Thursday, May 31, 2018

Bugged Out In Virginia: Part 1 - Misery, Inc.

Once there was a man that came home from a war and decided to walk the entire length of the Appalachian Trail in an effort to heal the pain of losing his close friend in battle. During his lifetime, he ended up hiking the whole trail three times. It is uncertain if he was ever healed.....

It was a normal hot, humid, Florida day in late May, and we were sitting in a MD 80 aircraft on the runway at the Sanford airport. This aircraft and airport were not to be confused with the Orlando International Airport, which is a large bustling place, filled with families eager to get to Disney World, not yet aware of the tropical conditions they will face while waiting in world famous long queues. No, this was the redneck workhorse airport, the one that flies people inexpensively to small towns on the eastern seaboard of the US. There was definitely a price to be paid for those cheap seats, one of which being, even a cup of water would cost you. The only thing free was a couple of ice cubes. But, for a couple of backpackers getting ready to live on freeze-dried food and water filtered from mountain creeks, the hardship of crowded seats on a small plane was a small discomfort.
It was hot on the plane just sitting there, but it had been raining in Florida for days, and the newscasters were speaking of the possibility of setting a new record for the number of continuous days of rain. Everything was getting moldy, and the bugs were starting to invade our houses at night. It seemed like the perfect time to escape to the mountains and feel the cool breeze flowing through our tents while we enjoyed the peace and quiet that is hard to find in the city. It had been a hard fought battle to make this trip happen. The plan was to cover 100 miles of the Appalachian Trail in 8 days. It was a reasonable plan and we knew what we were doing this time. Our pack weights were low, and our gear was top notch. REI had opened a store near my house and I had found a wonderful new place to spend my time and money. We had plane tickets, shuttle rides from the airport to the trail, a hotel room for when we came off the trail and were ready for almost all contingencies...except for what happened.
Paul, the master strategist, had business issues that would have preferred that he stayed home, not to mention a home remodeling project that had gone way over time and budget. In fact, the trip was up in the air until the day before we were to leave. Paul had finally said, "That's It! We're going no matter what!"
What Paul did not know at the time was that there was this little swirly thing down in the tropics that didn't have a name yet, a thing that might just guarantee an unforgettable journey.

Paul leaned back in his seat in the row behind me, chatting amiably with his seatmate while I gazed out the window at the group of airline mechanics on the tarmac below. Our pilot stepped into the cabin and announced that there would be  a slight delay while they checked the logbook for a discrepancy. While listening, I happened to notice that the mechanics on the ground were looking at a couple of screws in the palm of one guy's hand. I was sincerely hoping those were not leftovers from the most recent repair work.
As we sat in the plane, roasting in the Florida heat, it became apparent that the logbook issue was not the primary reason were not yet flying. After an hour, we finally got our clearance and the plane was on it's way to our mountainous adventure.
We had packed well. It was a month later in the year than the last time we had ventured up into the Virginia mountains, so we knew that it could not be as cold as before. We expected it to be cool, but warm enough to leave all of our cold weather gear at home. There was a fair chance of rain, but that would actually allow me a chance to test out my new raincoat and pants.
Once off the ground and heading towards those smoky peaks I fondly remembered, my mind turned away from computers and yardwork to the beauty of nature and the comradeship of the hikers on the trail.
Something I failed to discern at the time was that there is quite a difference between a gentle summer shower and a month of rain....

Monday, May 21, 2018

A Wee Camping Trip In The Highlands: Part 19 - Goodbye To Green Peas and Bagpipes

Looking back on the Highland adventure, I'd have to say it was the most fun, and the least things went wrong as any trip I can remember. That's not saying it never seemed like things could go wrong.
We did our tour of Blair castle, and that place had more memorabilia than most of the museums I've been to. I can still remember the giant paintings of family members through the years. Mostly, I would stand there and try to imagine what that person was really like. Was it a mean old man that terrified everyone, was it a homely woman that the painter had tried to improve upon? One painting had me stopped for much longer than the others. It wasn't that large, but it was a head portrait of a man with extreme cross-eyes. You'd think that would be something a painter would change, but I remembered well the episode of Outlander where an artist made the crippled Laird appear to have normal legs, and the Laird was furious. I inquired to one of the staff about this, and they whispered that it was either the subject wanted realism or he hadn't paid his bill for the previous painting, no one was sure which.
We could have spent much longer at the castle, but we were playing leapfrog with a large group of French high school students whose eyes seldom left each other. They did find particular interest in the manikins that showed some of the kinds of clothing worn back in the 1700's. Pam noticed that the women must have been much shorter and skinnier.
We were fortunate to have a bagpiper performing live for our group in front of the castle. That is a very interesting instrument and I can see why people are divided on the unique sound it makes. My understanding that the bagpipes were actually outlawed by the English at one point in history. The story goes that it was considered an instrument that was used to march men into battle and was therefore considered a weapon of war, but after the concert that day, I wasn't quite sure that was the real reason they were outlawed.
A final treat at the castle was being led into a large ballroom that contained more elk antlers mounted on the walls than I could believe. We were followed into the room by the French contingent and they got a special extra treat by going to a treasure chest and putting on period costumes. One could learn a lot by noticing which costumes the teenagers picked for themselves. I'd say there were more than a few of the big guys that were walking around with bonnets on, and as they all got together to pose for a school photo, I realized that even though I could understand nothing they said, those kids seemed just like the schoolmates I hung with back in my day.
The real highlight that morning was as we were leaving the large estate. I had noticed sheep all over the place, running loose, which I figured there counted as a Scottish lawnmower. Pam had me stop while she ran up to a mother delivering two lambs right in front of us. The caretakers came running after Pam and scolded her for bothering the sheep, but she did get the shot, so I was proud rather than embarrassed.

