As we rolled through the Scottish Highlands, sunrise crept over the hills at 4:30 a.m. 4:30 a.m.! The barren low hills kissed with the early long rays of gold were just as I had imagined - cool gray-green, strewn with boulders, intermittent trees, and shrubs which, when in bloom, would be purple heather. Odd. There were no sheep in sight.
The train rolled northward, and the weather worsened. Muddy tears streamed down the dirty windows. "Oh no," I pondered wearily, "I'm not ready to deal with rain...on a bicycle...in a strange place. It's not supposed to be like this." My mood swung widely: deep disappointment and discouragement at the rain, hope that it would abate, general excitement at where I was, and a near hypnotic state as I watched scenery. Between short snoozes and quick glances outside, a couple of hours passed.
At 7 a.m. my Pacific Daylight Time brain was ready to sleep. The first "real" sleep in hours. I needed my sleep. I wanted to watch scenery. My befuddled brain shut down and my eyes closed.
The train pulled into Inverness. The weather had improved as I dozed, and now was partly sunny and 60 F degrees. A rainbow hung somewhere over the North Sea. I love rainbows. A dark thought clouded my pleasure, "There is only one way to get a rainbow...." I dismissed the thought and revelled in the colorful prism sliding into the distant water.
We strolled the length of the train with an older couple from Trent, England, both of whom appeared to be in their late-60's, and neither of whom was especially adept at walking. To my delighted amazement, they retrieved a tandem bike, bemoaned their restricted pannier capacity, mounted up in unison, ("One, two, three...pedal left") and were off to the Youth Hostel. They were riding their annual trek from Inverness to John O Groat's at Land's End in the furthest northern tip of Scotland. "Have a wonderful time," I thought wistfully. "I admire you."
We organized our gear, paid for rental towels and showers in the station loo, and set off for our ride down to Loch Ness and our own Nessie sighting. My major accomplishment was in not bashing headlong into the two-decker red buses rolling through the station loading circle. Adjusting to the wrong side of the road, new maps, and heavy traffic was not something at which I would become expert with a few fitful hours of sleep and the likelihood of rampaging jet lag. We began reminding each other at every intersection, "Stay left." We each had discovered how easy it was to instinctively pull our bikes into oncoming traffic, scaring the hell out of both us and the unsuspecting driver. Riding comfortably on the left is a learned skill...I hoped.
Riding tightly together during our frantic navigations through the 'round-abouts of Inverness, we strung out along the two lane country road south to Urquhart Castle and Loch Ness, a distance of approximately 20 miles.
By noon the day was picturesque - cerulean sky brushed with thin mares tales and gobs of pillow fill hanging here and there in the blue.
Deciduous trees and grass provided background vegetation for young thistles, the Scottish national flower growing along the roadside, their miniature buds portending next month's purple profusion. The air smelled green - the verdant green of summer grasses. Soon on our left, Loch Ness, a long narrow body of brilliant blue water, an island or two hunched in the middle. Two swan parents protectively guided their four cygnets paddling along the shore. Nessie nested in the deep, unseen. A Nessie sighting was the motivating force for visiting Scotland. My bias was to bike England. Tracy and Earl wanted to see Loch Ness. So we planned a tour that included Scotland. It was a wise choice.
Urquhart Castle ruins are situated about half way down the west side of the loch. The castle dates from Norman times and was blown up in 1692 to prevent a Jacobite occupation. [My British history is minimal, so I won't try to recreate detailed information obtainable in any good history book.]
A kilt-clad piper played Celtic music by the roadside as we entered the castle grounds. Shaggy Highland sheep grazed the hillsides. Excited baby sheep, vigorously waggling their tails, followed their ewes.
Tracy and Earl returned to Inverness via the hilly routes...7-17% grades marked on the map by tiny and easily overlooked black chevron symbols. I started up the same road. This grade was between 7 to 14%! I could struggle up the 7% but at 12% I got off and pushed my bike along - gulping air, and sweating heavily.
"You can make this," my competitive side taunted, "it's just a bad hill. You've done this before. Find a flat spot and get back on." "No way. Not this time. I'm not here to rack up hills like notches on a knife handle. Let Tracy and Earl do that. I want to enjoy the scenery. If I have to walk, then so be it," my rational streak retorted.
