Saturday, September 20, 2014

The Caledonian

I get complimented occasionally on how adventurous I'm being, cycling around the world.

Thing is, I don't consider it particularly adventurous: after all, I'm not visiting anywhere that hasn't been visited before, and I'm going to places people live. It's not like I'm hiking across Antarctica, or scaling some great mountain, or I dunno, hanging my toothbrush too close to the toilet. It's possibly the least dangerous thing I've ever done, professionally or otherwise, yet those close to me suddenly express concern. Weird. Were they not paying attention to the last twenty-five years of construction, rugby, mixed martial arts and a thirsty predilection for alcohol-fuelled excess or am I grossly misjudging how dangerous riding a bike along quiet country lanes is? And how hazardous can it be if folks are living there?

Maybe it's because I read a lot. When people mention the word 'adventure' to me, I think Conan the Barbarian, not Conan O'Brien, and I often compare what I'm doing to commuting by bike and camping, two activities hardly considered perilous.

It's been suggested to me more than once, however, and usually by coppers, that thieves and muggers may identify me as a target. I think those who consider such things are completely unfamiliar with three particulars of travelling this way:

1. Probably 95% of my time is spent in the countryside and wilderness, where roaming gangs of criminals aren't.

2. The overwhelming majority of people are nice. Police officers and the military are particularly bad at recognizing this, as most of their working days are spent dealing with liars and delinquents, which of course includes members of their own hierarchies as well as the politicians who tell them what to do (I realize it's unfashionable to criticize the military nowadays, if not the police, but I count too many members among my friends not to). By contrast, I run the gamut of regular folk daily, from the basest scum to the airiest twat, and am happy to report truly evil people are rare indeed.

3. Me, personally. I'm quite prepared to fuck a mugger up, and have extensive training and experience in the art of doing so. However, I'm completely aware that multiple assailants form the core of our mugging fraternity's methodology, which is why I bristle with improvised weaponry: my retracted hiking pole is a handy club with telescopic sleeve locking levers that protrude at brutal flesh-ripping angles, and my bike lock a thick chain with a weighty padlock that can serve as a rather intimidating medieval flail. I've not had a single instance of trouble, though I have probably been sized up by potential muggers who decided better of it. In fact, I know I have: one does not acquire nor maintain such immutable swagger without learning a thing or two about such human behaviour.

In addition, the time I spend in towns is fleeting, during daylight, and mostly to buy food. I like that supermarkets are usually on the outskirts, so I can circumvent the innards if I have to, but this is to avoid tiresome navigational issues (such as counterintuitive one-way systems, unmapped brick walls, and in one dramatically profane encounter, a cliff), rather than whatever the complimenter might deem dangerous. Most of the time, however, a town will contain at least a couple of things I want to see, and of course a library to work in (which is also kryptonite to the criminal mindset).

Anyway, it was time to leave Fort William.

After a week I'd grown quite fond of the place. I'd met Bricks here the first night after twenty years, and became somewhat melancholy afterwards. Well, not melancholy precisely; contemplative, perhaps? It proved to be a milestone, a waypoint to review my progress towards enlightenment, and I decided I wasn't drinking nearly enough.

I dragged my feet breaking camp, hesitant to leave the convenience of nearby shops, and finally got out of there after two hours and a final lingering look back at the towering Ben Nevis.


It may not the highest of mountains, internationally speaking, but has a topological prominence to rival many far taller.


With a sigh I mounted up and the Caledonian Canal bike path conveyed me directly to Neptune's Staircase, a series of locks and swing bridges that form the freshwater entrance to the sixty mile waterway, which, two centuries ago, took Thomas Telford and three thousand men nineteen years to build.


Unfortunately the endeavour was never really rewarded with commercial success: by the time it was finished the Napoleonic naval threat was over, the invention of the railway loomed, and the move from wooden hulls to steel saw cargo ships outsize the safe new corridor. Nowadays it is owned by Scottish Waterways and run primarily as a tourist attraction, and a spectacular one it is, too.








A few miles up its length I rode off on a tangent to see the Commando Memorial at Spean Bridge, as recommended by my younger brother Dave, the ex-Royal Marine. This statue has to be situated in one of the most breathtaking spots in the highlands, with a 360 degree view that made me want to shoo off the teary-eyed old codgers moping about the place, flatten the memorial and throw up a log cabin. The only thing stopping me was the threat of swift justice at the hands of the aforementioned, who likely knew a few tricks about terminally dispatching irreverent young men. That and universal ostracisation, of course. Oh, and laws.




On the road back to the canal, I did make mental note of what looked like a small abandoned chapel, too overgrown to really tell, which would certainly work as a fixer-upper. If I ever do settle in one place, this was as fine a location as any.

The Caledonian Canal slices through the middle of Northern Scotland, joining together several linear lochs to create a continuous waterway between the east and west coasts. This tear through the highlands is known as the Great Glen Fault, where two tectonic plates frottage like teenagers on supermarket cider, or at least used to, and still do occasionally, but less enthusiastically. The first of those lochs heading east is Loch Lochy, surely named by either a toddler, managerial groupthink, or some kind of raffle. Further evidence arrived in the name of the next one up, Loch Oich. People were obviously taking the piss, so I rechecked my map. Nope, that's their names.




On the trail I had a quick chat with a hiker labouring under a huge rucksack heading in the same direction. We met again up the trail at a lochshore campsite, set amid the kind of magnificent mountain scenery that multiples house prices exponentially.

The deserted site had an open-face log bothy for campers, and a ready-built fire to warm us, all gratis.


What a remarkably more sensible approach the Scottish Forestry Commission has to campers than its English counterpart, who seems to treat public access to nature with the same distaste most of us reserve for kiddie snuff porn. The contrast is really quite astounding. Scotland throws open its arms and welcomes you in like an old mate, while England slams the door and petulantly charges you to knock. I know where I'd rather be. I felt quite embarrassed to be English at this juncture, particularly because I was in the company of a foreign visitor. Scottish landowners, by simply acting like normal people in pursuit of the greater good, make the English ruling class look like the fucking Ferengi.

Which they are, let's face it.

On returning to England I've broached this subject many times, and several people have curiously tried to defend the official Gollum position of their 'higher ups', citing ludicrous notions like Scotland having less people, so can afford greater hospitality. I've never heard such illogical and loathsome nonsense. It's justifying selfishness and legislating against freedom, nothing more: exasperatingly excusing utterly cunty behaviour.

Anyway.

The hiker's name was Liad, an Israeli climber in his mid-twenties exploring the highlands. He'd hiked and hitched across most of Europe after the end of his military service as a computer dude in the IDF. We decided not to use the bothy as we both preferred the water- and wind-proofing offered by our tents. We camped on the beach and chatted into the night, and he shared some Turkish coffee with me the next morning. He packed up more quickly than I did and set off, while I took a little longer to enjoy the misty alpine scenery.


On the bike I powered up the first hills like a man possessed, despite being unable to access my lowest nine gears (my front derailleur had been playing up the last few days, and I didn't have a clue how to readjust it). I initially put this down to the caffeine jolt from the coffee, but it was more than that. I was sprinting up the slopes like a penis helmet pro, experiencing little in the way of fatigue. I was finally getting fit, that's what it was! It'd been so long I'd forgotten the feeling. Like a cardio maniac I relished the uphills even more than usual, attacking them all the more aggressively, pushing myself to see where my new limits were. I couldn't reach them. Overnight, somehow I'd gone from a struggling wimp to a thunderous explosion of muscle, barely contained by sinew, bone and skin; svelte, powerful, and the master of all I pedalled. My lungs laughed at hardship. My heart pumped anew. Thighs roared at the mountains like great swooping beasts. I'd never felt such physical elation.

