Feathered Aspen


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Strathdon to Grantown-on-Spey to Muir of Ord

August 30, 2010

This morning, we woke up and at apples and shortbread for breakfast. Once we had broken camp, we headed into Grantown-on-Spey. Finding a Co-operative, we stopped to buy food for lunch, and a little ways down the road, we paused to load up on drinking water at a public restroom. Over the night, Joshua had the genius idea to make our own waterproof socks. So, sitting on the steps of the public toilets, we wrapped our feet in the extra plastic bags he had picked up at the Co-op, and then we jammed our plastic feet into our socks. Viola! Waterproof socks!

With rustling feet, we pedaled out of Grantown-on-Spey and onto one of my favorite stretches of road so far. As we cycled, the clouds began to part, and out of the Northeast, we saw blue sky. All around us, heather spread along diamond-sized lochs and over softly rolling hills. Patches of trees that grew out of mossy blankets cropped up in the valleys, and gradually, we descended into the woodlands.

At 1 PM, we stopped for lunch. Sitting on a stone fence overlooking a country valley, we basked in the sun. That’s right. The weather had gotten better and better, until finally, it was almost warm. With blue skies stretching on for as far as the eye could see and the sun warming our toes, we fell in love with Scotland. It really is beautiful.

Once we had eaten our strawberries, spiced couscous, homous, oatcakes, and cookies, we hopped back on our bikes and cycled through Culloden Forest and the suburbs of Inverness. Once again following cycle route number 1, we entered Inverness and followed cobblestone streets into the city center.

Parking our bikes in the heart of the shopping district, we locked up and headed in search of an outdoor store. It took some doing, but after a little comparison shopping in three different outdoor stores, we found what we were looking for at the cheapest prices. The two of us purchased silk liners for our sleeping bags at Black’s (we did our last-minute shopping for India in Inverness because it’s the last major city we’ll be in before leave… We won’t have any time in London.), and then at Sports Direct, we found a cheap little backpack for day trips. For me, we purchased a pair of running shoes (mine now smell so bad we have to place them further than 20 feet away from the tent), spandex pants, and a wicking tank top. Sports Direct was having a mega clearance sale, so everything was dirt cheap.

In Marks and Spencers, we loaded up on food for dinner and breakfast, and when we were done, we got back in the saddle. In our cycling guide book, they have us cycling 70 miles tomorrow, but since the weather was so beautiful, we decided to go a little farther. The outskirts of Inverness look a lot like Edinburgh, and for ten miles, we skirted the Bay of Moray. In Beauly, we passed the last of the rush hour traffic, and a couple miles past Muir of Ord, we found a little path that led to an ideal campsite.

Once we had set up camp, I warmed up Cream of Asparagus Soup which we ate with big hunks of baguette. For dessert, we had a couple of very ripe Nectarines and Banoffee Pie. (Catherine and Donal – Joshua has been craving this ever since we left St. Helen’s) Happy and full, we crawled inside the tent.

August 29, 2010

I’m at the top of Lecht Pass. The wind howling through the pass is so strong, I have to lean forward in order not to be blown over. The strongest gusts force me to stop, brace my bike, and close my eyes so that the grit from the road doesn’t fly into them. It’s freezing cold, and as I begin to push my bike downhill, I move my feet like senseless blocks of ice. Looking into the sky, dark, heavy clouds are rolling in, and I know that if it starts to rain, I will completely loose it. I’ll start weeping, and then my tears will probably freeze to my cheeks.

Earlier that morning – or, actually, in the middle of the night – the two of us had woken up to the wind blowing the side of our tent into my face. Our little Mountain Hardware tent is made of pretty sturdy stuff, and although our tent poles bowed and the tent felt a little bit like an anti-gravity simulator, it did not break. The tents around us, however, weren’t quite so lucky. At about 8 AM, Joshua and I were watching as the lashing rain and gusts of wind threatened our little safe harbour when, all of a sudden, a big, black thing hit the side of our tent and then flew all the way over it. That, my friend, was the tent next store. When Joshua looked outside to see how our other neighbors were doing, he discovered that we were alone. The nine other tents that had been pitched around us were gone. The little black tent that had taken flight was upside down and up against a fence, and another was poking out of the trash can, its poles broken like brittle bones, and its fly flapping sadly in the wind.

As soon as I woke up to the wind smothering my face, I pretty much assumed that we wouldn’t be biking. The rain was fierce, and even though I was wearing all of my clothes and I was cinched into my sleeping bag tightly, I was still cold. All morning, we laid awake, looking up at the dripping ceiling and worrying over the billowing tarp. Just after 11, Joshua poked his head out again and announced that he saw blue sky. The rain had abated for a few minutes, and he was headed for the grocery shop to see if they had a forecast and to buy a little food to last for the day.

When Joshua returned, he asked me if I thought we should stay or go; the people at the grocery shop hadn’t known the forecast, but they said they thought the week was supposed to get better. I told him that I had assumed we would stay, but that I was open to ideas. He dithered for a while, looking at the sky to the Northeast, and then he decided we should go. We might be facing a massive headwind, but even if we just went 5 miles an hour, we would make it to Grantown-on-Spey within 6 hours.

That seemed reasonable to me, so we leapt into action and broke down the sight. Within 40 minutes, we were already on our way. Unfortunately, our clear skies had succumbed to gloom, and within minutes, it began to rain. Thankfully, the wind that had decimated our little tent village was not quite as strong near the tree-line road, and we covered the first 10 miles from Strathdon to Cargraff relatively quickly. At the base of Lecht Pass, the rain had cleared, and the wind didn’t feel particularly strong at all.

Which was good, because Lecht Pass looked like a vertical face. As soon as we saw the climb out of Cargraff, we had to dismount. We could barely cycle 10 feet. Pushing our bikes up the road, we began to sweat. We stopped every 200 yards or so to catch our breath, and then we continued forward. At the top of the first section, we paused to look South. The view was spectacular; Moors surrounded the entire valley, and in the distance, white-washed Cargraff Castle crowned an impossibly green hillside. Hopping back on our bikes, we hoped the worst was over.

It so, so wasn’t. Traveling North through Lecht Pass, you encounter three major steep climbs. The first is the shortest. By the time we had made it to the third major climb, the wind was blowing so hard that every muscle in my body was braced for impact. Feeling panicky, we stopped at the ski village, but when we realized that the wind was not about to die down and the skies to the North did not look any more promising, we continued forward. A couple of times, we tried to get back on our bikes, but the wind was blowing so hard, we were worried it would blow us right over.

So we walked down Lecht Pass. Finally, after almost 5 miles of walking our bikes, we turned a corner, and some tree cover made it possible for us to ride. Descending into Tomountil, our feet were killing us. After the rain and then the wind, they were completely frozen. Joshua stopped to put socks on, but of course, the wind blew right through. In Tomountil, we stopped at the Tourist Office to see if they knew the weather forecast. When I asked, the girl behind the desk smiled and nodded. Then, without looking at her computer screen or using the aid of any printed information, she looked off into the distance and said, “rain. They said it’s going to rain for the rest of the week. We should be getting some frost in the mornings, too.” When I asked her if she had heard anything about the wind, she shook her head. “No,” she said, “but there usually isn’t any wind if there’s frost.” Hmmm

Back outside, I told Joshua that things weren’t looking hopeful. He told me that he was starting to hate Scotland. I looked up at the still threatening sky and silently apologized. I wouldn’t want to make it any angrier than it already is.

Biking the last 14 miles to Grantown on Spey, we hit two more massive hills. Thankfully, these hills weren’t quite as massive as those on Lecht, and we were able to stay in our saddles and sweat through them. Finally, descending through Moors and valleys with rivers and trees on either side, we passed the round about before Grantown-on-Spey. Pausing on the other side, Joshua thought he spied a good spot to camp, and we ended up pitching our tent right next to the round about, above a little park with wooden bike jumps.

Once we had set up camp, we boiled some water for tea and wolfed down a pack of oatcakes, a brick of cheese, apples, crisps, and shortbread fingers. Inside the tent, we read for a bit (Joshua’s reading The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, and I’m reading the third book in the trilogy, The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest… They are AMAZING.), hoping our frozen feet might begin to warm up, and then when Joshua’s headlamp went out, we decided to go to sleep.


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Lonach Gathering

August 28, 2010

Imagine waking up to the sound of a lone bagpipe. It’s 6 o’clock in the morning, and you’ve spent the night camping in the midst of the Cairngorm Mountains, the Scottish Highlands. As you open your eyes, you hear its mournful call. The music grows quieter as the piper walks on his way, but you can still hear his piercing and haunting tune. You fall back asleep, listening to the sweet patter of rain on the fly of your tent. Today is the Lonach Gathering, but the Clansmen don’t begin to march until 8 o’clock. As the sun flirts with storm clouds, you catch another hour of sleep.

It would be a mistake to come to Scotland for its weather. It’s mostly unpredictable, but the one thing you can predict is that it will rain. Hard. Last night, our tent notified us that it has grown old and its ready to retire. It did so by springing leaks along all its seams. As squalls passed through the valley, we braced ourselves for the next deluge, hoping that our sleeping bags wouldn’t be completely drenched by morning. Each time the rain let up, we could hear the stream outside. It runs past boulders and pebbles, creating a rushing, busy sound. I imagined that it grew louder as the night wore on. Perhaps it wasn’t only my imagination.

At a quarter to 8, Joshua and I got out of the tent and ate our yoghurt and granola mixer on the way to the center of the village. Since we were already wearing every item of clothing that we own, we did not have to stop and change. Near the Spar, all the Clansmen and village people were gathered around. The Clansmen wore their rigs: kilts, knee high stockings with felt flashers, vests, ties, woolen double breasted jackets, sporrans, and pins with ribbons and medals. On their heads, they wore jaunty berets or big feather ensembles, and in their arms, they carried bagpipes, drums, flags, and spears. Slowly, they began lining up in formation, and once they had lined themselves in perfect succession, they began to march and to play. They puffed out their chests, looked resolutely forward, and marched past all of us. It was poignant and proud, and somehow, it almost felt like an intrusion to be watching them. They do not do this for the spectacle or for tourists. Yes, they’ve shined their buttons, pressed their pleats, and tucked new feathers into their caps, but they do this because they have been doing this for nearly 200 years. It’s just what they do. On the last Saturday of every August, they march for 8 miles playing their bagpipes and drums, and along the way, they stop for drams of whiskey. At the back of the march, a horse-drawn cart is manned by two medical professionals. This is serious business, and it’s no time to make resolutions regarding sobriety.

Just before the Clansmen began marching, Joshua and I had found a position on the bridge in the sun. Before we had left the tent, I had tucked the arty calling card for our Tandem Friend in my pocket. Luckily, he saw us as he and his wife were crossing the bridge. When he said hello, I stopped him so I could give him my thanks and the arty calling card. We exchanged names, and we followed Pascal and Val to their favorite spot to watch the Clansmen march. Having seen the gathering many times, Pascal and Val confided that this was the best part. As we watched the men pass, Joshua took pictures, and we all regarded them with a measure of reverence. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to be part of a cultural history like that? Later, Joshua told me that it made him a little bit sad to think that we didn’t have a ready made community with its own food culture, traditions, and costume. It would be nice to be so connected to your history, to march with your community, and to be proud of where you come from and who you are. (Sure, I have pioneer roots, and I grew up in Mora with Nordic crafts, lefse, and the Vasaloppet… From Mandy, I got to partake in Sukkot, Shabbat, and many other facets of Judaism, but with both, I always sort of felt like an imposter. I’m not a Swede. I’m not a Jew. I’m an American mut of German, Irish, Danish, Norwegian, and whatever else blood. My mom’s Catholic, and so was was my dad, but my mom’s family is Missouri Synod, and Mandy, my brother, and my sister are Jewish. I can’t claim one, and I’m not sure how to claim them all.)

Pascal and Val wandered back home or maybe to the Gathering, and Joshua and I followed the Clansmen. Just 200 meters up the road, they stopped for their first dram of Whiskey at the Strathdon Schoolhouse, and after they reassembled and left, we went back to the tent. Trying to avoid the rain, we huddled inside the tent and read for a couple hours until the Games got underway. Once again emerging in all of our clothing, we made our way into the grounds. Wandering through artisan stalls, we browsed through hand-crafted Sporrans, kilts, and almost anything you can imagine in plaid. Joshua splurged on a bottle of limited edition Lonach Highland Whiskey, but I didn’t find anything I really wanted. The hair pieces with plaid roses and feathers were attractive, but 20 pounds? I’ll make them myself.

