Saturday, December 29, 2018

Scotland: Part Two of Infinity

I feel overdue for a response from another message-in-a-bottle I've tossed overboard through the years. I'm in need of a stroke of magic, an unlikely encounter, an uncanny coincidence. I'm hoping if I ask, I shall receive.

Camping in Harris
A few words from my personal diary, written the day before I arrived in Stornoway.  I couldn't have known as I gazed out over the surf beyond Luskintyre Beach, but these words, along with my June blog, appear to have foretold the days that would follow.

The seed for that stroke of magic was planted on the West Highland Way. Natalie was hiking the WHW with family and friends, and we crossed paths numerous times during the multi-day hike. When I mentioned my intention to head to the Outer Hebrides, specifically Stornoway, she suggested I reach out to her friend Calum. "Just add him on Facebook. He's a really nice guy, he will show you around. I'll tell him to expect to hear from you".

So, I did just that, the day after completing the hike, as I sat in Fort William in my post-WHW slump. I added the only Calum MacDonald that showed up in my search as living in Stornoway. Must be the guy, I thought. What I didn't realize at the time is that there are likely as many Calum MacDonalds on the Isle of Lewis as there are John Smiths in America.

As I carried on towards Mallaig and Skye, and across to Harris, I felt good about having at least one contact of some sort in Stornoway, having previously had none.

While camping by the beach in Harris, without internet or radio, and just an outdated copy of Lonely Planet's guide to Scotland, I decided to read-up a little on where it was I was headed. I had been drawn to Stornoway in the months leading up to that day, but in reality knew next-to-nothing of what my destination had to offer. Luckily for me my heart was already set on going, because after reading Lonely Planet, I thought, why would anybody go out of their way to visit this place?

Stornoway Harbour
According to the writer, Stornoway "may lie on a beautiful natural harbour, but it's not one of the most pleasant places in Scotland". He goes on to mention the drinking and drug problem, "perhaps because there's so little to do". How exactly can one be a travel writer, yet, at the same time, live under a rock?
Sure, everyone has their own way of traveling, and their own interests, but before making such a blanket statement in a publication meant to inform fellow potential travelers, perhaps he could have first disclosed that he has no interest in: hillwalking, cycling, conversations with outwardly friendly and interesting people, sailing, surfing, fishing, music festivals, art, sea kayaking, rowing, ancient history, Harris Tweed, bird-watching, ceilidhs, or cosy pubs with live traditional music. If nothing in there piques your interest, then by all means, skip Stornoway.

After packing my camping gear from the Harris shore, and trudging up to the main road, before I even had a chance to stick my thumb out, a car pulled over, and the guy asked where I was going. He lived a few miles south of Stornoway, but said it was no problem to take me right into town. It was about an hour-long drive, and we chatted about a lot of things, from the horrors of online dating (I have never) to driving on the opposite side of the road (I had never). Upon that admission, he pulled over to the side of the road, got out of the car, and insisted I take the driver's seat. I briefly hesitated, considering liability, before throwing caution to the wind. And that is how I first made my way to Stornoway: behind the wheel of a strangers car.

I dropped myself off in the middle of town, in search of my first internet connection in days. I was hoping this Calum MacDonald fellow had accepted my friend request, and it might somehow steer my coming days, and make my own experience in Stornoway worth the trek.  


Calum had happily accepted my friend request, though he couldn't seem to place this Natalie girl I mentioned I had met on the West Highland Way. Upon further inquiry with Natalie, I had in fact added the wrong Calum MacDonald.  But, by this point, he had already taken the time to read a bit of this blog, and being a volunteer host with the local community radio station, Isles FM, he asked if I'd join him as a guest the following morning. Sure, why not. Who knows where it could lead. 
And so, the next morning I went to the station for a chat.
Weaving Harris Tweed on B's loom
After the show, Calum mentioned he had a friend who was a Harris Tweed weaver,  and he offered to take me around to his loom shed outside of town. As it turned out, his friend was a piper as well. B offered us cups of tea, and I learned a bit about how Harris Tweed is woven, and he allowed me to play a few tunes on his bagpipes. 