From there it was back on the M3, and I was an old hand behind the wheel now. If we could only find somewhere to stay and keep to the outskirts of Glasgow, the day would be complete. Pam was turning into a top notch navigator and guided me perfectly. The only fly in the ointment was figuring out somewhere decent to camp that was close enough to the place we had to return the camper the next day. Pam found a place and was giving me turn by turn directions, which I really needed because as we neared Glasgow, the traffic started getting real. I had to remember that slower cars stay on the left, you pass on the right, all while reading signs that had names I could not pronounce. Suddenly Pam said, "Take this exit!" I was doubtful. "Are you sure?"
"Turn Left Now!" she said. Seconds later we were coming down the offramp and I was feeling the relief that I had mastered the art of driving on freeways and backroads of Scotland, until I suddenly realized that we were smack in the middle of the one place I had hoped to avoid: Downtown Glasgow during rush hour. Gone were the friendly drivers that waved and smiled while they passed me, with a gentle honk from the horn. Gone was the feeling that I knew everything I needed to know about roundabouts and driving on the left. And the google that had been so kind to us only hours before, was now having me drive in circles with taxi cabs and large city busses. In my recollection of this event, I calmly asked Pam to help me find a quick way out of the city, while I settled back into my seat and did my best. Pam does not share my version how things went.
Somehow we got through town and found our campground that unbelievably was in the middle of an urban neighborhood. It was actually more like a trailer park than a campground, but we were happy to have made it in one piece.
We turned in our camper the next morning to a couple of really cool guys about our age that were retired cops that took on the campervan gig as something more interesting than sitting at home being retired. We shared stories about travelling and politics in the states and the UK, and once again found people travel much more than we have....
The Holiday Inn at the airport was awesome and I even got brave and tried blood pudding for breakfast the next morning...the flight home, TSA, and all of it went so smoothly, that I was sure something horrible was waiting around the corner...but, not for the first time, I was wrong.

Monday, May 14, 2018

A Wee Camping Trip In The Highlands: Part 18 - The Coven Confrontation

Wow. I finally found the easy driving in Scotland. I was on the most feared M3, which I had been comparing in my mind to I-4 at home. In Orlando, I would do anything in the world to avoid driving on I-4, but the M3 was a nice big friendly freeway, with people smiling while they only passed on the left when it was safe, and nobody was driving as if they were checking their facebook status while accelerating. It was almost peaceful, but it did cross my mind that the week and a half of the driving I had done so far was good preparation. We were considering a long trek to Glasgow and trying find what could possibly be left of the Snodgrass village, when Pam saw an exit for a castle. That chance stop is the kind of thing that makes our trips together special.

What we didn't know, was the whole Atholl area where we stopped was a bit of a tourist destination. The first bit was the Blair castle, which I must say, was finally what I truly expected to see for a castle. It was surrounded by a large estate and a small village that was either built from the original buildings, or remade to look like really old buildings. From what I saw at first glance, a town full of people could have had jobs just maintaining the grounds, forget about the castle. Then there was the largest campground I've ever seen right next to that, and it was busy, even in this off season of cold that we were travelling through. Instead of pulling up to a small hut with an old man and his wife running the place, we pulled up to a clubhouse, that looked more like the inside of an airport, with well dressed attendants inquiring if we were 'boooked'. We decided right there that the Snodgrass village could wait, and we had to find out more about this place. We got ourselves a 'pitch' and got to figuring out how much time we had for a castle tour and finding somewhere really cool to eat. Before any of that fun stuff, I had to find one more emergency, and that was we needed to change propane tanks. I was already an old hand at this, having practiced in the snow with a horse watching and all, so even though there was a light rain, I didn't expect much trouble. There would not have been any trouble except that my new van was so new, that somebody forgot to put a wrench in there for changing bottles. There I was again, with that certain knowledge that there was nowhere nearby that would have the giant crescent wrench you need to change a propane tank, and it was plenty cold, and I wanted to cook. So, I started worrying and Pam started with 'why don't you go ask for help?' I looked back incredulously, as if I would ever stoop to such a thing, but in the end I did. The only problem is that no one in Scotland knows what a 'crescent wrench' is. However, they did send an old timer over in his van to my 'pitch' and after a little back and forth with me talking very slowly and listening very carefully, I got that what I needed was a 'spanner'! Not only that, I needed one that was made from an anti-spark material, so I didn't accidentally get an explosion (at this point I started having some retroactive worrying from the times I had used a regular wrench). I really liked that old guy, even more when I got a glance inside his old minivan (and by the way, we don't really have mini vans in the states, we have slightly smaller vans, Scotland has MINIvans) and that thing was loaded with tools, blackened with age and in no particular order that I could tell. He and my dad would have been best of friends from just looking at that mess. But, he found that anti-spark spanner pretty quick and got us in business. At home, that would have shown up as a $50 extra fee on my bill, but here they were just being neighborly. I thought, this was why the English were moving up to the highlands. 

Propane worries being over, the next item on the agenda was finding food. Pam had her mind set on this huge old mini-castle that was supposed to be a hotel and restaurant. We headed there, and this was a place that normally we could have walked to, but the weather was so up and down, we decided we needed our home on wheels nearby. My way of doing things is to nail down the place you want and go for it, once committed. Pam is more like, let's go halfway in the door, and stand there looking at the menu, not really sure if you are going in or not. All of this while well-dressed people inside were making me feel that this was not the place that campers frequented. A bit more alarming than Pam's indecision over the menu, was the cast of characters I started noticing about. As I may have mentioned before, sometimes I can be a little slow processing large groups of people. At first I thought, there is something similar about these folks, is it a wedding?

