Friday, September 3, 2010

That'll Do: Inverness to John O'Groats

September 2, 2010

The field next to our tent was fenced off and filled with sheep. As we were breaking down camp, a white-haired gentleman with two black and white sheep dogs pulled up to the lower gate. For the next fifteen minutes, Joshua and I watched as the man - with a gravelly, smoker's voice - urged his two dogs on. As soon as the gate opened, the two dogs sped up and over the hill past us. The long grass and various dips or holes in the ground provided no obstacles; they flew smoothly over the terrain. Bolting in a wide arc around clumps of grazing sheep, they wound narrower and narrower circles until they had a tight pack of woolly bodies in the center of the field. Nipping at ankles and herding stray walkers, they began the careful work of teasing the sheep into a pen at the bottom of field near their owner.

They were so graceful and skilled, we were completely transfixed. There's so much beauty in watching animals do what they do best, and I was in awe of these gorgeous sheep dogs. The owner seemed proud too, and when they finished, he ruffled their ears and said, "that'll do, that'll do."

It was another crystal clear day, and although our cycle guide had forewarned us that there were six epic climbs in the first 17 miles, we enjoyed every minute. Behind us, the Moors rose rough and ragged, spilling into the sea, and before us, great craggy cliffs sprouted out of great crashing waves. Heather purpled the horizon. There wasn't a cloud in the sky.

1400 miles is a long way. We've been biking for more than 30 days, and we've crossed the length of two countries. Today is our last day. I'm not sure what to think of it, so instead, I contemplated the seaside. At the top of each Moor, we saw yet another crescent-shaped beach with pastel blue water and sheer rock faces on either side. Little villages sat perched on top of hills and trickling down into the valleys, and a couple of these stony cottages with pretty painted doors and shutters reminded me of Miss Rumphius' house by the sea. When I was growing up, Miss Rumphius was my favorite children's book, and in many ways, I consider her to be my fictional alias. She has three major tasks in life: to travel the world, to live in a house by the sea, and to make the world a more beautiful place. In her youth, she travels the world, and when she grows older, she finds her house by the sea. Laying in her bed overlooking the water, she wonders how she will make the world a more beautiful place. In the Spring, she gets on her bicycle every day and throws seeds into the wind, and months later, Lupines spring along the ditches and on the hills. The children in the village call her the Lupine Lady.

I have similar goals, and like Miss Rumphius, it is the last one - making the world a more beautiful place - that perplexes me the most. Seeing her houses by the sea had me thinking again. Purpose is a tricky thing. How can we find a way to make the world a more beautiful place? How can I take the good in me and bring it into the world?

Finding no satisfactory answers, I got to thinking about the seaside, and how Miss Rumphius chose to live by the sea. Somehow, this started me pondering about how some Eastern Medicine assigns Earth, Wind, Fire, and Water to different personalities, body types, etc. If Miss Rumphius is Water, I know I am Earth. Just as Lesley stood before the Northeast Coast, opened her arms and asked, "isn't this the most beautiful place in the world?" I feel the same affinity for great stretches of land and mountains. Joshua agreed. We're both Earth. Once we had agreed on our assignations, we tried to guess our friends' and families'. (Mom, you're Water.)

Past Melvich, the land began to settle into softer hills and then plains. We took a smaller country road into Thurso, and along the way, a couple passed us on light carbon frames. They slowed down long enough to compare the number of days we had taken for our E2E journeys and share their bicycle-break-down-woes (they had taken 12 days to bike 900 miles, and one of their bikes had broken a gear cable, but the Thurso bike shop had driven out to fix it), and satisfied that they were much more serious about the whole thing, they pedaled on their merry way.

In Thurso, we stopped at Sandra's Backpacker Hostel to make reservations for our last three nights in Scotland. Absolutely filthy from 7 days of wild camping without a shower, and completely weary of our leaky tent and millions of midges, we're ready for some cushion. Luckily, the hostel is cheap, and we were able to book a double for 34 pounds a night.

On the other side of the river, we stopped at a Co-op and ate cheese and pita sandwiches in a children's park. For dessert, we devoured a slice of walnut layer cake, and when we were full, we hopped back on our bikes for the last 20 miles. Following cycle route number 1 out of town, we climbed a series of hills. The roads were impossibly straight, and on either side, farmers rolled and bagged their hay in polka-dot patterns on yellow fields. Passing through Castletown, we ringed the coast. Grassy dunes spilled out into farm fields, and brick bunkers interrupted fields of happily grazing cows and sheep.

