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.

September 28, 2014

Seven Days, 101.84 Miles, and 236,261 Steps

That's how my pedometer describes my walk through Scotland's Rob Roy Way. A walk that took us through (start singing now) the high roads...
 ...through the low roads...
And smack through the middle of the extraordinary election for Scottish independence from Great Britain!


 On the side of the road, we thought we met an elf who had way too much static electricity.
He told us a story about his fabulous sweater, which his mum made for him when he was eight. It developed a hole when he was 14 and he darned it. And he has never stopped darning it. He told us his name was Malcolm Applebee, which, he said, we could google. I did and expected to find he had escaped from somewhere. I didn't expect to find he was an MBOE and an award-winning engraver!

There were several other signs to add to my collection, too.
My mother wanted to know if this meant slow down...or speed up.
 And just in case you wondered exactly where the Universe got started...

Like Scotland itself, the hike was a largely a sheepfest.
The trail wound us through many pastures, each with signs requesting that we "do not worry the sheep." That's because, near as I can see, sheep as a species are already dangerously overwrought. They're a bunch of old ladies, wringing their wooly little hands dawn to dusk and just begging for some Xanax.
In their defense, they do have something to worry about.
The other animals were much more at one with the Universe.
And finally, the forests themselves were full of things I had never seen before. An old hag made out of lichen...
 A man-sized termite mound...
 A storybook array of funghi...

And this.
So that's the sights. When I return from mowing the weeds, I'll tell you about what it felt like...and everything you need to know about the Drum of Clashmore, the Wee Burn, and, of course, Cullen Skink.