As I neared the village of Laggan I dismounted for a farm gate, and, epic plonkerdom ever ready to pounce, realized I'd left my loaded trailer back at the campsite.

I sheepishly retrieving the thing and found the return journey distinctly less worthy of comment. I pushed on towards Fort Augustus, passing the curious and temporarily closed Eagle Barge Inn, a pub on a barge. I'd planned to work here, but wasn't too miffed as rain threatened and I wanted to make more progress before camping.


Several miles on the trail on the east side of Loch Oich became too roughly strewn with tree roots to ride over: my rig could probably handle it, but water bottles kept bouncing from beneath their bungees and I lost another one I didn't hear hit the ground. I got off and pushed. Navigating a gated bridge (where I have to prop up the bike, open the gate, push through, reprop, close, unprop and carry on) the hiking pole I use as a kickstand slipped on the mossy footing and the rig keeled over, snapping the footlong pivot pin that attaches the trailer arms to the body of the trailer.

I did some swearing and then silently despaired for several minutes, considering who I should call to come and rescue me, but shut that shit down with a finality that frankly surprised me. I was ten miles from nowhere. Construction Foreman Stef took over. I unloaded the trailer, surveyed the damage, and began to formulate repairs with the resources I had available.

Just then, who should come down the path but Liad and a freshly befriended female backpacker: a Canadian girl called Emily. They had missed the next turning and had to backtrack, discovering my predicament. Liad stopped to help out while Emily kept going, citing a pressing rendezvous, and we managed to jerry rig a replacement pin from two tent pegs, wedged in place by a length of paracord, wound with duct tape and bound by a tight bungee. Not perfect, but I figured it would get me to a metal fabrication shop in Inverness: not that I had enough money for such extravagances, you understand: I needed to get online and canvass for some more writing work.


Liad headed off as I repacked. I took the wrong turn and had to double back myself, catching him about an hour later; the boy moved fast for carrying such a huge pack. Back on the trail we decided on a canalside patch of grass for a campsite. Darkness was descending on nearby Fort Augustus, so we headed into the village for the small supermarket without pitching our tents first, which turned out to be a mistake as it began to rain on the way back. In changeable weather when deciding on a tent pitch, it's always best to get one's shelter up at the first fair opportunity. I don't get wet while camping or even on the bike so much: it's during the transitions. So we got soaked. Liad got his tent up first, and then helped with mine as the rain bucketed down. I'm not sure I would've done the same, and felt both humbled and inspired by his fellowship.

I set up the candle heaters to desperately try to dry out gloves, socks and boots, and had a £1.49 tin of Morrison's Irish Stew for dinner, which I wasn't looking forward to as tinned meals tend to smell a bit like dog food when you open them up. The stew, however, was a thoroughly pleasant surprise; very tasty, and mopped up with some fresh bread I couldn't have been happier. I think I've found my brand. I finished off my repast with a box of Mr. Kipling's Chocolate Slices and a few chocolate digestives, washed down with a cup of coffee, and snuggled up in my sleeping bag to listen to the rain.

The sky was clear the next morning, and Fort Augustus is gorgeous. The sunrise dramatically lit the mountains, streaking shadows across their faces at such acute angles you could actually see them change expression.



Liad again finished packing first and headed to the coffee shop, while I took my time to enjoy the surroundings, idly chatting with passing locals. I caught up with him at the village bridge and we said our goodbyes, as he headed for the Isle of Skye and I continued on the Caledonian, promising to visit him in Israel. The cycle route followed the road here onto the east side of Loch Ness, up into the mountains and away from the water.


It was some serious climbing, and most of the morning and early afternoon were spent off the bike and pushing (I still hadn't adjusted my front derailleur, primarily because I didn't want to fuck it up further. I needed to get to somewhere with WiFi so I could watch a YouTube instructional or two). The rain started up mid-morning and set in for the day, unfortunately taking the edge off the spectacular views to be had.



After two hours of punishing gradients the miles of downhills began, and swept me into the pub in the village of Whitebridge. I got there at 2.35 pm, however, and they closed at 3, but the barman invited me to stay in the hotel lounge to dry off, such was my sopping condition. What considerate people. I got the fire going and began the process of drying out, meanwhile breaking out my laptop to put some proposals in on prospective writing jobs, and watch the first of a few videos to decipher the mysteries of bike gearing.

After three hours or so most of my kit was dry and the rain had stopped, so I packed up and rejoined the downhills, and found a very fetching spot to camp among the ferns by a tumbling burn outside the mountainside village of Foyer. I fell asleep excited by the prospect of the next day's ride along Loch Ness.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Deery Me

The howling tempest blew my fifteen stones completely over twice, and fellow climbers with slighter frames were forced to either crawl or turn back. 

The storm began to rage at about three thousand feet, a horizontal arctic blizzard painfully sandblasting any exposed skin. I didn't have my sunglasses with me, so I was forced to march leaning forty-five degrees forward with my head bowed in the classic mountaineering pose, digging for purchase with my one good hiking pole (the other had seized up in the telescopically retracted position) and feeling very Captain Oates. Temperatures plummeted into the negative teens. So this is why people are always dying on Ben Nevis, I mused, stepping around more sensible souls setting up emergency bivouacs. With visibility down to less than twenty feet and snow violently ripping across the rocks to drift waist-deep in blasted leeward pockets, wandering from the obscured path and over a cliff became a real possibility. And I'd waited a week in Fort William for good weather.



I'd arrived at the town, nestled in a valley at the foot of the mountain, wet and knackered after two days of determined cycling over exhausting highland roads. I'd made this mad dash through Glencoe from Callender because an old rugby mate I hadn't seen for twenty years was passing through on his way to a family holiday on Knoydart, a remote peninsula to the north, and we'd arranged to meet for a pint. I rode ninety miles in two days, hauling half my weight again, over mountains, in the rain. For a pint. I want to make sure everyone understands that bit.

Of course, it was to see James Brickell too, and meet his lovely family. Of course it was. I'm not an animal.

Even so, I hold that the first pint of ice cold beer after a hefty day of physical work to be one of the true wonders of humanity's agricultural endeavour. You can keep your cups of tea, coffee, Mexican cokes, Pinot Noirs or flutes of champagne. It doesn't even have to be good beer, just lager at the point of freezing. To me, it will always signify the end note to a hellish day, a scything sluice of civilisation cutting through the choking dust and murderous heat of Texan summers, and the first bell of sitting back with good company, suspending the dread of tomorrow's forever Dantean descent. That first draught evokes all the firsts I've quaffed before, compounding the refreshment with thoughts of tougher days. It's the realisation of an American beer advert. And I figured, after two days of sweaty and aching unpleasantness, that first pint might just be twice as good.

I'd modified my route while camping on the edge of Loch Venachar, southwest of Callender, a more dreamlike location I couldn't easily imagine. I had the entire lake to myself, and spent the broad evening hours reclining against an ancient oak, gazing over rippling quicksilver, tracing the alpine crags beyond the far shore as they blushed with fiery streaks of pink and crimson, pondering humanity and our place in the Universe. Well, I would've, if I hadn't inexplicably developed the liquid shits again and spent the entirety of this potential poetry pageant crouching behind a bush, dismayed by my rapidly dwindling toilet paper supply, and personifying a far less elegant but likely more accurate summation of the human condition.

I really should switch to leaves, but I fear the experimentation with unknown species. What if I inadvertently wipe with something toxic or abrasive? These grim details are the vital hints survival manuals and TV programmes curiously neglect. Ray Mears never seems to ask his wizened native shamans about this particular topic, you'll note. One can cope with an heroic dose of hardship while one's unmentionables remain dry, unchafed and lesion-free, but introduce something as innocuous as a paper cut to a strategic location and the romance drains from a wilderness journey like dignity after a vindaloo.

