Wakefulness comes, as always, too early. Turning my head sleepily, the glory of sunrise silhouettes the trees of the forest, dew igniting lush grass. I stare, in wonder, and go back to sleep.
Wakefulness comes, as always, too early. Turning my head sleepily, the glory of sunrise has begun to colour in details. The tree bark is distinct, even the babbagurging brook seems more intelligible. Kirstin coughs in her sleep, and again, with a distinct accent, a sort of rounding "oh" to the end of the rasp.
Wakefulness comes, as always, too early. Turning my head, I see illuminated hair disappearing out of view. As I think about getting up, it reappears - just a quick bathroom trip.
Wakefulness comes early and I lie there, listening to the brook, listening to Kirstin's breathing, listening to birds singing in my tree. Using my powers of über-stealth, I crouch my way over the sleeper, my feet landing in my shoes. Noiselessly, my backpack slides on and, gracelessly, I fight my way through the narrow exit. Kirstin doesn't stir, so my mission's accomplished.
|I balance for a while, hanging out on a precarious ledge, taking it in. The blue tarpuline of Kirstin's home gives way to trunks and branches and, all around me, other tree houses.|
|Swinging down the ladder, I wander off through the trees and greet the sunrise at the marge of a large field (replete with mysterious castle-tower). Now, it's time to figure things out.|
Walking back, I find myself amidst a small village of treehouses. Many have windows; many of the windows have books.
|I'm drawn to the sound of wood chopping on the far side of the brook and there, in the square, I meet Martin. He's been living at protest sites since 01992 and at this one for two years. He's made up a small cooking fire and offers me coffee and tea, I decline, and he produces hot cocoa from a rusted filing cabinet in the "kitchen". I earn extra cred for having stowed my pack away from the seats by the fire.|
|Martin and I lean back against a rough-hewn bench in which someone's carved, "f*** farmers, make passionate love to gardeners" - our beverages steaming and he tells me how this place has been around seven years in an effort to prevent the powers that be from bulldozing themselves a new road right through the glen. Things have become more defensive this past year, he says, with many low-lying structures being replaced by high-flying treehouses.|
Signs explaining grey-water recycling
|They were just out dumpster-diving last night and brought back a veritable treasure trove of food and Martin invites me to help myself. After selecting a few thick wheat slabs from a drawer full of bread and, subsequently, picking the moldy patches off, I toast the bread over the fire, slowly applying a formerly high-priced jam. Martin tells me that most of the regulars are over in Coalburn right now, setting up a new camp to prevent mine expansion there.|
The community's invited to have lunch the last Sunday of every month, so there's been some minor preparation for that, I'm told as I browse the library - a ground-level tarp-covered room open on the front. The books inside include many classics both in the regular sense, and the "Sci-Fi classic" sense, many books of poetry, recipe books, enough international dictionaries to satisfy a linguistics prof, atlases - it's very complete, well-organised, and lacking Leopold. The far wall has various newspaper cuttings about protests elsewhere and the one here.
Martin notices me looking at these and tells me about the peace camp near the Trident submarines. A handy illustration on the wall shows the UK's fleet of four, each having 16 missiles the size of a school bus, each school bus having 8 warheads, each warhead 8 times as powerful as the one they dropped on Hiroshima - or, in total, 4096 times that destructive capability. Another illustration speaks of Australian Eucalyptus regnans trees being bulldozed for dubious industrial benefits.
Heading outside, I take in the treehouses again while Martin tells me that the highest treehouse they've ever had in the UK was 165 feet, you had to use two ropes just to absail down.
I drop Kirstin a thank you note in the form of a scrap of waterproof paper stuck in her ladder and come back to pack up. Swinging by to say bye to Martin, I discover that Anura the Spaniard has appeared with her bag of juggling equipment. Matt's been telling her about my Alaskan travels and she reveals, in broken English, her life-long desire to go there. Despite our efforts, the conversation hits the language barrier: there's more we'd like to say, but it's time to be going.
|Walking away, I'm sure that I'll never see the likes of that place again and, once I hit the road, discover that it's somehow become noon!|
|The city bus swings me into Edinburgh, which reveals itself to be much more beautiful by daylight, with hills in the distance, and rocky out-croppings within the town itself. I drop by the "Underground Cafe" and go crazy at a piano for the first time in a month or so. My fingers feel like they're waking from a long sleep and are still groggy, but the performance earns me applause and a free breakfast roll. Then it's onto the bus and I'm flying North.|
|North to Perth! Disembarking, I lose myself in the tiny town for a while before getting a map of Scotland from the tourist info center, a sandwich and a Greek yogurt (I didn't have the heart to try the dubiously refrigerated ones available that morning), and then heading out, on foot, to the edge of the city.|
I knew I was heading the right way…
Even for a small town, the edge is long in coming and the lack of sidewalks is discouraging, but finally I'm trudging up the grassy marge of the A-road away and away into the countryside.
