Sunday, October 23, 2016

Road Tripping in Scotland



For Drew's 30th birthday, I had a glorious plan. It involved Drew coming over to Birmingham, and the two of us travelling to the northern tip of Scotland for the summer solstice, when there would hardly be any night, to eat at one of Britain's best and most sustainable restaurants.

This plan didn't exactly work out as I had hoped. Drew was working a contract position that didn't include paid vacation, and I ended up teaching a course at the university that would have made this trip difficult. Thus, we put it off to when Drew's contract would be up and I had a quieter period. This coincided with the month that I believe to be the very best in which to visit Scotland: October.

Two weeks past saw us taking an early train from Birmingham to Edinburgh, where we rendezvoused with what would provide our transportation and our lodging for the next five days: Roseisle Campervan Hire's Fiat Westfalia luxury van. I am totally in love with this vehicle. You will see why as you read.

In the middle of Cairngorms National Park
This first day was ambitious. After the train and getting the van, we hit the road to the Cairngorms right away. It was a Friday, and I wanted to get us to Thurso, to the Captain's Galley Restaurant, for Saturday night's supper. Distances in Scotland are not that far - Google will tell you that it's only around 5 hours' driving from Edinburgh to Thurso, which is like the drive from Toronto to Ottawa: done in a morning with one Timmies stop and not a big deal. Except that it's not at all like the drive from Toronto to Ottawa. The roads are narrow and winding, and maybe if you're in a small, responsive vehicle and very determined you could get close to the 5 hour mark. In a camper van, even if you took the most direct route, the trip takes closer to 8 hours, partly because you must drive slower in some places, and partly because you're on vacation and can't help but stop yourself along the highway to gawk at the breathtaking vistas. Drew and I said 'beautiful' so many times that we had to laugh at ourselves.

Hands at 9 and 3
So, getting us to the Cairngorms from Edinburgh, just a little shy of a 3 hour drive, by nightfall seemed like a reasonable goal. And yet, I had only driven so large a vehicle once before, when we took a Uhaul from Montreal to Toronto, but that was on the right-hand side of the road on nice wide highways with plenty of visual space around them. In this case, I was driving on the left-hand side, something I had also only done once before, and I wasn't sure how the van would handle, how heavy it was and how quickly it could stop, or exactly where my mirrors were. Thus, I white-knuckled the van up the highway, and then onto ever smaller, narrower, more windy roads, never letting my eyes stray from the two lines marking my lane. It took us about an hour longer than Google said - partly my fault, but also partly attributable to the fact that it's not possible to take a large camper van up and down switchback roads at 60mph.

Drew chefs it up in the van!
That night I was exhausted, and it was pitch black, and there was nothing to do but eat some delicious food, drink some wine, listen to tunes, and snuggle into bed. The van (glorious vehicle) was equipped with two propane cylinders, an auxiliary battery for the cabin that was charged by the motor, and the separate motor battery so that you never drained that key power source. We stopped near Balmoral in a fairly sheltered pull-off near the road - since it's legal to 'wild camp' (camp outside of a campground) in Scotland, there are plenty of these pull-off areas all over the place, and especially in park reserves. We turned on the propane, got the heat going, and Drew cooked up a feast. The cabin of the van is heated (there's a thermostat), there's a two-burner stove and a fridge, and there is also hot water and a flushable toilet, so we had hot showers and hot meals, and got right cozy in there. With all of the van's blinds shut we were invisible from the road. In fact, that evening I stepped out of the van to see whether anyone could see it, and I felt like I had a blindfold on. The night was overcast, and there was no light coming from anywhere. I couldn't see a thing! I got back in and hit the lock button on the van's dash, and it was actually like being in a little bunker. It was so dark that night in the Cairngorms, and so cozy and safe in the van, that we fell asleep super early and had amazing sleeps.

Looking over Berriedale's hairpin curve -
probably good fun in a small car
The next day, we woke to a beautiful clear blue sky. The day's task was to get to Thurso, but not to do it at the expense of seeing the gorgeousness of Scotland. We tootled our way through the rest of the park, stopping at a little tea house to poke around and spend money, and then headed up past Inverness. Drew had found a classical radio station, and the dramatic music perfectly matched the landscape. It was perfect for me, too, because I didn't have to divide my attention between lyrics and driving. Like a new driver, I felt my attention entirely swallowed by the task of keeping us on the road. It wasn't until Sunday, day 3, that I felt I could relax and look around a little bit (to my credit, we put not a scratch on that van).

