Saturday, October 10, 2015

Kicking Down Walls in the North of England

For the first time in my life, I can truly say, without any nagging internal caveat, that I've never been happier.

And I think it's because I'm finally doing something to assuage my innate wanderlust; a natural consequence, I believe, of our overwhelmingly nomadic ancestry. I've mentioned before how the homo genus has only been static for the last 0.4% of our time on Earth: 99.6% of our 2.5 million years or so were spent as hunter-gatherers, so I think it's fairly logical to assume we're driven by our genes to ford the river and climb the mountain. Ignoring this deeply ingrained predisposition is one of the main causes of our everyday stress, I believe, and a supreme cosmic irresponsibility, if one ponders the pot brownie idea that consciousness could well be the universe's attempt to understand itself. I think the recreation we feel when we hit the beach, the woods, or the slopes is precisely that mechanism kicking into gear, emerging like a sharp sword from a timeworn scabbard, tattered by a decamillennium of neglect. Movement is truly what we're born to do; material acquisition is a recent invention, because stuff just weighs us down.

In the modern world, all this changes when you involve someone else, of course. Success attracts mates, and finery is the easiest way to show it off, so it becomes expected, and an end in itself. But finery is an empty goal. Life is about experience, because that's all we take with us. After all, what do we reminisce about? Jewelry? Cars? Big screen TVs? Of course not. It's the howls of laughter, the tender amity, and the shared adventure. Our real goal, once we learn to transcend the cultural bullshit, is to fill our lives with unique and meaningful moments, because these are the only things that really matter.

At least, that's the theory. When it comes to happiness in relationships, I've had girlfriends ask me to change many seemingly innocuous behaviours in order to facilitate theirs. Aside from the usual toothpaste and toilet seat battles, one particularly memorable one was to make sure all the light switches on the main multi-switch panel in our open plan apartment were always facing the same direction by daily traipsing around 1,400 square feet coordinating their ancillaries. I flatly refused, which, curiously and gratefully, catalyzed our breakup. I've been asked to change more overt behaviours, too, such as playing sports or socializing with friends. Now, perhaps they didn't realize these things make me happy, or simply didn't care? Or maybe I was being too selfish?

Either way, if one's partner's happiness correlates with the other's wretchedness, as it certainly seems to have with a significant number of my relationships, I think it may be prudent to ditch the partner rather than adopt their light switch neuroses. This lack of compromise may strike some people as petty, but I've always preferred my own company over the abject misery of throw pillows and ironed underwear.

Whenever I get into a relationship, the first three months are fantastic, but then I seem to gradually lose interest. I don't become bored, per se, but lacklustre, ready to move on, only sticking around because I'm expected to. Because of this, I've never had a relationship last beyond a couple of years, and they all typically followed the same pattern of three months of joy followed by twenty-odd months of loyalty (well, I am stubborn). I thought I was broken, so I looked for solutions to this anti-monogamy trend. It turns out I'm no more broken than anyone else; they're just willing to put up with it. (I've heard it theorized that men are naturally tuned to stray after about three to four months, because that's when a pregnancy begins to show - job done - but I've never seen, or even looked for, any empirical evidence to support the idea. This doesn't mean it might not be true, however.)

It took me a couple of decades bouncing from one girl to another to realize this: all compromise every got me was mediocrity; a halfway house of temporarily acceptable agreeableness in which neither party is truly happy, and, with my rapidly justifying fickleness firing on all cylinders, ultimately dooming the relationship. Most married couples (or 50-60% of them, anyway, depending on which divorce statistic you read) seem willing to struggle on through a lifetime, evinced by the bitter squabbles of the long-married, soured by missed opportunities and enlivened by the chance to twist the knife over a past transgression, simply to perpetuate, it seems to me, the convenience of a regular shag. Have you ever met an old married couple who didn't constantly run each other down? In my experience, they seem to be the exception rather than the rule.

I suggest we shouldn't compromise. We should do what we like, and if a partnership evolves from connections made organically, great. If it doesn't, great too: because one is still doing exactly what one wants to do. A relationship shouldn't take work, I now believe, despite the popular rhetoric to the contrary. Do you have to work at your relationship with your best friends? (I hope you said 'no', because if you all do, I'm either supremely easy to get along with or a complete sociopath).

This all stems, of course, from that monumental bugbear of modern humanity: monogamy. We're not naturally monogamous, as any objective anthropologist or psychologist will tell you (a good primer on this is Dr. Christopher Ryan's book Sex at Dawn). Monogamy came about (as far as I can tell, after sifting through the absolute mountains of evidence pointing to polyamory as our true nature) with the Neolithic concept of property and advent of organized religion, no doubt adopted to systemize human breeding for maximum yield to fill the fields, armies, and factories on which the hierarchy of this abrupt cultural aberration so vitally depends. Monogamy means food for the machine: drones, if you will, and plenty of them.

So we're naturally, happily, polyamorous, because we've spent almost our entire history being so. Our psychological architecture evolved this way, but we're now stuck in this mad monogamous game of sexual exclusivity because it serves the state. And somehow we've managed to convince ourselves, through subservience to puritanical religions, that there's morality involved; a lingering deception of such magnitude and pervasiveness one can but both marvel and despair.

To quote neuroscientist and author Sam Harris, who puts this far more competently than I:
The God that our neighbors [sic] believe in is essentially an invisible person. He’s a creator deity, who created the universe to have a relationship with one species of primates – lucky us. And he’s got galaxy upon galaxy to attend to, but he’s especially concerned with what we do, and he’s especially concerned with what we do while naked. He almost certainly disapproves of homosexuality. And he’s created this cosmos as a vast laboratory in which to test our powers of credulity, and the test is this: can you believe in this God on bad evidence, which is to say, on faith? And if you can, you will win an eternity of happiness after you die.
Men have told me at dinner parties, typically in front of a hawkish wife herself similarly sold on the social propaganda, about how rapturous they are in this exclusive monogamy; usually men who feel the need to champion the fairer gender so long held to be property by agrarian civilizations. I like to answer by asking the men if the only porn they watch when they masturbate is of their wife, and similarly, do their wives only read romance novels and watch soap operas (obstinately perpetuating these particularly entrenched stereotypes) about their relationship with their husband? This sometimes produces an uneasy silence, depending on how stuck up the company is, not just because it's an awkward situation to consider (masturbation is rarely a topic addressed in polite society, which is one of the many reasons polite society is so suicidally fucking tedious) but also because they're stumped, if you'll pardon the expression.

The response I enjoy the most, however, is the haughty 'we don't need to masturbate' routine, because everybody listening knows this to be the kind of colossal whopper usually reserved, for and by, priests, politicians and toddlers. The typical layperson doesn't know, of course, comparatively little research has been done on masturbation, simply because finding subjects who refrain from fiddling with themselves to fill control groups is so goddamned difficult. People wank. Those who say they don't are lying. And, as a hedono-anarcho-primito-apocaloptimist, I think denying oneself harmless, private, nurturant pleasure is child molester weird; the 'moral' objection to it is simply another social remnant of the state optimizing breeding turnover by doctrinal manipulation. If people think eternal damnation awaits those who masturbate, they're going to try harder to get laid. And I don't think I'm alone.

Well, I am, but you know what I mean.

I hope.

Day 60
Yeah, last night sucked. I managed to get a little sleep despite the cold, and woke to a sunny but frigid mountain world.

I quickly fixed the flat on my trailer, but noticed the tyre itself was blown through, a hole about an inch across as if made by a sharp rock, probably from riding the rubble road yesterday. I patched it with a piece of old inner tube specifically reserved for this purpose, and hoped it would hold me the hundred miles home.

A welcome tailwind powered me along: I was easily going to make Carlisle today, until I got another puncture on my front tyre, which turned out to be two thorns, each of them having made two holes, which took me all morning and about half a mile to figure out (this is when I suddenly remembered the importance of checking the tyre before reinserting the inner tube). With sunlight only available between about 9 am and 3.30 pm this far north so late in the autumn, I only had around four hours of riding a day, bookended by camp prep and break. So I only actually made around 25 miles when I was shooting for 40, and ended up camping at Lockerbie.

Day 61
I got a curious email from my mother asking if I want to be rescued from the rapidly approaching winter. Bless her cotton socks. I don't know if such naivete springs from my reluctance to share the particulars of my life with my parents (in order to avoid their unrelenting disapproval), or from her stunning lack of faith in her son's ability to deal with, what she seems to perceive as, hardship.

In this latter perception she's not alone. The sheer number of people who've expressed awe in what I'm doing is quite overwhelming, as if it's some great physical and spiritual trial. Let me tell you right now: it isn't. Every day on tour is an adventure, sure, packed with novelty, but in no way is it 'hard'. Hardship is monotonously doing the same thing every day, commuting from a cookie cutter house to a cookie cutter cubicle, or fighting in a war, or summer roofing in Texas, or concreting anytime anywhere, in order to chip away at some tectonic debt. It certainly isn't cycling from pub to pub looking at cool shit along the way. This is easy. The problem isn't physicality or loneliness; it's maintaining enough of a positive revenue stream to continue with equipment upkeep and food. Because shit breaks, a lot. When you consider the planned obsolescences of most camping and cycling products are for a few weekends a year, I'm asking rather more of my gear. So it's no wonder everything is fraying, creaking and snapping. I am noticing the most expensive stuff is more hardwearing, which sucks, because I don't particularly want to spend more money than I have to. However, it looks like I may have to plonk down some serious coin over the next few months for equipment I consider unnecessarily dear. I tend to be of the mindset of not carrying anything I'm not prepared to lose, and the more I spend, the more this mood diminishes.