Cars fly past, ignoring the my thumb's implicit plea (a map of all this hitching is here). On the corners, I hide my thumb lest a carelessly helpful driver cause a crash. This goes on for a while, but, finally, I round a bend and there, a quarter-mile ahead, a red car is sitting on the side of the road in a lay-by. (Lay-bys being the ultra-intelligent Scottish/British idea of placing a designated pull-off area (really, a glorified shoulder) every five miles or so.)
The driver's door opens and a figure appears, beckoning me. I break into my "I got a ride" sprint, the backpack's buckles sliding open as I go. Jumping into the vehicle, I'm asked where I want to go and it turns out I only have a rather vague idea about hiking Ben Nevis and spending a night in the country-side by Fort Augustus. But the lift's going as far as Inverness… which means I could come down to Fort Augustus via Loch Ness - definitely an improvement to my plans!
I decide to decide later on, the car is kicked into gear and we're off. Cowins introduces himself and explains that he's heading North to investigate rumours of flats in the Loch Invers area. He's wearing a gray trench-coat with a big collar, cordoroys so old that the ripples have worn off on the thighs and knees, and what appear to be aged, high-quality, light-brown leather shoes. With his full gray-beard and gray head-hair, he looks very much the figure of a detective and I tell him so.
Cowins chuckles and explains that he's a semi-retired solicitor. He's thinking of renting out the flat, but also, maybe one day using it himself. When he was younger his uncle was a school teacher up in the Invers area and he used to go visiting. I've been visiting my own uncle, I reply.
I ask what a solicitor does and Cowins explains it's a legal occupation. In the US there are attornies who cover legal and litigatory issues. Solicitors don't do litigation, for which Cowins is thankful. He tells me that being a litigator (there's a better word for this) is "90% panic, 10% boredom" and begin a solicitor is "90% boredom, 10% panic". He used to do a lot of work with property, but, now that he's semi-retired, it's been a few years since he's had a case.
Another several miles on and we're crossing through a national park, talking about birds and the geozoology of Iceland. Cowins, who seems to know everything about birds, explains how the circumpolar herring gull's colouration varies, how the Icelandic population is more closely related to the North American species than the European. We speculate this may be related to patterns of prevailing winds.
|The landscape becomes high, blasted, and barren, and we speak about lichens. Cowens, familiar with lichens' inability to cope with air pollution, tells me about the pepper moth, whose lichen-camo was foiled in industrialised areas, how the albino form came to dominate.|
|Dropping out of the mountains, we cross through lush green country-side and Cowen tells me that this is the River Spey, where salmon fishing is popular… and we talk about salmon. A round-about comes up, we nod in agreement, and Cowins cranks the wheel. On the outskirts of the town of Aviemore, the Old Bridge Inn has been welcoming travelers for generations, including a younger Cowins.|
We duck (literally) into its dark interior, Cowins orders himself a pint and buys me my stiff drink. A half-hour later we're in the car again, driving beside a lazy brook and trying to find our way out of Aviemore. This takes a while, but we persevere and, in the end, victory is ours and we've both seen more of Aviemore than we really wanted to.
The land rises again and I learn about the watersheds we're passing. Cowins affirms that it is indeed fireweed growing along the road - one of my favourite flowers and a hallmark of Alaska.
Finally, Inverness appears and I bid Cowins good-bye as he goes off to search for the Loch Ness Hotel (which doesn't appear on any map). It's been a good 103 miles, but the journey isn't over yet! I begin trudging North…
The Kesock Bridge, Inverness
(Opened by Queen Elizabeth in 01982)
|And no one stops for the longest time. Probably because stopping on a bridge is a bad idea and stopping near a bridge is a bad idea and stopping near to being near a bridge… after a while, I run out of excuses for the drivers. I accidently try to hitch an ambulence, and then a police car. Both ignore me.|
View from Kessock Bridge
Suddenly, a black car veers into an entrance ramp in front of me. Kathy, ensconced in a fuzzy black sweater, offers to drop me off at a town I've never heard of, about ten miles away. And Inverness, thank goodness, disappears rapidly.