Then I started realizing that I was feeling more and more like I was at the haunted mansion at Disney World and these people were dressed like characters from Horror movies, witches, a Harry Potter convention, or something. Finally I saw something I recognized; Cousin It from the Addams Family TV show. They were very busy in there, standing in small groups with drinks in hand, and I didn't want to take the chance that this wasn't some fun get together and instead we had run into the real thing, and perhaps all they were lacking was a couple of tourists for the bonfire later in the evening. I quickly grabbed Pam and headed for Plan B: the local pub, where I already knew what I would be ordering. Unfortunately, it turned out that this was drinking night, or else we were not the only ones avoiding the witch convention. The pub was packed, including a waiting line of vultures waiting for patrons to either leave or pass out. We had this part down pat. I hang back innocently while Pam goes in, finds a table that looks like it might be empty, or empty soon.

She has me plop down on the bench, while she pushes her way to the bar, to get to ordering fish and a 1/2 pint, If I'm lucky. The mystery always was what she was going to order, and the interesting people she met while doing that. The food was great and I was really getting that feeling that there was much more I wanted to do and our time was running out...I made a break for the van, hoping that we would not be noticed by the growing crowd of creepy covenfolk. Meanwhile, Pam ran back to get photos while I sat in the van with the engine running... 

Friday, May 11, 2018

A Wee Camping Trip In The Highlands: Part 17 - Digging Into The Past

It was beginning to seem like our trip might be over before we had enough of Scotland. We started getting that feeling that we needed to get up earlier, get moving faster and get on to the next great thing to see. There was a problem with that and our whole idea of having a list of things to do. The weather is miserable about 98% of the time in the morning and even when I, the early riser, manage to get out from under the covers and venture outdoors, it is past 9am, and you could be sure that I was one of the first people stirring. The second part of the problem was that Scotland just “is”. It’s not like there is something awesome to see in one exact place, the whole journey is epic. But, we are Americans after all, and we needed to chase something. That day it was to be a ‘free’ outdoor Highland museum. We took that destination in mind and headed off briskly around 11am after our morning bowl of porridge and hot coffee. I can’t say the coffee was the best or worst there. There were plenty of Starbucks, but nobody had anything like cream. I think that is because their milk is so thick that nobody needs cream. The stores did not carry skim milk.  At least it worked for me. Pam was making coffee on our gas stove and warming up whole milk with Garibaldi hot chocolate, so I was drinking café lattes the whole trip.

My driving on the trip to the museum was more confident and I began to think I could actually handle driving in the city, as if I were a bus driver. That feeling lasted until our road suddenly went from an A road to a white road filled with trucks. If there was anything scarier than a narrow road with a logging truck coming at you down the center, it was coming around a hairpin turn on a narrow road and seeing that truck. Another highway feature of Scotland which reminded me of Maine back in the states, was the repair crews blocking half of a  busy 2 lane road to affect repairs. However much time it takes to sit and wait your turn to go, they definitely needed those roads fixed, so I’m sure nobody complains much about the temporary traffic lights in the country.

The museum was interesting. It was a non-profit that said free entry but requested 12 pounds per person to come in…that’s $18 dollars and it was in the 30’s with the wind blowing hard and a light rain. Pam negotiated $8 for the two of us and we began an excursion that was more like two people walking around the north pole than two people learning about history. Pam loved the place while I felt like it was too much about the late 1800’s in Scotland. I was way more interested in the middle ages. I’d loved to have found out more about the PICTs and the stone circles, and how they lived in this place without heaters. I think the problem is that the really good records were not kept until the Celts came along. The PICTs just left some beat up stone carvings. Also, I think the Celts kicked their butts and you know how history gets written by the winners. One that that continually surprised me was the Jacobite history. There is quite a bit of that in the places we visited, and they got stomped by the English and the population in Scotland seemed to have morphed from people of Celtic descent to folks that moved to the country from England.  I’m kind of surprised that modern day inhabitants haven’t tried to erase the Jacobite history. You could compare the Jacobites  to  the Revolutionary war in the USA, if we had lost. I was wondering how long it would be before people wanted statues taken down and streets renamed.   It was more complicated than that, just like history and politics are in the states, but if you compare to our conservatives and liberals, you would get  the idea. Pam started getting really interested in finding her roots. Supposedly there were some Snodgrasses in the history books in southern Scotland and there even used to be a Snodgrass Village. I knew that my family came from England and were pretty well-connected, so it was quite possible that one of my ancestors came and took some land from those country-bumpkin Snodgrasses. Pam was not amused about that possibility.

The best part of that museum in my mind was the café and once again, I had really good food and a good opportunity for people watching. This was definitely a family place and there were lots of kids about, and they were not at all interested in the history stuff. There was a playground, and that was something they did like, even in the rain and cold. Yes, kids are pretty much the same wherever you go.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

A Wee Camping Trip In The Highlands: Part 16 - In Which We Find The Dark Underbelly

This day was the day of Loch Ness. We got going early for once, with the sun up and shining bright. It was a clear blue sky that made me think of being back in Florida, except that I was wearing every bit of clothing I could get on, including long underwear, which seemed to be a requirement to endure the temperatures outside. I began to see how it was in Scotland. After days of being in the 30’s and 40’s, a day that has sun and 56 degrees is a day for the girls to bring out the bikinis.