Making our way to the covered bleachers, we passed men tossing cabers, hurling hammers, and heaving great big heavy balls. They were all dressed in kilts, and although it couldn’t have been more than 50 degrees, they were all wearing Under Armor t-shirts on top. Those who were most successful at tossing great heavy objects were no lightweights themselves, and I wondered what genetic combination had produced such stocky, strong Scots. I’m guessing a process of natural selection by way of hard winters, big ass hills, and frequent battles, coupled with a Viking and Celtic bloodline.

Under cover, we showed our swanky orange passes and made our way to H28 and H29. Girls of all ages sat on the field in front of us, dressed in their plaid and velvet costumes with long, argyle socks and delicate, lace up dancing shoes. One by one, they hunched over and ran through the rain to a covered stage where they leapt up on their toes and bounced until I was tired just looking at them. In particular, I admired their gracefully raised arms, elegantly flexed fingers, and pointed toes. To their left, a group of fit young men pranced and high-kicked their way up and down the field. Their nylon sweatsuits swished as they moved their arms like windmills and each of them stretched, preening in front of their audience.

I felt inspired. Some of the Games are open: namely, the Hill Race. I haven’t run a race since I was 18, but I decided that I needed to seize the moment and join Scots as they forged their way up a mountain. The registration was free, and the woman at the desk told me to return to the information tent just before 3. I wrote down my name, and the woman handed me an adhesive backed number, 103.

Back under the tent, I felt the familiar jitters of pre-race anxiety. In high school, I had always had a love-hate relationship with racing. Before the race, I hated it. I always got so nervous, and I would sit in class before our team left, just shuddering and quaking with nervousness. As we warmed up, I’d feel nauseous, and just before the gun would go off, I’d be a wreck.

But as soon as we crossed the start line, I knew my job. The nervousness disappeared, and I got my game face on. I was never the fastest, but I worked really, really hard, and by my senior year, I was pretty good. Running for Varsity on a State-ranked team, I finally broke the major goal I had set for myself 6 years prior: 4 kilometers in under 16 minutes. It’s still one of my proudest accomplishments, and I was lucky enough to have done it twice: at Conferences and then at Sections. I was a good runner, and I loved it, but I never had the speed to be a real contender. Now, when I run, I like a slow, steady 10 minute pace that I can do forever. I don’t race. I hate feeling pressured to be good at what I love and what I do for myself.

That said, there is a certain something that you can only get from being good. From being better than the rest πŸ™‚

For the next couple of hours, we watched the strapping highlanders toss enormous things that chewed up the beautifully manicured lawn. Bagpipes played, and dancers danced. Behind us, an extremely famous man received visitors and gifts, and we tried to figure out who he was. No one we recognized. All around us, posh Scots dressed in tweed, woollen jackets, kilts, and plaid broke out their extensive picnic baskets, bags and briefcases (I shit you not), and got down to the serious business of eating sarnies, drinking whisky, and munching on pot pies and haggis. We were way out of our league.

For lunch, we walked over to the village shop and bought cheese and pickle sandwiches with spicy crisps. Back at the tent, I changed into my running shorts and my new flashy windbreaker. I donned my soaked running shoes, and then we made our way back to our seats.

At a quarter to 3, I couldn’t stand the anticipation any longer. I stripped out of my extra layers right in front of the fancy man and slapped my adhesive number on the front of my windbreaker. Scooping my hair into a ponytail, I kissed Joshua goodbye and headed for the Information tent. I looked around at the competition. Spying some really old and really young Scots, I felt somewhat assured that I wouldn’t be the very last to cross the finish line. Gillian, a school teacher from a village 20 miles South came up and introduced herself, wanting to know how long the race was. I told her that, as far as I knew, the race was 5 miles. It started in the Games ring, it went uphill, it went downhill, and then it ended back in the Games ring. We chatted for a little bit, and she explained that she had decided to begin running hill races this year. It was her intention to ‘not age gracefully.’ A cyclist, she was excited to find that Joshua and I are going from end to end, and she warned us that tomorrow would not be easy. Lecht Pass, she says, is a killer.

At 3, the Clansmen preceded us into the Games ring, and they marched around the circle, heralding the start of the Hill Race. The runners – about 70 in all – entered the arena behind them, and gathering behind the start line, we stilled for our cue.

I never start fast. I think I probably even start too slow on principle. I’m not a rookie, and I’m not about to sprint out of the box just to show off. As a result, I think I exited the arena perilously close to last.

That all changed as we turned the corner and met a wall. Apparently, this was the vertical face that they expected us to run up. Well. Not to toot my own horn or anything, but I think I may have missed my calling. I plowed up that hill, passing more than half of the runners on my way, most of them had slowed to a belaboured walk. At the top, I kept passing, and when we hit our next uppy bit, I kept running.

The term Hill Race indicates that there will be a hill. And there was. I ran up a very big hill for 2.5 miles, and when I got to the top, I ran back down 2.5 miles over long grass, large tree roots, wet moss, and scrabbly gravel. At the top, I had passed all but one woman that I could see, and on the way down, four or five of them passed me. It was exhilarating discovering that I’m a bad-ass uphills, and even when a few people passed me going back down, I still gave it my all. At the bottom, I passed by Joshua who was cheering me on, and in the Games ring, I kicked it into the finish line.

It was all pretty informal, but here’s the rough data: it was about 5 miles, there were about 70 people, there were less than 10 women in front of me, and I finished the race at around 33 minutes. (I seriously didn’t even know I still had that kind of speed in me!) I finished with my legs shaking and red, and my lungs burning that particular I-just-ran-a-race burn. It was great. Joshua was proud of me.

Back at our seats, the famous man had left, and I told Joshua that Gillan had informed me that he was Billy Connelly (or something) he’s an important Scottish comedian and actor, and he lives just to the West of Strathdon. Apparently, he’s a big deal. We settled in, and I redressed to ward off the chill. In the arena, men were still tossing things and fussing with their kilts, and little girls were still bouncing on their toes, hopping over swords, and arching their arms like ballerinas. While we sat, I made Joshua debrief the race with me. He laughed at my excited, competitive streak.

The rain came and went, and we watched as little children strained at tug-of-war and pillow fights atop of logs. I went to buy us a tray of salt and vinegar chips, and when I got back, the Clansmen circumnavigated the arena one last time. Although they were wet and probably a little bit drunk from all of the whisky, they marched in file, puffing out their chests, and beating on their bagpipes and drums. We stayed until the end to watch them take down the Scottish flag, and we listened as the last bagpipe blew. The sun came out at last, and their long shadows stretched across the field while their spears glinted in the light.

On our way back to the tent, we stopped to pick up some curry sauce for dinner. While I hopped in the tent to avoid the incoming rain, my valiant husband braved the drizzle to cook up some rice and serve it with the curry sauce. It was pretty good, and we wolfed it down just in time to avoid the real down pour. Now we’re inside, hoping – like last night – we won’t drown under the the leaks of our little old tent. Outside, bagpipes are still playing. Drummers are still drumming. It’s raining, and the whole caravan park is busy getting drunk.

August 27, 2010

There’s something to be said for dry clothing, a shower, and a closely mown field to pitch your tent in, and although the Braemar Caravaning Club has a bit of duck problem – specifically, there are dozens of ducks and they all walk around, honking loudly at all hours – I still slept blissfully. Clean. Warm. Comfortable.

In the morning, we were in no rush to get moving. For once, we were unafraid that someone would come up to the tent and tell us to get the hell off their property. Not that they would; the Scots are probably the nicest people on Earth. Anyway, we relished our comfort, and we read until 10.

When we finally started to break down camp, our caravan neighbor jumped out as soon as he saw signs of stirring life. Marching purposefully towards us, he offered us a cup of tea, a mug of hot chocolate… Coffee? Biscuits? Overwhelmed, we thanked him and told him we were fine, but as he persisted, we felt kind of bad NOT taking something. What’s the protocol here? How can we receive such generosity and hospitality gracefully, expressing our full thanks? It’s a bit overwhelming, and we come away amazed every time, saying the same line over and over again: ‘the Scots are probably the nicest people on Earth.

Before we left Braemar, we stopped at the local shop to stock up on farm cheese, crisps, and oat cakes. Cycling through the valley, we admired the coniferous forests lining the road, the old stone castles, and a beautiful river that rushed like root beer alongside us. Minus the hills, the scenery is actually quite similar to the woods of Minnesota or Wisconsin, but just when we start to think things look familiar, we see a huge purple Moor rising in the distance.

After about 10 miles of easy cycling on the A93, we took a left onto a smaller B road. We immediately began climbing up. In our cycling guide, they print elevation charts for particularly demanding routes. Today’s route was supposed to run from Braemar to Grantown-on-Spey, but we’re cutting it short to go to Strathdon, the site of the Lonach Gathering. The full route would have been nearly 50 miles, and the elevation chart looks like one hilly spike after another. Fortunately, today we’re only doing 3 of the 7 spikes.

Climbing through woods and brambles with raspberries and blackberries growing, we headed up into the Highlands once again. At one point, a man slowed his car to a crawl, rolled down his window, and asked us if we knew the name of the hill we were climbing. We said no, and he told us, in thick Scottish accent, that it was called something ‘-yaddick‘ and that the next hill we were going to climb on this stretch of road was something else ‘-yaddick.’ Wishing us good luck, he sped on, and we continued up.

Once we passed the treeline, we the road leveled out for a bit, and spying thunderclouds in the distance, we decided to take advantage of sunshine and eat our lunch. Soaking up a spectacular view of stripy, purple heathered Moor (they burn stripes into the heather to encourage grouse), we ate our lunch in awe. About midway through, our friend, the Scottish informant, stopped on his way back and told us that we weren’t aloud to stop here. The summit was for a while yet, and he didn’t want us to get disheartened and give up. We explained that we were opting for a fair weather lunch, and that – when it comes to hills – we’re made of sterner stuff. He asked us where we had come from and where we were going, and he recommended a couple of shops to stop at along our way.

I think sometimes environmentalist and local policies get stigmatised as leftist, liberal agendas (which isn’t a bad thing as far as I’m concerned), but in Scotland, it’s not about who’s going to get elected or ‘those damned tree-huggers.’ It seems like whether you’re young or old, conservative or liberal, you love the land you grew up on. You don’t tolerate pollution. You can’t stand those damned chain shops, and you support your neighbor because that’s the good and honest thing to do. For our lunch, we didn’t have to hunt for non-GMO, locally grown, locally made food. It’s what’s available. (On a side note, you should really look into oatcakes. They’re phenomenal.)

Back on the road again, we passed through one of the prettiest stretches of road so far. Sure, it was very, very hilly, but it was breathtaking. Around every corner and up every crest, the land swept out before us in a treeless, purple hilly horizon. Sheep munched on grass in the glen, and little stone buildings perched next to the river, shielded by conifers. Up in the hills, there was nothing. No one. It was wild and still, and even though it began to rain, it was perfect.

Down our last hill, we met up with the A road again, and we found our turn off for Strathdon. Cycling through the valley, we passed a couple of small villages, and then, at 26 miles, we arrived. Spying a field with caravans and tents, we tried to find an entry. In a parking lot just off to the side, I approached a man emptying his recycling into the proper bins (SEE?!!), and asked him if he knew where we might find the people in charge of camping. Although he wasn’t sure, he did tell us a little bit about the layout of the town and what to expect with the Lonach Gathering. In the morning, the Clansmen march for miles, and the best bit, he said, is seeing them off. For the games, General Admission pays for entry into the field, but you have to pay extra to get a seat. He warned us that the seats might all be sold out, but he told us to try and get ahold of the Secretary. She might have some left.

Moving to the topic of our cycles, our new friend asked us a bit about our journey, and then told us that he and his wife enjoy cycling on a tandem. Before they moved here, they would take cycling holidays in and around the area, and they loved it so much, they decided to relocate. Parting ways, Joshua and I again remarked on how incredibly friendly everyone we encountered was, and when we entered the camping field, another kind soul told us where we could find the man in charge of camping down the road.

A short distance past the village, we found a huge field with tons of caravans. The man in charge was towing a caravan with his big jeep, and we stopped to ask him for details. Again, the man was very friendly, and he directed us to a smaller sectioned off area next to the river. While Joshua paid, I started setting up the tent, and when we had finished, the two of us went off in search of food.