The next day I waited for the rain to stop, which it did around noon, decamped and hit the road. I stopped to do a quick smalls laundry in a highland brook and quickly realized I was washing my underpants in water enterprising Scots bottle and ship to the world's wealthy and gullible, and felt quite devilishly ennobled. 

I managed fifteen miles that afternoon through the most incredible scenery I'd seen yet, passing a grand total of five people after Callander, and rode past Loch Lubnaig. I took a peek at the very lovely Loch Voil the next morning where the bike route hairpinned around its valley, then switchbacked up the mountain by Lochearnhead. On the way I stopped at Strathyre's The Inn Bistro for refreshment and a recharge after my wallet took another arse pounding at the village general store. You know it's in for a raping when you see multipack soda cans shamelessly displaying their NOT TO BE SOLD SEPARATELY labels from the shelves. They could at least have the decency to Anne Frank them in the fridge, for crying out loud, that way the larceny comes as a nasty surprise at the end rather than a gathering dread. More ardent stereotypers might blame the Scottish predilection for frugality, but the owner was a cockney who'd moved north of the border, no doubt, to join in the merciless fleecing of wide-eyed tourists.

Glencoe
As darkness fell I found a likely campsite in a deserted parking area high in Glencoe. I was startled to discover a huge highland stag standing on its edge, about the size of a pony but powerfully built and with a full set of antlers. It seemed less surprised than I was. Like a typical townie twat, I cooed at my luck in happening upon such an elusive creature, and gingerly pulled out my camera for a shot in the fading light, wary about startling him. Strangely, though, as I slowly approached, the animal didn't move, and stared at me. I found this a bit unnerving, as I considered myself much more of a threat that it obviously seemed to, and his headgear began to look a little more ominous than a hat rack. 


After a minute or two I made a sudden movement to test his moxie, careful to keep my rig between us. He huffed once and nonchalantly sauntered off rather than fled in a panic. What kind of 'shy and elusive' behaviour is this shit, Attenborough?

I found a flat area of grass off the hard standing and put my tent up, somewhat troubled by the encounter. As soon as I was situated I found I actually had a good data signal despite my remote location, and got on the Google. Turns out red deer rut in October and November. It was late October. Great. It was either going to kill me or shag me. Should make for a lively night. 

I got some dinner down me and hit the hay, allowing the mating calls of the other stags scattered about their territories across the plateau to lull me to sleep. 

The beast returned during the night, however, and began patrolling his own domain, bellowing his location to the hinds. He seemed to be staying away from the tent, which is a good thing. I found the situation faintly ludicrous, and therefore perfectly worthy of comment on Facebook, as I wasn't going back to sleep anytime soon. My transatlantic friends, still awake with the time difference, of course, found the deadly situation highly entertaining, and sympathy was thin on the ground. Even James Brickell, or 'Bricks' as we call him, the university rugby friend I was to meet in Fort William, and now a noted natural history documentarian, dismissed the peril as naivety on my part and marvelled at my luck at having an interactive opportunity with a five hundred pound feral hormone fuck monster twenty miles from the nearest hospital.

I pictured antlers suddenly plunging through the tent walls above my head, and decided to prepare.

When Animals Attack videos are the limit of my experience with fang and claw combat. I figured Romeo had a headful of handles, so one option would be to get my mitts on those to prevent it stabbing or slashing me, getting behind them and twisting its head round like a rodeo cowpoke wrestling a steer. Then I remembered they'll also kick with their front legs, so instead I might need to keep it at bay with something to allow a good strike with the hatchet. Hiking pole! I got one out and telescoped it to its maximum length. If it charged with its antlers I could fend it off before dropping the weapons to grab and twist it to the ground. 

This presented an entirely new set of problems, though. Can you armbar a deer? Triangle choke? Hardly. Sod that, then, stay on the feet, keep it at bay and hit it in the head or neck with the hatchet, that would be the best option. Thus formulated my plan. I'd need my headlamp on to see what the hell was going on, too. And wear my shoes rather than my slip on camp sandals: secure footing is important in any fight.

Turns out the beast was disinterested to say the least, as he stayed away and I eventually drifted off. At 3 am, however, he let out an almighty moo literally inches from my sleeping head. He was right beside the tent! I spasmed three feet into the air with a falsetto shriek, while swaddled perfectly horizontal in my mummy sleeping bag. I hung for a second at the elevation's zenith, like Michael Jordan mid-flight, before crumpling back to earth as if the strings snapped. My embarrassment at the sound I'd made coupled with the short-sighted fug of the rudely awakened stirred me to violence. I struggled out of my sleeping bag and started digging for my hatchet and shoes, roaring with fake bravado, 'IF I HAVE TO GET OUT OF THIS FUCKING TENT....!!' 

I heard him move away, sniggering like Muttley. He didn't return, and I, of course, couldn't return to sleep. I spent the rest of the night fully clothed and headlamped, senses scrambling to every imagined sound, improvised weaponry at the ready. I've never been so grateful to see the sun come up.

Fort William
The ten miles of mostly downhill to Glencoe had to be one of the treats of the tour, despite the rain, which, to be honest, never really got going until I turned northeast towards Fort William. 





The rain and a stiff headwind meant I draped on my US Army poncho, which is great for keeping the rain off your top half but does trap the heat when you're working hard, so I ended up drenched in sweat anyway. I got into town about midafternoon and google mapped a bike trail around the estuary, which I followed until I found a remote camping spot. I managed to get the tent up without saturating everything else, ate two tomato sandwiches and the rest of the quite ordinary but prohibitively expensive toffee cake I'd bought from the cockney criminal mastermind in Strathyre.

I got a text from Bricks to say he had arrived at the nearby Premier Inn, and was sitting down to dinner in the attached Brewer's Fayre restaurant. I biked down in the rain and spent an entertaining evening meeting his family and parents, who were polite enough not to mention my unkempt appearance and slightly unwashed fug, while Bricks and I had some fun catching up on twenty years apart, desperately trying to curtail our swearing. It turns out he wasn't the tea boy on the children's natural history show Deadly 60 at all, or even a production assistant, but the actual head honcho. So the BAFTA it had won was, in fact, on his mantelpiece at home. 

Suitably impressed that someone I've seen drunk and naked more times than I care to remember had actually amounted to something, I went for a piss and caught sight of myself in the mirror for the first time in a few weeks. I looked like a caveman from a fifties movie. Hair sprouted from each ear like a cliffside alfalfa crop and and a glistening thicket of nose hair tumbled into my mustache. I'd dropped significant weight, too, but as I was somewhat rotund when I set off, this was no bad thing. I shoved the nose hair home with an index finger, wiped myself down as best I could and returned to the table, apologizing for the horrific sight I was inflicting on everyone. They graciously pooh-poohed my apologies and shoved another drink in my hand. Awesome company.

Saturday, Day 34
I woke around eight, and had a hangover lie in with a couple of episodes of Rome. Casually google mapping, I realised I should be able to see Ben Nevis from my campsite, so I rolled out of my pit and lo, there it was. 


It had been obscured by the rain yesterday. I decided I had to climb it, but only when the saddle sores had at least begun to fade. I checked the weather and Tuesday looked promising. I tidied myself up with a little grooming, haunted by the image in the mirror from last night. 

I rode into town for the library: there was no WiFi and only one thirty minute computer slot per day was allowed, but I was permitted to plug in, which was at least something, I suppose. I left at one and shopped at the extremely busy Morrison's for some cheese, bread, tomatoes, and a couple of tins of ravioli. They had no Jamaica ginger cake, curse the heavens. I decided to try and use my new bank debit card. I'd just opened my first British bank account a couple of months earlier, and was woefully behind on this chip and pin technology lark, but I had to learn sometime. At the self-service checkout, I stared intently at the unit for several silent minutes but couldn't find anything approximating a credit card slot. With nothing obvious and a crowd gathering, I began wiggling the card into every crevice on the machine in a process of elimination, occasionally turning to shrug at my audience, rolling my eyes at the growing gulf between a spiralling society of technophiles and the prosaic wisdom of the common man. Fortunately, the woman came over and saved me. She said I was the best one yet.