We felt sure that nobody else would be on that desolate road and it would be a safe drive back to the small village we had passed on the way, but we were wrong. Now, it was the early morning folk that were late to work, with a cup of coffee in their lap, trying to make up time on the back road, never expecting to see a motorhome that far off the track. Nobody ever honked though, except to say thanks when I found a place to pull over and let them pass. I’m fairly certain that there is no texting while driving in Scotland. Those people are all long dead. There is quite a bit Darwinian evolution in the driving. If you drive badly, it’s not just a fender bender. The roads are divided into categories. An “A” road means they take care of it, and probably two trucks could pass each other…probably. A “B” road  means that somebody will eventually come and fix the potholes and you would really be better off if you did not drive your motorhome there. Then there was the road that is colored “white” on the map. These were the roads that basically say “if you go there, you're an idiot”…and I seemed to have found myself on those roads frequently.

We came into the village of Fort Augustus, me worrying about running out of diesel while on one of the ‘white’ roads and the gypsies having their way with Pam while they killed me after (gotta stop watching Outlander)…unfortunately, I ran into the only petrol station that would not take my credit card. It wanted a PIN number and our credit cards don’t have them that I know of. Nobody could solve the problem and the bank was only open on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Pam shopped for a bit, while I worried about the lack of diesel, until we had a chance to see the operation of the river locks that go into Loch Ness. That was a treat and I also realized that this wasn’t something fancy and new. It had been modernized, but the first lock was built in the middle 1800’s and was operated by men pushing bars instead of hydraulic pumps. This was all done so that boats could enter Loch Ness, which is a much lower level than the nearby river.

What we know of Loch Ness, is the story of the Loch Ness monster, but the really incredible part is how long and narrow the lake is. By narrow, I mean that it is the shape of a very long pill, but that pill could be over a mile across, so this is a really big lake with really big boats on it. And it is deeper than the ocean in parts. It really does look like a glacier came sliding through and left a trough behind. There was not all that much to see there about the monster, except trinkets that are available everywhere. Apparently, monster legends abound in the region, just like fairy legends. This one just happened to get famous and really help tourism.
We were doing quite well in the cozy little town, until Pam decided to go off the main street and take a look to see if there were any shops open along the riverfront. We hadn't gone far, when we saw a nice little coffee shop with some folks outside sipping those large cups of coffee that I remember from the TV show, Friends. I was getting excited and heading for the front door, as my brain slowly started processing the group of people in front of me. The very first image that popped into my mind was a picture of Boris and Natasha from the Rocky and Bulwinkle show when I was a kid. Slender, pale skinned people in all black, with hats and trenchcoats. There was at least 4 guys, but I didn't think for a moment that the woman in the group was any less sinister. Their gaze followed us up to the doorstep, and sneers appeared as Pam fruitlessly pushed on the door that said "Pull". Laughter ensued, followed by "Caan't yer read, it's CLOSED!?". Pam was busy formulating a question about the origin of their coffee cups and probably getting ready to go poke the largest guy in the chest with her finger, while I was frantically digging my hand in my pocket for something more like a weapon than the key to the van. I whooshed us away as fast as I could while our appreciative audience laughed on. My main thought as we left the 'bad part of the village' was how did gangster life end up so far away from urban society? We got in the van and headed on to find Petrol somewhere else.

Another chance stop while driving down the side of Loch Ness was the chance to see the ruins of the Urquhart castle.

This was the only castle that we had seen where it was pretty much left alone as they built it. It was more like what I had expected to see, quite large, with tour guides, a movie, gift shop, café and large groups of people milling about. A favorite pastime of ours had become people-watching at the castle tours. This particular trip, the winning group was a pack of 5 elegant ladies in their 40’s-50’s, laughing, taking selfies and having the time of their lives, speaking in a language that sounded like Norwegian to me. It was like watching a foreign movie with the subtitles off and trying to figure out what was said from watching expressions on faces.

We spent several hours there and then it was on to our next leg of the adventure. We going to try to get to Ullapool, a place that had been recommended by a local in one of the shops in Fort August. Our goal was to travel to the spot using back roads, as opposed to going through Inverness, which we had been advised to avoid with our motorhome.

We soon found out just how badly google could send us astray on the Scottish “white roads”. Basically, we were travelling through hamlets and corn fields on one lane roads, never seeing anything like a gas station or any indication that we were heading in the right direction. Curious looks from the sheep in the pastures and the locals walking their dogs were the norm. After a short discussion with Pam, it was decided that I was heading to nowhere quite slowly and we had better start thinking about food and a place to sleep. So, we turned around and headed back to the campground we had seen near the Urquhart castle. It was nothing but a large green field with campers on it, but it was surrounded by mountains and was quite close to the castle and a small town. The gentleman running the place was one of the nicer people I’d met on the journey and he quickly set us up with a ‘pitch’, what the Brits call a campsite. I’d started noticing that many new buildings in campgrounds were actually made from shipping containers, as the bathrooms were at this one. It sounds bad, but the insides were quite nice. In fact, on the whole trip, the rest rooms were very nice and clean. By the way, there truly are no ‘rest rooms’ in Scotland as they will laughingly tell you. There is no ‘rest’ in Scotland! They have toilets and that’s what they call them. We settled into our spot between a wee VW camper that was a 1960’s version in mint condition and a large motorhome. You would see very few tents in this cold and wet weather, and those campers appeared to be more miserable than most. In the motorhome next to us, there were 4 women. I don’t know how 4 people could get along in something only slightly larger than ours.