At the Spar, we loaded up on oatcakes, flapjacks, and apples, and just as I was perusing through the isles, I ran into our Tandem Friend again. We said hello, and then he told me that he had talked to the Secretary. Apparently, there weren’t many seats left, but he had managed to buy to tickets for the covered bandstands. He’d left them and a program just inside the door of our tent.

What?! I was so flabbergasted, I was barely able to stutter my thanks properly. How did he know where our tent was? Oh. The nice camping man had told him. Guess we’re not hard to spot πŸ™‚ I thanked him again profusely, and he just smiled and said goodbye. When I told Joshua, he was also shocked, and as we walked back to the tent, we were speechless. Every few steps or so, we looked at each other and said something like, ‘can you…?’ ‘How did…?’ But the rest of the sentence was just too complex, and in the end, we said, ‘these people are probably the nicest people on Earth.’

Back at the tent, we zipped open the fly, and there in an envelope, signed ‘From your Tandem Friend,’ were two tickets for the covered bandstands and a program. Isn’t that one of the kindest and generous gifts you’ve ever heard of? Crawling into the tent, I immediately pulled out an arty calling card and wrote a note thanking him. I hoped that we might run into him tomorrow.

For the rest of the evening, we munched on oatcakes and flapjacks while we read the program and then our books. Inside the program, they detailed the order events, and as we contemplated caber tossing, highland dancing, and bagpipe playing, we decided that this was probably one of the coolest adventures we’ve ever encountered.

A note on generosity and friendliness:

In the past few weeks, Joshua and I have encountered a number of really, really wonderful people. Some of these people are our family and friends, and some of them are complete strangers. They’ve been impossibly kind, and many of them have shown us incredible generosity. Not only am I thankful for each individual act of kindness, but I am also deeply impressed. These traditions are all about connecting with humans and treating people with care, and I really, really admire these attitudes. I hope that I have shown a proper amount of gratitude, but I also feel like I have a responsibility to pay it forward. Responsibility isn’t quite the right word. Maybe a resolve? A commitment? I would like to learn from those who have been so kind and generous to us, and I would like to handle the people I meet in the future with the same care and generosity.


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Perth to Braemar

August 26, 2010

Jamming ear plugs into my ears and trying to think nice thoughts worked quite well. Although we had resolved to wake up early and conquer the hills before noon, Joshua let me sleep in. Outside the tent, the sky was heavy and grey, and once we managed to pull ourselves out of bed, we packed up quickly and wolfed down our breakfast of flapjacks and strawberries.

Joining back up with the A93, we passed a sign indicating 45 miles to Braemar. Although most days require some map reading or following cycle route stickers, today was straightforward: we cycled on the A93 the whole way from Perth to Braemar.

In addition to easing navigation, the A93 didn’t invite many rest stops, and we covered the first 30 miles quickly. Although the first third was relatively flat, once we passed Blairgowrie, the road led up into the Moors. For 20 miles, we gained elevation and passed fields of cows and sheep. Eventually, the Moors became less and less cultivated, and they grew more and more purple heather. The landscape opened up, and we saw the steep range of Cairngorms up ahead.

Oh. And it rained. A lot.

By the time we got to Spittal o Glenshee, we were ready to treat ourselves to a cooked meal indoors. Rolling into the village Hotel, we parked our bikes and walked inside. As you may have gathered from my last few posts, we’ve been wild camping for the past four nights, and I haven’t had a shower in six days. Everything we own has been either damp or soaking wet for days, and my hair is so matted and greasy that it holds the shape that the helmet creates when I take it off. We are disgusting.

I might feel bad about stinking up the joint, if it weren’t for the terrible, horrible meal they fed us. The only redeemable part of the entire affair was a can of Schwepps Ginger Beer, and clearly, that’s pretty hard to mess up. That, and there was a super cute little puppy that ran around the place and begged pets and scratches from the clientele. He was so cute that no one could deny him.

For starters, although Joshua had ordered a burger (Vegetarianism is a slow road for this one) and I had ordered the soup of the day with a cheese and tomato sandwich, it took them nearly an hour to kill the cow, bake the bread, ladle the soup, and slap two pieces of bread together. When the food finally arrived, Joshua discovered that four different kinds of animals had united to form his burger with ham, cheese, and egg on top, and I sadly discovered that the soup of the day was Chicken Noodle. Sort of. Apologizing to the chicken who gave its life for this sad, pathetic excuse of a soup, I spooned a few pathetic, flaccid noodles onto my spoon and washed it down with what passed as chicken broth. Oh. And a few kernels of corn. The sandwich wasn’t much better, and apparently, the cook had found it too difficult to slice the cheese. Instead, the sandwich was filled with mealy tomato and grated cheese. Also – and this isn’t unique to the fine establishment at Spittal o Glenshee – they had heavily buttered the bread. What is it with Brits and butter? They butter EVERYTHING.

We escaped the manky hotel and their manky food just in time to face our real uphill of the day. In the cycling book, they call it ‘the Showstopper,’ and they’re not ones to exaggerate. For six miles, we burped up nasty Spittal o Glenshee and climbed a 12 percent grade. We sweat a lot, and the overly friendly construction workers paused to hoot, holler, and offer a good time half way up. At the top, I collapsed over my bike, and when I looked up, I discovered that it was about to shitstorm.

I’m not sure what’s worse: climbing uphill in the pouring rain, or descending 10 miles in the pouring rain. I think I’ll pass on both, but really, I think going downhill in the rain is worse. It’s cold. Very, very cold.

When we finally rolled into Braemar, I felt like a popsicle. My hands and feet were senseless, and my hair and face were still dripping with rain. We hopped off our bikes to investigate the Tourist Office, and while we were in there, we found more information of the Highland Games we’re going to see on Saturday, where the nearest campsite was, and that English postage will suffice in Scotland (duh. As soon as I asked the question, I felt like a complete imbecile.).

After we purchased some tomato soup, cheese, and crusty rolls for our dinner, we stopped in at the local outdoor store to search for silk sleeping bag liners and wooly socks. The place was super swank, and we couldn’t choke down the astronomical prices, so we exited empty handed.

Putting my helmet on over my raincoat hood, I moaned about how cold and wet I was, and a passerby stopped to commiserate. Apparently, he and his buddy are going from sea to sea via mountain bike, and today is their day off in Braemar. He was curious about our journey, and we told him about some of the crazies we’d met doing the same thing (but much faster). He agreed that their version didn’t sound like much fun, and then he asked us if we were from Canada. Sadly, Joshua and I shook our heads. The nice Englishman laughed and asked us why we looked disappointed, and we explained that we mostly feel like we have to apologize for being American. Even our English family who loves us scorns the American breed. And the French! They expect us to take full responsibility for our country’s foreign policy. Woops! I’m sorry, sir. Let me just call up the Prez. You know he and I are real close. This made the Englishman laugh even more, and he told us that he wasn’t at all disappointed to find out that we were Americans instead of Canadians – just surprised. He told us we should be proud to let people know where American and we’re not so bad after all. Rock on!

Parting ways, Joshua and I headed for our campsite. Arriving freezing cold, we found a campsite, and I immediately hopped in the shower and commenced to take the hottest, longest shower of my life. It was bliss. By the time I was done, I had shampooed and soaped myself two or three times over, and I felt completely warm and relaxed. When I returned to the campsite, my sweet husband had already set up camp, and I picked up my computer and book and we headed towards the warming room.

Right now, the two of us are perfectly clean and almost good smelling (the socks will never quite smell good). We’re sitting in the campsite’s warming room, enjoying a little bit of shelter, some electricity, and central heating. Life is good.


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Pilgrim’s Progress and The Blood Sacrifice: Castor to Perth

August 25, 2010

Before we had gone to bed the night before, I had taken an anti-histamine. In our haste to find a campsite, I had traipsed through a patch of stinging nettles, and my entire leg was on fire. Although our little field was situated between every major transportation artery, I slept like a rock. Not even the heavy passenger liners flying low overhead could rouse me from my slumber. It might have something to do with the anti-histamine, but it could also have something to do with having ridden just under 200 miles in three days. I was exhausted.

Packing up quickly, we loaded our panniers onto our bikes. We’re still a little nervous wild camping, and I was just waiting for an angry farmer to come in and kick us off. Once we were packed away, we stood in the middle of the field under a ray of sunshine and ate our rice pudding standing up.

Fed and ready to go, we followed cycle route number one toward Queensferry. Although we had cycled a long way through Edinborough and the residential areas surrounding the major city the day before, our little campsite was just the first of dozens of farm fields. I love that about European cities. Even the ones that sprawl don’t sprawl for too many miles, and before you know it, you’re in the countryside again.

A very long bridge connects Edinborough to Inverkeithing, and unfortunately, the cycle path on our side of the road was closed down for maintenance. We clutched our brakes and bumped down two flights of stairs, and on the other side, we grit our teeth and hefted them back up (actually, Joshua hefted them up; I just sort of had my hand lightly on the back wheel.)

When we got to the top, a unicyclist in a yellow jersey was just boarding the long bridge. He shouted down from his perch, commiserating with us and saying, ‘Edinborough’s tricky!’ Ha. I bet it’s a whole lot trickier with just one wheel. Following the mad man, we watched as he swung his right arm to gain momentum up the arched bridge. Every muscle in his body seemed to be working, and at his maximum effort, he was cruising along at the exact same pace as the two of us – right about 9 miles an hour.

On the other side of the bridge, we realized that our cycle route regained its path back on the right hand side of the road, and once again, we banged our bikes down the stairs and hefted them back up again.

The cycle into Inverkeithing was mostly downhill, and when we got there, we found a cycle shop where we could stock up on innertube patches (we’ve already run through them all). Heading uphill, we pedaled out of Inverkeithing, past the unicyclist in his yellow jersey, and up into the hills of Dumfermline, an Edinborough suburb. Newly built and taking cues from the most cookie-cutter gated communities in the U.S., Dumfermline was an ugly, characterless place with little going for it. All the construction was so new that even the light and electrical posts where brand new, and we lost our cycle route because none of the blue and red stickers had been replaced.

Finally, we found our path again and we climbed into Townhill and then the hilly stretch into Kincross. The wilds of Scotland are different than everything we’ve seen so far; whereas most of England is either farmland, mountain reserves, city, or Moor, Scotland has forests of deciduous and conifer, and along the road, big beautiful purple flowers grow tall and straight, their stems loaded with fluffy white seeds that blow in the wind.

At our summit, we looked down into a broad valley where our lunchstop, Kincross, lay. We descended slowly, squeezing our brakes the entire time. After Joshua’s fall, we’re both a bit more nervous, and I sneak glances behind me every 500 feet or so.

On the valley floor, we cycled the last couple of miles into Kincross, and when we spied a food store, we stopped for lunch. Coincidentally, our unicyclist friend and his buddy in an Enterprise Rent-a-Van where at the very same rest stop. While we were tucking into a meal of oatcakes, brie, apples, and crisps, he was loading up on Ibuprofen. Apparently, he intends to break the record from Lands End to John O’Groats on a unicycle, and if he keeps up his pace, he’ll do just that. Unfortunately, he knee was acting up, but he was committed to plugging through until Saturday, his expected date of arrival. He’s been cycling for seven days now, and in total, it will take him 10. He cycles 70 miles a day, and from the looks of it, his friend in the rental van meets him every ten or so for some water and food. Obviously, his unicycle can’t have any panniers πŸ™‚

Back on the road again, we headed North towards Perth on country lanes and eventually on a cycle path alongside a busy A road. The views were very pretty, and although there were a few ups, there were just as many long, nice downhills, and we covered the last 20 miles into Perth easily. For the last few miles, I was riding behind Joshua, and I couldn’t help but laugh at how ridiculous he looks. Now that we don’t have front panniers, both of us have an extra pannier strapped to the back of our bikes, and Joshua tucks his shed layers and our extra food inside the bungees and straps. The whole effect makes him look like a mini-caravan or a bike-bus. I started singing, ‘he’s a brick house,’ and since I don’t really know the rest of the words to the song, I just made them up. It wasn’t very poetic, but we were laughing all the way into Perth.