The well-versed Reader will note that there are only three towns or so along the western shore of Loch Ness and suspect that I know their names. The well-versed Reader is right (or was, when I wrote this) and will therefore deduce that at this point I am not, in fact, going to Loch Ness. Again, you, the well-versed Reader, are right!
You see, dear Reader, my 103-mile sojourn with Cowins left me feeling really good and much farther North than I'd ever expected to go. And, dear Reader, you know what that means… or maybe not. You see, far to the North, as far as you can go on a road and still be on a road, is the town of John O'Groats - the last place on Earth (or at least Britain). It's the far end of one of hitchhiking's quests - the trip from Land's End in southwest Britain to John O'Groats in the north. Cowins recalled fondly how he and his mates hitched from Oxford to Land's End and then up to O'Groats in a week's time after finishing their studies.
And now I'm unexpectedly at the perfect launch point, just a hundred or so miles short! Also, my knee isn't really wanting to climb Ben Nevis, if the truth be told. Substitute one climax for another? Yes.
|Kathy drops me off in the wee town of Dingwall, miles from the A-road. I consider that maybe, just maybe, it would have been better to continue trudging along in Inverness. However, the vinegar-laced macaroni pie and ice cream cone I purchase from the Fish 'n' Chips shop changes my mind.|
TrudgeTrudgeTrudge. A station wagon pulls over and the driver is young, blond, and looks a little worried. I hop in and he's smoking, says he can't take me far. We speed away as he tells me that he just got his license, but, before that, he used to hitchhike everywhere. A few minutes later, I'm at a big round-about standing among some pretty flowers. Cars rush by heading North; a motorcyclist sweeps in heading South and circles once for fun, sparks flying off the inner peddle; the sun slowly sinks towards the horizon tracing spoltlight beams across me. In the distance, the road meanders over the sea and its distant rushing waves wash over the soundscape.
A car pulls over and I hop in. The driver's balding and looks fierce, tatooes run up his tan, tawny arms. He isn't smoking, but there's a heap of ashes in the tray next to me. We speed northwards listening to minimalist rock. An enraged guitar solo without the furious drumming, a screaming singer without the blasting grunge in the background. It's like strolling through a modern art gallery, all the familiar elements of composition stripped away leaving an uncomfortably bony and sometimes revealing skeleton behind. He doesn't talk much, we just enjoy the scenery and the occasional funk chord or drum-beating.
As we approach Alness, he offers to drop me off by the service station where the lories congregate, but I've seen no lories, so I assert that I want the open road beside me and he drops me off at the far edge of town. A green field, practically glowing in the late-evening light forms the perfect backdrop as I wait, again. I think about how earlier in the day I looked at sleeping bags and pads in Perth and, once again, decided not to get them. If I had them now, I could hop that barbed-wire fence and sleep beneath that tree!
I savour these thoughts because there isn't much else to do, besides soak in the country-side. Finally, a small car pulls over and multiple hands direct me to the back. The three grandmotherly ladies apologies that they're probably smelly - they just finished a Tai Chi workshop. Out on the road, they explain that they're all instructors of Tao Tai Chi and were putting on a workshop - 125 people attended, mostly from the area, but some from far off places. They'd offer me a place to spend the night, if there weren't already nine people from the workshop staying at their house.
|They drop me off on the far side of Tain where the sea sweeps, in a long firth, to meet the land - a low bridge majestically spanning the waters. I stand there as the sun finally gives up the sky and night begins to take hold. It is, I am convinced, one of the most beautiful places on Earth. All it would take is one good lift, but now no lift's coming and, somewhere inside, I know that. Eventually, I know that even outside, and it's time to find a place to sleep.|
As I walk into Tain, the first bed and breakfast appears, with a grand view of the firth. I knock and… it's full. Oh well. The next one's view isn't quite as good, but it'll do… or would have, if it wasn't full. And so it goes - for the next six B&B's and the grand hotel. "I'm sorry I can't help you." - the door closes. "I'm full." - the door closes. And I wander along thinking, "Then why don't you take down your vacany signs?" I come to a hotel/pub (let's just call it a pubtel, shall we?) and, stepping inside, am immediately swept into the heart of Scotland.