Back at the tent I cooked up the last of some hot dogs with fried onions and ketchup, just about one of my favourite food combinations in the world, and when the rain broke I erected a washing line and hung out the wet gear from yesterday, and set up the candle heaters to dry my boots.

The next few days were spent alternating between the tent and the library, occasionally visiting a pub for the WiFi. Despite timing my runs back and forth, I invariably got caught by the rain at least once a day, so my attempts at drying out became futile. The estuary began to flood, too, especially at high tide, and the footbridges in the parkland I was camping in were often under several inches of water.



One particular time in the library, two librarians were organizing books where one of my batteries was plugged into a wall socket. The elder one, obviously in charge, a stooped Miss Jones from Rising Damp lookalike, with rounded shoulders, a pot belly, and hair dyed so black Picard would send in a probe, admonished me, saying we were only supposed to charge the device we're working on. A demonstration of her supreme authority to her underling, no doubt.

Weary, by now, of this jobsworth nonsense, I avoided exploding, and responded; 'Well, put a sign up, then.'

'We shouldn't have to.'

'You have no WiFi,' I began, evenly, 'you have extreme computer use restriction. Be quiet, I'm talking. You'll have your turn when I'm done. You've used up more actual monetary value in the time it took you to even process that thought than it takes to recharge that device, never mind verbalise it. That's how little it costs.'

She began to respond again, somewhat taken aback at lucidity from a hairy, smelly transient. I didn't let her.

'Would you like me to prove it to you? Okay, let me Google it. Oh wait, that's right, I can't, because there's no bloody WiFi! Luckily, I have my own portable WiFi hotspot set up, which is one of the reasons I have to charge this battery. Now, maybe if you didn't have four librarians working in a small, empty, provincial library, your county council would be able to afford a £12 WiFi router. You've got more staff than Gandalf.' (I'd been waiting to use that last bit for months, but the opportunity had never presented itself.) I softened a little, 'You should never have tugged on this thread, luv.'

'Actually, I'd be quite interested to see how much it costs, but there's no need to take that tone.'

'An iPhone 5 costs about 1/7th of a penny to completely recharge, and I can prove it. Your objection to my tone is noted.'

I went back the next day. Not because I needed to, as my work was done, just to plug some more shit in. 

Ben Nevis
Luckily, my experience of working outside in the arctic conditions of the Canadian winter stood me in good stead for the blizzard on the top: I've been below -50 Celsius many times, so I knew what to expect. I was layered up enough to be quite comfortable as long as I kept moving. My fleece gloves and decrepit hiking boots were inadequate, but it was so cold the snow was dry and didn't melt through, which is where the trouble would start.

The peak of the 4,409' Ben Nevis is a plateau a few hundred metres across. The trig point marking the actual summit was on the far side, and the path to it was indicated every fifty yards or so by a stone cairn, constructed so climbers wouldn't lose their way in snow or low visibility. A group of seven of the hardier (or foolhardier) souls, all men, I noted, had congregated at the first cairn at the edge of the plateau, as if at a bus stop, debating whether to carry on. 


With the addition of me, we had the numbers to form a human chain out into the storm to scan for the next one. This we did, found it, and followed each other there. We repeated the process for the next few, and our GPSs told us we were within 200 metres of the summit when two of our crew, clearly frightened, asked to turn back. There wasn't much resistance. 



On the way down I got talking to a trio of our summiting group who'd been on a three peak odyssey: over the space of three days, they'd climbed Mount Snowdon, Scafell Pike, and now Ben Nevis (the highest mountains in Wales, England and Scotland respectively), which is seriously impressive going, especially in late October, but not my idea of a vacation at all.

Descending was actually harder than going up, as I was already knackered. My rugby knees started complaining, closely followed by my roofing hip, well before halfway, and my new friends left me far behind.


I hobbled the rest of the way down leaning heavily on my one hiking pole, to arrive at the pub at the bottom like Peachy Carnehan returning from Kafiristan, six hours, ten miles and a thousand years after setting off, just in time to watch England versus Australia in the rugby. Unfortunately, there's no TV at the Ben Nevis Inn, and I neglected to ask about WiFi, instead unlocking my bike and gingerly pedalling to The Crofter in Fort William, trying to avoid exacerbating my raw bits, my longing for a pint temporarily suspended. It seemed I unconsciously knew if I settled into one at the Ben the rugby could've gone and fucked itself.

I got there in time for the second half (England lost despite a spirited performance), then stopped by Morrison's for curry ingredients. The previous week's rain had resulted in the estuary flooding at high tide, but my astute site selection meant my camp was dry, even if getting to it meant riding through a foot of water on the two footbridges. Always live on a hill: rule #1.

It started raining on the way home, and I suddenly remembered today was Halloween. And it was nice to see, in the perpetual transatlantic cultural exchange, the arrival on our green and pleasant shores of the scantily-clad Halloween slut.

And I met a French hiker on the path, who was obviously looking for a campsite in the flooded landscape. I invited him to share my pitch, but he seemed nervous about talking to a large stranger in the dark and in the middle of nowhere. While I was cooking in my tent foyer I heard him wander back and forth in the dark a few more times. I've been there and it sucks. Poor bastard. 


So was that first pint worth all this effort?

Absolutely. It always is.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Thinking and Wilting



With all this dangerous and subversive thinking I've been doing on the bike, I've managed to formulate several trains of thought I later discovered to be established philosophical paradigms, often dating back to the Greeks. So my ego deflates at my unoriginality, but at least I'm in good company.

Apparently I'm a hedono-anarcho-primito-apocaloptimist if I string everything together, which broadly means I like the kind of freedom that kicks permission in the nuts, simple but elegant comforts, and plan to thoroughly enjoy watching society implode when the technological singularity grips in a few decades. Bye-bye Dickensian hierarchy, hello inherent egalitarianism. (I've probably misspelled these prefixes, and may indeed have made a couple up, but who really gives a shit about Latin outside academic ivory towers and Harry Potter fans?)

Now, some people might think this just another political rant, but I'm talking about a much larger perspective than socialism versus capitalism, here. Technology is catalyzing such a colossal change in western culture we're entering completely unexplored territory. (Socialism doesn't work, it is said, because a few members of society will always be capitalists (our societies are too large and unintegrated for the social repercussions of selfishness to be effective), while capitalism requires secrecy and cunty behaviour to operate: inevitable perpetual transparency will force both to go away.)

I think we're reverting to behaving the way we've most evolved to, and our drift back to the village is the first step towards this more communal living. Think about it: we've spent perhaps 400 generations as property-owning agriculturalists, but the previous hundreds of thousands of generations lived in small, social, largely self-sufficient groups. Which lifestyle do you think we're more comfortable with?

Technology increases access to information, and the powers that be typically derive their influence from controlling that access, so the two are constantly at odds. The powerful want to keep us regular folk arguing among ourselves, not questioning every move our extorted tax dollars make. Unfortunately for them, technology is growing exponentially from a global wellspring, and people all over the world can now communicate instantaneously, for free, despite myriad efforts to stem the flow. The fractious natures of the world's governments and their sponsoring corporations are their own stumbling blocks. This selfish, grasping, my precious mentality I've been going on about, works to their disadvantage. Which is sweet justice indeed.

