March 22nd-May 19th, 2009
"I have often thought the best way to define a man’s character would be to seek out the particular mental or moral attitude in which, when it comes upon him, he felt himself most deeply and intensely active and alive. At such moments there is a voice inside which speaks and says: ”This is the real me!â€
–William James quotes
To Be Young Again in Scotland
It was like something out of a Scottish dream.
At least that’s how it felt that first night, free-camped along the shores of Loch Ericht.
Tent aside, and pasta a-boil, I sipped red wine from a shiny tin-cup.
Absorbing my surroundings with a kind of rapturous ease, a purplish heather draped the hillsides. Flecked with sheep, and divided by stone, those hills painted the landscape in a rich-vibrant green.
Soundless medallions danced atop the water, shimmering upon its surface with a silverish gleam. At the end of the Loch on the distant horizon, stark, tarn-like ridges glowed with a sweep of low-angle light.
Just down a dirt road, perhaps five minutes by bike, was the town of Dalwhinnie. There, just over a set of train-tracks, the tower of its famous whisky distillery emitted a distance slip of steam, infusing the air with the distinctive smell of peat-smoke and barley-mash.
"No one will bother you back there…" an elderly woman reassured me after I’d stopped to fill my water bottles. "Go on, get yer night’s rest.."
I had come to Scotland to reboot.
To regenerate from the toxic effects of over-expenditure.
For the previous 9 months I had poured every ounce of my physical and emotional energy into a series of multimedia shows. This in hopes to drive home a message of global sustainability
After realizing what I was up against, I began to get discouraged.
A recent report by the National Academy of Sciences stated that during 2008, Americans still consumed about fifty-three times more goods and services than someone from China. Representing only 5 percent of the world’s population, we accounted for 22 percent of fossil fuel consumption, 24 percent of carbon dioxide emissions, and 33 percent of paper and plastic use.
In addition, a child born in the United States today will create thirteen times as much ecological damage over the course of his or her lifetime than a child born in Brazil. He or she will drain as many resources as thirty-five natives of India.
The truth was–despite the recent economic downturn–that my friends, family and neighbors spent more on ice cream per year, than it would cost to provide the most basic health and nutrition needs to the impoverished around the globe.
Recognizing this, I’d grown increasingly disillusioned, discouraged with what I felt was my own inefficiancy to bring about the smallest change.
Lashing-out in word and deed, it was time to take a break.
So I flew to the UK to rest, write, and ride.
I spent my first month within the Aberdeen Public Library, hunched over my laptop, restlessly trying to convert a wreathing tangle of thoughts into the opening chapters of a book.
After 6 weeks hidden from the light, like some tortured-typing veal-calf, I’d had enough.
I needed to get out.
And so, several days later, with my close friend Tracey Milne at the wheel, we hit the road.
Our destination: Scotland’s wild west coast.
Running like dogs off a leash for the better part of a week, we romped through the likes of Loch Lomond, Glen Coe, Oban, Arisaig, Mallaig, Knoydart, then the Isle of Skye. It was a pub-crawlin’, pint-swiggin’, butterscotch-eatin’, car-campin’ hoe-down.
When our week was through, Tracey turned me loose on my bike.
Armed with a cartographic copy of Sustrans National Bike Route 7,
"Lochs and Glens North," I began south on a 200 mile network of dirt tracks, abandoned highways, and farm roads.
I’d been set free.
But let me just say, the riding was not always easy.
The roads were narrow, there were no side-lanes, and the Scots drove like maniacs.
It didn’t seem to matter who they were–little old ladies, civil servants, boy scouts–once they climbed behind the wheel they drove as if they’d freshly caught fire.
Case in point would be a 56-year-old Glasgow resident by the name of Alan MacGregor. During my week of cycling he’d been clocked by police driving a record-breaking 271 kilometers an hour (169 mph). After having his license confiscated he was fined an equally record-breaking 3,100 pounds (5,400 dollars)
There was no getting around it, Brits drove like nuts.
I had a theory why.
I think it’s the one place they felt comfortable breaking the rules.
The hundreds, if not thousands of rules that govern their daily lives.
Many of them ridiculous at best.
Take for example a current law on the British books that makes it illegal to die in the Houses of Parliament. Or another that considers it an act of treason to place a postage stamp bearing the British monarch upside-down. There’s even a law that claims that the head of any dead whale found on the British coast automatically becomes the property of the king, and the tail of the queen.