The bar mistress understands me and hands me an enormous glass of water. While I chug this, I try to answer questions as the slightly tipsy patronage fires a mix of Scottish and Gaelic at me and each other. I explain my need to the innkeep (who is the bar mistress) and she replies, "Thick Scottish Accent… go and check … TSA … no room TSA." A rosy-cheeked, hard-muscled man chimes in, "And this is where you say, 'We have no room, but you can try…'". More TSA. "He's hear from f***ing Alaska, and you can't find him a room?" They send me down the street to another pubtel with even thicker accents, although the situation is much the same. That leaves me with the imposing Royal Hotel - its crenellated stonework looming over the city center.
Inside the lobby, I stand in my backpack and tattered shoes while well-groomed wait staff pad about on urgent missions across a plush, red carpet; overhead, a chandelier makes a pass at my head. Robert, the clerk, explains in a pristine British accent that they're full, but he'll try to help me. And, for the next twenty minutes, he does just that by calling every room-renting possibility in the county. It's not that there are too many, but every person has to be greeted cheerily by name, anecdotes exchanged, the question asked, apologies made, farewells and well wishes given. After each call, Robert reappears behind the thick, marble counter, a sorrowful expression on his slightly pudgy face, and digs out another number.
I'm expecting, shortly, that Robert will regretfully suggest, along with the rest of the staff, that I go die in the bushes (though they'll express this in the kindest and most sympathetic of terms… after all, there's nothing they can do), but my expectations flounder as Robert's routine is broken. He reappears saying he's found a room at the "Schoolhouse" B&B - a good seven miles off. A moment later, he's called a cab.
The cab shows up five minutes later and the driver, I swear, is a cage-fighter or something. He has a slightly haunted, tough-guy look - hard eyes peeking out from little bags of flesh. We swing off through the night as he tells me about the huge gala wedding that's consumed the town (and it's inns) and how he'll be up till 4AM. The cellphone rings and he activates his cybernetic implant. It's not an assassination request, though, just another lift needed. Feeding the car gas, we're pressed into our seats, flying down the narrow roads… and we're there.
Warm, yellow light spills out of the sizable windows of an equally sizable old house set in the middle of broad yard enclosed with a low stone wall. The door swings open at my approach and a smiling face greets me from within, hardwood floors, crystal lamps, precisely situated paintings peeping out from behind. The smiling face tells me, "We're full tonight. But there's room in the bunkhouse."
She leads me around back, and it's a long ways around, each interior glimpse oozing comfort. We're approaching a barn now, cinder-block outlines visible from beneath flaking white paint and crumbling mortar. She pulls out a large skeleton key and the lock squeals. Do imagine it, or is there a foul odour as she opens the door and steps into the impenetrable darkness within?
A light - many lights - flick on and I see that I have imagined it. The inside is thick white carpet, leather couches, a fridge, a washing machine, a toaster, four bunk beds, a TV, a shower. Large windows at the back and front. They've worked a brilliant remodeling job. A few minutes later and my host has put milk in the fridge.
It turns out that there are things you're supposed to know about B&B's. Such as how much they charge and how breakfasts are done. Somehow, this is supposed to be part of your edumacation, and, I discover, has been missing in mine. My host takes the time to explain and then leaves me alone with my veritable mansion.
And I do feel very alone. Last night, I wandered, on rumour and whim, to what seemed like the edge of the world. I kept the faith even when the path got dark and seemed to end in scary graffiti under a bridge (the sort of place where, for the record, a police officer once told me he'd least want to be at night) and that was rewarded by nameless shadows, unsuspecting hosts, and concerned activists, all of whom took me without question into their homes and, if temporarily, their lives.
Now I'm trying out a different system - one where smiling, friendly people close their doors with the quiet assertion, "Maybe if you try down the road…". I remember being younger, driving half the night trying to find a room - sometimes, you didn't. And should you find one, you can buy, for a rather hefty sum, a featureless palace. Functional, but ultimately empty.
|Empty, except for a shower. At least there's one advantage. I have no soap, but a succession of visitors have forgotten their's; I read the labels with dismay: "____ Shampoo: Sensual Pleasure", "Adidas: Fresh Sport Smell", "High Energy Wash", "Cactus-Imbued Soap: Keep Her Coming Back", "… With Age-Defying …", "… Anti-bacterial …". Are the B&Bers that insecure? Or do we have no option but to buy soap that caters to our fears? I realise the smell the previous night may have been the result of my hosts' in frequent contact with suds.|
Freshly showered, I flip the lights, torch my way to bed, and lie there listening to the profound silence of an empty room.