Leaving Inverness. The further out we go, the further and further it feels we are going into the hinterlands. Before entering Gavre, we edge a huge Loch that has absolutely no trace of humanity. Not a dock or a hovel on any shore. I try to track our progress on Google Maps, but it shows us an hour east of Inverness–the wrong direction. The train says Kyle of Localsh, so I trust it, turn my phone over, and decide not to worry Nic. Chalk this up to technology fail in the middle of nowhere.
This is remote living–a few houses, a few sheep. Even the train is sparsely populated, less than twenty on this third of three cars. The raucous, celebratory of the London to Edinburgh–only five days ago–seems lifetimes away.
Lochlichuit passes on our southeast. The train moves through a stop–they’re all request only now–but we don’t even see a station, only a clear glittering loch watched solemnly by a sagacious mountain. The loch is on the right, now on the left, now on the right again. The Highlands unfold in silent perpetuity–there are no single frame snapshots here, no one view or another, just the landscaper rolling in majesty as we move through stop after stop unhindered.
Amid the valleys, we can see the well-worn paths of geological time. Snow collects on the craggy peaks in winter. Spring melts the snow, running rivulets down the mountain, cutting crevices deep over ages and ages, paths for water–sometimes a stream, sometimes a powerful waterfall–to flow to the valley and fill the Lochs once more. By mid-morning, we reach the sea. We roll in silence, sometimes reading, sometimes gazing lovingly at the passing new world we have discovered. Brief utterances of wonder fail to capture the overwhelming beauty. Our silence says it all.
It hasn’t always been this peaceful. In this trip our experience has been wonderful and thrilling, but we haven’t always been gypsy, sun, and rainbows. It’s impossible for it to be that way. Friction inevitably occurs in an experience this close. Everyday , at least once–usually around 6 p.m., actually–we get a bit testy with each other. We’re both a bit tired. We’re both getting a bit hangry. Our patience wears thin. Maybe I want to stay out later than she does, and this frustrates her. Maybe she randomly darts off into another shop without warning, and this frustrates me. But these are still-frame snapshots, momentary moments in time. When observed in the whole, those small moments melt into the flux of this overall wonderful journey we are taking together.
We arrived at Kyke of Localsh around noon, where I got my brief lesson in driving left-handed. Of the ten minutes, these were perhaps the most important parts.
1. As long you come back with all your wheels and doors, you’ll be fine.
2. It’s a good thing you’ve got someone with you. She’ll help you watch the road and let you know if you’re getting too close.
This first statement gave me some comfort; the second was both helpful and problematic. Both Nic and I will agree that she is…well…a dramatic passenger. When we take long trips to and from Texas–or any where else for that matter–there is always an intersection of my stress/fatigue of driving and her anxiety over my speed/proximity to other cars/meddling with instruments/perceived carelessness that we will get testy and snap at each other. I like to be in control when driving, and it’s hard to give that up. It causes friction some times. But the lady was right, and nervous as it made Nic, she was invaluable, keeping me off the shoulder and reminding me to stay left while I paid attention to not hitting anything.
We checked into our house, an old 17th century estate house (more on that tomorrow, I think). By 3:30, we were on the road to Fairy Pools. Nic would gently remind me “getting too close to my side” which helped greatly as my attention was easily distracted by the stunning scenery: breathtaking mountains over loch and sea, waterfalls plentiful around every bend. Each successive road narrowed until we drove fown an unnamed one-lane road between Carbost and Glenbrittle. Cars soon flanked the narrow lane, overflowing the car park.We had arrived.
Early on the trail, I perceived that you can tell a lot about a hike by what people are wearing. If people are wearing the hard core hiking gear, boots and trekking poles, you know you’re in for a doozy. If, on the other hand,people are wearing jeans, tweed hats, Ralph Lauren trainers, either a) everyone is mental (saw it when a woman wore wedge heels to the main falls at South Mountain) or b) it’s a fairly accessible and easy hike. The latter seemed to be the case as a fair number of casual hikers met us on the way down.