A slow flat got worse on my front tyre and required pumping up three or four times today, as slow punctures are difficult to find without immersing the inner in water, and messing about with a collapsible bucket of water in freezing temperatures is firmly in 'fuck that' territory. I noticed my trailer tyre was slowly deflating too, but it got me to Carlisle where a slippery data connection meant I asked directions to the library, and was sent down the wrong street. Luckily, it was a crowded pedestrian precinct so I dismounted and pushed, allowing the rather overweight fellow who'd misdirected me to catch up once he'd realized the error, at a full, red-faced, lung-bursting sprint.

These altruistic demonstrations help confirm my suspicions that the majority of us are inherently nice. On bicycle tours we get exposed to so many people without the physical barriers of road traffic, or the psychological ones we erect on public transport or in travel hubs, so one experiences a much broader yet concentrated form of human interaction. Plus, the bike seems to strip the pretense from social conditioning: there's no way to judge the rider's affluence, so people are forced to dig for further cues, and most of us, I think, with the internet sounding the death knell of the class system, can no longer be bothered with such juvenile juxtapositioning.

The WiFi in the library wasn't working, so the librarian generously allowed me an hour on one of the public computers which normally require some kind of fee, and made it clear she didn't do this for just anyone, y'know. This simultaneously separated me from the imaginary hordes of riff raff who roam from library to library to con local councils out of free online time, and established her position as a middle class chauvinist, no doubt trusting that my cycling jersey, by now specifically worn to elicit this very response, superceded every other indicator of grubby proletarianism. Yeah, so I'm a social climber.

I worked until the library closed at 5.30 pm, and I made my way through the unfamiliar city in the dark, to Rickerby Park to camp, and pitched by head torch next to a footbridge over the River Eden, desperately hoping this wasn't where the drug addict, axe murderer, and cottaging communities held their weekly knees up.

Day 62
This was the best 'make camp in the dark' result yet. I woke sober, alive and unbuggered, and waited for the sky to grey before rising to a pretty parkland scene by the river.

It was -2 degrees Celsius, so I packed up quickly and hit the road to warm up. I headed east, riding mostly uphill into the Pennines, arriving in Brampton before lunch.

Brampton is a fetching little village with a tiny library and an accommodating librarian, who signed me into a computer on her account when we similarly couldn't get the WiFi to work. It was a Saturday, so when it closed at 1 pm I headed higher into the mountains, following the course of Hadrian's Wall, and spent the night in its shadow at Walltown Quarry picnic site, contemplating the brutal life of a Roman soldier at the edge of the ancient world.

(Overnighting here is probably especially illegal, but by this point I was so past caring about arbitrary camping laws invented by people who don't camp I was quite prepared to bury the violently strangled agent of any objectionable officialdom with my toilet trowel.)

To entertain myself over the usual episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation, I came up with the concept of the Limited Nutritional Value Pig Out Night. On the menu were two packets of Rich Tea biscuits, two packets of Digestives, a jar of smooth peanut butter, a jar of jam, a tub of cream cheese and unlimited cups of tea.

Which, let's be honest here, is what this bicycle touring malarkey is really all about.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Mist and Cobwebs

Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover. - Mark Twain

Day 56
I flailed through the morning cobwebs and headed south.

A couple of minutes later I arrived at the southern terminus of the Forth road bridge and exploited the chance to sit on a 'proper' toilet. I've got to say I wasn't impressed now I'd exorcised the absurdity of the U-bend.

There was an electrical socket by the door, though, so I took the opportunity to prune back my face thicket with my beard trimmer, following up with a good wash. I emerged a shadow of the wildman who'd entered, and bore south towards the bike path that would whisk me to Glasgow.

Over the first hill a low mist hunkered on the valley floor, scattering the morning sunlight pouring over the distant Pentland Hills into an effervescent spectrum of grays. It was insanely beautiful. I could've sat there for hours, but with no problems to ponder, nor passersby to privately ridicule, nor booze to ease the passage of time, being static becomes a little less desirable, and the sunrise would end soon anyway.

If being static is actually even desirable in the first place, as my perspectival iris clicks open to its more usual global setting. For example, I did experience an uneasy resistance to leaving the bulkier trappings of civilisation behind when I left on this tour, but that resistance existed only in the last week or so of preparation, and lifted, like fuckery bricks from an untended backpack, abruptly upon exiting the driveway. Sudden freedom is surprisingly elating, and seems to eradicate, or at the very least significantly diminish, the petty tribulations of everyday life. Social squabbles and familial friction seem so much less potent, and infinitely more pointless, when one has to procure food and find somewhere to sleep every night.

Therein, perhaps, lies our modern conundrum: we evolved to struggle, not languish in success. With clean water, farmed food, zero predators, permanent shelters, and now the interaction of social media, we can't seem to help but invent new obstacles to take up the emotional slack. Thus, perhaps; neuroses, psychosomatic health irregularities, veganism, melodramatic soap operas, business and exercise goal creation, YouTube comment vitriol, and most curious of them all: plumbing prejudice (some people actually refuse to piss and shit anywhere else but their own home, when even the most rudimentary sanitation protocol dictates the complete opposite). We campaign against animal captivity but seem oblivious to our own. Unfortunately, we've improved healthcare enough to prolong this nightmarish Faustian purgatory into our eighties, when we finally die, peacefully and unnaturally, stuck full of tubes, drugs, and regret, surrounded by sniffling relatives.

A natural death is, of course, being killed by something that wants to eat you. Death by old age in nature is a rare accident, and the bowel-loosening terror of mortal pursuit a regular occurrence. We don't have this any more, and we apparently miss its balancing element, because we attempt to fill the void with the facile simulacra of exciting entertainments and precipitous pastimes, and I think this also plays a large part in our indignance at pictorial representations of Mohammad, or the ashes of our national flags, or rape jokes taken out of context. Perhaps we seek the adrenal surf because we're culturally bored, like listless chimps in a concrete zoo? But worse, I reckon, because we blame other chimps rather than the zoo itself.

Maybe I've been hypnotised by the unfurling tarmac, but it seems to be a metaphor for our existence now; a smooth road from the Paleolithic, roughened by overpopulation, potholed by this novel Neolithic concept of property, jolting this old jalopy along to somewhere we never intended to go. Our one saving grace may be digital technology, which seems to be bending the road back to a smoother grade, one where we've predominantly evolved to be, and the village is a charming pitstop on the way. And this is the evidence I was seeing, with so many villages now thriving. Twenty years ago they were dying. Hell, maybe village life is as retro as we care to be, now we've sampled the conveniences of indoor plumbing and WiFi routers, and the safety and comfort of the houses we put them in. Hunter-gatherers stay put where food is plentiful, after all. It's the dehumanising anonymity of towns and cities that do us in.

Personally, I may be taking it a little too far with this modern peripatetic nomadism, but the lifestyle has incredible appeal to me, perhaps because my construction career ran its course, especially in its latter years, in such a physically demanding environment I devalued the common luxuries most of us now take for granted. Plus, as a writer I feel it necessary, if I'm going to write about the way the world is, was, and perhaps will be, to go and have a bloody good look at it.

* * *

I followed the old railway track bridleway for most of the day, pondering these hefty topics, and stopped at the Morrison's in Bathgate for a quick forage, coming away with an orgiastically priced 20p bag of toffees.

It started raining mid-afternoon. From the path, I spied a peaceful-looking spot by Hillend Loch, and decided my luck was in. However, traversing a muddy ditch to get to this Eden, I accidentally ripped the heads off my earbuds when one fell out and caught in the front wheel. I did have a backup pair (one of the great advantages of bicycle touring with a trailer: one has more space to build in redundancies), or it would've been tinny phone speaker night in the tent, spiritually destroying the tranquility of the waterside, watching a few more episodes of Riker boldly humping his way through a herd of dead eyed bimbos and Worf being ragdolled by a smurf.

Hillend Loch
Hillend Loch is a 345 acre lake dammed in 1797 and creating, a marvel at the time, the largest manmade reservoir in the world. It supplies water to the Forth & Clyde canal, which similarly splits Scotland as the Caledonian canal does, eliminating the need for sea-going vessels to navigate the dangerous waters to the north. The difference between the canals, however, is the Forth & Clyde actually saw a modicum of financial success before being superseded by the railway. Twenty years to build, many thousands of navvies, hundreds of millions of man hours, obsolete twenty years later. It must've been heartbreaking for those callused, determined men.

There's a satisfaction one feels with material work that exceeds any other, I think. I take pride in my writing, so I try to make it as entertaining and fulfilling to read as I possibly can, but the way I feel when I write something well pales in comparison to my satisfaction when I drive past a wall I built or a roof I put on, even twenty or thirty years later. The tangibility is definitely more palpable. So I can empathise with these men when such a monument to their work ethic falls into disuse.