We decided that for dinner, we’d drive back to Fort Augustus, the tiny village and get something from a nice restaurant. We soon found there were only a couple of choices and even at that we had to wait until 6 pm for them to open. And then it was a pub once again. And pub food. This food is very good tasting and I love it, but I wonder about the health of anyone that eats it for long. Your main course is meat with some kind of great tasting sauce and large steak fries they call chips. It is always served hot, nothing has ever sat waiting on a kitchen window for a waitress to come get it. There was not a single time on the trip that Pam curled her upper lip at the food and sent it back…not even close. Pam would breathe over her spoon, cooling something down, while I was to her left, licking the plate. I knew full well there would be a reckoning when I got home…salads and exercise were in my future for sure.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

A Wee Camping Trip In The Highlands: Part 15 - The Rarest Thing In Scotland

We were on the road by 11 am at the least and it wasn’t long before we had driven for a mile and then stopped. Yes, this was a trip with a lot of stops. It was another great cemetery, This one for the McCrae Clan of Dunvegan. These cemeteries are the most peaceful of places and beautiful locations for photos. They seem to be in high places like at the top of a hill, overlooking a large lake or valley. We spent over an hour there marveling over the size of the stones and the engravings. These visits had changed my mind about cemeteries in general, as I began to see that most of the stones were put there to celebrate the life of the person that had gone before, more than saying “here’s lies the body of somebody important”. Many of the stones even mentioned that the marker was not in the same place as the remains. However, we were frequently reminded by the locals that only the very rich got this sort of treatment. One of the things mentioned by the English who considered the Scots barbarians when they first encountered the Scottish culture, was their ritual of using a coffin with a hinged bottom,  just dumping the body into the ground at a funeral, so they could reuse the coffin for someone else.

The tour of Dunvegan castle was quite different. This castle had been continuously lived in for 800 years! This one had been remodeled several times and still was used as a summer home by the owner, in addition to being a local attraction. The exterior looked just like you would expect from a castle sitting on the edge of a lake, not as large as you would think. The inside seemed more like what you see in the show Downton Abbey. They had tour guides stationed inside and they told you all about the furniture, and the memorabilia. There were huge paintings everywhere, individual portraits of family members over the years, and my first thought, some artist made a lifetime job of painting their portraits. One of our tour guides was this tiny old lady that told us about how the whole house was run by a single maid that had been there since she was 16 years old. She was now 76 and still nobody could keep up with her. She regaled us with stories about how young people just don't have the work ethic people used to have. Then she went on to tell us it was known that the maid lived on sugar, caffeine and IRN BRU. IRN BRU is a local beverage that apparently is quite potent. It was supposed to be the equivalent of Red Bull and Pam made sure to put that on her list of things to find in Scotland...they even sold IRN BRU ice cream. Who knew the highly-caffeinated lives downstairs at the castle?

Then it was off, heading down the road to our next spot, not knowing exactly where it was. We were heading off of the Isle Of Skye and up to Lock Ness, if we made it. There was just so much beautiful scenery that we kept stopping for photos. The driving was easier as everyone had gone home from Spring Break. We stopped for a cup of coffee and a light lunch at a small tea room in the middle of nowhere. I felt that if we had gone there the day before, we would have been waiting in line at the door. This day it was mostly empty. When the food came was as if it was prepared by a chef in a fancy restaurant, and the place only had about 6 tables. Pam had sweet potato pea soup with a design of a spiderweb drizzled on top and I had the world’s fanciest salad with all kinds of cheeses. We loved it. Something to note about cultural differences in Scotland. You don't tip, or if you do, nobody could tell me how it was done. It wasn't anywhere on the bill, and I got blank looks whenever I inquired about it. We only had credit cards, so it wasn't a question of slipping a bill under the plate. The story is that companies collect a tax that is to be given to the employees as part of their wages...not everyone likes that idea, but the net effect on me was that it seemed not quite as expensive to eat out. There was also the matter of the check. You really had to ask for it. Nothing like back home, where it's "Here's your food!, Here's the check! See you next time!" On many occasions before I figured this out, I would walk to the bar and ask for my check like I was on a tab in a tavern....later I came to understand that this was how they knew I was American...

We drove on peacefully, until it started getting later in the day and I made a couple of wrong turns and suddenly it was dinner time and we were in the woods, nowhere near a town, no cellphone service and I wasn’t really sure where the campground was. We came to a small turn in the road and saw a hotel with a restaurant on the corner and stopped. This was a really old, small place that probably had 6 rooms in it. It really looked like someone's old two story house more than it looked like a hotel. The dining area could seat maybe 20 people, but once again, the food was great and the prices were something like 15 pounds a person. Pam had an exquisite whiskey-glazed salmon with sliced fresh vegetables (a rarity there) and I had fish and chips (again). While there, we looked outside and saw this beautiful bird walking around on the ground and inquired about it. The waitress shook her head and replied that it was a pheasant as if everyone in the world should know that bird. I ran outside, trying to get a photograph of this fantastic bird as the locals shook their heads. I had the good camera out and had already snapped 50 photographs trying to get a decent shot of this elusive fowl, chasing him from park bench to bush, until he flew off. I looked back in the window and saw that "yup, he's American"  and  soon saw why, as the birds seemed to be everywhere, just sauntering across the road and sitting on fenceposts. As we drove off towards the campground, I saw the males and females preening on just about any platform that rose 3 feet from the ground.  It must not have been hunting season.

The real adventure of the day was finding the campground, or should I say the attempt to find the campground. Google was not my friend that day. It took us through a tiny village and then onto a single lane road wandering through hilly pastures. Google was saying that it was 12 miles and that would take 90 minutes. We laughed until we had driven 6 miles down some of the scariest road I can remember. This was driving about 15 mph running down the center of a two lane road with potholes and drop-offs on both sides and what the Scots call “Blind Summits” which are places where you can’t see the racing sports car or truck driver that’s late for his pint at the local pub coming at you until it’s too late. My knuckles were white and Pam was unusually quiet, having gone from yelling to praying. 