Trying again to summon cohesive feelings or thoughts about our last day, Joshua and I wondered if we would be sad to see our journey's end. We've grown addicted to our routine: wake up, pack up, bike, eat, bike, and sleep. We've loved the scenery and the glide of our wheels upon the road. We've talked for hours.

We decided that we'll be fine. After all, we're headed to Turkey and then India in 4 days.

In the last 10 miles, we confessed to one another that we were tired, and we were ready to be done. We weren't sick of the journey; we weren't absolutely weary. We were just ready. In Canisbay, we caught our first view of John O'Groats, and for the last couple of miles, we pedaled slowly, enjoying our last long stretch of road.

Joshua said it best: John O'Groats exists more in peoples' minds than it does in reality. There is no sign that says, "Welcome to John O'Groats." An old, broken down hotel stands right by the sea, and once upon a time, I'm sure it was open. Now, it's fenced off and falling apart. In the parking lot, cyclists were either beginning or ending their journeys, and when we waved a chipper hello, they were unsmiling and guarded. One couple approached us to ask us how many days it had taken us, and when we said, "about 30," they raised their eyebrows and said, "it took us 14." No one else said hello.

The one thing we had wanted from John O'Groats was a pub. We wanted a victory meal. The only open pub was a little bit up the road, and after a perfunctory photo, we got back on our bikes and headed for our meal. Inside, no one was eating, and a couple of other cyclists were drinking pints of beer. They didn't say hello either. When I smiled and nodded at them, they grimaced.

At the bar, Joshua ordered battered haddock, and I ordered a fish pie. Sitting on our own in a little corner, we ate our freshly caught meals with salted and vinegared chips, and when we were done, we got back on our bikes. Looking at the map, John O'Groats didn't quite look like the end of the road. We decided - just to be safe - we had better make our way out to Ducansby Head, the very edge of Scotland.

In just two miles, we had left behind the sorry little post known as John O'Groats and found the dramatic cliffs of Duncansby Head. Our last 400 meters were up switchbacks, and I turned to Joshua and said, "Fuck John O'Groats, we're going from Lands End to Ducansby Head. This feels right. Of course the last half mile would be uphill."

At the top, a little lighthouse sat perched over the cliffs, and behind us, the sun was beginning to set. The sky was still perfectly clear, and I took the most fabulous photo of Joshua backlit by the sun, waving his helmet like a helicopter over his head as he pedaled across the finish. We still had a third of a whisky bottle from Strathdon, and to toast our journey's end, we drank it all as we looked at the sun setting over the Orkney islands. It was... It was satisfying and right, and after competitive, ugly John O'Groats, its just what we needed.

Biking back down the hill, we found a private little cove with a small beach to camp on. We set up camp for the last time, donned more layers of clothing, and then we went for a walk along the shore. As the light fell, we watched as a dozen lighthouses blinked like fireflies across our vision.

Back in the tent, we didn't even attempt to read or write. We fell asleep.

September 1, 2010

The morning after the ill-fated midge attack, I woke up somewhere near the bottom of the tent. Every time I fell asleep, my body gradually ran downhill, and I ended up jammed at the bottom. Looking at the roof of the tent above me, I noticed that millions of midges had lined the inside of the fly. Although our tent is usually an olive green, it was now black with midges.

Although I usually stay inside the tent to stuff sleeping bags, pads, and pillows into their respective sacks, Joshua and I awkwardly worked around each other in the small space, taking care of absolutely everything we could before we ventured outside. Once again arming up for the midge attack, we covered every inch of our bodies with clothing (including our face and hands), and when we were ready, we quickly exited and took down the tent. We loaded our panniers onto our bikes as we ran down the road, swatting the stubborn midge cloud, and still at a run, we leapt on our cycles and pedaled like mad until we had out-blown the midge swarm.

A mile later, we were still panting. We tentatively stopped to test the midge waters, and when none immediately came to suck our blood, we took couple minutes to disrobe our impromptu midge armour and better pack our panniers. It was the craziest and most stressful camping experience yet.