Just before we entered Perth, we passed the unicyclist again, and while I kept heading downhill, Joshua stopped to chat again. Apparently, the man thought we were funny because we weren’t taking our journey very seriously. While he grit his teeth through miles of A road, we swing here and there, taking long lunches and stopping for photo ops. When Joshua asked him how his knee was doing, the man told him that it had swollen to nearly twice its size, but he wasn’t stopping. When Joshua recounted the story, he laughed at this part and said, ‘I mean, yeah. You can always get a new knee.’ Which, I guess, is true.

In Perth, we went searching for the public library for internet access and an outlet for my computer. We figured we may as well spend our free hours in a dry, warm place with electricity. Before we found it, we stopped to wave at the unicyclist as he pedaled by, and when an elderly couple oohed and aahed over his bike, we told them that he intended to set the record from Lands End to John O’Groats. They asked us what we were doing, and we explained that we were taking a somewhat more leisurely approach to the same journey, and the man shared with us that he had also completed the journey in 1959. They wished us good luck, and we kept searching for the library. When we finally got to the big, beautiful building, we discovered that it closed at 5, and we only had 40 minutes left. I plugged in my computer immediately and hunkered down to write, while Joshua hopped on the internet. When the speakers announced that the library was closing in five minutes, I realized that I had neglected to actually turn on the outlet I was using for my computer, and I had not charged it at all.

Feeling thwarted by our library experience, we headed to Cafe Nero. While I drank a big cup of mint tea and finished my posting, Joshua went out in search of food and an outdoor store. I wrote for about an hour, and when Joshua came back, he came back crabby. Apparently, Perth had denied him in every endeavor. Everything in the whole city closes at 5. To console himself, he bought a huge slice of brownie drenched in whip cream and listened while I read my post out loud.

When we headed back outside, I discovered that Joshua hadn’t been exaggerating. While the city had been bustling just an hour ago, now – at a quarter to 7 – it was dead. All the shops were closed, and no one was walking about. There weren’t even any cars on the road. On a Wednesday evening! Where do they all go?

Outside of Perth, we passed the Scone Palace. We know that it’s a very big deal, but we’re also not really sure why. Something about Kings receiving their crowns, Macbeth, and tasty pastries. Oh well. It was closed.

After a few more miles of cycling, we hopped off on a small B road, hoping to find a campsite for the night. While Joshua spied a nice forest, I had to veto. There were all sorts of old unused chicken coops and things deep in the undergrowth, and it was super creepy. I am not about to be kidnapped by some demented Scottish farmer.

We cycled a little farther down the road, but when we didn’t find anything, we had to turn back and find a little patch of woods across from the creepy forest. In all honesty, I found this little patch of woods just as creepy, and here to, there was also an old unused chicken coop, but I knew that Joshua was getting antsy, and it was about to rain.

We set up our tent on lumpy ground, and I immediately burrowed inside. Sitting inside our tiny tent, we ate a bag of uncooked stir fry and a punnet of strawberries. Before we went to bed, I finished writing, and then I stuffed earplugs into my ears so that I couldn’t hear anything if it went ‘bump’ in the night. As I turned on my side, I held Joshua’s hand, and I refused to think about all the scary chicken coops and crazy Scottish farmers outside.

August 24, 2010

When I was a little girl, I had a children’s book entitled Pilgrim’s Progress. Although I suspect that this slim, illustrated volume is in fact an abridged version of some epic classic, I’m embarrassed to admit that I am unaware of this book in its larger context. All I know about is the colorful children’s version.

After a day like yesterday, I’ve begun to see our cycle journey as its own little Pilgrim’s Progress. Along the way, we meet beggars and saints, and with every turn, we find a new task or obstacle. What’s a journey? If I’m really obtuse, I suppose the answer is – simply – the stretch from point A to point B. But what really makes up the journey? The more specific answer is two bicycles, two people, and one long, long stretch of road. The word, ‘journey,’ seems a very metaphorical word to me. It’s one of those terms loaded with archetype, connotation, and history, and in a way, when you label something a ‘journey’ I think people already have a sense of what you might mean.

I’m sure my mom would ask me what I’d like to learn from my journey. She’d ask me what I was looking for, what I hope to find, and what I’ve already found. I veer away from questions like these for the same reasons that the word, ‘spirituality,’ makes me cringe. I like things to be simple and concrete. I don’t like the idea of spending a lot of time in my head; especially when I’m pretty sure that all the things that really matter are right in front of me. Give me the option of heaven or earth, head or body, faith or action… I choose the latter. When it comes to religion, I barely tolerate lines like ‘store up your treasures in heaven,’ but other lines like ‘we are Gods’ hands and feet’ ring true. I’d rather do than talk about it, and most of the time, when I try to put words to the deeper stuff – the reasons why I do the things I do – it has no poetry. They say the unexamined life is not worth living, but I think maybe they’re wrong. Leave the examining to those who examine. I’ll do the living.

So, if I’m forcing myself to get all metaphysical on you, then I’d guess I’d have to say that I chose to make this journey because I wanted to accomplish something. After two years of feeling like I accomplished approximately nothing, I wanted to be able to stand at John O’Groats, face South, and say, ‘yup. I did that.’ If I follow the same line of reasoning, I suppose then what I’m looking for is a little bit a confidence. As for what I’ve already found… Well, you’ve read my blog. I know that’s an answer like that would irritate my mom. It’s too simple, and it’s not really making that metaphysical leap that she’s looking for. Even now, when I’m asking all the questions, I still resist the answer. I don’t want to make it that complicated. We biked. We ate. We saw. We slept. We woke up, and we did it again.

But like I said, this all does feel a little bit like Pilgrim’s Progress. No matter my religious apathy or my theological agnosticism, I still approach things like they are a test. I’ve got serious pioneer blood, and if there’s one thing that I almost instinctively believe in, it’s hard work. Don’t quit. The greater the difficulty, the greater the accomplishment Workin‘ till your fingers bleed is next to godliness. That sort of thing. Don’t worry, after two years in New Orleans, I know that hard work isn’t the gospel, and sometimes, no matter how hard you try, you can never get out, but ancestry and origins are a difficult thing to shake.

In the end of Pilgrim’s Progress, I think the Pilgrim was successful if he proved his mettle. He surmounted his obstacles with grace and ease. He showed proper gratitude towards the saints, and he bestowed kind words and good deeds upon the beggars. If the journey did not reveal some great flaw of character – the propensity towards selfishness, thievery, or laziness – the Pilgrim was rewarded with treasure and recognition all through the land, etc. The metaphor being: Pilgrim withstood the test. Pilgrim made it into the gates of heaven.

Well, I’m pretty sure that John O’Groats isn’t heaven. I’m also certain that I will not receive fame and fortune upon my arrival. This isn’t getting me points or rewards (ok, bragging rights, but still…). I didn’t do this for a good cause. I just did it. There was enjoyment, and I got to see more of Britain than most travellers do. We traveled cheaply, we got to see all of our family and friends who live here. Our legs got strong, and we got to spend time together. It appealed to my extremist, been-there-done-that sensibilities, and we got to meet all sorts of interesting people. The landscape was beautiful and sometimes it was ugly, but mostly, it was superb.

Was it worth the rain, the hills, the sore knees, the stiff backs, the smelly, soggy clothes and shoes, the greasy hair, the days without showers, the falls, the cuts, the bruises, the worry, the traffic, the gravel roads, and all the popped tires? Well… Yes. No journey is without its difficulties, and Lands End to John O’Groats is far from the exception. Just the same, I’m not even done, and I already know the answer: yes, yes, yes. It was worth it. It is worth it. It could piss and shit and scream hills for the next six days of cycling, and I know the answer would still be yes (knock on wood, please).

Clearly, Joshua’s fall got me in a philosophical state of mind. I was cycling up that hill, thinking of all the horrible scenarios of what could have happened to him, and I was thinking, ‘what the fuck are we doing here? Nothing is worth losing Joshua over. Absolutely nothing.’ And you know what? It’s true. Nothing would be worth losing Joshua over. That’s why he’s never allowed to take up mountain climbing, go paragliding, or buy a motorcycle. With other things, though, you weigh the risk. We could get hurt. Either one of us at any time or in any place. We could get hurt doing anything. We hope that we’re never made to regret our risks, but we take them still. So here’s my philosophy: we won’t live life right on the edge; we won’t tempt fate. Instead, we’ll live life ten feet from the edge. Just close enough so we can hold hands and enjoy the view together. We’ll be Pilgrims together, and in the end, it won’t matter if we make it to heaven.

The morning after Joshua’s fall, we woke up and broke camp. It had finally stopped raining, but our little nest in the trees was still dripping. For our first ten miles, we rode through hilly countryside and steered our bikes directly into a headwind. It was serious. Our mph went down to 6 miles per hour.

Near the coast again, we descended into Pease Bay, and we were treated to stunning views of red rock cliffs plunging into the surf. Over the next hill, we passed an enormous power plant, and on the other side, we found a public toilet station to fill up our water bottles. After a few more miles on route 76, I popped a tire. When we took of the tire to investigate, we discovered that the bounce that I had been experiencing for the past few days was the shredded sidewall of the outer tire. The innertube popped because it had finally poked through the outer tire. We changed the tube and discussed our options.

An exposed innertube won’t last long over bumpy terrain, and even on the road, it’s got a pretty short expiration date. The town of Dunbar should be a couple of miles away, but the last man we talked to said that the closest cycle shops were either in Berwick or Edinborough. The chances of them having a cycle shop seemed pretty slim. What Dunbar did have, though, was a rail station, and though it galled us to consider cutting out 30 miles of our journey, we didn’t have much choice. We loaded the panniers back onto my bike and headed for Dunbar. We planned to ride into the city and see if there was a tourist office. If there was, then we’d ask them if they knew of a closer cycle shop. If not, we were headed for Edinborough by rail.

Less than a mile after we repaired the tire, we were entering Dunbar when I saw a man cycling in the opposite direction. When he got close enough, I yelled across the street, asking him if he knew where the closest cycle shop was. Stopping, he asked us what we needed, and I explained our dilemma. Thinking he might have a spare tire in his garage down the hill, he suggested we follow him to his house.

I think both Joshua and I were nervous that ‘down the hill’ meant ‘to hell and gone,’ but true to his word, his house was less than 200 yards behind us. Propping up our bikes against a storage container in his yard, we followed him into his make-shift cycle garage. To get in, the man had to remove two bikes and a tandem with a child’s seat attached to the back. Inside, there were multiple tires, other bikes, bicycle cleats, and a bunch of stuff which I cannot identify because I’m a biking ignoramus. Clearly, this was a massive stroke of good luck. I could not have asked a better equipped or more generous cyclist (in Pilgrim’s Progress, Rupert is the Saint).

To change the tire, Rupert invited us into his home and introduced us to his wife and daughter, Naomi. While we sat at their table, they made us tea while Rupert changed my tire. As though that weren’t enough, they also served us a plate of fig rolls and oat cakes. Fairly stuttering over our gratitude, we asked if we could offer them anything in return – money, a day’s hard labour (just kidding) – but they politely refused, and instead, we talked about cycling. Rupert’s other daughter sometimes races in a velodrome, and when Joshua and I sucked in our breath and said we thought it might be scary, they agreed. I said that maybe it’s scarier to watch than to do it, but Rupert’s wife said, no. It’s just as scary to do it. This led us to a brief conversation about fixed wheels, and when I looked at them like they were speaking another language, they explained that a fixed wheel means that you must keep pedaling – there is no coasting – and when you want to stop, you need to first slow your pedal strokes and then stop pedaling. Oh, I said, like little kid’s bikes where you pedal backwards to stop? No, Rupert explained, that’s a back-pedal brake.

In terms of cycling knowledge, I was out of my league. While Joshua and Rupert chatted about cycle routes and wild camping, I talked to Rupert’s wife about teaching. She teaches too, and Scottish schools have been back in session for almost two weeks already. In the mornings, she rides into school with her daughters on the tandem we’d seen outside. It’s their pedal-powered school bus. When I remarked on their many bikes, she said, ‘we tried counting how many bikes we have, but then we ran out of numbers.’

Finishing our tea in mugs that said, ‘I’d rather be cycling,’ we thanked them profusely and went back outside to put my wheel back on. While Joshua reloaded my panniers, I dug out an arty calling card and wrote them a quick thank you note. Thank you to the most generous and kind Trail Angels ever!