Interestingly, pride is a strange thing, indelibly tied to egotism. I had this conversation recently with one of my best friends, who's an amazing chef, a profession notoriously filled with narcissists, and he took umbrage when I mentioned egotism as a precept for perfectionism. He immediately assumed the layman's interpretation, that ego is infantile, when, in psychological circles, egocentricity is simply a necessary constituent of consciousness. Without it, we lack drive and determination. Much of our motivation stems from this component. I have an ego, as does everyone, but I've learned, especially since beginning to write for a living, to manage it. I want it to drive me towards excellence, but I also require genuine humility when someone purposely disparages me or offers a critique. Then I want to listen and possibly learn by objectively determining the value of the information.

Thus the benefit of balance, so that's now what I strive for, a malleable trade off between pride in my work and the ability to take criticism. Ego is the seed of most strife, but often the solution when applied wisely. Of course, most ill-tempered critics are completely full of shit, but occasionally one may glean a helpful nugget from the avalanche of bile.

Day 57
The winter had apparently followed me down from the mountains, as the flysheet was frozen this morning, but the low sun quickly defrosted tent, bike tarp, and the long grass around me, creating a damp mist that ultimately drenched everything. It dissipated quickly enough, though, and dried things out before I packed up.

Petersburn library on the outskirts of Glasgow appeared to be a relic of Assault on Precinct 13; a concrete bunker with tiny barred windows, flanked by shuttered shops defaced by graffiti, on a tower block housing estate replete with the rooster-like strutting of pit bull advocates, manfully reining in their pet predators. The librarian eyed me nervously from behind his bulwark desk as I walked in. I tried the wandering writer rhetoric, and relief washed over the man like a papal benediction. So thankful I wasn't there to violently bugger him to death he offered me access to the internet via his own account when the guest system went down. The place was deserted, and no other customer came in the library for the two hours I was there, which somehow didn't surprise me, though another librarian did turn up and they discussed me in hushed, almost reverential tones which had the curious effect of not only buffing my ego but also worrying me about my rig locked outside. I finished my final draft, emailed it to the client, landed another little project, then left to skirt the periphery of Glasgow and head south for the border and Carlisle.

I camped by Strathclyde Loch between Hamilton and Motherwell, near Bothwellhaugh Roman ruins, which destroy the popular Scottish boast of the empire ending at Hadrian's Wall some eighty miles to the south, and next to a suspiciously sandy beach, and made the single most momentous discovery in the history of cycle touring: No Bake Camp Cheesecake. You take a digestive cookie, break it in half to make it bite-sized and surmount each with a generous dollop of cream cheese, then a slight smear of bramble jelly. With a succession of cups of tea, I was in heaven. Surely something this divinely simple had been invented before? Well, I'm taking credit for it even if it has, because by gum, the symphony of sweet, oaty crunch, smooth creamy cheese and sharp tang of berry is to die for, especially augmented by an eruptive lakeside sunset.

Day 58
After weeks of cycling spending more and more of my time not listening to anything and becoming something of a meditative hippie, I curiously found myself craving music upon discovering my backup earbuds had even less purchase in my ears than the previous pair. I spent morning tent defrosting time loading up a new rockin' playlist to my phone and hit the road with the rolled frozen flysheet strapped to the trailer because it didn't.

I rode to Larkhall to work and charge my phone in the library, and discovered I'd been paid promptly for the work I sent in yesterday. I completed today's assignment and headed for the Co-op for an indulgent shop of curry ingredients and a celebratory four pack, thinking to get a couple of more hours riding in and camp early for dinner and a movie. This plan evaporated, however, when an elderly 'I'm Scottish' American cornered me as I was unlocking my bike and subjected me to a litany of family migratory history, mistaking my Canadian cycling jersey for collusion.

Coming from Britain, as I do (though born in Canada), I've never understood the North American fascination with their European ancestry. The stereotyping underpinning such interest is often quite disturbing, and rather shocking to experience from the denizens of First World countries, who should, frankly, know better. European nobility have the same obsession, and normal people shouldn't trust those weird bastards either.

Perhaps it's a relic from when we thought lineage and geography were more important than the individual, and we didn't know enough about humanity to discard the proverbial book cover? After all, this was before the internet, and I suppose the quickest way to best guess someone's character and temperament was through the generous application of established stereotypes. We weren't to know such thinking was lazy horseshit. It shocks me to see how many people still harbour these views, expressed so easily within the anonymity of the web, even with the mountains of biological evidence stacked so heavily against them and freely available for all to see. But still, this guy was ancient, so the stratifications of prejudice were probably irrevocably ingrained.

Avoiding impoliteness I murmured platitudes and feigned interest at the appropriate points, whilst internally updating how far I'd be able to ride now before darkness hit. When he finally broke the monologue at the sixty minute mark to draw what I firmly believe was his first breath, I interrupted to say I had to get going, constructing some lie about having to be in Carlisle in two days, and it was 120K away. He dismissed my objections and grabbed my arm, offering me a bed for the night. An entire evening of subjective genealogy, accompanied, no doubt, by albums of pictorial evidence, bookcases of supporting literature, slide shows, laser-pointed Powerpoint presentations, and, quite possibly, surreptitious attempts at sado-masochistic sex. I thanked him but refused, and said I really had to leave.

I was probably a little brusque in declining, and hope I didn't hurt his feelings, as he was probably just a lonely old man looking for someone to talk to, but I'd already given him an hour and I was looking forward to my plans. Curry night!

I made a mad scramble out of town before the dark and cold hit, desperate to find a place to camp. I finally found a fair spot and discovered my flysheet was still frozen. I put the beer outside to chill and slow cooked the curry for a couple of hours, seriously denting my methylated spirits supply but man, was it worth it for both my sanity and the sanctity of my bottom.

Day 59
The old Carlisle road paralleling the M74 was virtually deserted. I saw two cars in twenty miles, and with a dedicated bike path and a healthy tailwind through hilly terrain, I did that twenty miles in about ninety minutes. With the sun out and great views, the euphoria rose to a point where I started singing along to the music I was listening to, especially when Big Joe Turner came on with his version of the classic Honey Hush. I particularly like the chorus, so was belting it out at the top of my lungs, 'I SAID A-HI HO, HI HO SILVER! HI HO SILVER AWAAAAYYY!' When I shot out from the forest track, on a black bike, no less, onto a footway in front of two startled backpackers.

I passed through the village of Abington, but neglected to turn off for Wanlockhead, the highest village in Scotland at 1,531' (467 m) above sea level and home to what is very probably an interesting lead mining museum, but it would be closed for the winter. I continued on and noticed, on a bare hillside to my left, a patch of pine forest, just outside Crawford, quite blatantly planted in the shape of a giant penis. Immensely amused, pictures immediately winged their way to my Twitter and Facebook accounts.

I rode on past the rapturously named villages of Elvanfoot and Watermeetings, tyres purring their approval in the silence, but this perfect day began to crumble with the simplicity of missing a turn. Not usually a big deal, but I didn't notice I had, and this turn was important: crossing the motorway to continue the trail on the other side of the valley, and sleet began to fall and blow sideways. The tarmac gave way to a dirt track, the track thence to mud, and there was nowhere to camp. I saw some woods up ahead, though, and slogged on into them, thinking I was still on the right route, to discover a gate blocking my path. It was some kind of quarrying or mining operation, so I checked my map and discovered where I'd gone wrong. Still there was nowhere to pitch, so I donned waterproofs and backtracked the couple of miles through the mud slurry, now washing away to expose rough stone aggregate necessitating a snail's pace lest my rig shudder apart, the headwind opposing smoother stretches, as I cursed the heavens and all they contain.

I made it back to the missed junction, the cold starting to bite, got on the right path, cranked up my cadence to warm up, and discovered my trailer tyre was flat. I couldn't help but chuckle at how not fun this was. I pumped the thing up and carried on: it lasted perhaps a hundred yards. My hands were too numb to fix the puncture and it was getting dark and colder, one side of the road was a bog, the other fenced off, which isn't particularly a problem for me, but the dense and steeply sloping forest beyond was. I pumped up again, repeating the routine three times until I came across a flatter area to the left, raised above the bog.

In the dark I pitched on mossy rubble over concrete, trying to find purchase with the pegs, as the winter wind whirled into a howl. My hands had no feeling anyway, so I degloved to defrost them in armpits or crotch for half a minute to open up a few seconds of fiddling with pegs, zips, and clasps. It was below freezing now, and the sky was clearing to reveal gimlet stars, the moon an indifferent chip of ice, so removed from civilisation's glow. It was going to get even colder. I spread my stuff inside, weighting the corners to augment the insecure pegs, and thankfully, finally, got out of the elements.

I discovered, to my dismay, that my sleeping bag was wet. This was going to be interesting, as it's a two season bag with a comfort rating of +2 degrees Celsius and an Extreme Rating of -3, and it was already about -5 C, I guestimated*. Extreme Rating means you'll probably survive that temperature, but you won't sleep. I did have a silk liner though, which makes a huge difference, and I could layer up my clothing, but I was out of candles for the heater. There are those that say one should sleep naked or only in very light clothing in order to extract the full benefit of their sleeping bag. I don't believe these people.

