Morning and I'm thinking about how deeply moved I was by my dendribiding hosts. Martin had told me over breakfast that he didn't expect it to last another year. We were both silent for a long moment: for me it was a dream glimpsed and vanishing, for him and his company, their home… a hard-fought part of their lives irrevocably removed. There'd be other streams, other forests, but this is small consolation when the one you know goes under for the sake of a road, fast-moving traffic, and fast-moving lives. And those other forests aren't safe either…
My host has put together a hearty breakfast of wheat toast and jam, eggs, cereal, and orange juice. I'm also offered bacon, sausage, and black pudding. A holiday-faring family and an older bachelor discuss their plans before taking interest in mine.
On the road last night, I had decided it was time to turn back, but morning brings fresh hope in the form of my fellow B&Bers. "John O'Groats? You're almost there. You can't quit now! There's no way to say you came this far and went back." They encourage me till I feel it's possible, despite yesterday's evidence: one lift took me 103 miles to Inverness, 4 lifts took me 24.1 miles to Tain.
Okay. I'll go! I wrap a garbage bag around my pack and step out to the road side in a heavy rain. The first lift comes about three-quarters of a mile down the road. A non-descript ex-hitchhiker. We discuss the merits of hitching in the rain. Will people pick me up because they feel sorry for me? Or leave me be so their cars don't get wet inside? My driver tells me he always picks up people in the rain because he's been there.
We head North of Tain and drive across the majestic bridge I saw the night before, looking more down-to-Earth and concrete today; on the way, we pass a girl trudging along the opposite side of the road, wearing a hooded raincoat and backpack. I'm let off near the far side of the bridge where I stand for a long time in the rain. It is very beautiful here with low shrubs, browned grass and moss: damp, inhospital. The girl approaches, slowly, from the distance, arrives and passes, neither of us acknowledging each other.
Finally a car pulls over. The driver is old, with veins rising out of his hands like casts taken of a river-delta. He's smoking a home-rolled, but, oddly, there's no smell. He has worn leather shoes and an expressive, if aged, Scottish voice.
As we drive along he tells me about how, after his wife died six years ago, he bought a German shepherd (a photo cut-out smiles at me from an air vent). He loves that dog, and says so. Every morning the dog's come in early and got him up and out of bed - every morning but one. He woke up and knew something was wrong. The dog wasn't around. He was worried, he said, till he saw that the door had blown closed. Now a steel rod keeps the door open. Always.
You never know what sort of person a hitchhiker can be, he tells me: murder, rapist, criminal. He's only had one bad experience. Sitting there, I brace myself to hear a tale of horror. He tells me how, several several years ago, he picked up a man carrying a gas can. Once they were driving he asked the man about his car and the man said he didn't have one, he just carried the gas can to get rides quicker. His voice thick with anger, my driver tells me, "I was so angry, I wanted to tell him to get out right then. I didn't pick up another hitchhiker for years!"
As he drops me off he tells me about his brother in Canada. He dreams of driving over to visit - taking a ferry across the Bering Strait.
I'm not standing on the road side long before I see a familiar car. He took the wrong turn! Another ten miles down the road, we're in Golspie. The buildings here are low and squat, made of gray slate to match the sea and sky, hiding from the continuous on-slaught of wind and wave.
On the other side of town I wait a good forty-five minutes and no one stops. It's getting to be afternoon and I know that if I don't start back now, I won't make it back. As I trudge towards town, I add "hitchhiking to John O'Groat's" to life's little todo-list and every car that passes me heading that direction is a lttle stab of pain.
|I'd envisioned plunging myself into the sea North of John O'Groat's, but, as it is, I just nip down to Golspie's shore. It's low tide and I have to jump and hop across sea weeds and tidal pools. When I do reach the marge, the sea's lapping massive piles of green-brown "floaty-sac" weeds and all I manage is a quick dip.|
The "beach" goes on for miles, but here it's only a hundred feet from the main street. I duck between a couple of withered houses and start walking South, thumb gliding upwards, flag-like, to be visible over the curb-parked cars.
A white van pulls over ahead of me, the words "Fruit Merchant" stamped in plain, bold letters on the back. The driver's a youngish man wearing a derby cap. Pulling out a B&B banana, I told him I've never ridden with a Fruit Merchant before. He nods and tells me he wishes he wasn't a fruit merchant: he lived in London till two years ago and misses the city life.
We drive in silence and begin to pass cars. With every car, he waits till the last minute, till the van's within kissing distance of the other vehicle, and then cranks the wheel, floors it, and brings us tightly around. He seems oblivious to on-coming traffic. In the middle of one such pass he tells me that lorries leave Alness at 2AM and head all the way North. Perhaps it's ironic that, had I stood on the side of the road by Tain long enough, I may have been able to get a ride, but, then again, that was always true.
