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.