I still woke up shivering and unable to feel my bare feet (all my socks were also wet), the tent taking a serious beating from the wind. I went out several times to adjust the guys and pegs, and actually wrote in my notes, 'HOLY FUCKING JESUS IT'S COLD!!!' when I got back in, but all told I was pretty comfortable, considering. Especially when I used my headover and woolly hat as socks instead, and wore two pairs of spare underpants on my head, and spread my towel over the bottom of my bag as a blanket. The benefit of so many years working construction in Canadian winters and Texan summers is I'm intimately familiar with a hell of a lot worse than this.

*I'm pretty good at marking temperatures. I looked at the weather report the next morning, and it had reached -6 C, so I was pretty close.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Stefan Abrutat and the Stone of Destiny

I must've gone wrong somewhere.

It's a symptom of my stubbornness, I suppose, to be paracording my bicycle rig piecemeal down a sheer cliff, feeling very Indiana Jones but looking much more Mugshot Nick Nolte, rather than backtracking to find the bike path I had, my petulant GPS insisted, lost.

Many people would put my recalcitrance down to laziness, I imagine, and I'd have to agree, because I'd had a tiring push up the leeward slope and didn't relish undoing all that work. But I prefer to think of my current predicament in terms of Rocky Balboa's motivational speech in his final movie (though there's rumblings, at the time of writing, of yet another one):

Let me tell you something you already know. The world ain't all sunshine and rainbows. It's a very mean and nasty place and I don't care how tough you are, it will beat you to your knees and keep you there permanently if you let it. You, me, or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life. But it ain't about how hard you hit. It's about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. How much you can take and keep moving forward! That's how winning is done!

Because this creates the illusion I'm personifying the kind of moxie one sees in heroic fiction. Were Rocky actually here, of course, I'm sure he'd punch me right in the mouth for using his sensationalism as an excuse for this stupid shortcut, but he isn't, so fuck that slack-jawed cocksucker.

Day 53
I clambered down after my stuff, reassembled everything, and began hacking through undergrowth, braying at fallen trees, and deciding medieval merchant-adventuring must've been an act of desperation born of an absolute inability to do anything else. As Marco Polo et al plummeted in my estimation I eventually found the elusive bike path and a sign saying Perth was twelve miles away, whereas the adjacent but shoulderless A9 roadsign said eight. It was early and traffic was light, so I took the less meandering but infinitely more dangerous option, lucking out when the sidewalk began about halfway along, snatching me from the sphincter-puckering terror of near misses.

Sure, cycling on a footway is illegal in the UK, but no way am I needlessly risking my neck for some absent twat of a lawmaker. Moreover, British coppers, rightly and overwhelmingly, ignore this particular infraction, requiring either excruciating personal pedantry or some querulous political quota to issue a ticket. I wouldn't begrudge receiving one, to be honest, and might even welcome the inconvenience just for the opportunity to vociferously assault such pettiness in a courtroom full of people too dim to find a proper job.

Which is rich, coming from me.

Perth is the home of Scone Abbey, which has sadly nothing to do with a surfeit of delicious pastries served with jam and clotted cream, and everything to do with the Stone of Destiny, which is very LARPy1 indeed.

Legend has it this 336 lb artifact was used by Jacob (the dad in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat) as a pillow2, brought to Ireland by the prophet, Bible coauthor and probable Obelix prototype Jeremiah3, and thence to Scotland with ninth century waves of Irish immigrants4, who used it as a chair to crown their monarchs on. It rested for over four hundred years, it is said, at Scone Abbey until taken as spoils of war by King Edward I in 1296 AD and whisked away to Westminster Abbey, where it was entombed in the Coronation Chair upon which all successive English sovereigns have been crowned. This apparently symbolized the dominion of the English over the Scots, especially if the investing monarch was indulgently flatulent. In 1996, the UK government decided to let Scotland have its fart stone back, and as geologists have proven it to consist of lower old red sandstone quarried just outside Scone (a material which is, topically, immensely permeable to gas), all the stories of its ancient history are, as any reasonable person might expect, absolute bullshit5.
1Live Action Role-Playing is a popular kind of improvised interactive theatre game, where people get dressed up as elves and gnomes and whatnot to act their way through (typically) Dungeons & Dragons-type scenarios (you can see examples in movies like Role Models and the award-winning documentary Darkon). Most people, including me, view this as pretty weird, however I've recently been amusing myself with the notion that the majority of human society actually moves through the real world in exactly the same way, playing roles only relevant contextually while wearing similarly outlandish costumes (uniforms, for example. We tend to see these as quite acceptable until we travel abroad, ridicule the exotic pomposity of the Banana Republic uniforms there, then suddenly realize our own are equally daft), somewhat akin to the Shakespearean idea that all the world's a stage. This doesn't make their conventional version of reality* any more valid, of course. The only real difference is mundanes (gamers' epithet for non-gamers) actually hurt, inconvenience, imprison, and kill people. You can probably begin to see why the more facets of establishment I experience while travelling, the more objective my perspective becomes, and the more my respect for authority continues to spiral towards smacking some twat for standing in my way.
*Reality is very weird shit. Consider, for a moment, your brain. It interprets the universe through your senses, but doesn't tell you what you are really experiencing, which is a huge collection of molecules in various states of agitation, the volume of which, in any state outside the density of stuff like black holes, white dwarfs, and neutron stars, is mostly empty space: for example, if a hydrogen nucleus (a single proton) was the size of a marble, its lone electron would be an orbiting spec of dust half a mile away, making the entire atom 99.9999999999996% nothingness. Thus, for example, when we touch something, we actually don't: the atoms in our fingertips merely experience the electromagnetic field permeating spacetime, which my brain interprets as, I dunno, this pint glass. The electrons orbiting the nuclei in the glass repel the electrons in the surface of my fingers (like charges repel, if you recall your high school physics), and my brain perceives this unfathomably small gap as texture. Sensory perception is therefore a kind of graphical user interface, like windows on a PC. We don't perceive atomic structure, just like we don't see the underlying strings of computer code. We see a table, or a chair, or if we're extremely lucky, a timely refill by a convivial barmaid with big tits. 

Our sensory organs break down these incoming stimuli into electrical signals, which beam into our brains to be biochemically reassembled into a usable representation. Thus we do actually each exist in our own private illusory Matrix; what we perceive is not reality, it's a biochemical apparition. A hallucination, if you will.**

**I was originally planning to sit back on a porch somewhere to watch the revolution unfold, flicking back popcorn and sipping a choice whiskey, but it isn't happening fast enough for my liking. At the time of writing 23 states of the US have some form of cannabis legalization, and Portugal proves the drug war wrong with everything else. Politicians pay lip service to science when it suits their lust for power, not for accuracy or objective truth. We may have to duct tape them to wooden chairs in abandoned buildings, strap on a few ball gags and erect some kind of movie screen. We'll show them Tango & Cash sober, then pump in a pot cloud and reshow it: they'd change the law immediately and hug it out the door.
2Between songs, probably.
3Who was never overly enthusiastic about musical theatre but could apparently carry the fuck out of a rock.
4Something Irish nationalists often fail to remember in their hatred of the British is they actually started it.
5Not that there's anything wrong with a good yarn, but when folks are still prepared to fight and die over what is ostensibly an entertainment, we probably need to soberly reassess the education system. The quicker we get the internet into every pocket on the planet, the better.

Ancillary fairy tales abound that Edward's prize was, in fact, a fake, while the real Stone of Destiny was prekidnapped for safety by Scottish monks, who bought into this religious nonsense with such zeal they shaved their heads and wore sacks, a worryingly LARPish enthusiasm if ever there was one. But as this mental illness was rampant at the time, judging by the number of elaborate cathedrals being built6, we can probably forgive them their committable befuddlement.

The possibly fake stone was famously restolen from Westminster Abbey in 1950 by four Scottish students in what was, at first glance, an ingenious Rag Week stunt, until I discovered the act was disappointingly fuelled by that other stunningly insular blight on humanity: nationalism, and from people who should be clever enough, at least on paper, to transcend such simple prejudice. They 'gave it back' to the Scottish nation at Arbroath Abbey, which had some additional parochial meaning, before being recovered and returned to London. No charges were ever brought, which hopefully demonstrates at least a glimmer of humour in the Crown Prosecution Service. I watched a documentary about this on YouTube, where they interviewed one of the now elderly thieves; Ian Hamilton QC (a lawyer of extremely high rank) who actually got emotional about the patriotism of it all. I couldn't help but pity such an utterly lost and myopic old man. His youthful caper should be a celebration of mischief and dissent against the ridiculous, instead it was part of the same loopy Harry Potteresque narrative. How sad that someone who lives this long never exercised the opportunity to elevate his perspective. He should go on a bike tour.

Perth is a pleasant-looking city with a fantastic central library, the like more usually found in much larger conurbations. It had a reasonably priced and modern cafe attached, superb WiFi, and no angry wee council rules advocate to admonish me for plugging in.