Finally it was too dark to keep driving down that road that seemed to have no end and I saw a pull off that was good enough for me. “If the gypsies want us tonight, they are gonna have to drive a long way to do it!” I said.

I slept, not the great sleep I had on previous nights, but when I woke in the morning, I did get up to see a great brown hawk, working a field next to us and pausing occasionally to survey the pasture from a tall tree. It was also an opportunity to capture the rarest thing of all in Scotland, a sunrise. This was the first time on the trip that I had awoken to something besides drizzly rain, and it put me in a great mood straight off.

Monday, May 7, 2018

A Wee Camping Trip In The Highlands: Part 14 - You Remind Me Of Somebody

I woke up early on Sunday morning again to the pattering of rain on the roof. This had become a familiar thing. Every morning it seemed there was a light rain and gloomy skies, but there was always the hope that it might clear up. This gave Pam the best excuse she ever needed to pull the covers over her head and go for some real long distance sleeping.

I need to digress for a moment about the thing of traveling and meeting people. Our brains have a lot to think about and sometimes we just decide to make things easy on ourselves. We take a quick look at someone and if they remind of us of something we already know, well, that's close enough to make a decision. For years, I could not spend money at my local Italian Ice takeout shop. The workers would wave me on up from the long waiting line, hand me the usual and say "It's on us!". My wife was suspicious at first, but then took to sending me alone to get the ice, knowing it was much cheaper that way. I could only surmise that the folks there thought I was somebody else, someone important in the community perhaps. Many times we find ourselves instant friends with people we barely know, but there are those other times. I call those times the "I must look like her ex-husband" times. I cannot say this for certain, but if there is ever a situation where a mean old lady needs to make an example of someone, I'm sure to get called upon. Even as far away as Scotland this kind of stuff came into play. Our newfound friends were already getting sorted into my categories and I'm sure they were figuring out what kind of American I was. Animals are something else. Sometimes they like us and sometimes they don't. Most of us think we can be friends with any animal, until we meet the one that hates us instantly. I had already figured that one of the cows was nice and the other wasn't so nice, and he seemed to distinctly have it in for me above all of the other people around. I guessed that the guy that had put the brand on him had a bald head and a goatee.

The first thing I noticed once I opened the door and looked outside the van that Sunday morning, was the two Scottish coos standing by the fence near our campsite. There was a gray cast to the sky, and a bit of cool mist from the early drizzly rain. Our campground was actually a pretty decent location considering we were not in the woods. Before this trip, I had thought, how terrible it must be to come all the way to Scotland, rent a camper, and then camp in some farmer's cornfield. What I didn't take into account was how breathtaking the scenery was. 

We were at the bottom of a steep hill and sandwiched between a cow pasture and the loch. A loch seems nothing much like a lake back home. It’s more like the salt rivers in Florida in that there are tides and salty water. It seems like it had been an extreme low tide our whole stay. On the far side of the loch, you could see old abandoned houses. I'd been told that folks considered it a fortunate thing when someone could tell the story of a home and the family that had lived there. Everything was hundreds of years old, and sometimes people had just left for a better life somewhere else, leaving no word behind. So, there were many falling down structures that begged for their story to be told, but there was no one to tell it.  I was amazed to think that so many years ago, people had spread out so far into the world, built beautiful homes, fished, herded sheep, and raised children. They also made sure to  pay taxes to the Lairds so they'd have some protection from the other highlanders when the warriors weren't busy stealing sheep.

The night before, when the children and Pam were feeding the cow, I stood nearby, conversing with their parents and we compared notes on how they felt about Brexit and how we felt about Trump and the Wall. We had lots of common ground. None of us liked paying too much in taxes, and we all pretty much felt we could do better than the people in charge. They too had the family issues where you had to be careful of politics in family gatherings, as one young woman explained that she had to keep tabs on how much wine her husband had when he was around her Dad. "Three glasses, and he's off on it!" she exclaimed. What I noticed was that everybody was concerned about things that could make their life worse. The major story on the BBC around then wasn't "Was Trump really going to push the button on North Korea?", it was a story about a man who did a 'stand your ground' kind of thing. He had killed an immigrant that was invading his home and hundreds of people were putting flowers on his doorstep in memory of the poor immigrant...that is pretty much how the story played on TV, sounding much like Fox News back at home. Our new friends liked diversity, but not in their backyard. It sounded like a quite familiar story to me. We talked and laughed at length while Pam and the kids played with their hairy horned friend at the fence.

Meanwhile, I was keeping my eye on the not so friendly looking coo that was keeping his distance. He was  much larger and was standing at the top of the hill, looking down at me as if to say “I’ve got my eyes on you..”. I half expected to see steam snort from his nostrils and wondered if he could knock down that barbed wire fence if he took the notion. Judging by his size, I’d say that fence would not even slow him down a bit. They say you can tell a lot about someone by the position of their feet on the ground. I'm pretty sure that cow could tell my feet were pointing away, not to mention that my body was turned and in a running stance. Ever once in a while I got a glimpse of a tiny pupil in an eye peering at me from under all that hair. I was pretty sure he had dishonorable intentions. 
And there I was in early the next morning, after the drizzle had let up a bit. Sliding open the door of the van in hopes of making a dash for the shower, and there he was, head up, full alert, right at the fence, mere yards away from me. If he looked large from a distance, he was truly formidable up close.  He was looking straight at me now, not just in my general direction. I couldn’t see his eyes exactly, but those horns were pointing this way for sure. I wasn't even sure that the door to the van would stop this guy if he put his back into it. I felt my pulse racing and wondered if we had anything in the van that would slow a charging Highland coo. I quickly grabbed Pam and pulled her behind me for protection  while pointing at the furious beast over at the fence where a little English girl now stood, scratching his head as he bent down further so she could reach where it really needed scratching.
Soon, Pam was out with the little girl, feeding him some of the grass that he couldn’t reach through the fence, while every once in a while, a large hairy head would pop up to make sure that bald-headed guy hadn't moved. I’d get that mean ‘stay away and I mean it’ look. I was glad to comply, even though Pam kept coaxing me to come over and pet the nice ‘coo’.