They insisted my trip to the Isle of Lewis wouldn't be complete without a visit to the Callanish Stones, which weren't far along the road.  Standing stones dating back to 3000BC, the Callanish Stones predate Stonehenge by about 900 years. Billy spoke eloquently about the stones and the surrounding landscape, pointing out Cailleach na Mointeach,  Gaelic for 'Old Woman of the Moors', also often referred to as The Sleeping BeautyShe is a series of hills, Mòr Mhonadh depicting her knees, Guaineamol her breasts, and Sidhean an Airgid outlining her head and face.  Her outline varies depending on your vantage point, and from nearby Achmore, Beinn Mhòr leaves her with the appearance of being pregnant.

Callanish Stones
This day will remain a top-contender for years to come for Days I Never Wanted to End. But, I had to keep reminding myself I was just a tourist passing through.  There was plenty more to see in the Outer Hebrides before my return flight to Florida in about ten days. After all, I had my checkride for my Commercial Pilot License already scheduled, and I wouldn't dream of missing it, not after everything I had been through to get this far in my qualifications. All the same, it seemed like a shame that I would only be in Stornoway for another couple of days.

Somewhere in those couple of days, B the weaver called, and asked if I'd like to go to the ruins of a 15th-century church and burial ground, where generations of Clan MacLeod chiefs are buried.  Despite the destination, I kind of felt like he was asking me on a date. I couldn't be entirely sure, as it had been quite some time since I'd been asked on one. 

But, really?  To a cemetery? 

By the end of that evening, I knew I would not be on a return flight to America anytime soon.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Scotland, Part One: Stones Unturned

Two weeks ago, I touched down in Glasgow, Scotland. My return has been a long time coming.
Scottish Castle, Isle of Harris
Fourteen years ago, I left for what was supposed to be two semesters. I would get my degree in Meteorology, and I would be back. I kept in touch with Davey, the pipe major of the Royal Burgh of Stirling Pipe Band, and he sent me the competition sets for the following summer season; the medleys, and the march, strathspey, and reels. I practiced them religiously throughout the winter.

As usual though, I was trying to keep other possibilities open as options, too.  Backup plans, should my primary plans fall through for one reason or another. I applied for various jobs over the winter, and a few days after graduating from Dalhousie for the second time, I received a job offer aboard Bluenose II.  To sail aboard a Nova Scotian and Canadian icon, I couldn’t pass it up. Just one season, and then I would return to Scotland.

But as soon as the summer drew to a close, I was surprised by an invite to interview with a company I’d applied to over six months earlier. I was offered a position as marine meteorologist, and of course, I took it. And then Annie Laurie happened, and she would keep me sufficiently preoccupied until last Spring. And that’s how 14 years pass in the blink of an eye.

Now, I sit on Luskintyre Beach, on the Isle of Harris, in the Outer Hebrides. With the smell of salt air, the sound of gentle surf just over the dunes, and the fragrance of clover and beach grass warmed by the sun, I’m going to have a hard time finding reason to leave.

I had many reasons for coming back to Scotland, one of which was to finish something I started 15 years ago, the West Highland Way (WHW).  I had recently bid adieu to my home of 7 months, Eye of the Wind, and my friend Ben, the ships engineer, said if I went to Scotland, a must-do was the WHW, that it was ‘quintessential Scotland’. He wasn’t wrong, but I set out to complete it rather haphazardly, underestimating the trek, and overestimating myself. And so, after 3 mostly-miserable days, I was soaked, exhausted, back aching and bloody-footed and desperately lonely at the north end of Loch Lomond. I walkout out to the highway, and started hitch hiking.

Being the type to prefer finishing what I’ve started, I have carried that nagging feeling ever since of something left undone. A few days ago, I was finally able to put that feeling to rest. I’m still on the fence though as to whether it has left me in a better place. I’ve been referring to it as the ‘post-West Highland Way Blues’.  Make no mistake, I had an incredible time, this time hiking with my dear friend Louise, whom I used to work with at a coffee shop in Stirling. And despite many days of rain, cold, and occasionally exceptional winds, it was, in the end, everything I was hoping it would be. I could have done without the midges (the local black fly; and I couldn’t have put it better than the hotel employee in Rowardennan who had stepped out for a smoke, and didn’t know anyone was listening, when he yelled and cursed, “YA WEE FOOKEN MUDGIE BASTARDS!!”

The scenery, the folks we met, the feeling of accomplishment at the end of each day... I won’t try to describe it. The closest you’ll come to understanding is to either walk it yourself, or, failing that, stand at the line in Fort
Friends at the finish line of
the West Highland Way
William that marks the journey’s end, and see the emotion on the faces of those who cross it. 