I sat between two groups who provided such an entertaining day I didn't get a lick of work done. The group to my left were three attractive female students, supposedly working on some assignment, but spending the entire time gossiping with such alacrity I orbited in. They discussed a kaleidoscope of hopes, dreams and motivations, all so stunningly mediocre I was eventually moved by self-importance to intervene.

'Sophia. That's your name? Sophia? Listen, don't believe a word that guy says. Of course he's going to sleep with you and not call you again, you're weird and clingy. Emma: you're a fucking idiot. Don't give advice to anyone ever again. Olivia: you're quite intelligent. It might be time to find more interesting friends than Sophia and Emma. Especially Emma.'
6Which is about as deep down the rabbit hole as it's possible to get.

I didn't, of course, because that would be creepy, and continued eavesdropping instead, because that isn't7.

The group to my right was a meeting of church goers, three elderly women and one middle-aged man, the man American, midwestern if I can place an accent. Two of the women and the man were trying to convince the third women to join their congregation, which appeared to be some kind of Bible study affair, meeting every Sunday afternoon. The man went on at some length about his philosophy and how it related to scripture, in a rich and soothing baritone, his two supporters cooing at the appropriate moments, obviously enamoured. Was this some kind of senior citizen sex cult recruitment?

The fellow had game. I've heard this kind of patter before, in American topless bars from men trying to 'rescue' the strippers. There's a thin line, as Jimmy Buffett says, between Saturday night and Sunday morning.

After thirty minutes of earnest discussion, the Scottish pensioner they were targeting asked how long their Sunday afternoon Bible studies went on for8. The man said it was usually about three hours. She immediately levered herself upright with her walking frame, incensed, 'Three hours! I don't have time for that! Church all morning then three hours in the afternoon? Are you insane?! I've got things to do, goodbye!' She hobbled off, shaking her head and muttering.

There was a moment of awkward silence among the abandoned flock, then the American, lacking even a trace of irony, said, 'I think that went well.'

I Google mapped a wild hilltop campsite on the outskirts of town and stopped at Morrison's for food on the way, then pitched and watched the moonrise over a landscape blued by the twilight. The stars began to twinkle from the gloom, making me feel very hobbity. I need to get a Churchwarden Briar for times like these. And a better camera.

I did a little reading about Perth that night, and discovered another historical Scottish cannibal called Christie Cleek, bringing the total I'd read about to three, and I hadn't even been looking. What the hell? Isn't this a little disproportionate for a country of only five million people? I dug around further and discovered Scotland's legacy of serial killers to be a storied one and frankly, a little worrying with me traversing the wild places in a tent. What is wrong with these people?

A Perth butcher called Andrew Christie, in the famine-struck fourteenth century, was driven to roaming the Grampian mountains with a gang in a desperate search for food. A member of his group died, so Christie butchered the body into choice cuts for his fellow gang members. Enthused by this livener, they took to eating travellers and their steeds, Christie using a long shepherd's crook, known as a Cleke, hence his sobriquet, to unhorse the victims. Apparently over thirty people were consumed this way before they were apprehended by soldiers from Perth, but Christie apparently escaped and re-entered society under an assumed name, giving rise to his bogeyman status.
7Well, it is, but no one's the wiser.
8It's an orgy. C'mon. Got to be.

It's said he died a prosperous merchant in Dumfries many years later.

Christie is often confused with one of the other cannibals I'd read about, but actually pales in comparison to, one Sawyer Bean. This delightful gourmand headed a forty-eight strong clan of murderous cannibals in the fifteenth or sixteenth century, depending who you read. Bean lived with his similarly nutter wife in a cave on Bennane Head, a promontory in the Firth of Forth, and, along with his family, preyed on passersby for sustenance. Over several decades they raised fourteen children, who themselves produced, apparently with a little incestuous help from Mom and Pop, thirty-two grandchildren. They were eventually caught and held to be responsible for over 1,000 deaths, and so were executed without trial in Edinburgh: the men castrated and dismembered and allowed to bleed to death, the women and children burned after watching them die.

We must be delicious.

Day 54
Back to the library to start a writing assignment I'd picked up yesterday, to find it closed for staff training, as was the next one along in Kinross. Shit. This little job was time sensitive too, so I decided to roll on for Edinburgh, battling drizzle and a headwind, and camped early just north of Dunfermline in a hilltop forest, because sod drizzle and headwinds.

With time to kill, I threw myself headlong into season two of Star Trek: The Next Generation. I've seen all these before, of course, but there's a familiarity to the characters and setting that feels very homey and welcoming. However, after not having seen them for a decade or two, they were looking decidedly dated. Ridiculously so, even. And for a show that purports to demonstrate an absence of prejudice in a future cultural utopia, they certainly have some strong feelings about different alien races, if not human ones. Kingons are a certain way, Vulcans another. Ferengi are a bunch of twats. Gene Roddenberry didn't eradicate prejudice, he disseminated it.

Now, we have a saying in mixed martial arts, 'you have to be the nail before you become the hammer', which alludes to the experience of training. When we first begin, no matter how skilled we may be in our former specialties, be it karate, boxing, wrestling, etc, we always get our arses kicked, because we possess absolute weaknesses in so many other areas, the lack exploited at length by more well-rounded training partners. I hadn't watched TNG since I started training, so I marvelled, from an informed position for the first time, at the Klingon head of security Lieutenant Worf's complete inability to defend himself. Supposedly this highly trained and proud warrior is one to be feared, yet every episode I watched involved him getting smacked about by some alien or other, his bob-cut wig convulsing with impact before he was bodily hurled across the bridge again. Of course, TNG had pretty much ended its run by the time the UFC came around in 1993 and brutally demonstrated how daft the traditional martial arts really are, so we shouldn't judge the Star Trek creators too harshly.

I came to discover there is an actual TV writers' trope nowadays, referred to as The Worf Effect, where a known badass, such as Worf, is used as a measuring stick to establish the comparable badassery of an incoming antagonist. When it gets used too often, however, as I witnessed here, a phenomenon occurs known as Badass Decay.

Teetering totty totaller9 Commander Will 'Swinging Dick' Riker, too, was also set up as a badass, but his propensity for using the USS Enterprise as his personal pussy wagon put even legendary intergalactic slut Captain James T. Kirk to shame. Riker cemented this ascendancy by growing a beard when shaving began interfering with bitch banging time.

And I've always been fascinated with the 'beam straight to the bridge' method of capturing unaware characters. What if they're on the toilet? Would they appear on the bridge pants down, mid curl? Would the toilet come too? If not, they're going to fall over. What if the turd shears just before teleportation completed? Would it still transport? Do they even have toilets in Star Trek? Why not just teleport the shit from one's bowels to some waste receptacle? What about leaving it in limbo, looping as a teleporter trace, never to materialize again? If the trace can't be harmlessly dissipated, the atomized data would have to be placed in giant storage drives, hopefully with no download button to accidentally hit10. It's certainly a gaping plot hole, if you'll forgive the expression.
10Which could undoubtedly make for an entertaining Holodeck malfunction.

Day 55
Found a library in Roslyn open until 1 pm, then, heading for the Forth road bridge, I bumped into the cycle tourist I lent my spare pump to a few days ago. He was almost home, having just toured Loch Lomond and the Trossachs while I'd been fannying around in Perth. He gave it me back then, we wished each other well and I continued on to my old stomping grounds of South Queensferry, where the library was open until five. I watched a stream of England losing 22-30 to New Zealand at Twickenham, and to my horror realized I was wearing my All Black rugby shirt, so it was actually all my fault. I'd like to take this opportunity to apologize to the nation.

I camped at the same spot under the bridge I'd used on my outbound journey, and fell asleep satisfied with the circumnavigation, and dreamed of tomorrow's promised tailwind to Glasgow.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Science and the Wolf

So what exactly is the Higgs Boson Particle?

Probably not a question you'd expect from some roving tentamuffin, and certainly not in a Cairngorms travelogue. The reason I bring it up is because it was while walking in these very mountains in 1964, Peter Higgs, a Geordie from Newcastle-upon-Tyne and lecturer at the Tait Institute of Mathematical Physics at the University of Edinburgh, developed his hypothesis of the Higgs Mechanism, which defies detailed explanation because I don't understand a bloody word.

In a nutshell, however, I'm told it's the part of the Standard Model of Particle Physics (itself a devilish whirligig of words, integers, and peculiar mathematical doodads) that lends matter the property of mass. Without the Higgs Mechanism everything in the universe would be flitting about at light speed and stuff wouldn't, well, be.

Which is why the party at CERN's Large Hadron Collider, when the mechanism was finally confirmed in 2013, must've been a knees-up to shame even my own nefarious drinking buddies. There'd have been the poking of flashing red buttons marked DANGER, drunken dares to quaff antimatter projects and cosmos-collapsing cries of the Universal Disaster Portent; Watch this, lads! 

I like to imagine a frail octogenarian Peter Higgs, surrounded by giggling science groupies and prostrate academics, when, spectacles dislodged by the bounce of an errant boob and draped in party popper ejaculate, he murmurs his now legendary maxim, 'It's very nice to be right sometimes.'