Thursday, May 3, 2018

A Wee Camping Trip In The Highlands: Part 13 - Pam Meets A Coo

We woke up to a rainy morning once again at the Ben Nevis campground, and unfortunately, I figured out that our fantastic new van had a TV that worked and spent the next hour watching the BBC equivalent of Good Morning America, while they looped the same 3 stories over and over. I imported photos, and made breakfast while Pam was getting the best sleep of her life..or she would have if I hadn’t been mucking about. I turned off the TV after a bit and my new entertainment became watching the nearby family of 4 stuffed into a VW Campervan, two young boys running all around in the wet morning, getting chores to perform while the Mom fruitlessly tried to tidy up the van. The Dad was most interesting. He was a burly young guy, with a full beard shot with pepper, an old sweatshirt, shorts and flip flops. I did a double-take there. Two things you do not expect to see in Scotland. One is sunglasses, and the other is flip-flops. I was sitting in my van shivering with the heater on and boots with Smartwool socks while he was fooling around with the outside of the van in beach clothes. If this was spring in Scotland, I was gonna need better clothes!

We got going at 11am as usual. Pam has this preponderance to not quite leave somewhere. I’ve not yet figured it out, but it goes something like this…Let’s go! Start the car, put it in gear, start rolling, and “Wait minute, I forgot something!” I was absolutely sure it would happen in the doorway of a castle, at the next crowded grocery store, and probably getting on the plane to eventually leave Scotland.

This time, we had the map out, knew where we were going, somewhat, and proceeded to head into the unknown, seeking castles and the Isle of Skye. In a way this part of the trip was like the Grand Canyon in the USA. There was a sign at some point that would say you have arrived, but truly, the sights were all along the way. The traffic was lighter, but not light enough, and I got yelled at plenty. I was doing 30 mph in a 60 mph zone, with about 10 cars behind me until I could find the next pullover so they could pass me. Really, there is no way in the world that van could go 60 mph down that road with me in it. The road was about wide enough for 2 Mini Coopers to pass each other and that was only if there weren’t any potholes. There was an abundance of potholes…and semi trucks, and other campervans. Every time one passed, I flinched as if their side mirror was going to hit me in the face. At least nobody in Scotland seems to have caught the road rage…yet.

Our first really scenic stop was an old cemetery that Pam spotted on the side of the road. We spent over an hour there. It was the site of a very old church from the 1400’s, with walls still standing. Apparently this was the home spot for the Highlander Clan McCrae and there were many monuments erected for members of the extended family. We spent almost all of our time reading the grave markers that went from the early 1400’s to now. The whole place was on a hill that overlooked a large loch, with beautiful snowcapped mountains in all directions. Standing there, it was the first time I could see how a person might brave the cold to put a paddleboard in that water. It wasn’t the water, it was being there and looking all around yourself.

Down the road a ways from the cemetery, was the Eilean Donan castle. This was our first castle and I was a little bit disappointed. It is very impressive looking, and everything about the place and the grounds is first rate, but my first impression was that somebody had built a miniature of the castle. It was more like a mansion in the USA, built to look like an old castle. This was a clan house, built in a strategic location, not a fort built to hold an army. Then as we went through the tour, we found that the real castle had been blown up by invaders, and that in 1922, a descendant of Clan McCrae spent 20 years remodeling it. So in American terms: it was a teardown, and they got a pass on the taxes by using some of the original walls.

It did look really old, and there wasn’t a billiards table and big screen TV inside, so we could pretend that we were looking out of the ramparts and seeing 50 viking ships rowing up the pass and wonder which sword we should use.

After we left the castle, and came over the big bridge to the Isle of Skye, I started wondering how the day would end. We had no idea of where to camp or even get groceries. All we saw were B&Bs in little houses that looked hundreds of years old. We saw several pull-offs where people seemed to be camping and I was excited for a minute until I saw the people there. We pulled over into one rest area that was loaded with campers, kids, and clothesline setups that were full of drying clothing...I still haven't figured out how anyone expects to dry their clothes in the rain..There were tons of kids and toys all around. This did not have the look of "let's pull over and rest a bit". Some men came around to get a good look at us, while having their arms folded across their chests in that universal not-welcome sign that I had no trouble recognizing.
I don’t really know the look of a gypsy enough to say, “Hey, there’s a gypsy”, but my gut feeling was…  “Paddle faster, I hear banjo music”. Pam felt the same way and we decided right there, that we needed a campground that night.