But once Louise was off to catch the train back to her family in Stirling, and everyone else I’d met during those 6 days and 97 miles of wilderness went back to their regular lives, the loneliness and uncertainty began to settle in. I had planned to finish the hike for so many years; as if by finishing it, there would be some kind of answer, or epiphany, waiting for me at the other end. Well, there wasn’t. And now I didn’t know what I was supposed to do next.

It has left me with a latent depression that I can only keep on the sidelines by pushing on to new places. I’m wondering if some dreams aren’t best left unrealized, giving us something better; something daily to contemplate, to give ourselves the push to do something even greater. By leaving that reminder of a dream, that it might give us the drive not to allow the next one to slip by, and maybe keep us more in tune and at-the-ready for other possibilities and opportunities that might otherwise file past in the meantime.

In the meantime, I continue to wander.

I eventually decided to take the train to Mallaig. Girls from a local tour boat company pointed out a hillside where I could pitch my tent. It was still raining, off and on, as it had been since I arrived in Scotland nine days earlier.  It seemed I was constantly in a race to get set-up and my backpack inside before everything I owned was soaked and cold. It was a nice spot, with a beautiful view of the harbour, made even more beautiful when I awoke the next morning to see the prettiest wooden gaff-rigged cutter on a mooring outside my window. I had half a mind to try to meet them and ask where they were sailing to next, and could I join them.  I took the ferry to Armadale, Isle of Skye, instead.  

I spent 3 or 4 days based in Portree, a really fun, though quite touristy, little town. Despite my feet still being on the mend from the WHW, I managed some sort of hike every day. One of the most spectacular thus far was The Quiraing, towards the north end of Skye.  I couldn’t get my head around what my eyes were
The Quiraing
trying to say lay before me. All I could really do was take a few pictures, and tell myself I’d try to make sense of it later. Some places on earth are just that majestic.

Sunday afternoon, I took one of the only buses running that day to position myself for the 05:15 ferry from Uig to Tarbert the next morning. I had the same friendly English bus driver who’d given me good advice on where to camp in Portree, and again, I took his advice for my camp spot, and subsequent hike, in Uig.  He pointed out the road that would lead to the Fairy Glen. He didn’t describe it, and I’d never heard of it, so I didn’t know what I was looking for. But as with many things in life, like stumbling upon a protected anchorage as a storm approaches, or meeting someone you know you’re going to someday love, you know what it is you’ve been looking for once you’ve found it. That’s the Fairy Glen.

A word I’ve been recently introduced to is coddiwomple. It’s defined as traveling  purposefully to a vague destination. It’s not a bad description for what it is I’m doing now. Giving it a name can maybe bring a bit more meaning to my wandering, but any time I find myself alone for more than 48 hours, as I am today, I do find myself questioning what it’s all for, if it’s not to be shared with someone.

I forced myself to hitch hike after the ferry ride, as I was feeling shy about it, having not done it for a few years. It was time to get out of my comfort zone, meet people, and hear some stories, to take a break from my own for a while. I walked for about a mile south from Tarbert, still too shy to put out my thumb, hoping someone might just stop and offer.  When the weight of my pack really started to get to me, and I could feel the initial indications of diminishing morale, I told myself I had no other choice now. I heard a car approaching, and I stuck my thumb out, not turning around, as I thought it could only help to keep my Canadian flag, and my ponytail, visible. The car slowed without hesitation, and with a big smile, the girl behind the wheel said, “Jump in!”

She asked where I was going, and I said whichever sandy beach happened to be along her route. She was from down south, so I asked what brought her here.

“Online dating. Found a man, came for a visit, went back south long enough to sell the house and tie up loose ends. When I arrived in a Harris, I knew this is where I belonged. Though, truth be told, many from here might not agree”.  Oh yes, I understand the feeling of forever being ‘from away’.  But what so many may never understand, is that while it may ring true for most, Home isn’t necessarily where you were born.

To be continued.

Thursday, June 7, 2018


Who doesn’t look back every now and then, and strain for a glimpse of what might have been, had they chosen differently?

A couple of years ago when I first embarked on this endeavor, I was reminded of my age, and that I was not going to be any spring chicken in the industry. I was told of the massive financial resources required to follow it through to completion, and the struggles that would bring.  A few close friends tried to nudge me towards sticking with ‘the sailing thing’. I could have listened, perhaps.

