October 3, 2014

Getting Distilled in Scotland

Ok, I am back from mowing the weeds.

No, I didn't do it blade by blade with a rusty nail clippers. While you weren't looking, I slipped in a quick visit to Thing One in Chicago. But I now expect to keep my feet planted in my own backyard and just soak in everything I have learned from my wonderful travels in 2014.

So what did I learn in Scotland?

I planned this expedition because I yearned to know what it feels like to distill each day into its most simple of activities: putting one foot in front of the other. The first thing that happens is that decisions become very simple--and exquisitely meaningful.  
For example, since everything I put in my pack for the day was going to literally rest on my shoulders for at least 7 hours, I had to really weigh its ultimate value.If it wouldn't keep me dry in the rain, warm in the wind, full in the belly, or safe in an emergency, it got voted off the backpack.

Or put into Mr. E's.

Even the decision to take extra steps becomes consequential in a way that walking dogs through the playground across the street does not. I waged a constant internal battle when we needed to choose whether to go out of our way to see a site. On one hand, I would never be this close to blah blah blah again. On the other, my two feet were now my most important resource and I needed to conserve their well-being in the face of the 35,000 steps they had to tackle each day.  Looking back, this seems lame (hah) but at the time, it felt very, very serious. And so uncomplicated.  

Second, problems also become very simple--and solutions exquisitely meaningful. An overly tight left shoulder strap on my pack consumed my attention one entire afternoon.  And finally remembering to let that strap out and take up its counterpart on my hip was a Blessed Event.

Twelve miles with the tiniest of irritations in the tiniest of toes gives new meaning to one-pointedness meditation.
I worried all night about being able to continue hiking. But it happened that our home that night was in the only town on our route with a hiking gear store. And that the store would be open early Sunday morning when we wanted to get back on the trail. And that they stocked Compeed gel bandages...and that my traveling companion was a doctor who knows her way around meticulous bandaging!  Every morning after that, I made sure each toe had the protection it deserved...and every night, I inspected and treated any little malingerers.

And in a weird way, I loved that these 10 little guys were the focus of all my love and attention.

Speaking of attention, or lack of it,  let's talk about The Burn. You would think that Americans who read "after one mile, cross the Achmore Burn and turn right" would take the time to find out what the hell a burn is. Because if they don't, they will continue an extra mile only to find out from a nice Scottish lady on a bicycle that the Hiking Gods sent down to peddle past us that a "burn" is a creek. Then, they will have to go back the additional mile to get back on the trail. (See notes about step conservation, above.) That was really our only misstep over 7 days, which I'd like to think is a tribute to our our map-reading skills. But is probably because the Scottish hiking authorities had our backs.
  Finally, and as you might expect, our pleasures were simple--and exquisitely meaningful.

I'm feeling unable to distill this learning into the right words. In the end, it wasn't so much about simplicity but that the stuff that mattered REALLY mattered. If you didn't chart the nuances of the trail map (this is the bridge we just went over, it looks like we need to cross another creek and then there's an intersection), if you didn't make sure your toes and shoulders were happy (I need to get some more Compeed before the stores close), if you carelessly let the piece of paper with the name of the night's hotel disappear out of your pocket not once but twice  (oh wait, I did), well, you'd be lost,in acute pain, or pretty damn anxious about where you were going to sleep just as it started raining.

And I loved that. I guess it makes sense that in Scotland, I discovered the power of a distilled life.
PS and on a different note.  I promised you Cullen Skink. The servers all pronounced it "Cullen Skank." So when you mix that with a few rounds of single malt, you get into an uproar about all the sailors who knew her. (Go grab some scotch, it will get funny, I promise.) Those who are not drinking, however, recognize Cullen Skink like this:
Speciality of the northeast Scottish coast, it is delicious soup made with cream (of course), smoked haddock, and potatoes.


  1. thank you!

    I so admire your stamina and determination, the tiniest of tiny irritants and pains become Huge on a journey such as this, as you have so eloquently described for us (and even illustrated with the artful pics)
    makes me want to go hiking for real once more......who knows when I'll have the time and courage to actually go for it

    the last time I went on a serious hike like this i.e. a solid week of daily walks (with our entire backpack on our shoulders!) was back in 1992 with my then boyfriend- now husband in Nepal, trekking the Annapurna 'apple-pie' route, as sweet as it sounds, with the occasional mountain or two thrown in to keeps one's spirits up and alert

    so I bow and take my hat off to you Julie for having done the deed and come out distilled

    1. Thanks for the bow, but you're hiding your own efforts (did you all notice how Saskia used "Annapurna" and "backpack" in one sentence?) and that's a hike of a different color! I don't do mountains and that's not about courage, that's about, well, not pushing so hard that my spirits become so alert that they have a stroke.

  2. Julie, in this process of discovering your distilled self, you surrounded yourself with the spirit of place and to me, that is the gift of travel. You took me to Scotland in the way that I like to go although I have not walked a journey of so many steps. You brought us the essence of your journey in sight, in words, with humor and a respect for the whole of it, and I thank you for tucking us all in your backpack.

    I connect to your journey, although I have never hiked to the degree that you did, when about 8 years ago we traveled to my heart's landscape, Ireland. We packed simply, did not take in the touristy sites except for the 13th century monastery Glendalough and we didn't rent a car. We simply planned our trip around seeing the land, the gardens and I don't mean the fancy ones but the small ones in homes as we traveled by train and bus with the Irish. Stopping in local groceries to get the makings of our daily lunch, taking it back on the bus, sharing sandwiches, tea, and stories connected us in a way that I have not experienced elsewhere. At days' end, there was always a welcome teapot and biscuits at our B & B's, a pint or two at the local pub and music, ahhhhhh, the music, this rousing yet poignant music slips inside of you and before you know it, you are moved to get up and do a jig, even though you don't know all of the steps, doesn't matter because in the doing of it, you find the way of it, as the Irish say. Simply, much like your journey, we took in what presented each day and the richness of the experience will stay with me forever.

    1. Its fun to see how my travelogue brings out other's memories. Yes, we loved the one on ones, and we too got a taste of Scottish folk music when we were invited to a local community center to hear a local band and no one would let us watch without a glass of whiskey in hand!

  3. well....no email notification again and i didn't know you are BACK! but you are, and
    telling of it. i will read back now, but here, i like very much the
    the single moments of things along the way. Thank you for taking me

    1. I will add you to the email specific list since the notification seems to have taken a vacation of its own. You are welcome to come anywhere I go.