Drew cheffing again! Lunchtime.
We stopped at Dornoch Firth to make some lunch in the van, and then swooped up along the coast. The landscape was ever-changing, from the Lunar landscape of Cairngorm park, to the rolling hills around Inverness, to the distant Caithness mountains and falling cliffs into the sea.

The day was perfect. We arrived well before our supper reservation, and walked around Thurso, admiring the view of the North Sea and the Orkney Islands in the distance.

Drew enjoys a meal he
did not have to cook
Our meal that night was outrageously good. I had been to the Captain's Galley ten years previous, to help paint it, in fact. I was friends with the son of the owners, Jim and Mary, and we got to work one weekend giving the bothy a sprucing. Jim and Mary remembered me, and we had a good blether before sitting down to eat. Drew and I both decided to get the set menu paired with wine. The Captain's Galley has won Sustainable Restaurant of the Year for the past years running in part because Jim buys sustainably caught fish fresh off the boats in Scrabster Harbour, so you get what's being caught when you go to eat there. Sample menus are available on their website, but one must be prepared to go with the catch of the day! Mary expertly pairs Jim's dishes with their selection of excellent wines, from appetizers to dessert. The meal was speckled with amuse-bouches as well, which were fun and refreshing. To top it off, Drew and I got to meet Jim and Mary's new doggie, Beau, before walking back to our van in Thurso. This restaurant was entirely worth every moment of the drive to get there, and the drive was so wonderful in itself that it would have been worth doing anyway. People! Dear readers! You must go.

Looking across the highlands near Thurso
Our next goal was to be in Falkirk by 18:30 on Monday, and so Sunday we found ourselves with an entire day to do whatever we wanted. I was at the wheel, and judged that we could probably go and check out Loch Ness, and then make our way back into Cairngorms, thereby giving ourselves Monday morning to taste Speyside scotch whiskey and still be in Falkirk for dinner. We took our time, indulging every urge to stop for photos or tea. I was aiming for Drumnadrochit - a little town on the side of Loch Ness, which has a Nessie shop and a little lunch spot. The GPS was aiming to get us there by the most direct route, and we forgot to tell it that we were in a large van. Thus, we approached Drumnadrochit overland, directly from the north, rather than scooting along the loch. I wasn't sure at moments whether we were going to manage it - we were muscling up and falling down the rolling hills that finally give way to the big drop into the loch. The van, however, was prepared for this kind of scenario; it is equipped not only with an optionally manual transmission, but also with engine braking. With the press of a button, the van was helping me to guide it safely down the twisting side of a steep hill in second gear.

Urquhart Castle and Loch Ness
We made it to the loch in time for lunch and a wander up the road to Urquhart Castle. The sky was bright blue, the loch a deep and glossy black. Nessie-searching boats skimmed across the surface. It couldn't have been more gorgeous. From there, back into the wild Cairngorms, with a stop in Cawdor to see Macbeth's castle and enjoy a pint. That night was perfectly clear and perfectly dark. Every object in the sky revealed itself to us, and we could see the heart of the Milky Way with its black dust clouds and highway of stars. In the midst of this, I was extremely sad to be heading back south. I love northern places, and the Highlands especially - the ruggedness, the space. It makes my heart sing and my life feel appropriately small, giving a kind of freedom from importance.

Sometimes there is traffic

Such a lovely frosty morning
The next morning brought a heavy and gorgeous frost. The bright purple heather and green ferns were transformed into soft lavender and mint, and the rising sun sparkled on every tiny leaf as it filtered through the evergreens around us. We were so cozy in the van that we didn't notice the chill until opening the blinds and seeing the white-frosted world around us. Steaming hot cups of coffee and woolly sweaters helped us outdoors to enjoy the crisp air. It was with regret that we turned the propane off and started to drive out of our sheltered forest nook.

Drew screams for
ice cream!
We were, however, very excited to visit the Speyside distilleries. There are a critical mass of them all to the north-east of the park. We only visited a handful, but I believe we chose wisely: Cardhu, Macallan, and Aberlour among them. We made our way south, again joining larger and larger roads. We stopped at Stewart Tower for ice cream and a break, and made it to Falkirk in time to wander down to see the Kelpies before dinner.