He lets me off a few towns South and the next ride - a station wagon - comes as I'm walking out into the country. When he learns I'm working with glaciers, he tells me he's sceptical of the whole "global warming" thing, but we're both agreed that there are other valid reasons to take action and, as he tells me about himself, I'm surprised to find that his actions would put many believers to shame.
He's reinsulated his house, installed solar panels to reduce his water heating, does his own gardening, recycles obsessively, is toying with wood-heating, but not sure if it's a good idea. And so on…
He and his wife split up three years ago, so he likes to get together with friends: that's why he's driving to Inverness today. As the trip goes on he tells me everything I ever wanted (and didn't want) to know about Scottish history.
His car was rather efficient
|We wind our way to the top of a car park in central Inverness, I give him a 20p for the parking meter, he wishes me luck, and I'm off again. The quickest way South - and the best way of assuring I get back - is to head towards Perth on the A-road. But that's not my plan.|
|Inverness is at the far North end of Loch Ness and I couldn't possibly pass up the opportunity to visit! So, I head towards Fort William and the Loch. It takes almost forty-five minutes to walk out of Inverness - my next lift finds me just as the road's narrowing by a golf course on the outskirts.|
Cuddie, a medium black dog with slightly shaggy hair, leaps out of the vehicle excitedly and then, at his owner's summons leaps back in and clambers into the backseat. Trevor's wearing a leather jacket, not smoking, and listening to the Clearwater Folk Revival on a cassette tape (one of a mountain of tapes eroding into my foot space).
I ask him if we'll see the Loch Ness Monster today and he guffaws, telling me there is no monster. If there was one monster, he says, there'd be dozens. I'm not so sure…
I voice my suspicion that the Loch is in the valley to our left, but he says no, explaining that that's where the channel's been dug. A few miles later on he points out the beginning of the Loch. It's more than twenty miles long, up to a mile wide, and, in places, almost a thousand feet deep.
|In every photographic of the Loch, it's depicted as misty and mysterious. Today, it's not very photogenic - just a huge, sun-bathed lake. Sailboats dot the surface here and there.|
Trevor seems to have noticed this as well and comments, under his breath, that Nessie's probably hiding in the deep waters today. This, along with other subtle comments, convince me that he's a believer, even if he doesn't admit it to himself.
He tells me about Brahan Seer of Uig who had a habit of walking up onto mountain sides, drawing a line, and predicting that every point between there and the sea would be annihilated by floods and fire. Trevor's convinced that many of Bran's predictions have come true and many others well. Loch Ness, he says, lies on the biggest fault "on the surface of the Earth". If there's an earthquake, it will break all Scotland's hydroelectric dams and Bran will be vindicated.
In grisly detail he describes how Bran's land lady asked how her husband was in France. Bran replied that the husband was "doing fine", but later told the cook the husband was really "doing fine with the French ladies" (in a very non-Platonic way). So the land lady had him burned as a witch.
|Trevor parks the car in Drumnadrochit, wishes me well, and walks away down an back lane with Cuddie excitedly bounding along. I head through town and out the other side, seeing signs for the Urquhart Castle. I have my thumb out, but I'm planning on stopping at the castle regardless.|
No cars stop, which is probably for the best, as I walk along passing fireweed-picking families on holiday, their children looking up with wonder. Since I'm now the legendary figure their mothers warned them about, I put on a grin and greet everyone I pass.
|Urquhart appears, looking much less photogenic without its usual trappings of dusky mist.|
|There's an entry fee, so I miss going down to the ruins myself and am satisfied with reading about St. Columbia, who fended Nessie off in seventh century, and the Picts, an enigmous people who lived here long ago.|
In the states flags fly above our national landmarks and symbols. It's the same here, but the landmarks have had time to age a bit.
|Then it's back up to the road side. Where I wait and wait and wait. The road's too narrow to walk along, so I wait some more. My smile's feeling a little worn as another dozen cars pull away from the castle, the passenger-seatees apparently not communicating my presence to the driver; my arm is getting sore from repeated thumbing and waving.|
The 367th car stops.
Ross and Helen ask where I'm going. "Bristol", I say; at this point, it's only four or five hundred miles away. "Oh! We're from Bristol!"
"What do you do?"
"I work at the University on glaciers."
"Oh! That's what we do."
Actually, that second interchange didn't really happen that way. Ross, part of a family of narrowboat makers, does something technical as a lab assistant at the university, whereas Helen does something involving a lot of paperwork in admissions. And, alas, they're not driving back in the near future. Recently married, they're up to visit Helen's family in Scotland and taking a few days to see the country.