These scenarios obviously wouldn't occur, of course, as the great unwashed (and the great washed, for that matter) are too distracted by the bling of celebrity show business, shouty sporting events and the gloom of war and catastrophe to attend the properly important. Our water cooler conversations concentrate on Bieber's new 'do, or outrage at the latest infantile/anemic government policy, or whether some red carpet trollop inhaled the wrong cock when her career began to flag. Higgs et al didn't register even the tiniest blip on most people's radar.

Higgs' wandering demonstrates the benefit of imagination, and more poignantly, the importance of having the opportunity to explore it. One of the problems, I feel, with modern western life is our lack of this luxury. Every waking moment seems to be filled with some distraction or other: even while strolling to the corner shop I feel compelled to fill the time with music or an entertaining podcast. While partaking of such things may be intellectually and emotionally appealling, they rarely improve our implicit ability to reason, or help us arrive at a considered opinion. As I've grown and matured (shut up), I've found myself less reluctantly agreeing with the older generation that silence is the best soundtrack for thinking.

Day 50
The sharp cold dulled somewhat, the deficit replaced by blustery waves of misting rain, necessitating several flappy and frozen-fingered fights with the poncho. I thus stuttered along the undulating bike route to Kingussie while listening to an episode of the Joe Rogan Podcast about weird people preempting the inevitable mergence of technology and biology by sewing magnets under their skin, followed by a chapter of Bernard Cornwell's Harlequin (AKA The Archer's Tale in the US), which put me in a receptive mood for something historical. The Highlands didn't disappoint.

Ruthven Barracks
Ruthven Barracks appeared from behind a hill and stopped me in my tracks. This gem of a ruin is sited on a hill dominating the valley and surrounded by mountains, it's got Game of Thrones written all over it. I hadn't seen a car or person in twenty minutes, so I parked up by the gate, didn't even bother locking up the rig, and clambered up the steep path to find out what the hell this place was. 

The sign said it was a barracks completed in 1721 by our old mate General Wade to house soldiers combating the Jacobite Uprising. 

It was besieged twice, the first time defending against 300 Jacobites with only 12 redcoats, the second time overrun by Bonnie Prince Charlie's minions. After their defeat at the Battle of Culloden in 1746, they had subsequently made this their rally point some 40 odd miles away. 3,000 highlanders gathered here after the fight, to be met by a message to disperse from the aspiring potentate. I was starting to dislike this posh pretend Scottish git more and more: he didn't even have the stones to show up himself. They set fire to the place when they left, and what stands now is pretty much what remained.

There's something incredibly satisfying about exploring a deserted ruin alone. It lends a unique solitude and reflection, absent with company, that stirs the imagination and helps transport oneself back in time. While exploring the two barracks blocks, devoid now of furniture, floors and roof, I still got a sense of what life must've been like for the soldiers, crowded in ten to a room and two to a bed. The stables to the rear of the fort catered to the dragoon rapid reaction force, tasked to keep the roads clear of bothersome autocrats.

Ruthven Barracks are built on the bones of an earlier castle, one of the lairs of Alexander Stewart, the Earl of Buchan. This hate-filled fuckwit was known as the Wolf of Badenoch in the late fourteenth century, primarily because he, along with his Cateran, or private army, had a propensity for the rape, pillage and murder of his peasant protectorate that far exceeded the potential ravages of any likely invader. With over forty illegitimate offspring it's difficult to picture the impotent, innocuous nobility of today descending from such lusty and loathsome stock, but this is where inbreeding gets us, I suppose.

As the third son of King Robert II of Scotland, his appalling behaviour was largely tolerated, although token penance was undertaken occasionally to assuage the demands of the Church. He was granted governmental positions and titles such as Justiciar of Scotia for a time, likely in an attempt to give the wayward lad some responsibility, but none of it worked. The Wolf's depredations culminated in the sacking and burning of Elgin town and Cathedral in 1390, apparently in retaliation for the Church's condemnation of his murdering, thieving, torturing, and relentless shagging, but more probably the denouement of their power struggle for control of Scotland's north. 

One particular story involved imprisoning the monk who delivered the news of Alexander's excommunication in the bottle dungeon of Lochindorb castle. The dungeon breached the water table of the lake island location, meaning any prisoner had to live in three feet of water: essentially sentencing them to a horrible death either by, or caused by, sleep deprivation.

The Wolf was killed, it is said, after losing a game of chess to the Devil himself in 1405 (or 1406, or 1394, depending on who you listen to) at the age of 62 (or 63, or 51), his body found after a great storm marking the Devil's victory, uninjured but with the nails ripped out of his boots. This is, of course, absolute bullshit, but he's interred, rather ironically given his history of psychopathic excess, down the road at Dunkeld Cathedral. 

Kingussie & Newtonmore
I parked outside the library in Kingussie (population: 1,400), setting for the Monarch of the Glen TV series, and noticed another loaded touring bike locked to a railing. I got talking to the chap inside, easily identifiable by his rangy and unkempt contentment. He was a young man for a bicycle tourist, barely into his twenties, and he'd impressively ridden all the way from Istanbul. I loaned him my spare pump to fix a flat, and told him to keep it to see him home to Edinburgh. I gave him my card so he could mail it back to me later.

Ego buffed to an immaculate sheen by such prodigious charity, I left the library as the sun waned and rode to Newtonmore (population: 1,000), the next town along, for a quick shop of bread and cookies, and headed out the other side to camp. Pickings were slim, however, and as darkness fell my anxiety grew until I found a spot by a bend in the B9150. My description of the town should end here, as I'd sluttishly treated the place like a pitstop, but it really is more important than that: Newtonmore being a hotbed of the ancient and amateur sport of shinty.

I first rode past an impressive shinty stadium in Fort William, and was surprised to discover there's an entire sporting league on the island I grew up on that I'd never heard of, despite it predating Christianity. The game has striking similarities to Irish hurling, so much so the sports are often combined under unified rules to allow teams from both to play each other. Newtonmore Camanachd is one of the premier club teams in shinty, and ruled the roost for many decades, winning 30 national championships since the competition's inception in 1896. However, the team from Kingussie, literally two miles away, has dominated the last twenty years or so, winning 23 times in all and meriting a mention in the 2005 Guinness Book of World Records as World sport's most successful sporting team of all time. What a fascinating yearly rivalry this must be, in this remote and seemingly sedate highland valley. I may have to come back just to go on the piss, I mean, watch a game.

Day 51
The rain didn't let off until noon again, then I decamped and began a long, cold, granny gear slog into an abject cunt of a headwind, accompanied by stinging horizontal sleet, past the village of Dalwhinnie and its namesake whisky distillery, the highest in Scotland, and up towards the Pass of Drumochter. 

I don't complain about much, which is probably an undesirable trait in a writer. Reading a good bitch about something mundane can be hugely entertaining, a revel in someone else's angst whether we empathise with it or not, but there's nothing mundane about a proper fucking headwind for a cyclist. Every revolution becomes a battle, every mile a war. I'd have camped down and waited it out, because I'm all about having fun and this certainly wasn't, but real winter was clawing at my tail and with limited supplies I didn't want to get trapped in the mountains by the snow.

Midway through the pass, frozen and exhausted, the cycle path ended, so I was forced, rather worryingly, onto the A9's dual carriageway. I wasn't crapping myself at every passing lorry for long, however, as roadwork bollards soon separated the lanes. The inside one had been resurfaced; richly dark, lounge singer smooth, and gloriously all to myself for the next ten miles or so of resplendent downhill. In addition, the sleet stopped, the wind switched direction, and the sun smashed through. Thus the breathtaking glide down the broad Garry and Tummel river valleys as they twisted through the mountains was sublime, effortlessly sweeping from pleasing view to pleasing view, a high banked flight corralled by the black ribbon of road. It was hypnotic. Familiar now, I surrendered to it, bathing in the feeling. Not thinking, I turned off the music that'd helped me up the pass and just... flowed. Suddenly, the answer to the question of my life was glaringly obvious. Just do this. Bugger all that other shit. This is what it's about, evermore sweetened by the antecedent slog. 

As the land flattened and the bullshit babble of humanity rushed back in, I considered the euphoria. It was an excruciatingly addictive drug. So this is what religion must feel like, I mused. Or heroin. It ruined any further chance of a normal life, whatever that is. I was actually, truly, finally, free. 

I considered the aesthetic, too. Was it the simplicity of moving through a gorgeous landscape that caused this, or was this just the first time I'd properly been 'in the moment' on a downhill? And what is 'beauty', anyhow? Realizing I was teetering on the edge of philosophy I knew precious little about, and no doubt every idea I could come up with had already been discussed and dissected to death, I consulted the Greeks and their academic progeny. 

And discovered the philosophy of aesthetics to be an unnecessarily complicated load of old bollocks, compounding the idea that much of academia invests in overblown waffle to describe things that are quite simple, probably in an attempt to appear brainier. I promptly gave up and decided to sling a quote your way instead to look like I know what I'm talking about.

Beauty is anything you are compelled to look at. - John Waters

That should cover it.          