The road from Lairg to Bettyhill runs through Moor country, and the first 15 miles pass through the last of the coniferous forests which are currently being logged. Nevertheless, the path was spectacular, and once we got over the midges, we enjoyed the beautiful scenery. The 50 or so miles are barely populated, and we spent most of our day away from people, cars, or even houses. Looking back, this may have been my favorite leg of the journey: the Moors were so dramatic on either side of us, and after about 20 miles, we hit the most beautiful loch. The day was perfectly still, and the water looked like this edgeless mirror, reflecting the Moors above. I couldn't stop looking, and I almost ran myself off the road a couple of times.

Stopping along the road, we stopped for a quick lunch of oatcakes, cheese, crisps, and apples, and we paced back and forth to escape the slowly gathering swarm of insects. It was no place to dally, so we soon hopped back on our bikes and headed down the undulating lane. Along the way, we saw two or three pairs of cyclists loaded down with panniers, and while most of them simply waved or nodded in our direction, we stopped and chatted to a group of three. At first, we thought there might be something wrong because they were pushing their bikes, but they told us that it had been a long hill. Looking at the path they had just come up, we realized that it was, in fact, an incline, but we had barely noticed. Trying not to be too cocky, we asked them about the journey thus far, and they said that their first two days from John O'Groats had been incredibly hilly and windy. We nodded in sympathy, but when we parted ways, the two of us looked at each other and bust out laughing. With beautiful weather and hardly a stiff gradient in sight, we'd found this stretch easy. We thought back to Dartmoor, and we decided that the first two days of the E2E journey are a rude awakening. Hopefully, like us, they'll find themselves in better shape by the time the hills of Cornwall come around.

Past the most beautiful loch in the world, the road became a little bit hillier, and climbed and swooped through our last ten miles into Bettyhill. A crofting community that had been exiled from its station further inland, this little village sits on the wild, craggy coast of Northern Scotland. The view on the ride in is stunning, and the river we had followed for the last few miles ran out into the sea, creating white, sandy beaches and great sandy dunes just below cliffs and Moors. Up above, Bettyhill's stony homes had the perfect perch to sit and appreciate the view.

The shop in town was very small, but we found a couple cans of potato and leek soup for dinner. Climbing another long hill, we spied a dirt road up into the Moor, and thankful for a light sea breeze, we set up our campsite midge-free. As we sat and ate our dinner, we watched the sun fall over the Moors, and we thought that this might be our most beautiful campsite yet.

August 31, 2010

We woke up late and slowly broke down camp. Spying blue sky through patches of clouds, we hopped on our bikes, hoping for another beautiful day. Within a few miles, the clouds had broken up almost completely, and as we climbed out of Dingwall, we stopped to strip off extra layers. Above Dingwall, we were treated to a lovely view of the Moray inlet and country valley. All around us were fields of sheep and crops, and above us, the sky was sparkling.

Pedaling along country lanes, we passed a couple of hours just enjoying our good fortune and the fabulous weather. In Tain, we stopped for lunch in a little park overlooking the wide tide flats. We ate our standard fare: sandwiches and salt and vinegar crisps, and when we were done, we headed North.

Between Tain and Lairg, coniferous forests spring up along the road, and we breezed through, smelling the tang of pine. At Bonar Bridge (try not to laugh), we paused to look at the map, and deciding to find the Falls of Shin, we asked a cyclist passing by for the best route. He stopped to give us detailed directions and then warned us, "or this is a bit of Scottish humor, and I'm sending you in the opposite direction because I can't stand Americans." We laughed and asked him if we were really all that bad, and he said that we didn't really sound like we were Americans. We sound like Canadians. Telling him he wasn't far off the mark, we confessed that we were Minnesotans, and he told us that he would know we were lying if we said we were from Hibbing. "Next you'll tell me you're related to Bob Dylan." We said, no, we had no such claims to fame, even if we do love our Northern bard.

Bonar Bridge sits on a lovely loch, and on the other side, we followed a wide river. Turning off on a small country road, we climbed a few hills and found our way to the Falls of Shin. Apparently, you can watch the salmon leap June through September, so we hopped off our bikes and wandered down to the viewing platform above the falls. There are rivers with leaping salmon in the Pacific Northwest, but for some reason, I had never gotten around to finding them. As we approached the platform, I wondered casually if this might be one of those tourist traps where thousands flock to see not very much at all.