Luck like that puts us in a really good mood, and as we pedaled through Dunbar, we exclaimed over the solid and beautiful stone buildings, the bit of blue sky ahead, and our fabulous biking trail. Rupert had gone onto the internet to check out the forecast, and by the looks of it, we just might skirt around the band of rain headed over Edinborough. (When he’d asked us if we checked the weather forecast often, we said no. We pretty much figure it will say something like, ‘intermittent showers,’ ‘bands of rain,’ or ‘sunny intervals.’) Things were definitely looking up.

In Haddington, we stopped at Aldi’s to buy a little bit of food for lunch, and then we ate our oatcakes and Wendsleydale on a stone bridge over a river. Finished with our snack, we headed back onto cycle route 76 headed for Edinborough.

On a stretch of graveled path, Joshua popped his back tire. Trying to keep our spirits up, we paused to change it. It was nearly 4 o’clock and we had cycled a little over 30 miles. We hoped that Edinborough would be less than 20 miles away. Back on the road again, we passed pretty countryside with lots of rolling hills and more stony villages. Descending from the hills, we met a coastal path, and from the road, we could see Edinborough tucked into the bay.

Figuring Edinborough couldn’t be that far away if we could see it, we pedaled through suburbs along the River Esk. Nearly losing the cycle route, we found it again with some lucky guessing, and near the end of the river path, we met up again with cycle route number one. While the new cycle sign said, ‘Edinborough 5 miles,’ we tried not to despair. Although we had already cycled about 48 miles, five miles wasn’t too much more, and after that, it was only 10 more miles across the bridge and into Inverkeithing, where we hoped to find our next campsite.

We’re not sure if Edinborough is a floating island or if Scottish miles are three or four times longer than English miles, but the signs into Edinborough said, ‘Edinborough 5 miles’ for about another five miles. When we finally arrived in the city (through a really creepy, really long tunnel), we paused at a Sainsbury’s to buy a bottle of water and some chocolate. While I waited for Joshua to come back, I sat on a bench next to our bikes, eavesdropping on American tourists talking about their how ‘cool’ the Edinborough festival is.

Just before Joshua came back outside, a German tourist came over to ask me about our journey. He wanted to know the usual – where we were going, where we had come from, where we are from, and where we sleep, and I answered him slowly, the way I prefer Spanish-speakers to talk when I’m asking them questions. After a bit, his two travel buddies came over and one of the women had impeccable, American-accented English. She took over asking questions and translating some of what we said for her friends, and then, when she discovered that we would be traveling to Turkey, India, and Nepal before we returned back to America in December, she said, ‘you’re lucky. Not many American’s get to do that.’

I’m not entirely sure what she meant by that, but we agreed, saying that we had saved a lot of money in the past two years of working. I don’t think she was suggesting that we were spoiled rotten trust-fund babies, though. I think she was just commenting on how few Americans take off large chunks of time to travel around the world. And once she said it, I starting thinking about it. It’s true; not many Americans I know travel the world. Most of us get jobs and then work like hell to have a home, raise kids, and give them all the things we never had. We work so hard that there’s little time for play, and even when there is, traveling is rarely even considered as an option. People might go on vacations to other places in the U.S. or maybe – if they’re feeling really adventurous – to Mexico or the Caribbean, but Europe? Africa? The Middle East? Asia? Do they even speak English there?

Ok. That might sound a bit harsh, but I don’t mean it to be. I know a lot of people who would never consider traveling in a place where they don’t speak the language (and lets be honest, for Americans, that’s pretty much anywhere where English isn’t spoken). In general, I think there’s a lot of fear. Don’t people get kidnapped and held hostage and then have their heads cut off in far away places? Don’t they get malaria and amoebic dysentary? What happens if you get to a village and no one speaks English and you don’t speak whatever they’re speaking? Do you go hungry? Do you sleep on the street?

Lesley asked us if we were nervous to travel in India, and Joshua confessed that he does get a little anxious when he’s going to foreign countries where he doesn’t speak the language. Lesley laughed, saying that was probably healthy, and then she told a story about her and Linda pantomiming to a village of Spaniards that they wanted beer, food, and a bed to sleep in. When she was telling us the story, it struck me that this is why I’m not as afraid: I know that there are other ways to communicate, and I know that mostly, the world isn’t as big bad and scary as we sometimes make it out to be. (I know it can be really big bad and scary, but people are good, too, and you don’t have to look as far as you might think to find goodness.) Anyway, I know these things because I’ve been traveling, but a lot of people don’t know, and so they never do. They never travel, and they never find out. We’re lucky because we got good jobs, we saved money, and we took the risk to take time off. We’re lucky because we had already traveled and we knew we wanted to travel more. We’re lucky because we’ve found more of the good in people than the big bad and scary, and that goodness has made us feel safe enough to explore new places where we don’t speak the same language.

Once we had finished talking to the Germans (the American-accented one really looked like Franke Potente, but I think that might be just because she had a fun haircut and she was German), we spent the next few miles biking through the center of Edinborough and hunting for the little blue and red signs that had a number one.

As the light began to fall, we pedaled like mad through the city, joking that we might just have to pitch our tent in the middle of a residential park or soccer field. After a few more miles out of the city, we passed a really, really fancy neighborhood, and on the other side, we spied our first farm field. At 66 miles, we were ready to call it a day, and we pitched our tent in the middle of a wheat field with an interstate running along the side, a railroad behind it, and an airport so close that planes flew low overhead about every 10 minutes.

We were so tired, we hardly cared, and by 9:15, we had our tent set up. For dinner, we cooked tortellini over the campstove and smothered it in pesto. We ate a basket of ripe plums, and when we had finished, we munched on a chocolate bar. For the first time, we crawled into bed, freezing, and fell asleep without even attempting to read or write.

August 23, 2010

I woke up early. During the night, I had lain awake, tormented by nightmares of devilish Englishmen ala Deliverance. By 7:15, we had broken camp and we were already on our way into Castor. The sky was grey and cloudy, but the low morning light over the Northumberland Coast was lovely. We biked into the tourist office in Castor to use the toilets and fill up our water bottles, and then we hopped onto the cycle route number 1, taking us North.

By noon, we had covered nearly 30 miles of rolling terrain. Although the route had taken us slightly off the coast, the countryside was still unbelievably beautiful. Beautiful or not, the rain let loose just outside of Holy Island, and when we saw a sign offering a shortcut to Berwick-upon-Tweed, we took it. It was a shame to miss one of my favorite places in England, but it wouldn’t have been enjoyable in the freezing, pouring rain anyway.

The next few miles were extremely bumpy, and we were feeling pretty sorry for ourselves. We passed a couple riding mountain bikes with panniers, and we all agreed that it was cold and the trail was too bumpy for its own good. Just outside of Berwick, the rain let up, and we decided to enjoy the lovely cliff and seaside view with a soggy lunch of bread, cheese, and humous.

When the sky started to sprinkle again, we took our cue and cycled downhill into Berwick. Huddling under a bridge, Joshua plotted our next move while I went into the Spar to load up on food for dinner. Back on the road, we prepared ourselves for another ten miles. On the other side of Berwick, we found our next cycle route, number 76, and we headed into the hills. Berwick is very close to the border, and after a couple of miles of climbing, we finally crossed the border into Scotland. We paused for a photo op in front of the welcome sign, and once again, we headed into the hills.

Ok. Let me preface this whole part by saying that I have sought Joshua’s permission to write about this in the blog. He said that it was ok under two conditions: 1) that I entitled it ‘The Blood Sacrifice,’ and 2) that I communicate to all of our family and friends that he is ok, and there has been no lasting ailment, which is true.

On our descent into Eyemouth, I passed Joshua and cruised nearly two miles into the small village of Aynton. At the bottom, I waited for Joshua to catch up. After a couple of minutes of waiting, I turned around and anxiously looked up the hill, and when he didn’t come down after a couple more minutes, I started heading back up. The further I cycled up hill, the more and more worried I became. We never ride more than a hundred meters apart, and we’ve yet to be split up. After 10 minutes, I started shouting his name, and then I started crying. I didn’t want to imagine what had happened to him, but somehow, I couldn’t quite convince myself that he had just popped a tire. When I saw a car coming down the road, I stopped them and asked them if they had seen another cyclist. To my relief, they had, and they reassured me that he was just changing a flat.

The panic didn’t quite subside until I saw him another ten minutes up the road, and when I did finally see him, I started crying in earnest. Those ten minutes I had spent thinking that he was dead or seriously hurt had really, really upset me, and I needed him to hug me and tell me it was ok. He did, but as he was holding me, he said, ‘do you want to see what happened?’ Confused, I watched through my tears as he pulled down his cycling shorts. On his hip, he had a softball-sized, angry red abrasion. I started crying harder. On his leg, he had a gash on his shin, a cut on his ankle, and road rash on his knee. His brand new rain jacket was torn at the wrist and scraped all the way up to the shoulder. His elbow had an abrasion, and he picked up his cycling gloves to show me where the pads of the hands had worn away. By now, I was nearly sobbing, and he asked me if I was ok to see the scariest part. When I nodded my head, he picked up his helmet and showed me the dent.

Apparently, as he was going about 20 miles an hour down the hill, he heard a snap, his handlebars swung in, and then he saw the ground coming at him. He was quick enough to pull his foot out of the clips, but he fell into the middle of the road. The culprit was the front pannier rack. It had always been rickety and cheap to begin with, but as he was going down the hill, the rack snapped, the bar swung into the wheel and through the spokes, and then it threw him.

By the time I had got up to Joshua, he had already assessed the damage. Although his front wheel has a slight bent and some of the spokes are slightly askew, the bike ran relatively smoothly. A nice Scottish gentleman had seen the crash and stopped to offer help. When Joshua stood up, assessed his injuries, and found himself to be alive and well-functioning, the man said he would return in twenty minutes to see if he could help with the bike (he needed to bring his ailing pickup home). The front panniers were gone, and once I had stopped sobbing and fretting over all of Joshua’s war wounds, we took one pannier each and loaded them on top of our back two. Now, we look like serious cycling vagabonds with back-heavy panniers that call to mind caravans and buses.

The nice Scottish gentleman came back just as we were about to descend the hill, and although he offered to take us up the hill or into town, Joshua assured him that he and the bike would be fine. The man looked a bit dubious, especially when he looked at my tear-streaked face, but eventually, he wished us luck and sent us on our way. We descended the hill at about 12 miles an hour, and then we cycled the last couple of miles into Eyemouth.

A couple more miles out of Eyemouth, we found a forest alongside a field and burrowed into the undergrowth to set up our tent. It began to rain, but we were so far under the trees, we only experienced intermittent wet splats while we stowed away our stuff for the night. Sitting in the tent, we ate our dry dinner of bread and cheese, and then, absolutely weary, we crawled into our sleeping bags. Just before we went to sleep, I made Joshua suffer through an antiseptic cleaning and antibiotic annointing trial, and when we had finished, I hugged him, told him I love him and that he’s never, ever allowed to get hurt again.


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"Whatchya thinkin’ about?"

If I were you, I’d be wondering what you think about when you’re biking for hours and hours day after day. I wanted to ask the man who’s hiking from end to end, but I thought it might be too personal. We didn’t even exchange names. People have asked me what I think about when I’m running, and it’s always hard to come up with a list. Instead of mentioning the little odd things that flit through my mind, I end up saying, “not much” or “nothing, really.” But when I sat down and really catalogued the things that cross my mind, I guess that couldn’t be further from the truth. Here’s my top 50:

1. FOOTWEAR

I don’t have sensible footwear for a Minnesotan winter. Whenever I go home, I have these little flimsy slipper-flats, and my feet always get cold. I think I’ll purchase a couple pairs of Dansko’s off ebay. I can get two pairs for about 60 dollars, and then I’ll have a black pair for my black outfits and a brown pair for my brown outfits. Red would work too. Red’s very versatile.

And now that I’m on the subject, I’ve always coveted a nice pair of rain boots. I like the ones with fun patterns, and I once saw a pair with cute little penguins. And, If I’m being honest, I’ve always fantasized about owning a pair of soft mukluks (think UGGS, but so, so much better), and speaking of which, I’ll need a sensible pair of winter boots to go traipsing through the snow with.

2. CUTE HUSBAND

It’s true. He may be the nerdiest cyclist alive, but even with a do-rag and keen-clad feet, he’s still good looking. He’s got these fancy prescription sunglasses, and their shiny green reflection make him look like a cross between a fly and a super-serious German mountain climber. When it’s warm outside, he breaks out a sleeveless cycling jersey that zips down to his belly button and screams yellow. He calls it his Gunther euro jersey.