We stopped at a pub in Sligachan and had dinner. Pam had fish and I had the Sligachan Beef Burger. Pam questioned the bartender about what kind of beef that was and the Scottish bartender had to get an interpreter to explain that it was a cow from Sligachan. While Pam was figuring out our dinner, I was worrying about the night to come. There was a campground across the street and it appeared to be nothing but a parking lot for $30 and we needed groceries to boot. After that heavy dinner, we sped on to Portree, the capital of Skye, where we found a small grocery store. The drive through that town was an adventure all by itself. It was a place best meant for walking and shopping, with a pub about every 15 feet. We spotted a small grocery co-op in the middle of town, with no apparent parking anywhere nearby. I was also noticing there were no other motorhomes around anywhere. I was going about 10 miles an hour, bouncing on little narrow cobblestone streets, dodging potholes and after about 15 minutes, realized that we had better turn around because I had no idea of where the road went. We finally turned around I breathed a sigh of relief that at least nobody else was driving down this small road, until a fuel tanker truck came barreling down towards us. I froze right there and he drove up onto the sidewalk to avoid hitting me. Now, besides groceries, I needed to find a bathroom  and a change of clothes. We ended up getting a parking space on the edge of town and walked back to the grocery store. For some unknown reason, the store was full of Japanese tourists and everybody was loading up on food.

I considered just staying the night in the parking lot, but for some reason the gypsy thing was in my head. That story about the gypsies spraying chemicals in the vent was still haunting my mind. I’m sure that was a made up story for tourists…but still.

I got my google maps working and found there was another campground way off the beaten path down an old road in the middle of Skye. We drove for 45 minutes and found it. It was beautiful, the owner was great, and we met some really nice people from England while we chatted up a long hair Scottish “coo”  that had wandered down to the fence of the campground so the kids could feed him the grass that is of course, always better on the other side of the fence.

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

A Wee Camping Trip In The Highlands: Part 12 - In Which We Gain Some Pounds

On Friday, we found ourselves still hanging out in Fort William at the Ben Nevis Campground. Our campervan rental company took pity on our plight and had a driver deliver a new van to us…a four hour drive for them from Edinburgh and then a four hour drive back with the problem van. This meant we needed to stick around for a day, and we had a grand time, finally figuring out the driving and parking situation in Fort William and managing to  spend our whole day walking High Street, a street closed to traffic and full of really cool shops and pubs. Many of the people we saw in the street were serious backpackers, all of them sporting rain covers on their packs. The day was cold, but not windy, and if it wasn’t raining, it seemed to be getting ready to rain. We went to clothing shops, bicycle shops, Outdoors shops, and many, many bakeries. We also managed to exchange some American dollars for British pounds, and found out just how bad our money was here. $50 American got you 31.65 pounds. This has been a real problem for Pam, who kept finding clothes that were bargains until she realized that the prices were in pounds not dollars. Still, some things like food and drink, were about the same when all was said and done.

We toured a church from the 1700’s and spent not near enough time in a museum of Scotland that filled in a lot of blanks concerning the version of history that we got from watching Outlander.

Our new van was delivered around dinnertime and although we were hoping to have a problem-free experience, we were amazed to find how much nicer the new van was. Our first van was only 7 months old, but the new one was less than a week old. Besides just being newer, there were many improvements made in the design. Just about everything in the camping part of the van seemed to have been upgraded. The refrigerator for example, was twice the size, and seemed to keep things really cold. It also had an option to run directly from AC instead of draining the battery. The stove was bigger and nicer as well, and now sported an oven! The windshield on the first van had pleated blankets that covered the front and the two front side windows that required snapping. The new van had disappearing shades that were built into the frame. The differences weren’t only in the camping options. The new van had a beautiful gray paintjob and sporty wheels. Pam found the upgrades to make the ride a real A+ experience.

 By the time we finished up moving our stuff, we decided it was too late to move on and went back to our Glen Nevis restaurant to see if our wee lass was still working and if they had even more good food for us to try. Even the trip to the restaurant was a treat. First you had to be bundled all the way up with rain gear on top, just in case the drizzle decided to come down hard, and then it was a pleasant walk down a path through a cow pasture, hoping to get a close up gander at the two long haired Scottish cows that lived there. Once there, we found our waitress was working and once it was determined that we were not “boooked”, we sat down and asked to try something new. A discussion ensued over which of us was going to try “Haggis”. It was decided by a split decision that I would be the one that got the Haggis, while Pam was quite satisfied with fish, prawns and rice. My meal was a breast of chicken over Haggis on mashed potatoes with vegetables. The Haggis looks a bit like a black congealed mass and tasted something like that. It was best with some potatoes. Pam was looking ill, and wanted to tell me what Haggis was made from. I told her she was a little wuss, and had one few times in life that Pam had the “my hero!” look on her face as she watched her brave husband tear into the Haggis.

We had a laugh with our waitress over that and I became increasingly aware, that once again I had figured I could know what I needed to know about a person in a few minutes, and be quite wrong. Her name was Claire, and even though she had large glowing eyes, jet black hair, and snow white skin, she had never heard of Outlander. Claire was in her early 20’s and we were pretty sure that her mother was a fan of the book series, since Claire very much reminded us of the heroine of the series. Pam was in disbelief that anyone that lived in Scotland could not know about the show, but this was a young girl that was raised on a farm on an island in Scotland and was working as a waitress while on spring break from University at Glasgow. She told us stories about her pet sheep Charlotta and how she got into trouble for letting her into the house and up on the couch when her parents weren’t home. She took a photo and put it up on Facebook and somehow her mom saw it and was furious. She was especially excited that evening as she had help birth Charlotta’s twin new lambs the same day. I started getting the feeling that the farm was large and the island belonged to her family and this work was serving the purpose of getting her out socially.

We left the restaurant in the twilight of the evening, with the ever present Ben Nevis and it’s snowcapped peaks right next to us. It was so quiet and calm, it started to seem impossible that one would ever want to leave a place like this except that it was cold and wet. Always cold and wet...and Skye was calling us.