There weren't hundreds or even dozens of salmon making their way up stream. At the very end of August, it's probably at the end of their spawning season, and now, it's only the most tardy salmon making their way upstream. Sometimes low expectations are the best ingredients in travelling. Approaching the falls, I didn't expect much, and really, there wasn't much to see. Sure, it was beautiful, but here, in the coniferous woods of Northern Scotland, watching a root-beer brown river run, not much is different than where I grew up in Minnesota. Except, that is, for the salmon.

Every minute or so, an enormous salmon would take a great running start and try to leap up the falls. Leaving the foamy water, they would twist and arc their bodies in a powerful bid to pass the next level of falls, and some of them - if they were lucky - made it. Then, in shallow, rocky water that just barely covered their bodies, they would wiggle their way through the quickly flowing water. It was beautiful, and I felt myself cheering for each one. Every time one leapt out of the water, I gasped and pointed, and I felt my whole self light up. This might sound weird, but although some people look at salmon swimming upstream and think WHY? I get it. I swim upstream too, and most of the time, I do things the hard way. It might sound like punishment, but for me, I don't know... There's just something up those waters and feel the same great leaping urge to get there.

I pried myself away from the falls a little while later, and we pedaled the last few miles into Lairg. Like Bonar Bridge, this little village sits on a loch, and with a clear blue sky above and zero wind, the still water reflected a twin image of this pretty town. Biking in, we decided this was one of our favorite sights. In town, we sprung for fish and chips to go, and then we headed out of town, looking for a close place to camp.

At first, we stopped on the beach, but when we got down to the water, huge swarms of midges began to attack, and we swatted at our faces as we pushed our bikes over the rocky beach. Joshua tried to convince me that we should just through down our tent here, but I refused, saying it was way too rocky. Up the road, we finally found a grassy field that would have to do, and stealing our way inside the gate, we were once again met by thousands - nay, millions - of midges. Running up and out of sight of the road, we threw down our bicycles and set up our tent in record time. Ignoring our sleeping bags and other panniers, we immediately leapt into the tent without even the fly on top. Gasping for air, we swatted at the midges that had managed to fly in. Outside the thin netting of our tent, our tent was surrounded by a thick, black swarm of midges. We sat and ate our fish and chips, plotting our next move.

Finally, we decided that one person would run down to the bikes and carry up the panniers. Once we had them up to the tent, we would toss them in and set up our beds from their. I drew the short straw.

Tying Joshua's windbreaker around my face so that the ventilated armpits left small holes for my eyes and nose, I stumbled out of the tent looking like a serial killer. I hurriedly completed my tasks, and before I could get back in the tent, Joshua instructed me to wiped down my body. Apparently, thousands of midges had come along for the ride. Diving into the tent, Joshua zipped up behind me, and we set up our bedding. Unfortunately, our site selection had suffered in the midst of the midge attack, and we found ourselves on a steep downhill. We spent the rest of the night crawling back up to our pillows.

After 30 more minutes, we watched as clouds gathered beyond the midges, and having already paid the piper, Joshua suited up to attach the fly to the tent. Wearing his rain jacket cinched up so that only his nose showed, he stuffed the netted sleeping pad sack around his face for protection. He was so scary looking, I refused to even look at him.

Once we were finally rain protected and set up, we spent the rest of the night reading. By now, Joshua was nearly finished with the first book in the Stieg Larsson trilogy, and I was in the middle of the last one, gobbling it up (the last is the best). We fell asleep, swatting the last of the midges.


  1. Hurray! Hurray! Hurray! You made it! What an epic journey! I'm so proud of you!

  2. Hey... Thanks! I just re-read this post to Joshua, and I'm appalled at my typos and repetitive word usage! My apologies!

  3. Swimming Upstream - sounds like a good working title:)

  4. Of course, "That'll do" could work well, too:)

  5. Stunning, Ellie - really stunning. I read the postings in order so that the last post I read was from Dunscanby Head. My heart raced a little bit, and when I read your final line - so very, very apt - I felt like I had just finished a very, very good novel.

    CONGRATULATIONS! to you both. What an extraordinary journey! It's hard to imagine that another journey begins in just a couple of days. Remarkable.

    The love you have for each other is palpable, and I am so happy for you both.

    Godspeed, kids. I am sure the whiskey tasted so very, very fine . . . .