When we cycle past fields of sheep, he bleats loudly and convincingly, trying to instigate a domino effect, and sometimes, he’s quite successful. He says that he wants us to own sheep because he loves the way they sound. He’s a city boy who wants to farm, and although he’s never grown a thing in his life, he’s desperate to try. He wants me to name the different pieces of farm equipment when we cycle by, but although I lived in the country, I can only supply the names like, “thresher,” “grain auger,” “plow,” and “tractor thingy” indiscriminately.

3. NEXT MEAL

When we’re cycling, I’m pretty much always hungry, and meals always have the added bonus of being our next rest stop. What’s not to look forward to? Before we arrive in the city or village where we plan to eat, I wonder whether I might like something pre-made from the ready-to-go rack or maybe a loaf of bread with humous or cheese or both. I’ll have a piece of fruit, and maybe Joshua and I will share a bag of crisps.

Once we’ve finished lunch, I immediately start cooking up a plan for dinner. Tortellini? Something with rice? We love those jars of Indian sauces, and most of the grocery stores have these handy little bags of fresh mixed veggies. English berries are in season now, and the isles are stuffed with punnets of super sweet raspberries and strawberries. I love the fresh apricots, and a banana is always cheap and good for energy. I think I’ll have a flapjack for dessert.

4. INDIA

I’m a big fan of anticipation, and at this point, my tools of anticipation are an itinerary and a collection of images and stories I’ve seen and heard through our guide book and the internet. I’m looking forward to spicy, savoury food, brightly colored textiles, and big, bangly jewelry.

I’m so excited to see the Himalaya, and I can’t wait to hike the Annapurna Circuit. What’s the weather going to be like? What kind of clothing will I need? What will the Teahouses be like?

Joshua and I talk about whether or not we’re going to bring our tent, and we wonder if maybe we’ll rent a little studio in Dharamsala for a couple of weeks while we listen to the Dali Lama and volunteer. Leh should be fabulous, and I intend to buy a shalwar kameez and beautiful scarves to bring home. What’s it all going to smell like? I’m at this stage where we have plans, but really, I have no idea what we’ll discover once we arrive.

5. MY BLOG

I’m sure this comes as an enormous surprise to most of you, but I think about my blog – what I’ve written, what I’ll write, and what people have commented – all the time. I love it. I love writing everything down, and I love knowing that someone out there reads it. I’ve always written e-mails when we’ve traveled, and although those were probably better written because I belaboured over them – sitting in little internet cafes, fretting about syntax and wit – writing every other day is so much better. I feel like I’m making something I can keep, and I feel so proud of myself for sticking with it. I’ve always known that I love writing, but I never wrote with any consistency. It’s satisfying to know that I still love it – that I love it even more – when I really sit down and commit.

6. NAMES

This is going to sound very girly and perhaps baby-crazed, but what’s a blog for unless it’s used to embarrass yourself? I’ve always loved names, and although I’ve made efforts to elevate this interest to an intellectual level, it’s a bit of a stretch.

I love old names: Josephine, Louise, Myrtle, Tallulah, and Emmeline. I like Georgia because I love Ms. O’Keefe, and I like hippy names like Grey, Fiona, Arrow, and Violet. For boys, the old biblical names – Ephraim, Ezekiel, Mordecai – appeal to me, but I also like Oliver, Henry, Luca, Huckleberry, and Liam.

Every once in a while, I’ll ask Joshua if he likes one of the names, and so far, the only ones we both like are Grey for a girl and Huckleberry for a boy. Yup, girly, girly, girly.

7. WHAT TO DO WITH MY HAIR

Don’t laugh. This is serious business. If you had hair like mine – fine, thin, straight in the middle, curly by the hair line, and oily after just 24 hours – you’d wonder too. If I keep it short, it looses its curl but has more oomph… If I leave it long, it’s curly but stringy. I might like to have an edgy style, but I worry that my head is too small and my jaw isn’t strong enough for a really close crop. To make matters worse, I don’t like too much product, and I can’t be bothered to blow dry my hair every day. Should I dye it? Should I cut it? Should I leave it? You can see my predicament.

8. THE MEANING OF LIFE

Just when you were thinking that my days are filled with frivolity and stuff and nonsense…

To be honest, I think Joshua asks himself this question more often than I do, but whenever he does, he likes to double check that our world views mesh. When he whips out the big questions like, “what’s the point,” and “why are we here,” I have to admit, I get a little miffed, but then – realizing that perhaps a bit of reflection is called for – I try to give him a good and honest answer.

Usually, I’m quiet for so long that he thinks that I’ve forgotten the question or maybe I’m thinking about something else, but truthfully, I just don’t know. Really serious answers like, “to love one another,” and “to mend that which is broken,” don’t feel completely genuine either; if they were, why would I spend any time writing or loving art or drinking wine and traveling the world?

In the end, I don’t think I’m much good at the serious questions or serious answers. I guess I know what I like and what’s important for right now, but if I’m pressed to think bigger and broader, I loose my bearings and I get lost in the landscape.

9. WHETHER OR NOT TO BECOME A VEGETARIAN

At Catherine and Donal’s, I made my big vegetarian debut, but I’ve been dithering about this decision for quite some time now. Joshua raises a good point: animals eat each other. Hyenas eat deer and wolves eat caribou, etc. How can it be unethical to eat animals when even animals eat each other?

At this point, knowing what I know about the amount of resources that go into raising livestock and the practices that are used in industrial meat production, it sort of goes without saying that I won’t be eating just any kind of meat. But even when I consider humanely raised and slaughtered local livestock, I still think I might not want anything to do with it. Is it ok to eat pulled pork or bacon if I can’t stand the thought of slaughtering a pig? I don’t know.

10. OUR FUTURE FARM

We’ve cooked up all sorts of plans to buy and build a farm, and we have thought of a couple options: 1) we buy land (15 or more acres) and we build an Earth Ship (a semi-sub-terranean home built out of earth-rammed tires) 2) we buy land with a home already on it, and we renovate. Either way, we want a big garden with a huge berry patch. I want to keep bees, can and preserve, and learn how to make goat and sheep’s cheese. We want to learn how to shear, card, dye, and spin fibres, and mostly, I just want a home in the country with animals and things that grow. I want snowy winters with roast root vegetables, and I want to eat big old watermelons in the sunny summer. I want to rake leaves in the fall, and I want to live near family.

11. WAYS TO MAKE MONEY WITHOUT GOING CRAZY

I can work very, very hard, and I’m extremely goal-oriented, but I just can’t think of many jobs that I would be willing to do 40 hours a week, 50 weeks a year. What do you look forward to? When do you have time to do all the things that are really important, like making things and writing and raising kids and being with animals? I suppose the only answer is to find something that I love so much that it doesn’t feel like a task or chore, but I can’t imagine what that would be.

Sometimes, I just think of a million and one ways to make a little bit of money, and I fantasize that when I add them all together, they would be enough to live. I’m not sure if they are realistic, but they ARE things that I think about: 1) growing an extensive berry patch, and then preserving tons of jam to sell at farmers markets and local food stores, 2) cultivating bees and selling their honey, 3) making good-smelling soaps and lotions and cosmetic thingys to sell, 4) making skeins of different kinds of fibres from the animals that we own, 5) building a bed and breakfast or some kind of retreat for people to come and stay, 6) writing grants, 7) boarding animals, etc, etc, etc.

12. WHETHER OR NOT I WANT TO BE A TEACHER

It might come as a surprise to everyone, but my experiences teaching in New Orleans have made me more than a little bit wary. Sometimes, I think I might just need distance, but other times, the more distance I get, the more I think: why in god’s name would I ever, ever, ever want to do that again? Every day, I wake up and I realize that I don’t have to do anything that makes me miserable today, and I feel so, so thankful. I don’t have to go to fourth block. I don’t have corral students into my classroom and pretend like mad that they’re all learning. I don’t have to be yelled at by behavioral specialists or made to feel like I’m a piece of shit by anyone walking by who sees a student out of their seat or their head down. I don’t have to create lessons and watch them fall to pieces every day, and I don’t have to be surrounded by hopelessness. I don’t have to see my students fail and know I could have done something better, something more, but just not know what it is or how to do it. I don’t have to feel guilty every single day that I didn’t try hard enough and my students didn’t learn, but most of all, I don’t have to go into a classroom in a school where students who need everything are given nothing.

When I think about it, and I actually, I try not to, I don’t know what was worse: at the time, I hated and dreaded the personal things like being yelled at, cussed at, threatened, and demeaned. And now, it’s the guilt that sticks, because really, the most awful part was watching kids who despite everything, I actually really, really loved, fail and flounder and die over and over again. And really, the two of them were always connected. When students or staff treated me poorly, I felt miserable and helpless to defend myself because I knew that I really wasn’t helping. It’s hard not to believe the bad things people say to you when everything around you is going to shit and nothing you do or don’t do makes it any better.

I don’t want to absolve myself or make it seem so impossible that no one could possibly hold me accountable for my actions. I do wish that someone could have come in and seen it all fairly. I wish someone could have seen the ridiculous things that were so wrong and so not ok, but also see what was really within my control. Perhaps this isn’t very professional, and this really isn’t how things work in the grown up world, but I think what I really needed was someone who I really respected and trusted to come in and say, I know you’re trying really hard, and I know that you really care. Let’s see what you can do to make things better. Some things aren’t within your control, and that’s not right. That’s not how it should be, but here’s what you can do. I’m afraid that maybe someone did come in and say these things, and I was just so sorry for myself that I didn’t listen.

I don’t know how I can go back and teach. I’m afraid that I’ve learned nothing and I’ll cause my students to fail and then I’ll be evaluated and they’ll tell me that I really am shit and that’s why my students are failing. I don’t want to do something I’m not good at, and I really don’t know if I can be good at teaching. I know that the people who love me want to tell me that I’m good at teaching and that things will be different, but I also know that they want to make me feel better and they don’t want me to feel guilty about the last two years.

I guess the next natural question is, why are you even thinking about it then? And there are a couple of answers: 1) it’s one of the only jobs I can imagine doing. I can’t be in an office, and I’m not qualified to do much else. Even if I went back to school to qualify myself for something else, what would it be? I would do Social Work, but really, I would do it for the same reasons that I would teach. I want to work with people, and I want to do something that matters. 2) I do love being a part of that moment when students begin to think on their own. I love teaching them skills and then watching them create something that they’re proud of. 3) It’s one of the only jobs I can think of that would also give me enough time to do all the other things I also want to do: keep bees, can, preserve, spin, cook, write, and read.

13. WHERE WE’LL LIVE WHEN WE GET BACK TO MINNESOTA

I’m not sure whether we’ll be living at Yvonne and Dave’s for a while or if we’ll rent our own apartment or if we’ll do something crazy like live in trailer or buy an old farm house, but beyond that uncertainty, I’m already decorating. I’m sewing big, droopy curtains the color of ochre, and I’m draping them in front of sheer lace curtains. I’m printing out our best photos, framing them, and painting the rooms using their colors. I’m buying posters of paintings that I love and hanging them all over the walls. I’m cooking in the kitchen, and holding dinner parties for family and friends. I’m cuddling with my husband, my dog, and my cat on the couch, and we’re watching a movie. Outside, I’m starting a garden, and we’re walking on paths through the snow (not at the same time, of course).

14. MAKING NEW FRIENDS

Lesley says I need to ask the Universe for the kind of friends that I want, so here goes: I want funny, artsy friends who’d rather come over or go walking and skiing than go out to a restaurant or go to a show. I want homey people who live in the same city and want to be more like family than acquaintances. I know I’m asking for a lot, so I’ll leave it at that πŸ™‚

15. SPANISH

This is my BIG GOAL. I want to learn Spanish. I want to be able to have a real conversation. Ideally, I’d like to find a Spanish-speaking someone who speaks about as much English and I speak Spanish. We could it would be nice to exchange skills.
Once I’ve learned Spanish, I’m going to use it all the time. I’m going to think in Spanish, and I’m going to watch Spanish movies without subtitles. When I have kids, I’m going to teach them Spanish, and when we go on vacation, we’re going to go to Spanish speaking places. I’m going to teach ESL again, and when we’re done with class, I’m going to speak to my students in Spanish (and English). I want to learn Spanish!