I rejoined the bike path, and quickly found a fantastic camping spot on a cliff with a grandstand view of the raging River Garry, a few miles northwest of the awesomely appellated village of Killiecrankie. This has nothing to do with Wee Jimmie Krankie, the cross-dressed Scottish schoolboy of Crackerjack fame, but it made me think of her anyway. (She recently admitted, along with her comedy partner and husband Ian, to being heavily involved in the swinging scene during the eighties. Oh, how I curse my persistent and overvivid imagination.) I clambered down the rock face to grab a bucket of water from a tributary burn, feeling very Bear Grylls, filtered some to drink and had a rejuvenating wash with the rest. Bubbly TV chef Ainsley Harriott completed today's weird celebrity quotient by providing dinner in a packet of his Thai chicken soup, and surprisingly acceptable it was too, hungrily scoffed down with half a loaf of bread. My phone told me it was 4 degrees C in nearby Pitlochry, but the ice in my water bottle disagreed, so I wrapped up cozily and delved deeply into season four of The Wire, punctuated by long stares at a fantastic night sky.

Day 52
Rain forced only a couple of hours in the saddle today, but that short span took in a parade of pretty villages, impressive castles and hidden stately homes, the latter often only indicated by their roadside gatehouses, which were pretty spectacular in themselves. 

I decided not to stop at Pitlochry library and pushed on through Dunkeld, passing by the cathedral grave of the Wolf of Badenoch, to the library at Birnam, a small village in a fetching valley setting. The library was a throwback to the seventies, it seemed, with an ancient computer system and barely an hour's grace with their ridiculously inconvenient opening schedule. I left with the dark and climbed the valley side along a bike route that looked worrying like a private driveway, confirmed about halfway up by a PRIVATE ROAD sign. Bike routes often follow such prohibited thoroughfares, though, as the signs often only refer to powered transport, so I paid it no mind. I couldn't find a decent flat bit suitable for a tent apart from one right by the road on a corner, but it was so quiet I decided to pitch anyway, and didn't see a soul until morning.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

War and Patriotism

'You're hauling too much stuff.'

'Nah,' I contradicted the experienced cycle tourist I'd been talking to for the last thirty minutes. We were chatting at one of the trailer-blocking bridleway entrance obstacles of which overeager planning departments are so frustratingly fond, 'I'm hauling too much stuff for you.'

I suspended cathartic visions of a brutal council office axe massacre and softened the insult with a grin. 'If I'm not complaining, it shouldn't bother you, either. I like my kitchen sink.'

'But wouldn't you prefer to ride further every day?'

'I'm not particularly about seeing as much stuff as quickly as possible, mate; I'm not on a vacation: it's about the journey, experiences, and living in the moment,' I said with more conviction than I felt. But then decided I was right.

When I get in my tent, it's my home from home, rather than a temporary respite from the elements, which is why I use a large two person rather than a single, and I'm actually thinking of moving up to a three person, because that's how I roll, bitches. Pimping in a guest wing, if you will. Most tent manufacturers are laughably conservative about sleeping capacities, so cycle tourists typically use a size up; solo riders will use a two person, couples a three, etc, but I require more. In addition, load-wise I carry up to ten litres of water and a week of food so I can stop anywhere I fancy on a whim, and two stoves so I can make more elaborate meals. I have many redundancies built in, and lots of stuff I've never used, such as tools, that take up space but would be invaluable during a mechanical crisis in the middle of nowhere.

Do I curse the weight on a steep hill? Not really, no more than I do any other exercise; I'm in no hurry. This is something a lot of proper cycle tourists, irrevocably bungeed to day jobs and minacious mortgages and voracious families, fail to grasp: being an aimless vagabond is my work, now, such as it is. I'm the job, my brain's the game, and soaking up juicy information and substantive experiences the goal. And besides, enduring a little cardio slogging up a hill is redemption for the indulgence: it eases the grudging guilt of euphoric downhills, rapturous scenery, unctuous cakes, endless candy, witnessing history, geography and culture unfold from a tangible first person perspective far superior to any academic deliberation, and every one I climb makes me fitter, and the next one more surmountable. It's a win-win-win. Without uphill struggles I'd be all soft yin and empty yang. Without the suck, the joy would seem less so. One must embrace the suck, even revel in it. And the suck ends at the summit.

The Scottish Highlands
The challenging highlands of Scotland are a comparatively deserted region: at just over nine people per square kilometre it's one of the most sparsely populated in Europe. (At least, this is what Wikipedia claims; 'but what about northern Scandinavia?' I roared indignantly at this often derided source, 'or Eastern Europe?' I looked it up elsewhere, and by Jimminy, they were right.)

The numbers were much higher in previous centuries, but upheavals such as the Highland Clearances (where powerful landowners forcibly enclosed common land for their own use, effectively marooning smaller subsistence farmers: possibly one of the most criminal moves by the powerful in Britain's turbulent history) and the industrial revolution saw huge swathes move to the coasts and lowlands, as well as significant numbers abroad to North America and Australasia. Interestingly, there are more descendants of Highlanders in these locations than remain in Scotland, a notion I was noticing in overheard accents: occasionally I'd mistake Scots for American if I snatched just a snippet, tuned as I am to the US vernacular. This suggests there's a disproportionate descendance of Scottish in the American linguistic stew, which I'd certainly look up on Google if I was interested enough to be arsed.

Day 46
Another late start due to the increasingly frequent rain.

At noon I left my scenic roost above the torrential river Foyers, itself created by a confluence of the wonderfully named rivers Gourag and Fechlin, and descended from the heights along one of General Wade's famed military roads, through the mountainside village of Foyers itself, down to the pretty shores of Loch Ness.

An undeveloped section

These roads were laid in the 18th century to aid troop movement during the highland Jacobite Risings. It's difficult to imagine such violent contention in such a beatific setting, but demonstrates how silly people can be when the ridiculous carrot-and-stickfest of money and power are involved. The Duke of Hanover, William of Orange, had a claim on the British throne and made one at the head of 15,000 men. There was little opposition from the nobles in England, primarily because the Duke agreed to uphold the ratifications of the Magna Carta and the establishment of the Bill of Rights, which ultimately reduced the power of the monarchy to a constitutional figurehead. The deposed Catholic James II preferred absolute power, believing it divinely granted; a ludicrous notion inherited by the equally unenlightened Bonnie Prince Charlie, personifying the invention of 'country' and becoming a rallying cry for patriotism: an ideology I've long curated but never quite embraced.

(George Bernard Shaw suggested 'Patriotism is your conviction that this country is superior to all other countries because you were born in it', neatly summating my feelings on the subject. If you're a patriot, do you honestly believe the group of people you artificially affiliate with, formally designated by lines drawn on maps by politicians, are somehow special? There's a word for that, my provincial friend, and that word is 'simple'. (Look, we're cave people, and have been for millions of years. Now we just build our own. Unless we're attached by blood or friendship: you ain't in my tribe. We lived in small nomadic hunter-gatherer bands of 20-30 for millions of years, tens of thousands of generations (compared to around 400 since the advent of agriculture), and associated with similarly-sized groups whose ranges overlapped. That's our tribe: anthropologists discovered the number of people we can develop meaningful relationships with to be about 150 or so, known as Dunbar's Number. Countries, by comparison, are a few generations old and millions strong: that ain't our tribe at all. Not even close.)

I can't help but feel General George Wade should be a more interesting bloke. He was born in Ireland, and such was his solid if not spectacular military and political career (he was sufficiently mediocre to became a very popular MP, representing the well-heeled people of Bath from 1722 until his death in 1748) he received a mention in the lyrics of the national anthem around 1745. To be honest, the most interesting thing about him is he died unmarried but with three kids, so he was very probably a rake, which for me is a tick in the plus column.

Lord, grant that Marshal Wade
May, by thy mighty aid,
Victory bring.
May he sedition hush
And, like a torrent, rush
Rebellious Scots to crush.
God save the King.

This tribute obviously didn't go down too well north of the border, and the verse was scrapped. Wade's opposition to Bonnie Prince Charlie (whose belief in this 'divine right of kings' rubbish puts him firmly in the cunt camp, making his deified folk hero status all the more exasperating) supported the swelling movement towards democracy in Great Britain, and culminated at the 1746 Battle of Culloden, the last pitched battle fought on British soil.

Had you seen these roads before they were made,
You would lift up your hands and bless General Wade

I dawdled along the waterside for most of the afternoon, contemplating this history and the second largest loch in Scotland by area (22 square miles), and largest by volume (755 feet deep; Loch Ness contains more fresh water than all the lakes of England and Wales combined) before leaving its northern banks behind for the highland capital of Inverness.

Another shower shepherded me into a bus shelter on the outskirts, and I spent the time Google Streetviewing potential wild campsites. I found one just around the corner, close to a Tesco, and decided to do a quick food shop while the rain passed.

Sometimes, in my daily visits to the supermarket, I experience a kind of reality warp. I enter with a clearly delineated shopping list of, for example, bogroll, matches, tinned soup and a loaf of bread, and emerge with a packet of Bourbon creams, an apple turnover, three onions and a banana.