We're having a good time, and making good time, when Ross cranks the wheel. The tires skid across gravel, the car is bouncing. Helen, apparently used to this, asks what's going on and all Ross replies is, "I've seen something!" Very excited now, he cranks the wheel again. BuMpBuMpBUMP! The car comes to a stop.
|And now, we're all excited. Chewing implaccably before us are the legendary Highland Cattle. While Cowins had told me of them, all we'd seen together was normal cows.|
|A few miles father on, Ross's family history catches up with him and we have to stop to see Neptune's Staircase - the locks of the Caledonian Canal.|
Safely through the locks, the ships glide out onto the deceptively sunny waters of Loch Ness. But, somewhere beneath the surface, unimaginable dangers lurk…
The Doomed Vessel
|After Ross is done oogling, we continue the drive along a shore which reminds me of Seattle. They've rented a room near Fort Williams and are heading there for the night, but offer to drop me off on the far side of town.|
|And then Ben Nevis is peaking out at us coyly from behind trees and farm houses. I'd originally thought I was going to Scotland to climb this, but it's an acceptable succedaneum to watch it slide by as part of a much longer journey.|
More than a week later, Sheila & Co. will tell me that there's a good wide regular trail leading to the top - none of the sketchiness of Crib Goch. This makes me feel better as well.
|But it would be good to come back, someday.|
As if any mountain could ever really be coy…
|Ross and Helen take the time to drop me off on the far side of Fort Williams, near where the road leaves town. It's been fun to play tourist with them, and I'm maybe a little sad to seem them go, but I start South feeling vigorous.|
|Fort Williams is a pretty little town, from what I can see. It's at the end of a long arm-of-the-sea and, around me, the mountains rise up dramatically catching at clouds.|
A half-mile from the round-about, George pulls over. He has a thick neck, a bald head with folded skin down the back, big arms, a pug nose, and, in general, reminds me of a wrestler - or some sort of fighter.
|But, for all this, he's rather nice. He tells me about how good the mackeral fishing is out in the sound - "shoals of fish". About how he used to walk these hills as a child, how it gets bitterly cold in the winter with lots of snow. How this, up ahead, is the Dragon's Tooth beneath which you can find the only golf course for a good eighty or so miles.|
Every so often, he repeats himself.
Dragon's Tooth at Center
|George, like so many I've met, has always wanted to go to Canada, and Alaska. But, he'll have to do it without me: we part ways in Glencoe. He stops the car briefly at a round-about and I jump out, watching him drive away to the left.|
From here the road branches into the mountains in both directions. One way, the clouds are dark and ominous; the other way, the clouds are dark and ominous, and pouring rain. And you, dear Reader, may well have guessed in which direction I'm headed…
Glencoe's Magic Round-About
|I walk along singing an ancient Scottish tune to myself, "Oh! Ye'll take the left road, an' I'll take the right road, and I'll be soooaaking beefore you!"|
In response, the rain begins to really, really pelt down as I pull out my mac, garbage bags, pull my hat on tighter, and stick out a thumb.
|Miraculously and immediately, a car pulls off. The driver might have been Mexican, his passenger was definitely Japanese. They're difficult to understand and we spend the first twenty minutes watching the scenery in silence.|
And such scenery! I feel very at home here, but the mountains fade away rapidly. My ride is going all the way to Glasgow, but I want to spend the night at the Faslane Peace Camp, "protesting" nuclear weapons.
As it is, we all miss the turn, so I end up driving south along Loch Lomond instead. Glasgow begins swallowing us up at least ten miles out (yuk). I'm intending to take the bus back, but, when I arrive, there is no bus.
I think about the treehouses and realise I'm scared to go back. Afraid that I'll find my previous experience was a fluke, that there really is no magic. But, in the end, I'm on a bus heading fifty miles into the night.
|And the bar's still there, still serving big cups of artistic water. The bathroom sink where I brush my teeth is still there. I still turn the wrong way coming out. Florion's not on the bus but a high school-aged girl has taken his place and we have a nice chat. She too has heard of the woods, but never gone there. "Are they nice?", she asks. I nod and give her the low down. By the time we part, she's resolved to visit soon.|
The bus arrives at the stop and, as I exit, a boy with long, crusty dread-locks stands up at the back of the bus. Although I don't have anime-hero-hair, we know each other, shake hands, pull out our torches, and plung down the dark trail.
And the fire's still burning, and Alex is leading me to Kirsten's treehouse (she's out of town, again). Before settling in, I watch him throw a rope up into the Stygian canopy and ascend spider-like into the shadowed branches. It's been a very long day…
The magic lives on.