16. BLACKSMITH

I also want to learn how to Blacksmith. I want to be able to make big metal sculptures and put them all over my garden. I like the idea of wearing a big protective hat and holding a blow torch.

17. WRITING A BOOK

I’ve had a story cooking in my head for years, but I just haven’t summoned the gumption to set aside the time and write it. Wouldn’t it be awful to really take a stab at what you know you love to do and what you think you might be better at than anything else and then realize that you’re rubbish? Yup. It’s enough to prevent me from trying so far.

18. TEACHING ADULT ED CLASSES

When we lived in Tacoma, I was a teacher’s assistant in an ESL class, and I LOVED IT. I wish I could make enough money doing it, because I’d do it in a heart beat.

19. A TRIP TO TAKE WITH MY SISTER

My sister is probably one of the most beautiful, wonderful women alive, and she wants us to go on a trip together! I think we’ll start small: I’ll take her to the North Shore or something when we go back to Minnesota, but after that, the sky’s really the limit, isn’t it?

20. THE CARAVAN I WANT TO BUY SOME DAY

I’ve always called them trailers, but when I explained to Ruth that I’d like to have a trailer some day, she looked very perplexed. Apparently, here in the UK, they call them CARAVANS.

While I’d love a sleek, silver-bullet airstream trailer, I’d settle for just about anything. I love the vintage trailers, but really, anything under 3,000 dollars would do. I’m going to rehaul the interior, and it’s going to be the cutest little trailer you’ve ever seen. We’ll take it to Glacier and Yosemite, and we’ll have long, inexpensive vacations wherever we please.

21. THE OUTDOOR GEAR I WISH I HAD

When I walk into REI, I seriously covet everything. I want the big puffy jacket, the fuzzy fleece sweaters, the hard-core mittens, the sensible pants, and the fun work out clothes. I want a new pair of fish-scale skis, and I’d love a new bike and some flattering cycling clothes. A kayak would be fantastic fun, and I’d also love a canoe. I’d buy a fleece liner for my sleeping bag, and a proper camping pillow that had some fluff to it. I might even want an attractive, sporty watch (if they exist). Yup, if I had loads of money to spend on myself, I think I know where I would spend it πŸ™‚

22. WHY I LOVE MY HUSBAND

As most of you already know, I’m pretty much the luckiest woman alive, and I have the most wonderful husband ever. He keeps my ibuprofen in his front pocket, and he pops them out and hands them to me when my knee starts to get a bit sore. He gives me big hugs in the morning, and when we’re biking, he wants to know what I think about almost everything. He tells me I’m beautiful all the time, and he seems to think all my contradictions and quirks are just fine, even grand πŸ™‚ He’s good at so many things, but most of all, he wants to grow and change and be better all the time.

23. WHAT I’M GOING TO WEAR WHEN I’M A STUDENT AGAIN

I’m a big fan of tights and lots of layers, but I’ve yet to perfect the look. I know that there will be lots of scarves, and of course, big bangly earrings, but I need the boots to finish the look. I’m going through thrift store withdrawal.

24. RETIREMENT

Namely, the retirement of my parents. I want them to all live on a great big farm with me πŸ™‚ If they won’t do that, then I want a nice little guest house where they can come and stay all the time.

25. KIDLETS

Although I’m sure you’d never be able to tell by this posting, Joshua is actually the one who wants kid’s tomorrow. Actually, he wanted them yesterday, but since that’s come and gone, he’ll settle for tomorrow. And while I might be a bit terrified by little children (what do you TALK about with them?!), raising kids with Joshua sounds like one of the best ideas so far. I want to take those kids on the best adventure ever, and I want to make a really happy home.

26. THE CONTINENTAL DIVIDE

I’m in the market for more ridiculous adventures, and I think hiking the Continental Divide might do it for me. It’s crazy, it’s big, and it would be so very beautiful. When could we do it? Can you do it with kids? What about kids that are half grown? Could we do it when we’re old and they’re grown?

27. IF WE CAN’T HIKE THE CONTINENTAL DIVIDE, WHAT OTHER CRAZY THINGS CAN WE DO?

We could hike the Superior Trail. We could bike across the United States. Could we learn how to kayak and do something crazy with that? What about snowshoeing? Skiing? I want to something big.

28. GOAT’S CHEESE

Is it easy to make? How do you milk a goat? Where do you buy the bacteria? How much can you sell it for?

29. ARE SHEEP STUPID?

People say they are, but some of them have such soulful, wise eyes.

30. BEE KEEPING

How much does it cost? Where do you get the bees? How do you get the honey out? What do they do in winter?

31. A FABULOUS GARDEN

I want tons of vegetables and things that grow up lattices. Although I used to think that I would only prefer plants that you can eat, I think I might like some flowers too. I’d love to be able to cut them like Lesley does and put them in little vases all throughout the house.

32. HOW I WILL DECORATE OUR HOME

I’ve already discussed my grand plans for picture frames and curtains, but I’d also love a kitchen with brightly painted cabinets. I like walls with wainscoting, and lots of blue paint. I might like to create funky tile mosaics and nail up strange architectural details like floating fireplace mantles and broken wooden chairs. I’d like to have shelves for all of my tins and I’d love to collect vintage cookware. Wallpaper is my favorite, and I can’t wait to find old flea market furniture to fix and decorate.

33. WINTER SPORTS

I haven’t had a snowy winter in over six years, and I’m excited to move back home and live in the cold. I love swishing through the snow in skis and plodding through snow-heavy trees in snowshoes. I love the crunch and how cold air is the freshest air you’ve ever breathed. I love the wintertime.

34. ADVENTURE RACING/ ORIENTEERING/ SCAVANGER HUNT

Joshua and I have been planning on designing fun adventure races for our family and friends. We love to watch the Amazing Race, and we want to put up different courses in state parks and on our farm. We’ll have prizes and good food, and afterwards, we’ll have a bonfire.

35. MONEY

I’m a thrifty lady, and I’m always thinking of ways to thrift more and spend less. Before I go to the check out counter, I count up our purchases in my head and make sure that we don’t spend more than 15 pounds a day on food. When we plan our campsites, we go for the ones that will be cheaper, and try not to spend more than 30 pounds a day, total. We’ve done pretty well so far, but I am always looking for corners to cut. Joshua’s a bit more moderate, and he keeps me sane. I never want to be so thrifty that I can’t be generous with others.

36. PRETTY, PRETTY ENGLAND

First, we cycled through Dartmoor, through misty moors, heather, and cows. Then, we pedaled through Cornwall, appreciating seaside vistas and sweet little homes near the beaches. In the midlands, we relaxed on the flat plains and loved the square hedged plots with sheep and bucolic villages. The Peak District was impossibly striking, with huge rock formations and great sweeping valleys, and in the Lake District, we loved the mountains and dales with sparkling lakes. In the Penines, we sweat through moors and mountains, loving the treeless landscape, and now we’re in the valley again, surrounded by green things.

37. WHETHER OR NOT WE’LL MAKE IT TO JOHN O’GROATS

I’m not going to lie; at first, I had serious, serious doubts. After the first week of pedaling through Cornwall and Devon, I thought the hills and rain might kill me. Once it stopped raining every day and the land leveled out, I became concerned with my knee. It ached so badly that by the time we arrived in Bath I wasn’t sure if we were going to be able to continue. Ever so slowly, the knee’s been on the mend, and in the Peak District, I began to think for the very first time that we actually might make it. The Ibuprofen seemed to work wonders, and we were able to do some very impressive hills.

I don’t want to get ahead of ourselves, because I know that Scotland will be a beast, but I think it just might be possible πŸ™‚

38. HOW THE ARCHITECTURE CHANGES IN EACH TOWN

It’s true; it started with grey stone, turned to a cheddar-colored brick, moved to semi-timber and thatch, then went back to stone. Near Liverpool, the homes were a red brick, and then in the Lake District, they became grey and stony again. I think it’s fascinating that people use what’s available to them, and their homes reflect the resources surrounding them.

39. WHETHER OR NOT I’LL EVER GET TO BE A WRITER

I’m writing now, and that’s a start, but I’d love to be a real writer. I know most people never do, but I’d love to make money by writing. That would be the best job in the whole world.

40. WHO I AM

This is probably one of the most upsetting questions that I ask myself, because I can never supply a satisfying answer. It’s true that sometimes I’m very nice to myself, and I have a hard time figuring out what is being honest and what is being paranoid and mean. I find myself wishing that I had a tidy personality that I could identify and deal with efficiently. I wish I knew all of my strengths and all of my faults and I could play to the former and squelch the latter.

Joshua loves the TV show Dexter, and while some episodes make me cringe, I’ve liked others. In particular, there’s this line where Dexter’s sister Deb says, “you just decide who you want to be and you go after it. There’s no point in worrying about what you’ve done wrong.” (Or something like that.) I love that attitude, because I find it so much easier to identify what I’d like to be than who I really am. I’d like to be a creator, a friend, a confidant, and a cook. I’d like to be someone people want to be around because they feel valued and safe when they’re with me. I want to live a life that’s interesting and full and a little bit crazy. I want to be like Joshua; I want to always grow and be better.

41. NEW ORLEANS

Most of the time, I try not to think about New Orleans. She makes me upset, and I can’t help but feel like I failed for two long years. But sometimes, I think about how much I loved those creole cottages and pulled pork sandwiches. I loved the smell of jasmine at night, and I liked living close to Sarah and making friends with my new sister in law. Our house was beautiful, and our landlords were so nice to us. It wasn’t all bad.

42. GUATEMALA AND BOLIVIA

I want to go there! I want to volunteer in an orphanage, and I want to speak Spanish. I want to fly down a zipline in the rainforest, and I want to see the hotel made of salt.

43. WHAT WILL HAPPEN AFTER WE’RE DONE WITH OUR TRIP

Will I get a job right away? Should I substitute? Where will we live? What will Joshua do? Would this be a good time to write my book? Will I start school immediately? Should I intern and learn how to write grants? Can I take arts and crafts classes to learn all the things I’ve been dreaming about learning?

44. APPLICATION ANXIETY

I should really apply to school. Should I go for my Masters in Art Education at the University of Minnesota, or should I just get another bachelor’s in Education from University of Wisconsin River Falls or Stout? Should I try to be certified in something other than art? How can I do that?

45. HOW UNFLATTERING BIKE SHORTS ARE

I don’t care how muscular or skinny your legs are. Bike shorts are the most unflattering pieces of apparel. They pinch in all the wrong places, and they leave absolutely nothing to the imagination. Once they come off, you have these stark tan lines, and when you put them back on, the little elastic grippers pull at your sun burn. I feel compelled to tell Joshua that he’s only allowed to take pictures of me from the waist up, even though my legs are more toned now than they’ve ever been. Who made bike shorts? I’m sure it wasn’t a woman.

46. HOW TO BE A BETTER DAUGHTER/ NEICE/ SISTER/ WIFE/ FRIEND

I’m so terrible at keeping in contact with people, and I feel horrible about it. The blog helps, but I know that relationships require a little bit more than a blog. I’ve been trying to send post cards, and when we get home, I’ve resolved to never miss a birthday ever again. I still hate the phone, but maybe there are ways to get over that? Most importantly, I want all the people I love to know that I love them.

47. THE FIVE YEAR PLAN

Joshua is much more scientific about The Five Year Plan. He has a little note book, and he draws charts and graphs showing me how we’ll make money, when we’ll build our home, and when we can have kids. I think we’re both a little impatient to start living the life we want NOW, but sometimes, we’re just a bit too impulsive and spontaneous to stick to The Plan. Either way, it’s fun to think about all the things we want to do and all the ways we could make it happen.

48. THE BOOKS I’M READING

Yup, I’m a day dreamer.

49. OTHER TRIPS I’D LIKE TO TAKE

I need to go to North Africa some day. Of course, Guatemala and Bolivia have already been discussed, but it’s also a shame that I’ve never even been to Mexico. In terms of Europe, I’d love to go to Croatia, and I have to see Tuscany, Florence, and Venice. Some day, I’d love to see Scandanavian Fjords, and I’d really like to see the Northern Lights. I’ve never been too fussed on Asia, but I think I might really like to go to Thailand and maybe even Mongolia.