See, when technology and biology finally and meaningfully merge (if the overwhelming consensus of futurists' predictions hold true), we'll be actually able to sense each other's thoughts, or moods at the very least. As dark as this promises to be, I imagine we'll rapidly familiarize with the novelty, and models of acceptable behaviour will revert to previous village-like integration, finally sloughing the crippling shadow of strict Victorian influence. And this time we won't have some rat-faced inbred lording over us playing peasant Whac-A-Mole.

I'm looking forward to the antisocial ideas of property, race and organized religion, that've been cluttering culture since we started planting crops, being soberly reassessed. I've often wondered at the universal ridiculousness of one bit of the biosphere claiming to own another, and inexorably come to the conclusion that property = violence. Without violence, property is meaningless, even when we dress the wolf in the sheep's clothing of legislation and a police force.

Of course, I would've discovered this far sooner if I read more philosophy books, but there aren't enough explosions, car chases, or lusty sluttish women to be found amongst the pedantry, as far as I'm concerned. And I've been too spoiled by the likes of Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams to wade through dusty pages of rhetoric without the promise of at least a chuckle to lure me on.


Dunblane
'If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.' - J.R. Tolkien

After three and a half weeks on the road, I decided it was time to go on the Big Piss.

I mapped some pubs and a route, and after securely locking my bike and trailer in camp, I headed off on foot for a hostelry engagingly titled The Tappit Hen, located in the shadow of Dunblane's grandiosely labelled 'cathedral', which is really just a sizeable church.



The liquid personalities were all less than £3 a pint, however, which dared me to try at least one of each and more of the ones I liked, and there were six.

A few happy hours later I swayed exuberantly out of the Hen and meandered to the Riverside, cheerily acknowledging every passersby with a lurid wink or conspiratorial gesture on the way. (My inexplicable favourite became the discrete index finger nose rub of The Sting fame. I'm not even sure what it means, but it feels like we're sharing a secret, which is always fun.)

The Riverside was more of a fancy restaurant than a pub, and I felt rather out of place sitting at the bar while Dunblane's suitably attired waltzed in for dinner. I delved into a menu, alerted like a sniffer dog to the Gallic semen word aioli, downed my pint and lurched heroically over the bridge to the Village Inn. This was far more my scene.

I got talking to a few construction lads sitting at the bar. I can't say I miss the hardship of the decades I spent in such work, but I do miss the banter of men who measure their day in sweat, blood and bruises. There's a purity to physical professions that infuses their opinion with authority, a purity that can't be matched by those who get paid to sit in the air-conditioning, me now included. Making friends quickly, we downgraded to the slightly grubbier Dunblane Hotel over the road, and spent the rest of the evening solving global problems. I do vaguely remember quizzing everyone in the bar about their opinions on Scottish devolution, hopefully with my trousers on, which they wholeheartedly dismissed as a stupid idea. In fact, during my entire time in Scotland I didn't find a single supporter of the movement, which I didn't expect at all. Mind you, I didn't ask as many people as I perhaps should've.

Drunk hungry at kicking out time, the fish 'n' chip shop (that also bizarrely sold cigarettes) across the road was shut. However, one of the lads told me of an exceptional Indian restaurant up the hill, so I said my goodbyes and wobbled up the incline on legs no longer familiar with this level of inebriation.

I decided quite quickly that the India Gate Tandoori was far too nice for the likes of me and ordered to go, with a pint while I waited. Curry in a tent on a golf course? I mused, leaning heavily against the bar and feeling a Tom Jones song coming on, first time for everything.

Now, you know the popular marketing idea that people don't remember what you say, but how you made them feel? The same seems to be true with late night curries. I don't recall what I ordered, but back in the tent I experienced some kind of gastronomic rapture. Damn, it was good. I woke up the next morning wearing it like a balaclava, but damn, it was good.

Day 27
Today was all rain. Ambitions for the road dashed, I fired up season five of Mad Men. I did need some food, however, so after a couple of episodes I made a run for Tesco. On the way, a window cleaner, obviously far more capable than I after our night in the Dunblane Hotel, grinned at my dishevelled appearance and bid me a hearty good morning.

This little connection struck me immediately, despite my delicate condition. The humanity in it. I'd made friends in a foreign town, not out in the countryside, where such interactions are more expected. The ritual of the pub seems to subvert the 'stranger' barrier. I couldn't for the life of me remember his face or what we talked about the night before, but it gave me a little glow of community I didn't know I'd been missing. British pubs are good for that: they typically serve as the living room of the neighbourhood. Bars elsewhere seldom fulfill the same role.

Tesco
My goal was sausages, and the result was more sausages. I bought so many sausages in my befuddling hangover I created an instant oligarchy of Scottish sausage barons and established Dunblane as the new Offal Capital of the World. Not content with clearing the supermarket shelves, I staggered under the massive weight of my meaty purchases to a local artisan butcher's shop, whose window pies had been rioting for my attention the previous couple of days. I ordered a warm chicken and ham, and while I disappointed at the use of a microwave the butcher introduced me to my first truly impenetrable Scottish accent.

It was a granite surge of consonants. I'm fairly used to Scottish accents having grown up in an English town with a high percentage of retirees from north of the border, so I managed to decipher the occasional 'big man', which I took to be a compliment, but the rest could easily have been coded attempts at homosexual grooming or suggestions for what meat products I might prefer addressing rectally. I nodded neutrally and said 'absolutely' and 'indeed' whenever a gap appeared in the staccato. I like to think the universe's hidden camera will ultimately cut to the lonely incoherent butcher grimly masturbating by an empty public toilet glory hole and percussively barking 'fukkin' cocktease!' in subtitles after an appropriately comedic pause.

Back in the tent I cooked up some links with peppers and onions and finished off season five of Mad Fucks. I loaded up the first few episodes of Deadwood for a change more than anything else, but again, like when it first came out, I couldn't get into it after the first couple.

The next day was a Saturday, and my electronics needed recharging after the last few days of laziness. I hiked to Dunblane library, but weekend hours eventually steered me towards a coffee shop. How expensive can it be? I reasoned, in my hangover's hangover. It was ten quid for two cups of tea, a croissant and a scone. So this is how the Scots were able to give up their plundering ways.

Disillusioned, I went back to the tent and started on season six of Mad Tits. I did do a quick run to the cigarette/chip shop at 8 pm, however, just to see if fish 'n' chips away from the northeast coast of Yorkshire continued to be lesser fare. They do, but they were cheap and filling, and that was good enough.

Day 29
I was going to set off this morning but the forecast rain dissuaded me. The window of time to find an appropriately secluded campsite in Callander would be too small, I reasoned, if the rain stopped at noon and I set off then. And I needed to buy some waterproof pants and gaiters, but nowhere in Dunblane, as far as Google was concerned, sold such things at a reasonable price.

I decided to leave the next morning, Monday, so I could stop by the library for recharging and still have time to see Doune Castle of Monty Python's Holy Grail and Game of Thrones' Winterfell fame.

Castle Doune
I pulled up to the junction leading off to the castle, and a burly road worker (by appearance, at least), blocked the way with a 'road closed' sign. I asked him if I could still get through with a bicycle, as most road works leave a channel for pedestrians. He said 'no', and refused to elaborate. Usually construction lads with such jobs are glad of a chance to chat, not this dude. Strange. After further tight-lipped answers, I figured they must be filming GoT today, and reconsidered the importance of television in general. In hindsight, I should've made up a bullshit story of travelling the world by bicycle visiting Python sites or some other such nonsense, and got him to engage the production company via walkie-talkie. Might've worked. I couldn't care a fig for the stars of the production, you understand, though I love the show, I just wanted to see the castle. I'm a big castle man, if you haven't figured this out yet.