This transmogrification occurs, I'm sure, because of special offers. When on a limited budget, special offers spring tumescently to the fore like misplaced porn in the Disney aisle. Several British supermarkets have got into the commendable habit of grouping their specials together in one place, especially perishables nearing their sell-by date. I plunder such bays like a Viking berserker, pausing to ask myself 'do I like cheese coleslaw?' and 'what exactly is hummus?' amid the raging red mist.

Settled and fed in the tent I decided to engage Shawn, a good Texan lawyer friend of mine, on Facebook in a perfunctory squabble about something. I picked including vegetables in chilli con carne, as he prides himself on his own authentic southwestern US recipe that scorns the tomato but desperately clings to the abuses of onion. We share similar views on pretty much everything, so we regularly invent stuff to argue about. I suggested starting off with a mirepoix, a chopped mixture of onion, celery and carrot used as a base in French soups, sauces and stews, to round out the flavour profile. He disagreed and said some scandalous things about British cuisine. I won, of course. He disagreed with that, too.

Day 47
I put my bag down by reception to sign up, only to discover the Inverness library had no WiFi. I wordlessly gaped at the librarian for a couple of seconds, fourteen years into the 21st century and all, then asked if they had a study area where I could plug in.

'Well, the problem is, you see,' she said, 'our wiring is so old we're asking people not to plug anything in, as the fuses might blow and it's a safety concern.'

Utter fucking dogshit. Another council simulating fiscal responsibility for the dumber voter by alienating people who are suddenly surprisingly prepared to burn the place down tonight. 'You're saying my laptop will blow this entire building's electrical infrastructure?'


'I've been cycling around Scotland for six weeks, navigating electronically, and this is the first library I've encountered with no WiFi and a plug ban. Are you seriously suggesting a phone charger will blow the lot?'

'Yes.' But there was a crack there, quickly camouflaged by obstinance. My coherence obviously didn't jive with my roguish appearance.

'Well, if I get lost and die in a highland blizzard because I haven't charged my GPS,' I huffed, turning to dramatically depart on the last word, 'I'm coming back to possess your children.' Pleased with this rejoinder, I promptly tripped over my backpack.

I put her reticence down to my lack of cycling gear (I was discovering people treated me less like a transient when I was wearing my cock helmet or luminous twat jersey: note to self), and Google mapped a route to the next nearest library in Culloden. I managed twenty minutes of charging there before they closed for a bafflingly mediterraneanesque two hour lunch.

I decided to visit the nearby Culloden battlefield on Drumossie Moor instead of waiting for them to reopen, but the long climb out of the village dissuaded my return. I bimbled around the battlefield for a bit, learning as much as I could about a conflict I was fairly ignorant of. Turns out the discipline of the English broke the fury of the French- and Irish-supported Highlanders, largely because of the bayonet drill which involved each redcoat in the line attacking the Highlander to his right, rather than the one straight ahead, thereby bypassing the Scottish shields once their charge hit. At least, that's the story. I toyed with the idea of camping here, but there were too many people about, so I set off south into the Cairngorms.

Just before starting the first major ascent, I stumbled upon the Clava Cairns, a series of stone burial mounds dating back to 2,000BC. What a find! This is precisely why I've fallen in love with travelling this way. I nosed around the deserted site for an hour, taking photographs and imagining the neolithic builders hard at work. I considered disobeying the 'No Camping' sign, as this place was suitably remote and pitching away from the road would be hidden by darkness, but decided to push on up into the mountains as I still had juice in the legs, and there was some daylight left.

An hour of climbing finished me off, and I made a particularly cosy camp in a pine forest, resting on years of softly layered pine needles.

The only power I had left was 20% on my phone, so I shut it down, lit a candle, and wrote old school, with pen and paper, until the cold numbed my fingers.

Day 48
Everything was frozen this morning. All my water, the overnight flysheet condensation, and the sweaty clothes I'd hung on the lower tree boughs to dry. I hunted down a stream to grab some water for a wash, and it was Narnian solid. Yikes. I took a Wet Wipes whore's bath instead, but my distrusting testicles snatched up into my torso like a Kung Fu pebble grab, spectacularly flipping me into the air with the recoil. I picked myself up and coaxed them back out with soft cooing, talcum powder, and the snug promise of warm winter cycling tights.

The low sun hit the icy road about 10am, and it began to thaw. I set off with twenty-five miles to go to Aviemore, Scotland's attempt at a ski resort. I'd never been there, but was fascinated to see how crap it might be. I found a data signal atop a rise and discovered the town library closed at four, and as I was desperate to recharge my electronics, I put the hammer down. The bicycle route follows the A9 in a roundabout way, so much so it became frustrating as today wasn't about pleasant riding, but about getting to my destination, the search for enlightenment temporarily suspended. When the route began to double back on itself yet again, I fucked it and took to the shoulderless A95 for the last four or five miles, which delivered me directly into the centre of Aviemore, albeit a little shaken up.

I don't like riding on major roads at the best of times, but my frustration with the bike path eclipsed my common sense. There's nothing like a few close passes from 70 mph HGVs to rapidly revitalise one's faith in gentler thoroughfares. It's not a lack of confidence in my riding ability, you understand, it's the putting my life in the hands of people I've never met who can kill me with a vehicular nudge.

The Cairngorms
The larger part of the Cairngorms National Park consists of several broad plateaus, but actually looks like one large one. This means the cycling is mostly flat, but is fetchingly surrounded by some of the tallest mountains in Britain. Scotland's second highest peak after Ben Nevis, Ben MacDui, is part of the range, 114 feet shorter than its big brother. Local people for years planned to pile stones on the top in a fascinatingly futile attempt to claim the title for the uncaring crag, a stunningly lopsided example of cost-benefit analysis, and obviously a silent and lonely cry for validation. If your hobby involves carrying rocks up a hill, folks, chances are your life is in need of stern redirection.

I decided not to climb it when I discovered Queen Victoria had done so in 1859, and figured if she was capable it couldn't be much of a challenge. She wrote 'It had a sublime and solemn effect, so wild, so solitary — no one but ourselves and our little party there . . . I had a little whisky and water, as the people declared pure water would be too chilling.'

I've since discovered she rode up on a pony, which is, of course, cheating.

Ben MacDui is also home to Am Fear Liath Mòr, AKA the Big Grey Man of Ben MacDui, a bigfoot-like creature that apparently haunts the frequent mists. He was first reported in 1925 by noted mountaineer J. Norman Collie, who was also a PhD in chemistry and Fellow of the Royal Society, so was far from being a nutjob. He wrote: 'I began to think I heard something else than merely the noise of my own footsteps. For every few steps I took I heard a crunch, and then another crunch as if someone was walking after me but taking steps three or four times the length of my own' .... 'the eerie crunch, crunch, sounded behind me, I was seized with terror and took to my heels, staggering blindly among the boulders for four or five miles.'

Highland whisky, finest in the world.

I had a hard time finding the library, as Google maps placed it right by the road, when it is, in fact, set down a side street and hidden in a school/sports complex. I stubbornly rode through the village three times before relenting and asking a local. I did, however, discover Aviemore to be a very pretty place, European ski resort in appearance, with a plethora of alpine bars, hotels, and restaurants. I was itching to go on the piss, because a pub crawl in this place could become the stuff of legend, but I needed to get myself out of the mountains before the real winter hit, and going out on the blather at my age is a three day event.

Once in the library I plugged everything in, and basked in the warmth. There was no WiFi and no data signal, but there were online computers, so I Googled around for a campsite and decided to bed down in some woods by the train tracks, very near the library, so I could be back in here first thing. Charging up all my stuff takes a full day, but I could ratchet up a workable chunk in the 10am-4pm Sunday opening hours tomorrow.

While updating my Facebook, an old neighbour of mine from Scarborough I hadn't seen for thirty years messaged me. She lived in Aviemore with her husband, and wanted to come to the library and say hello. Gail turned up about ten minutes later and we had a lovely chat for an hour or so. She kissed me on the cheek goodbye and I had to admire her bravery; my road funk was an obnoxious wall by now. I really needed to have a proper wash and launder.

I camped down literally ten feet from the train track, which proved intriguing. In the familiar environment of my tent I would forget, and be deep into a movie, when the ground would vibrate, almost imperceptibly, then rapidly explode into an impossibly deafening maelstrom of noise and light. I experienced a psychologically cleansing second of pure bowel-loosening terror each time before remembering where I was. This was going to be interesting in the morning.

Day 49
It was. There's nothing quite like being woken up by what initially appears to be a planet-killing meteor strike. The intense wave of endorphins that follows such a pronounced adrenalin spike is palpably psychedelic. You can keep your base-jumping and heroin nonsense: camp next to a railway.

It was very cold. So cold, in fact, when I rode to the library the bike slipped on some invisible black ice, and the rig went down like a Latin centre forward. My head smacked the pavement with significant prejudice. Luckily I was wearing my cock helmet so no damage was done to the tarmac.

After the library shut I went on a cookie hunt, managing to corner some digestives, ginger nuts, and custard creams in, funnily enough, a corner shop. I absently munched on them back in the tent. Three cups of coffee and an episode of Star Trek later, they were all gone, and that was dinner.

A lot of my friends have expressed jealously at what I'm doing, and admittedly, there's a lot to be jealous of, but cookie dinners may well top the list.