Many times in the last two years, I have felt like I’ve been beating my head against a brick wall. So many days I have faced the feeling that I’m not cut out for this, that my ability to learn just wasn’t what it was when I was younger. Beyond the seemingly never-ending self-doubt lay the plain old logistics of everything.  I had weeks on end of feeling like I was pushing a boulder uphill in the mud; that I’d never get to a plateau, and would end up being crushed no matter how hard I tried.  There were so many signs, pleading with me to give up. I could have heeded them, perhaps.

Boat deliveries over the past year have sporadically provided the necessary income to keep me going, but the uncertainty of finding the next job, and nothing being for-sure until the lines are cast off, have made an already weather-dependent, instructor-availability-dependent, aircraft maintenance-dependent goal very difficult to adhere to, or complete on any sort of defined timeline.
Hiking in Nevis

It would have been easy to give up.  But, over the years and my travels, I’ve observed many around me; the patterns, the ruts, the complacency, the personal history that implored them to keep repeating their habits that have them continue living in a manner that makes them old before their time. They’d rather resign themselves to living a life of quiet desperation than run the risk of changing their situation, and the perceived security they hold, for the possibility of attaining what they truly desire. But certainty and stability is nothing more than an illusion, and it gives us an erroneous sense of comfort. No matter how secure you think your job may be, or your home, or your closest relationship, none of it is truly for certain, is it?

Something within us is lost when we settle for the status quo when we yearn for so much more. There are a thousand different ways we can learn to suppress it; with distractions, alcohol, hoarding, obsessive tidying and re-organizing, retail therapy, or any other mechanisms of avoidance. A part of ourselves gets bundled up and tucked away, almost forgotten until maybe one day something is awoken with us, and we are overwhelmed by the time we think we’ve wasted.  At that point, many decide that it’s simply too late, and will close their hearts and minds, to better cope with the cards they think they’ve been dealt. For those folks, it is just that. Too late.

Finished my Instrument Rating with Yankee Doodle (Cessna 152)
But while some cards may be dealt, others are chosen.

After my six-month gig in Antigua lasted only one week (the same standards of professionalism and morals and basic laws about harassment and inappropriate behavior in the workplace often don’t apply to the yachting industry), I decided to return to South Florida, with the intention of finishing my instrument rating and commercial pilot license.

Training was periodically hindered when the circus came to town (you know the kind that exhibit such marvels like, oh, let’s say, a hippoPOTamUS) and the airport where I did my last few flights was completely shut down during these times, due to its proximity to the circus tent.

I have had some really fantastic people come into my life recently, many of them fellow pilots, who have offered everything from emotional and logistical support, to sharing their knowledge in the cockpit (Rick, Nancy, Rainer, Riley, Justin, Kimberly, Beth). Or, in the case of Beth and Jib, whom I met while sailing Annie Laurie in the Bahamas, a roof over my head as I completed my instrument rating in March and April.  I couldn’t have come this far without all of you.

Being a moving target for years on end sometimes has me worried that I’ve traded love for ambition, and that I’ve sacrificed a life I could have shared with someone, and everything that entails. It’s been a long time since I’ve felt a sense of community, or that I belong anywhere or am needed by anyone.  If those are sacrifices I’ve somewhat inadvertently made through the sum of my actions thus far in life, in doing so I’ve at least managed to not compromise the lifestyle that I consider fundamental to feeling alive.  I’m not sure that any one person could replace that anyway.

Wherever my life goes in the coming months, I’m looking forward to maybe, just maybe, staying put in one place for a little while. I’d like to meet some new friends who might be in my life for more than just a few weeks at a time. Sleeping in the same bed (or bunk) for more than a few weeks at a time might be nice, too... along with having refrigeration and a little kitchen (or galley) where I can rediscover the pleasure of cooking.  I’d love to have a little space of my own again, where I can sit with my diary or book and a cup of earl grey tea, and have the simple pleasure of looking out the window (or porthole) at the falling rain, or perhaps across the table to see someone looking adoringly back at me. If my next home is indeed a boat, I’m going to ensure it is more prone to floating than the last one.

I have little other choice than to continue living like a vagabond for at least a little while longer. Looking back on the past 2 years, part of me finds it incredible that I’m not living under Brickell Bridge at the moment (though my tent and backseat of my car have seen some good use).  I often go back to the notion that has thus far never failed me in life; do what you love, forget about the money, and the Universe will conspire to help you achieve anything your heart desires.