Callander
On to Callander library for work and recharging, I scoped out a camping spot in the woods on the way. I arrived an hour or so before they closed for lunch. During the enforced break I walked to the main street and brunched on five custard doughnuts and a cup of tea, and memorable they were, too. Thereafter I visited an outdoors shop to buy some waterproof trousers, and baulked at the £22 price tag. So I bought some silicon spray instead, determining to spray my regular trousers and render them waterproof. Like that was ever going to work.

The library closed at five. Rain relocated me to the nearest pub, one Crags Hotel, and I spent the vast majority of my time bullshitting with the locals rather than getting any work done. Still, I managed to get pretty lubricated, and waiting for the rain to ease seemed to increase its intensity. By 11 pm, it was fuck it time.

The place I'd selected to camp was off the bicycle track coming in to Callander, elevated off the path (people tend to look down elevations rather than up) and hidden by a bank and some trees. However, I was drunk and got lost several times. It was only while trying to wrestle my rig through several inches of mud in a pitch black farmer's field a good mile from the nearest street light I realized I need to start being more systematic about my navigation. I propped the bike up, covered myself with the bike poncho, and fired up the GPS.

On a positive note, I did invent a few new swearing combos.

On a negative note, my dedicated sleeping bag drybag isn't. There is nothing worse than going to bed wet and cold. Scratch that: yes there is: waking up wet and cold, knowing you have to change into colder wet clothing. The next morning I grimaced and did it anyway, packed up, and hit the road hard to generate some warmth.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Suits, Robes, and Uniforms

The light of morning showed I'd pitched directly next to a copse of woods with a far superior site in the middle. Shame, because I wanted to lounge around for a day and work. I decided I was too lazy to break camp for the trivial reason of relocating only thirty feet, so I packed up and set off for South Queensferry instead, the southern terminus of the famous Forth Railway Bridge with a library open all afternoon from one until eight.

The onward cycle path ran through a palatial country estate of ancient woodland, manicured lawns, rocky coast, and the occasional posh person out walking the requisite black labrador.


It's strange how our stereotyping processes whir madly to life from the merest hint of plum in a cheery 'morning'.

The path turned to follow the coast, and brought the Forth Railway Bridge into sight, the first time in my life I'd ever seen it. I had to stop pedalling with the enormity of it all. It really hit home, at that point, how much of the island I'm from I hadn't seen, and this icon was only a couple of hundred miles from where I grew up.


Completed in 1890, the Firth of Forth Bridge was built under the watchful eye of the world after the collapse of the Tay Bridge during the winter gales of 1879, where 75 people perished when their train pitched into the estuary. Renowned for their excellence in engineering the empire over, this shook the Scots to spare no expense and build a bridge that would never fall down. The Forth Railway Bridge was the result: the cantilever design over the Forth river is one of the strongest and most expensive ever conceived, the latter quality being why there are so few like it. The unfortunate irony is 98 men died building the thing.


At the time, and for 27 years, 1,710 feet was the longest single cantilever span in the world (there are two of this length on the Forth Bridge). It is still second only to the 1,800 feet of the Quebec Bridge in Canada.

Ingredients
  • 54,000 tons of steel
  • 194,000 cubic yards of granite, stone, and concrete
  • 21,000 tons of cement
  • 7,000,000 rivets
 Now, we may build larger structures today, but in the 1880s they had no combustion power. So when you sit and look at this colossus as I did for a couple of hours, and factor in a dash of construction knowledge, it makes one feel comparatively useless and unmotivated. Luckily, these are traits with which I'm intimately familiar.


I scouted that night's campsite under the road bridge a mile or so westward and put some work in at the library. The meticulously attired Indian librarian opening the door treated me with overt contempt. Overt enough to annoy me, at least, and I'm pretty difficult to irritate. He queried my possession of a library card (this library fell under the Edinburgh umbrella so my membership from the day before was still good), then he said there was no WiFi, when my phone told me there was. I didn't cause a fuss because I needed to work here, but what an absolute twat. I didn't let on I was a writer, as our interaction was already soured by his shitty attitude and I didn't care to engage him further. I hoped he was going to be working the day after, so I could plan to come in muddy booted or after eating something particularly gaseous. That'd sort him out.

I left at eight o'dark, rolled by the supermarket to pick up some leafy vegetables (good for wind generation), camped down and had a stir fry again, but for some reason the improvised concoction didn't taste quite as spectacular as the night before, probably due to the inclusion of so much cabbage, eggs and beans. I only ate half and chucked the rest. I spent the remainder of the night finishing off the third season of Mad Men, and was truly impressed by the amount of shagging going on. It's well-produced porn with discreetly obscured genitalia, let's be honest.

The next day I was straight back to the library. The attendant this time was a woman, so I dutifully wiped the fresh mud off my boots outside before going in, and chose a spot far from foot traffic so my uncontrollable farting wouldn't bother anybody. What a waste of a biochemical stockpile. My distain for the dude yesterday doubled with each apocalyptic release.

I finished up at around 4.30 pm and crossed the Forth Road Bridge to look for a camping spot on the north bank. It must be over a mile long, and has some cracking views of the rail bridge.



I tried to make it through Dunfermline onto a trail where I could camp, but darkness caught me on the nearside outskirts. At a loss, I pootled around until I found a patch of woodland in a business park; not perfect but good enough. I planned to be up early for a dash to Stirling before the forecast rain arrived anyway, so it was as good as anywhere else.

Day 25
The route to Stirling followed another railway track converted into a bridleway, which I've found to be the quickest way to get somewhere on a bike without riding on the main roads. I rechecked the weather on my phone before I left, and it looked like I had a little more time than I thought, so I made up a flask of tea and some peanut butter and jam sandwiches for later.

I bombed along the track to Stirling, covering the twenty miles or so in only a couple of hours, and lost my two litre water bottle on the way. That's four I'd lost. I'd been tucking them into the front of the trailer wedged between my backpack and the pivot arm post, but for whatever reason they kept becoming dislodged, despite several differing attempts at tying them in place with a bungee. I had to rethink this, because dehydration was starting to get old. I decided on putting the new bottle in the same place but wrapped in a plastic bag and tying the handles to the top of the post so if it did slip from position it wouldn't be sacrificed to the thirsty road gods.

Image © Stirling Council

I sought out the Stirling Central Library and emailed a normally reliable client about a delinquent payment, and checked the Doppler weather radar. Rain was imminent, so I had to make a run for the hills to find a campsite. My plan was to never cycle in the rain unless I absolutely had to, and I had a few miles to go yet, so I didn't wait for a reply and got moving.

Potential camping sites on the way were thin in the ground, and the sky started to spit, but I eventually found a likely spot in the shadow of an uprooted tree by the golf course in Dunblane. I got set up just in time before the heavens opened, and settled down to tea, PB&J sarnies and Mad Mating season four.

Idle hands
When I ride these long and relatively boring stretches (old railway lines tend to have little in the way of views) I get to think a lot. Probably more than any other time in my life, actually. The freedom allows one's mind to roam like an illiterate Italian. Let's ignore, for the moment, whether such musing is good, indifferent, or a portent of gathering doom: currently, I'm toying with the notion of the world being nothing more than a giant LARP game, and I've become increasingly convinced this might actually be true. It may well be a scenario worth considering anyway, true or not, as it's a beautiful bypass of the conditioned social hierarchy our 'authorities' so carefully bludgeon into us, and one I seem to be slowly jettisoning.
 

My subversive reasoning is the people who purposely dress in the daftest costumes (clerics, police, military, politicians, business suits etc) are the ones who seem to disappear into their roles the most, and forget, or never even begin, to function like normal members of an integrated society: egalitarian, peaceful, stress-free, kind, and bemused by the ridiculousness of it all. Let's call it 'enlightenment', or the baseline human condition. They're the true neckbeards, the socially inept goofballs who don't possess the ability to function outside the construct of the game, never get laid properly, and carry their puffed delusions of authority like a favourite lightning bolt beanbag.