50. WHAT KINDS OF GIFTS I SHOULD BRING BACK FOR MY FAMILY AND FRIENDS

Don’t be shy; if you know you’d like something, just tell me what it is! I’m going to buy you something anyway, so there’s no harm in asking. I’d much rather give you something I know you’ll love. If you don’t ask, I’ll just have to guess, and more often than not, I’ll end up getting you something I’ve already gotten you before or something I’d like to get for myself πŸ™‚


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Lake District to Alston

Date: August 15, 2010
Route: Chapel Stile to Alston
Distance: 52 miles

I woke up this morning when Joshua tapped me on the shoulder. I had zipped up and cinched in my mummy bag so tightly that only my nose and mother were exposed. Underneath, I was wearing two long sleeve shirts, pants, hiking socks, and my hat. Beneath my hat, I had shoved ear plugs deep into my ear canals.

I don’t want to give the impression that I’m a light sleeper, because it simply isn’t true. I can sleep in cars, airplanes, and buses. I can sleep on all sorts of beds, the ground, and on hard planks of wood. I fall asleep swiftly, and once I’m asleep, I can tune out the sounds of thunderstorms, Joshua getting in and out of bed, and the sounds of small warfare going on outside our bedroom window. It’s a serious gift, and I am seriously grateful.

That said, I have found something through which I cannot sleep: the snorts and fits of a receding palate. Last night after we had returned from Ambleside, we saw that a family had pitched their enormous tent right next to ours. In comparison, ours looked like it might be a little seedling that theirs had planted. Just as we set down our bikes, we heard the high pitched squeal and howl of a baby getting ready for a good late afternoon cry. Joshua and I made eye contact, and in that moment, we saw our night flash before our eyes.

The baby didn’t wake me once. As far as I’m concerned, the baby slept like… Well, a baby. Its father, however, snored like a teamster. I know this because, even though I had ear plugs, a hat, and my sleeping bag encasing my head, I could still hear him. As I lay awake, I contemplated the misfortune of his wife.

When I woke up this morning, I told Joshua that I had a plan. Should he ever develop a snore, we would immediately seek medical attention. He would go to a specialist, and whatever surgeries they recommended – tightening the palate or shifting the deviated septum – he would get. We would put him on a diet, and we would give him breathe right strips. If worse came to worse, he would wear a ventilator. In the mean time, I would wear the best ear plugs money can buy, and we would drown out the sounds of his great, gurgling snores with the sound of a thousand fans and calming music. If that didn’t work, I would work up some kind of muffling, music playing contraption that I could strap around my ears.

After I told him all of this, I patted him on the arm and said, “so I wouldn’t have to leave you after all.” He looked a little confused.

Once we had packed up our camp, we hopped on our bikes and headed out of Braysbrown Farm at 8:30. We had planned to make an earlier start, and rolling out of Chapel Stile on our way to Ambleside, we felt pretty self-congratulatory. Everyone else was still wiping sleep from their eyes, hopping in their cars, and driving up to the bathrooms just to have a little piddle, brush their teeth, and smooth back their riotous hair. Not us. We’re biking bad-asses, and today, we’re going to take on the bad-ass biking world.

As soon as we change Joshua’s front tire. Forty-five minutes later, we had learned two things: number one, don’t get too self-congratulatory (you’re just asking for fate to intervene), and number two, tire patches go orange side down and black side with the orange ring up. You might be wondering: umm… Haven’t you guys already patched a few tires? Well, yes, if you’re asking, we have, and before you ask, no, they were not patched correctly, and yes, that’s probably why we have to pump up our tires twice a day, because, yes, they all have slow leaks.

Oh. So now you’re wondering how we figured out that we were doing it the wrong way? Well, the answer is very simple, really. Ellie read the directions in the patching kit, and Joshua realized that sometimes, when you’re teaching yourself how to do things and no one has ever shown you how to do them, it might be a good idea to maybe look at the directions.

Some people might let an hour-long tire ordeal get them down, but not us. While we weren’t feeling quite as bad-ass, we were still feeling pretty chipper. Once we cycled through Ambleside, we turned right onto the road leading for Kirkstone Pass, and yes, since you’re asking, we are aware that the word ‘Pass’ usually means that there will be a very big hill, which there was.

Almost immediately, the road went straight up hill. Signs warned us: 20 percent grade! Dangerous while wet! Driving conditions in winter may be impossible! One sign simply named that which we were about to undertake, ‘The Struggle.’ For the next twenty minutes, we heaved and pulled up the hill in lowest gear.

Some of you may remember back to Glendalogh when my body chose a most opportune time to remind me that I am a woman. Never one to let the moment pass, my body chose half way up ‘The Struggle’ to remind me that, yes, indeed I am a woman, and I would like a bathroom now, please.

There wasn’t a bathroom, but I hopped over a stile, ran through a field, and chose a scenic spot beneath some trees and away from any one’s view. Anyone, that is, except for a whole heard of cows that stopped chewing long enough to look over at me while I did my business. A couple of them even pawed the ground, which made me very nervous indeed.

Safe from a stampede and other womanly accidents, we continued up the 3 mile long hill. Did I mention that we ascended nearly 500 meters in that distance? Well, it’s true, and although we had to hop off and push our bikes up most of it, when we reached the top, I felt very, very bad ass. People clapped. People stared. We took a picture next to the warning signs, and then, we started the long cycle down.

From the Pass to Penrith is about 21 miles, and the first 6 are pretty much down hill. As we descended into the valley, we were greeted by even more beautiful views. Here, fields and lakes were cupped on every side buy wrinkly, soft mountains that reach up to the sky, and the weather was phenomenal. Above, everything was shining and blue, and below, the grass and lakes sparkled with it. Even the buildings looked tinged in buttercups and roses. The sheep were munching happily, warming their backs in the rays, and the English came out en masse, stripped down to their white, white skin and worshipped the Sun (who so rarely deigns to visit).

Riding into Penrith, we decided that we like the Lake District a lot, and we would like to return. One little hike and another little bikeride are not enough to explore a fraction of it. After 30 miles of cycling, we entered the historic market town of Penrith and headed for the Tourist Information Office. Although our maps and guides gave us a route through the Penine Mountains, none of them indicated whether or not we would be able to find camping once we got there. The man in the office was very helpful, and we exited the building armed with a whole list of campsites between Penrith and Allenshead.

For lunch, I went off to find a shop, and I returned with a bagload full of food for lunch, dinner, and breakfast. Absolutely starving from our morning trek, we wolfed down four baguettes, a round of Laughing Cow cheese, a punnet of strawberries, four apricots, a tub of couscous, a tub of pesto pasta, and a really disgusting candy bar called a Crunchie. Joshua strapped the rest of the food to his bike, and we headed out.

Feeling like I had a bit of a food baby in my belly, I climbed the hill out of Penrith slowly, but after about a mile of climbing, lunch was a memory, and I felt much better. Descending through Edenhill Valley, we passed bucolic farms and hundreds of sheep and cows. Feeling a little high from all of the sunshine, Joshua and I raved the entire time over how pretty everything was, how nice the weather was, and how the hills didn’t even seem that bad when the sun is out.

Riding through Langwathby and over streams, we had a perfect view of the climb to come. The Penines run down the middle of England, and their bumpy terrain serve as the country’s backbone. While our guide book had hemmed and hawed about how difficult the pass would be, the view from here didn’t look half bad. After the climb out of Ambleside, we felt like we could do pretty much anything.

After a little detour on a very bumpy off-road section, we began the climb in earnest, but since North Englanders have the sense to build roads with switchbacks up mountains, our 2 mile climb wasn’t bad at all. Finally, we feel like big strong cheeky bulls again. At Hartside Pass, we took a break in the parking lot of the highest cafe in England, and as we looked out over the fading English countryside, we felt very proud of our day’s accomplishments.

The last 6 miles led us gently downhill, and in Alston, we found a Caravan Park (which actually looks a lot more like a trailer park) that would let us set up camp. We pitched out tent quickly, and then I headed off to take the creepiest, scariest shower of my life.

The building that the showers are housed in can only be reached by a tunnel. This tunnel is formed out of what must have been a huge sewer or septic tank, and the walls are rusty and curved. Inside, the building looks like an asylum with frosted, grated windows, and peeling blue walls. The women’s bathroom has the most rudimentary plumbing. I’m pretty sure I could have installed the sinks, toilets, and showers, and that’s saying a lot. I have zero experience being house-handy.

The shower was pretty much a pipe with electrical tape fuzzing up the part where the water came out. I bolted the rusty lock and then took the quickest shower of my life, looking up at the sides of stalls the whole time to see if an axe murderer was about to leap over. Once I had toweled off and gotten dressed, I bolted. As I was walking out, I saw an old room with a ton of junk in it, but first and foremost, I saw woodshop implements. Things for sawing and drilling and cutting. CREEPY.

Back at the campsite, we met our camp neighbor, a gentleman from Edinborough who had just hiked from a small town on the border. We chatted for a while about camping equipment and our journeys, and we all agreed that Lands End is a tourist trap, Millet’s (the camp store) is cheap, and it’s the journey that counts. When Joshua went off to take his shower, I began cooking the rice, and I asked him what he does for a living. Right now, he mends railway machines, but after he got out of the airforce and the military, he just started a system of working for three years and then taking a year off. He called it constructive loafing; I called it smart planning.

Comparing seats – his, a fold up chair, and mine, a plastic garbage bag – he gave me a little inflatable seat pillow which I first refused and then gave in when I realized that it would actually be really nice to sit on something other than the hard ground. When Joshua came back, we ate rice, green beans, and baby corn with Korma sauce. On the side, we snacked on sugar snap peas, and for dessert, we ate flap jack. To wash up, I went with Joshua back to the scary place. I wasn’t about to have him murdered while he was doing the dishes.

Date: August 14, 2010
Route: Chapel Stile to Ambleside and Back; The Fairfield Horseshoe
Distance: 11 miles biking; 8 miles hiking

When we woke up, the clouds were rolling off the valley, and with a little bit of sun shining through, I was feeling a bit more optimistic about the Lake District. After a breakfast of rice pudding and bananas, we hopped on our bikes and cycled into Ambleside.

Locking up in the heart of the village, we wandered into the Tourist Office to find out where to hike, and after we gave one guidebook a cursory glance, we figured we could make sense of the trail as we went. How hard could it be?

Climbing the hill out of Ambleside, we quickly crossed a stile and found a well-trodden public footpath. Following a rushing stream and a tree-filled valley, we hiked up. After a couple of miles, we emerged from a gully and found ourselves in a treeless dale surrounded by enormous mountains on either side. From where we stood, we could see our path run up where the two mountains met, and although the sky threatened rain, it was impossibly beautiful.

Tramping through fields filled with sheep, we enjoyed the valley to ourselves, and when we made it to the top of mountain, we could see miles of the Lake District on the other side: more mountains, more lakes. Atop a hilly craig, we stopped for a lunch of bread, humous, and cheese, and getting cold from the powerful wind, we trundled on.

The next stretch of trail was extremely steep, but once we got to the top, we were taller than most of the mountains surrounding us. Far below, Ambleside glittered next to Lake Windmere where a hundred sailboats glided across. The hike and the scenery were easily as beautiful as the Peak District, and we resolved to find a way to come back some day. We want to explore more.

Back in Ambleside, we wandered through the many outdoorsy shops. At first, we only purchased the most sensible items: batteries for my dead headlamp, butane for our empty stove, ibuprofen for my knee, and ear plugs. But once our sensible purchases were complete, I lusted after a super-soft, super-light Mountain Hardware T-Shirt I had found for 10 pounds as well as a blinding-bright, neon cycling windbreaker for 12 pounds. Both were on super clearance, and tired of hearing me dither, Joshua led me back to each store and bid me purchase. (Today, I wore both items, and they were totally worth it. The only drawback is that the cycling jacket is so bright that bees flock to me, thinking I’m the mother hive.)

A few pounds poorer, we figured we may as well break the bank, and we splurged on dinner at a restaurant. Joshua ordered a Rainforest Pizza with jalapenos and bright colored fruits and veg, and I ordered eggplant Parmesan. We split the two, and although they were delicious, they were unable to completely quench our formidable appetites. Heading over to a Free Wifi Cafe, we ordered a pastry with ginger and lemongrass tea, and we surfed the web while we ate.

Weary from walking and shopping, we cycled back to our campsite at 7 PM. The midges were nasty outside, so we burrowed inside our tent to escape their pesky stings. Both of us read until we fell asleep.