Conversely, I learned that a pregnant woman can legally relieve herself anywhere she wants, including in a policeman’s helmet.
My personal favorite (and most ridiculous rule of all) I found posted on the wall of a nearby lap pool. It read, "For safety reasons, extended observation of the swimming pool strictly prohibited."
In the UK, I soon found out, there are rules for absolutely everything.
Even for watching TV.
You actually need a license to do so. (Â£142.50 for a colour TV and Â£48.00 for black and white.)
I learned that there are uniformed officers that drive around in detector vans looking for unlicensed people watching TV.
According to their website, (www.tvlicensing.co.uk), these TV detector vans "are equipped with state-of-the-art detection equipment which can tell in just 20 seconds whether you are using TV."
The website goes on to threaten that "Some aspects of the [detection] equipment have been developed in such secrecy that engineers working on specific detection methods work in isolation, so not even they know how the other detection methods work. This gives us the best chance of catching licence evaders."
All of it seemed based on some skit from Monty Python.
After my second day on the bike tour, I felt as though I’d left all those rules behind.
From Dahlwhinnie, I cycled over Drummochter Pass, rolling without a care alongside the River Garry, past the Blair Atholl Castle, into Pitlochory.
Seeking my reward for a long day’s ride, I climbed a hill and parked my bike in front of the Moulin Inn (est. 1696.)
Ducking my head beneath the dwarfish 6-foot doorway, I stepped into the cavernous pub gloriously enshrined in dark antique wood. Much of the decor looked to be dated before the turn of the century. Ordering a pint, I took a seat at a table. There I listened to a handful of drunken characters in wool and wellies tell liquor-laden stories in thick Scottish brogue. A large black lab lay oblivious to it all on the floor in the corner.
Near my head hung a framed document entitled the "Rules of the Inn" dated 1786.
It read, "No thieves, Fakirs, Rogues, or Tiners–No skulking loafers or flea bitten tramps, No slap and tinkle o’ the wenches, No banging o’ tankard on the tables, No dogs allowed in the kitchen, No cockfighting. Flintlocks, cudgels, daggers and swords to be handed to the INKEEPER for safe Keeping.
"Aye." I said with a chuckle, raising a toast.
Behind the bar, I studied the rows of single malt whiskies: Talisker, Laphroig, Cragganmore, Lagavulin, Highland Park, Ardbegh, Mcallan, Cao Ila–all my favorites.
While the rest of the world’s economy sags, this tongue-scorching liquid may just turn out to be Britain’s economic savior.
A recent report by the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) stated that in 2008, the UK sold a record billion bottles of whisky, boosting Britain’s economy by 3 billion pounds (4.5 billion dollars.) During that year, whisky netted the country a staggering 97 pounds ($150 dollars) per second.
I stepped to the bar and ordered a dram.
After a fairly lively night, I woke the next morning in a farm-field just outside of town.
The end of my Scottish bike tour came far too quickly.
I finished cycling along the River Tay, through Aberfeldy, up and over the hills of Loch Tay, then into the town of Callander, stopping briefly along the way at Rob Roy Macgregor’s grave.
During that last day, my mind tumbled over the people and places I’d seen along the way.
Then came the memory of an elderly cyclist I’d come across a few days earlier.
I’d run into him at the ruins of the Ruthven Barracks just outside the town of Kingussie.
Pulling up with an infectious smile, he looked to be in his late seventies/early eighties.
"Where you headin’ laddie?" he queried after stepping from his bike.
"Stirling." I returned.
"Your keen," he said raising his eyebrows.
"I’ve done better."
"I did alot of cycling when I was your age." He said, turning his eyes back to me.
They were big and blue, and sparkled with life.
He broke eye contact for a moment, taking a minute to look out over the countryside. He seemed to be taking it all in, as if it some precious gift.
Studying his face for a spell, I recognized that he owned something that of late I seemed to lack.
It was that look of being thankful to be alive.
And though I’ll have trouble explaining it, I can only say there was something within those eyes. A message of sorts. A message that seemed to suggest that I set aside my book, my goals, my striving to save the world–if only for the moment.
This so as to recognize this precious gift of the present, and the life that I’d been given.
"So you heading home after this matey?" He asked as he climbed back on his bike.
"No sir," I answered, "I fly-out next week to ride across the Pyrenees."
"Ahh..to be young," he said pausing, then put foot to pedal and slipped away.