The more I thought about it, the more it amused me. And I started to feel sorry for them, and realized I was turning into a hippie.

Stay with me, people
Google hunter-gatherer societies: our natural and default state. They exhibit all the previously mentioned mutually beneficial tendencies far more readily than we of the current industrial habitat. Any graph you'll find plots immediate-return hunter-gatherer communities at by far the happiest. Agrarian societies are the most miserable, and our Western industrial-digital paradigm lies somewhere in between.

(Also consider 'necessity breeds invention' -- probably the most accurate maxim ever to describe progress -- Paleolithic technology didn't change much for many hundreds of thousands of years until some bright but lazy spark invented agriculture, which tells me 'necessity' was sorely lacking. The popular idea among archaeologists is populations probably grew to a point where agriculture eventually became necessary, hence its advent 10,000 years or so ago, but for many hundreds of thousands of years before then we were running around killing and eating organisms like we'd evolved to, happy as pigs in shit. Now we outsource such tasks, technology advances exponentially, stress is our biggest killer, and according to the Mayo Clinic, almost 70% of us are on prescribed antibiotics, opioids, and antidepressants.)

Check your character sheet
The catalyst of this LARP idea: I've recently had arguments with inflated local politicians, and soldiers freshly returned from furthering wealthy corporate interests in the Middle East, who insist the West should eradicate the entire Islamic wing of religion, almost a quarter of the world's population, because (and I'm paraphrasing only slightly here) they're Lawful Evil.

(For those who don't know what the hell I'm talking about: when E. Gary Gygax was writing the first rules to Dungeons & Dragons, he wanted to introduce a simple method to define a character's motivations, so he invented alignment. Initially, this consisted of three primary morality systems: Chaotic, Neutral, and Lawful, each of which were later subdivided into Good, Neutral, and Evil, for a total of nine separate subcategories. Simplistic, but really quite clever. Choosing one gave the player an immediate framework to explore, and the Game Master an idea of how consistently the character was being played. The Lawful Evil alignment is typified by a deep belief in the structure of law, but will exploit that lawfulness to hurt people. Many extremists fall into this category, like the Westboro Baptist Church. For Lawful Neutral, think a by-the-numbers courtroom judge. The Lawful Good, on the other hand, temper their belief in law with altruism (Nelson Mandela springs to mind. Actually, he's probably more Neutral Good, or even Chaotic Good, because he fought against the laws of South Africa in his early years. Maybe he changed to Lawful Good over time?)

Anyway, the soldiers seemed to base their opinions on their experiences with the backward Afghan hillbillies they were fighting (who are obviously no more a representative demographic of Islam than our own outlying twitchy meth head rednecks are of Christianity), coupled with the propaganda I'm sure is foisted upon them to keep their motivation elevated during the conflict. Many pointed to genocidal urgings in the Quran during our arguments (which tells me they're likely parroting the same 'approved' leaflets), neatly sidestepping similar themes in the Bible, and claimed their 'uniforms' were not 'costumes' (tricky things, labels), and guns aren't substitutes for foam rubber LARP swords at all and how fucking dare I.

Intelligence is often described as the ability to abstract: usually characterized by the willingness to consider more than one opinion on the same subject. If this is lacking, especially for purposes of intellectual growth and amusement, one should probably refrain from engaging in conversation on anything more meaningful than, I dunno, NASCAR, on pain of me vigorously stabbing at one's carotid artery with a fistful of pub darts.

So how do we drag these lost LARPing fools back to reality? I alone can't explain the depth of their subservient folly to each individual cog in the establishment machine. That'd take millennia and I don't have a time warp spell memorized. What we need is some pervasive mass media approach, like a blog.

Oh.

Friday, April 18, 2014

"If you know the way broadly, you will see it in all things." - Miyamoto Musashi

I've always been impressed by people who could blow their nose without using a handkerchief.

Whenever I'd tried it myself I looked like I'd lost a guacamole fight with a slime monster. Unfortunately, I'd forgotten to bring a hankie on tour, which necessitated an acute learning curve. I started out having to stop by the roadside to gingerly pinch each nostril shut in turn while bending double to avoid snotting my shoes and trousers. The noises I produced were not unlike a barnyard during the pig rut, punctuated by much wiping and lots of shits and oh, for fuck's sakes. I was wonderfully pathetic.

After a couple of months I was blowing my nose with the poise of a professional footballer. I didn't need to stop pedalling or even pinch, just a casual flick of the head and a silent snort sent a brace of mercurial missiles flashing into the periphery, scattering my DNA across the planet to further complicate the question of where I'm from.

(It's a joke of some lineage among my American friends that I don't adhere to any particular cultural group. I was born in Canada, raised in the UK, with a German father and an English mother. I went to university in Wales, and lived for 20 years in America. This confuses the hell out of your average Yank, who thinks everybody should be easily identifiable for shooting, bombing, stereotyping and/or imprisonment purposes.)

I'd become an expert judge of wind and trajectory, instantaneously triangulating with relative velocity. I could womp rat storm drains like a trainee Jedi, using my philosophical training to quell the urban Dark Side urge to decorate any dole enthusiast loitering too close to the kerb.

If I did need to nip a nostril on a particularly gushy day, I fired the right one under the left nipping arm, followed by the left one over the top after dropping the elbow and rolling the wrist, switching from right to left nostril with a thumb to middle finger move and a slight turn of the head, in a seamless Legolas-like combo that's frankly deserving of at least a video game franchise.

So I was quite pleased with my personal development.

East Linton
"A man on foot, or horseback, or on a bicycle will see more, feel more, enjoy more in one mile than the motorized tourists can in a hundred miles." - Edward Abbey

One of the great pleasures of travelling this way is entering a small village completely unaware of its history, and leaving thoroughly entranced. It's these between places motorised transport denies us.

I'd never even heard of East Linton (population 1,800) in East Lothian: a small village with an impressive global legacy. It's home to the modest Preston Mill, dating back to 1599, still in operation, and open to the public, although I didn't go in because of the hefty entrance fee, and my wallet was still weeping in the shower after Bamburgh.



I'd had some fun with ancient mills already, too, but this place was where millwright and engineer Andrew Meikle grew up and worked, and the man was a legitimate lightning bolt. He invented spring sails for windmills in 1772: wooden slats that opened and closed to control the rotation no matter how strong the wind: which revolutionised the milling industry in a time when a mill was by far the most important building in any community. He also invented the threshing machine: since the beginning of agriculture, harvested grain had to be threshed from the stalks and husks by hand, usually with large flails. Meikle's invention automated this extremely labour intensive drudgery. In one perfect swoop, he reduced annual agricultural labour needs by 25%. Y'know, for the entire world.

Obviously, this didn't make him very popular with farm workers, who rioted in 1830 as threshing machine proliferation, along with the Enclosure Acts, began to seriously hamper their livelihoods. (At this time in history, the loss of livelihood usually meant the loss of life, not comfort, like it does today.) The Swing Riots, as they became known, were intended to destroy threshing machines and protect farm workers jobs; the only directly-linked death was one rioter, probably at the hands of a farmer or soldiers. The end results, however, were nine rioters hanged, and 450 sent to Australia. Serves them right, bloody technophobic ingrates.

Meikle's work inspired a young farmer's lad in the village, who would spend all his spare time at the millwright's workshop, fascinated by the wealth of complexity and innovation. John Rennie grew up, and after a spell at the University of Edinburgh, seemingly single-handedly designed and built every bridge, dock, and canal in the UK, (the breakwater at Plymouth Sound, London and Waterloo Bridges, London, East India, and West India Docks, to name but a ridiculously insignificant fraction) and all by the time he died at 60, to be laid to rest with great ceremony in St. Paul's Cathedral in 1821. He only outlived his mentor Meikle by ten years, who died at the venerable age of 92 and is buried in East Linton near his beloved mill.