So far, so good.

Having recently completed all my requirements for my commercial license, all that remains is that final check-ride. It’s now just finding and scheduling a plane, an examiner, and a day of decent weather.  The hardest part is finally over.

I will never have to look back and wonder what might have been, had I only kept striving for what my heart wanted most. I will never have to wonder if I'm sleepwalking into the rest of my life. Because very soon, I'll awake from a dream that I turned into reality by never, ever, giving up.

Monday, January 15, 2018

When and If

A few years ago, while living in Scotland and playing my bagpipes with the Royal Burgh of Stirling Pipe Band, I was fortunate enough to join them in performing at that year's Nuit Interceltique in Paris. Our band was flown to France for 5 days to rehearse and perform with doze

ns of other Celtic-rooted talents from all over the globe; pipers and dancers, singers and fiddlers, from Pakistan to Brittany, India to China, Canada to Ireland. But the part of the performance I recall most fondly didn’t occur on the main stage.

It was 3:00 am, during the after-party that followed the final act, in the underground caverns of Stade de France.  With much whiskey being handed around, world-class bagpipers were taking turns showing off their talents. A couple hundred of us were crowded into a small room, drinking and conversing, and a generally  rowdy and joyous atmosphere prevailed. Then, a tenor from the all-male Welsh choir, a group of distinguished and primarily older gentleman, made his way to the center of the mob. He stepped up onto an inverted milk crate, and began to motion with his hands for us all to shush and settle down. It took some time, but one by one, folks began to comply, until eventually, you could have heard a pin drop in the room.

And that’s when he began to sing.

 ‘Some say love, it is a river, that drowns the tender reed…’

One by one, the other members of the choir, scattered amongst the crowd, joined him. The entire audience, more male than female, was entirely captivated.  By the end, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.

Certain rare moments create memories that will last a lifetime because of the way they made you feel.

In the same way, a handful of people during our lifetime can leave the same, indelible mark.

Sailing off Cape Cod, late December
Over the last few months, I’ve had the pleasure (mostly) of spending weeks at a time  aboard small boats with a variety of characters, most of whom were perfect strangers as we cast off the lines and headed for open water.  Thousands of sea miles later, I’ve shared passages between Maine and the Bahamas, Florida and Virgin Gorda, Bermuda and New York, Rhode Island and Sint Maarten, with international crews hailing from Scotland, France, New Zealand, England, South Africa, and the United States. Every trip brought its own trials, some more personal than others. For some voyages, the primary challenge was the weather, as with the 95-foot ketch Carmella.  Delays forced us to get underway from Camden after Christmas, and I had never before and will never again subject myself to the conditions we encountered during that trip. Never. Ever ever. With other deliveries, the weather and the sailing aspects were simple and pleasant; it was the company that left something to be desired. And in the case of Conchflyer, well, that little bi---oat just plain tried to kill us. 

Gerry and I, aboard Annie Laurie
   Through all these passages, I have been exposed to challenges that have forced me to confront some of my biggest fears (Cockroaches, Cooking for Others, Love).  It has also cast too bright of a spotlight on where I, myself, am still lacking.  I have felt useless, incompetent, and irrelevant on one boat, only to find myself feeling valuable, essential, and loved on the next. I have misinterpreted situations and intentions, and have been left with unresolved regrets. In the lowest of times, I remind myself of the encouragement I could always count on from good friend whom I recently lost (so many of us lost…).  He believed in me, and knew where my talents lay, especially when the going got rough.  I always felt like I could do anything after a conversation with Gerry. “You’re fine, Laura. You are fiiine,” he would say with a smile, in his Irish leprechaun way. Then he would laugh at me, and give me a hug. That’s how the majority of our conversations would end, and I would walk away with a new, more positive perspective on my life. Oh, to have just one more talk with Gerry over a glass of wine at the Redneck Yacht Club on the Miami River. I would give anything, especially after a day like today.

It seems the only constant in my life is starting over, and for now, Antigua is not a bad place to try, as winter looms over Maine.  My flying dreams are only temporarily on hold, as I work as 1st Mate on a sailing yacht in order to earn the means to finish my instrument rating and commercial license.  And when that happens, I hope I'll be ready to start over once again.