A lorry driver on the way down smiled and called out, "You're cheating," as I pushed 40 pounds of bike and 35 pounds of gear uphill.
"Yup. Whatever works," I laughed and gasped simultaneously. I still had my sense of humor.
Pushing was easier than pedaling. A pedaling speed of 3 mph is a signal get off and walk at 2 mph. Soon Tracy and Earl cruised down the hill I was trying so hard to climb up. They strongly suggested that I retrace our route from Inverness. This is one of the joys of cycling...you can change your mind and your route within the turning length of a bicycle, or as far away as the next intersection.
This was my first excursion bicycling as a woman alone. Although I didn't dwell on it, it crossed my thoughts, particularly when considering the possibility of equipment breakdowns. Changing a flat tire is easy. Adjusting a derailluer, mending a chain, or replacing broken cables - these are beyond my capability. I won't make another bike tour without learning these basic maintenance skills. I feel too vulnerable.
The three of us discussed our route planning. Earl hadn't done any at all&emdash;he figured that I would do it. He was right. I enjoy the planning part as well as the doing part. I had done a significant amount of research and reading before we left. I spent many dollars at our local bookstore buying appropriate travel books and maps, and many hours just sitting on their floor "borrowing books by the hour," which, by providing comfortable chairs and numerous stools, they encourage patrons to do. My map was marked with blue circles, ovals, squares, and stars, each referencing a different guidebook's "interesting things." We could pedal from blue mark to blue mark. However, the best laid plans do not necessarily work smoothly....
...We couldn't criss-cross the Grampian Mountains across the country.
...My attempt at pedaling a road marked on the map with a single chevron eliminated routes with significant grades.
...Tracy wanted to get to Edinburgh.
...I wanted to see St. Andrews.
...Earl didn't care.
Our route appeared on its own, creating its own highly personal serpentine track on my map.
We regrouped at Tourist Information in downtown Inverness just as it began to drizzle. Where was my rainbow?
Quickly we learned the ins and outs of booking a night's lodging. The TI people do all the calling, but 4 p.m. is late to be making arrangements. The "good" places, and the "economic" places were full as was the youth hostel. Earl was interested in camping. I was adamant about a comfortable bed in a B&B; for our first "real" night after our two nights on public transportation. I needed to stretch out. The TI arranged our stay in a room for three at a B&B; one mile from where we stood. In retrospect, I know that we could have knocked on any number of doors having a B&B; sign in the front and successfully found a comfortable place to sleep. There was no real need to pay the extra fee to have the TI provide this service.
For safe keeping, our B&B; hosts graciously allowed us to bring our fully loaded bikes into their dining room, replete with white lace doilies, dainty floral vases, and antique furniture. I was directed to lean my bike "most carefully" against a quarter-round corner China cabinet. My eyes settled on an Irish Belleek tea service behind the curved glass. Perhaps my bike would acquire a fine antique patina purely by osmosis and association.
Our bedroom had three twin beds; no one had to share or sleep on the floor. We unpacked, showered, and settled in with a cup of tea. Eventually it was time to go find dinner.
Exploring Inverness was the evening entertainment. While window shopping and looking for low budget food, we browsed through the kiltwear store. Old New Orleans jazz crept around the background sounds of cash registers and sales pitches. It struck me as very odd. I didn't want to hear music of home after spending nearly $1,000 in travel costs. I wanted to be distant from anything American.
We indulged in a nightcap of cold Guinness stout on tap at a nearby pub. Guinness on tap is a marvelous liquid. It is smooth, a very finely bubbled head to drink through, and a deep rich taste. Quite unlike the Guinness sold in the U.S. in bottles.
The local pub clientele looked to be as varied as we were. Weaving through a clot of young students surrounding the bartender, we ordered our libations. An elderly woman sat alone in a booth chain smoking non-filtered cigarettes as she dourly watched other patrons. A couple snuggled at the table next to us, oblivious to all. We downed our drinks quickly, foregoing the pub's camaraderie for the cool sweet air outside.
We wandered up and down streets and along the river, enjoying the extensive twilight. It was incredible to me that it was light enough at 11 p.m. to write a postcard.
I fell exhausted into bed around midnight, and slept soundly, oblivious to Earl's snoring.