(Quick note about lifespans here: the incredibly high historical infant mortality rate skewed the average lifespan statistic heavily downward. After countless thousands of hours reading history, archaeology and anthropology texts, mountains of studies and acres of research reviews, I discovered that, back when muck was a condiment, if folks made it out of infancy they often lived well into their seventies and occasionally beyond. Even in pre-agricultural societies (including the ones still around today) the average adult age at death was around 54. And this was in a very sharp and pointy world before sterilisation, safety rails, and interfering cunts with clipboards. So the idea we were teetering by the time we were 30 is rather naive.)

Hailes Castle
I ascended a valleyside on a very pleasant single lane road, paralleling the River Tyne (yep, there are two, this Scottish one's a little more modest) and rode along the tops. The sun came out to brighten the world and made me chuckle at the audacity of the views. There really is nowhere on Earth quite as fetching as the British Isles on a sunny day. It's in a class all its own, like cycling into the lid of a giant shortbread tin.



I came upon Hailes Castle; a proper castle: in ruins and with little evidence of Victorian tampering. There was no entrance fee, gift shop, or indeed another soul in sight, just a big ruin in the middle of nowhere and little ol' me. Now we're talking. I spent an hour wandering around, imagination clicking into overdrive, empathising with the sheer effort involved in the building of such a thing, and the battles fought over it. I had a whale of a time.








Haddington
Haddington (population 9,000), the next town along, is one of those places that just stays with you. Drenched in the morning sun it's an absolute beauty. The bike path came in over the 17th century Nungate Bridge, surrounded by the parkland of the medieval St. Mary's Collegiate Church. I stopped for several minutes in the middle of the bridge just for a bask.





The longest church in Scotland is really of cathedral scale, which belies Haddington's current size. In the middle ages, however, Haddington was the fourth largest town in Scotland, and has seen some serious history, being burned down numerous times by Scottish and English armies alike.

I found the excellent library and spent the afternoon working, then left by way of the riverside bridleway, narrowly avoiding smacking the crap out of two older teenagers as I turned to follow the river. I can't even remember what they said, but their aggressive tone forced my ego to skid to a stop.

They had a couple of girls in tow, so they tried playing hard men and both postured up. I wordlessly ditched my backpack and was actually walking towards them removing my helmet before reality gripped, and they fled. I think the cold grin did them in.

Not sure what I would've done had I decided to chase them down with my re-emerging cardio. Something crippling that doesn't leave a mark, probably. They treated me to offensive gestures as they backpedalled, so I returned the favour, dipping into my exponentionally more appalling construction lexicon. They had no answer, so I considered it a moral if hollow victory as I climbed back on the bike.

Am I going to do this every time someone takes the piss? I decided right there and then not to. From now on I'll just give them a wave and a smile, or uncurl a middle finger. Peace, young padawan. No need to break someone's legs for being a smart mouth. You were similarly objectionable once.

Soothed by this newfound life structure, I stopped at a Co-op and bought a tin of Heinz Baked Beans with Hot Dogs for dinner because I hadn't had them since I was a kid and why the hell not. I also picked up a bottle of white wine and a half priced tin of Devon custard, a steal at 47p, and I like custard so much I'm quite happy to eat it like a big yogurt.

As darkness drew near I happened upon a little picnic spot by the track, slightly elevated above a small car park and screened from the trail by trees. I got my tent up and thoroughly enjoyed the beans and hot dogs with some bread and butter, which got me very nostalgic about my time in the boy scouts. I watched the movie Super 8 as I ate to compliment the experience.



I got my head down early, but was woken at 11 pm by the sound of souped up ricers congregating in the parking lot below. I'd forgotten it was Saturday night. I've never been one to complain about the noise of partying; lord knows an hypocrisy on that scale could fracture the firmament and annihilate the entire physical plane of existence. But they couldn't see me from where they were, so I lay awake and eavesdropped on what conversation I could filter from the dental equipment-like whine of their tiny motors. (If you're going to buy a car, kids, buy a goddamn CAR, for the love of all that's combustion powered.) They talked about diminutive pistons and micro gears and wee exhausts, some of the most boring shit I'd ever had the misfortune of overhearing. After a couple of surreal hours I was longing to open up a vein, but would've settled for a cloak of invisibility and a sack of root vegetables. Or even better, a Molotov Cocktail.

I'd just started contemplating the empty wine bottle, an oily bike chain rag and a half-litre of methylated spirits when they wisely buggered off. Finally alone, I slipped into sleep and woke to a dew-drenched morning. I packed up and quickly fixed an overnight flat, then hit the trail into Edinburgh, possibly my favourite city in Europe.
 
Edinburgh
It was spitting rain as I rolled around the base of Arthur's Seat into my familiar Scottish stomping grounds. I'd been up to Edinburgh maybe eight or nine times in my early years before I moved to America, so I passed a few pubs I remembered falling out of, streets I'd streaked down, and parkland I'd pissed and passed out in. The nostalgia washed over me in rich golden waves. It's curious we have such affection for chaos. Or maybe it's just me.

Edinburgh is my favourite because it's probably the finest city to get drunk in on the planet: the civic buildings are magnificent, the Edwardian and Georgian architecture a real joy to meander through, and the pubs were built by men who knew precisely what they were doing: evenly spaced, and individually unique. No chain pub nonsense here, where one interior looks much like another. At least, not in my experience: I didn't actually go in any pubs, but made a beeline for the MacDonald library, the only one open on a Sunday (as far as I could determine with a spotty data connection). Riding through the crowded Sunday lunchtime streets reminded me of London. Edinburgh has changed. And there were hipsters everywhere, which I'd thought was a purely American thing.

(What's a hipster? A hipster is a youth clothing and behavioural trend, given to retro fashions and, as far as I can tell, the overt dismissal of anything approaching a work ethic. You're not going to find a hipster down a coal mine, for example, or pouring concrete, or tiling a roof. They seem to work and congregate in coffee and sandwich shops, claiming to be artisans and artists, apparently a product of affluence and the internet. Also, your average hipster tends to vehemently deny being one, like homosexuals in the fifties.)

Th
e particular hipster working the reception in the MacDonald Library, South African if I can place an accent, looked at me as if I was stuck to the sole of his hemp loafer. I announced my wish to join for the day so I could use their WiFi. "Why not go to a coffee shop?" he volunteered contrarily.

I didn't reply "Because it's none of your fucking business, shithead. Punch the card and pipe down before I drag you out of here by that ridiculous steampunk moustache and smash it through your head on the kerb outside," because that would be alarming for the poor lad and I'd be straying from my new philosophy of peace. I'm sure he was simply attempting a little human interaction, he just wasn't very good at it. He worked in a library, after all, and he was a hipster.

The reason I didn't go to coffee shops much is because it's prohibitively expensive. I'll do so if there's no other option, but when a coffee costs as much as a day's food, it's difficult to justify the expense. Similarly with pubs, though a pint can last a good while longer than a coffee, even though I'd developed a taste for cold coffee while living in warmer climates.
 
The library shut at five. I made a run for the outskirts to find a place to camp, trying to beat both the rain and the dark and failing miserably on both counts, getting lost several times on the way. I cheered my predicament considerably with a visit to a Morrisons, where I bought bean sprouts, shallots and some soy sauce for a stir fry with Thai noodles and prawn crackers. Finally around seven I found a flat bit of grass and pitched, but the topsoil was at best an inch thick so I had to get inventive with the guy ropes and weight distribution inside, thank Christ I bought a free standing tent.

The next morning