheep grazed along the hills, oblivious to the magic of the space. At the heart of the glen was a placid pond with steam rolling off it. Fairy Glen is a place from another world, filled with a mischievous energy.  




I carried on North toward the Quiring without seeing another soul on the road. Awake and invigorated from the magic of Fairy Glen, I soared through the narrow roads to kneel at the foot of the massive Quiring. A fog so thick it could have been a velvet drape enclosed the canyon. Peaks of towering earth poked through the white curtains, daring the world outside to enter its depths.




After rounding the Isle’s peak I turned off the road to see Kilt Rock – another stop timed perfectly as other visitors were just leaving upon my arrival. Icy water poured over the side of the cliff into the sea that swelled below. The cliff-side has eroded into perfectly formed pleats, giving the view its name. Basking in the glory of the sea, my thoughts were drowned out by the roar of the rushing waterfall. Beyond a few lazy seagulls, the sea and sky merged into one infinite vision.



I was hesitant to leave Isle of Skye. I was under its spell and utterly captivated by the island. I am an optimistic realist and an extroverted introvert. My soul craves moments of recluse and Skye mirrors this mentality. I quickly pondered not returning my rented car in Edinburgh and hole up in a quiet village for the summer to write instead. Then flashbacks from the past housebound winter left me yearning for adventure and living on the go. I have found a few special places in my travels where time and space align, creating an open well of energy and inspiration. I tuck those places into the safe chests of my mind, knowing that I will return to them some day.


So I drove on with the Isle of Skye fading behind me and the mountains of Glencoe rising before me. Misty clouds hung around the necks of green peaks. Crags and valleys branded the vast landscape, allowing a lone farmhouse to share the land. I gasped with every turn, simply amazed by Mother Earth. I stopped every few miles to walk along a river bed, sit in front of a serene lake, or stand before the Three Sisters. Something greater than science, greater than the coincidence of perceived Creation, formed a landscape so pure.





Acres of bog and rolling mountains transformed into acres of hilly farmland and stone walls. With one turn onto a hidden road, a forest bloomed and engulfed the sparse cottages. I drove down a winding one way road for 15 miles to arrive at the middle of nowhere by Loch Lomond. Everything was wet with dew and vibrant green. 




My boots sunk into the soaked moss as I looked up at a log cabin where I knew a warm bed and a glass of wine were waiting for me. The owner-bartender-host-chef greeted me with a thick accent and a genuine smile. His banter kept me laughing past midnight until I finally held up my white flag and retreated to my bunk. The early rays of dawn reflected off the dew coated leaves and peacefully woke me from my slumber. That welcomed waking inspired a morning hike and run to explore. A narrow trail veered off of the property leading me up a small peak that overlooked Loch Lomond. The stillness of the water and the woods around me matched the stillness in my body. I hadn’t felt so much peace for such an extended period of time in a while. Taking another path that was clearly less traveled, I traipsed ankle deep in mud following animal tracks and shallow streams until I met a groomed path along the lake. Then I found my stride and ran along the water’s edge seeing Long Pond’s Moose Island and Breadloaf in the crisp reflection.




Eventually the time came for my Edinburgh homecoming for rest and reunions. As an official pro of round-abouts, I confidently drove back into the city and returned my loyal rental car that conquered the Highlands. Throughout that week I planned to meet up with Camp California friends from my first and last summers.



I met my petite Lucie at the train station and we strolled through side streets to sit in a quiet corner of a pub and effortlessly share each other’s world. From the moment I met her in sunny Croatia, her confidence, passion, and craze had me hooked. There is something about my French friend that tears down the walls I have defensively erected. I see a lot of myself within her and that has allowed us to build a friendship that is quite honest and raw. So we sat with ciders and skeletons and lifted each other’s burdens in that moment without question.

Lucie joined me to collect Nick at the train station who traveled North from England for the weekend to wander Edinburgh with me. Masses of people scurried around us but time stood still as we three came together, from separate worlds yet all connected by a small seaside village in Croatia. After a night of swapping camp stories from respective years, Lucie ventured off to a birthday celebration and Nick and I returned to the hostel. My heart was full from friends meeting and my camp lifespan coming full circle.


I met Nick my first summer in Croatia and we instantly bonded. Haircuts and boat day off excursions led to us backpacking with a group of friends through the Balkans. Traveling through Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia, and Hungary together we discovered that we are perfectly compatible travel buddies. So when my favorite teddy bear of a friend arrived in Edinburgh I knew we would enjoy another adventure together. I hadn’t seen him in three years but upon our reunion it felt like only three weeks. We have always kept in touch and updating each other on life milestones and life trivialities.


Over the long weekend we walked the Royal Mile at least a dozen times in search of homemade fudge and the best carrot cake. During the day we climbed Calton Hill and Arthur’s Seat for sunshine and panoramic views this quirky city. Museums, old cemeteries, and beer gardens kept us strolling the city for hours. Between alleyway cafes and hostel lounging, the conversation flowed and we seamlessly fit back into each other’s lives. As we layed atop Calton hill one night and watched Edinburgh light up below us, I felt such comfort and surety in his presence and in our friendship. We departed knowing that there would always be a next time and knowing that we will embark on another backpacking adventure soon. Now I am in the process of luring him to America with quintessential pictures of New England so we can start a cross-country road trip from the North East.




A plane ride over the Irish Sea brought me back to familiar Dublin where I was bunking for a few nights with the Original Camp Mom, Carol, before my flight to Greece. As probably the kindest and most genuine person I have ever met, Carol welcomed me into her home in true Irish fashion. We met Clare one night for my first cheeky Nando’s, although I was lost on all the hype. Then the following morning Carol and I set off to hike through Glendalough. There we were attacked by pesky flies but silenced by the heavenly views.  


Ireland, Northern Ireland, and Scotland hold not only some of the best landscapes I have ever witnessed, but they are also home to some of the best people I have ever met. It is rare to enter a place and immediately feel at home. It is rare to meet people and immediately know you’ll be friends for a lifetime.


I am never ready to leave this part of Europe, but this time the Greek Islands were calling and couldn’t be ignored.






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