This held true to form. The hike, after a steep initial descent, leveled out to a rolling, soft climb. The valley opens before us, the mountain source of the stream shrouded in mist, flanked by larger peaks. Closer and closer we went, nearing the source of the water. The skies were a little grey and sometimes spit, but by now this is “typical Scottish weather”–nothing to fear. Besides, around every bend is a new fall, cascade, or breathtaking view, so we barely notice any discomfort. But as we reach the end of our part–a sign that warn the “fairy pools” section is over–the blue sky begins to roll over the valley and the soft sunlight begins to pierce the clouds. The sunlight graces the valley on this marvelous afternoon. For all hikers, real boots or not, it has become a beautiful day.
The other item clothing of choice, however, was more vexing. We saw quite a few people with bug nets on their heads. I’ve never actually worn bug protection clothing before–bug spray has always sufficed. But on this island, midges–like a mosquito/gnat hybrid that cling and swarm–may make me change my tune.
People will likely wonder “Why do they call it Fairy Pools?” My answer is that “midge-infested river” wasn’t too hot for the tourism board. I don’t want to make this all about the bugs. The pictures don’t lie, but they do scant justice; this place is overwhelmingly beautiful. However at many places, the bug cover was thick, getting in our mouths and eyes, covering ever inch of exposed skin if we paused for too long.
The sun was out. It was nearing six o’clock. On the way back down, we found the place that I wanted to go swimming. Anyone who knows me knows that I’m a waterfall jumping junkie. However, the midges were making us a bit miserable. On top of that, Nic wasn’t too keen on where I wanted to climb down. We have different calculus of risk and danger, she and I. She looks at most situations with more trepidation than I do. Sometimes, this is hard for me to accept, but I know she does it from love. She’s already seen me break my neck once; she’s not looking for a repeat. So, we often struggle on points like these. But she acceded to me this time, and allowed me to help her down a precarious set of steps to the pool.
I was right about the pool: it wasn’t too dangerous. The water was deep and invigorating, following a narrow cliff channel to a taller cascade. One website had suggested a wetsuit. Ludicrous. It was no colder than some native NC natural pools in the fall. The water, fluid and continuous, folded over me and through me as it ran down the mountain.
Despite to pool being perfect in all other ways, the midges were wretched. When, I took off my shirt and they attached themselves en masse to my torso. I had brief respite by jumping in, but Nic had to endure them just so I could indulge my waterfall addiction–she was in agony. It was like we invaded the Fairy kingdom, and Oberon and Robin Goodfellow and all their homies came after us in full force. After Nic captured the photo, I quickly put in my clothes and helped her up the bank: I did not even take time to put my boots back on, hiking up in my Chacos. Each time I tried stop and replace them, the midges swarmed again. I carried them out the whole way. When it began raining for the last 300 meters, it was a welcome relief, getting rid of the bugs.
Soon we actually start to laugh about how much we hate midges. They were awful; they definitely caused some friction But when we look back on this trip, this detail will be one we laugh about, the struggle we overcame. Even now we are starting to laugh it off and smile at each other. We finally tech the car to look for dinner. BBC Scotland has been eman eclectic mix all afternoon, and on the way out the car park (“on the left” she sweetly reminds me), “iIn the Name of Love” fills the cabin of our little left hand car.
We stops a Seumas’ Bar across from the Sound of Ramsay. The pub is filled with travelers of all stripes-tent dwellers to motorcyclists to luxury holidayers, families, and a couple with a German Shepard pup. The atmosphere is warm and mirthful: a perfect respite from the rain. The venison casserole melts in my mouth and I may have found the beer that winsthe trip. We split the Haggis Bon Bons and Nic gets Haddock and Chips with a local cider. Brittain’s brew game has been on point all trip. A different type every meal.
Turns out the locals know about the midges, too. They sell Smidge, a spray at every pub. Across the table, I smile at Nic. She doesn’t always handle discomfort outside like I do, but despite a harried run from the fairy swarm, in the rain, I’ve never been prouder of the way she hiked than I was today. We sit in warmth and merriment at this adventure. We’ll be better prepared tomorrow, but more important than surviving the swarm, we survived today’s friction and left the trail hand-in-hand. We will tell the tale with joy, somwhere ages and ages hence. It will become folded into the continuous memory of ourwonderful journey together.