The next morning we had to give the van back. We were sad to see it go. I believe in returning it that I set one of my favourite socks free as well. All bad. On the train back to Birmingham, we watched the landscape become green, flat, and dense with towns. Gone were the rocky outcrops, heather-covered mountains and long stretches of emptiness. Back to civilization.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

That Sinking Feeling

I had just had a meeting with my supervisor at a café on New Street, and was taking Drew to see the university. We were going to do work and I was going to attend a talk. I was carrying my brand-new MacBook Pro, which I both adored and still felt guilty about buying because they’re so expensive. Drew was riding my roommate’s bike, and I was excited to take him along the canals for the first time. The canals are one of my favourite things about Birmingham, and I ride along them daily to and from the university, so I was looking forward to sharing their awesomeness with Drew. But let's be clear about one thing at the outset: no one wants to actually *go into* the canals; no one wants the water upon their person (even though we're told it's clean). The idea of one's body being submerged, partially or entirely, in the canal is terrifying. 

It was a beautiful October day – warm in the sun, but cool in the shade, with a surprisingly blue sky. It was the perfect day to ride under the trees, through spackled sunlight. We were just into our ride, just outside of what you might consider the centre of the canal system and heading along the canal that leads to Worcester, when it happened.

I was in the lead on my bike, and as we approached the (wide, modern) Five Ways underpass, I suddenly and mysteriously† wobbled and felt myself lose control of my bike. Having ridden along the canals for some time now, I have had a plan in case of such an emergency: bail as quickly as possible onto the ground, to avoid falling into the water. This, I did. But it did not help. Momentum was not on my side, and though my knee struck the ground (and Drew had time to think I was going to stay on land) I felt with horror as my bike, and I upon it, still somehow mostly upright, plunged into the water.

My entire being had one feeling at that moment, and it formed itself and whispered in my ears: No.

But yes! I saw the surface break, saw my hands brace out as if I could stop myself from going under, felt my bike sink away from me, and saw the water wash over my glasses. I was under water for the briefest moment, and yet my body had time to register the temperature (warm compared to the air), smell (clean and wet-rock, like a river), appearance (clear), and depth (greater than I had been led to believe). 

A single thought: COMPUTER.

Drenched in wool and leather
I surfaced, full-panic. Quoth I, “NAAAGH! NGAAGH! NAAAGH!” as I kicked and paddled, grabbed the side of the canal and launched myself up and onto the path. I frantically cried “Oh my god! Drew! My computer!” as I tried, legs still submerged and wriggling like a seal, to shake my soaking backpack off my drenched and clingy leather jacket. Drew was already in action, pulling my backpack off and taking out my things. I hauled myself fully out of the water, near-hysterical, and stood stock-still repeating phrases like ‘Oh my god,’ ‘I can’t believe that just happened,’ and ‘My bike.’

To his immense credit, Drew was looking at me with the most concerned and sympathetic eyes. I may have been dying with laughter if our roles were reversed. Two women who were walking by at the time got to see the entire spectacle. One of them asked if I was alright, but the other was straight-up impressed. “I’ve never actually seen anyone do that,” she said. I was congratulated on getting myself out of the water; “most people can’t get out.” Satisfied that all the damage was emotional, they went on their way.

My bike was gone. By some absolute miracle, my computer was dry. My phone, too, had but the slightest hint of moisture on its case. Drew tucked both of these into his warm and dry backpack, as I stood dripping. With those things safe, I was permitted to turn my thoughts to my poor, poor bike. My trusty, German-made, puncture-proof tyred, fully-fendered, wicker-basketed bike! It was down there in the water – just down, right down there. I stripped off my jacket and told Drew I was going back in for it. I put my jacket back on and told Drew that was totally insane I wasn’t going back in. My boots squelched. I took them off and squeezed out my socks, put them back on, and started trudging, with Drew, back home.

Haha just kidding
I was swinging between lamenting my loss of bike and general sogginess, and oddly unsettling laughter. We had to walk all the way along the canals to home, passing groups of people and police officers, and not once did anyone comment on my clearly sodden and bedraggled appearance. Brits! It would have been so much less embarrassing if someone had commiserated or made a joke with me, but everyone was straight-faced.

Thanks to the Canal & River Trust, I got my bike back. Two men with a long hooked stick dragged it out of the water (after first chancing upon some bags of trash). In the end, everything came through intact. The only things left to mark the event are my personal trauma and Drew’s memories, and now this story. 

† Leading theories of what caused the wobble include: 
• Five Ways Bridge trolls, exacting their price
• Tow-path elves, playing tricks
• A kelpie, attempting to eat me (though I'm not sure they live in England)