Down the Highways of the Old Confederacy

I am not from The South.  I have lived here all of my adult life, but I have always had difficulty considering myself a Southerner.  I was reminded of it early and often when I moved to North Carolina, no matter how many times I reminded the kids on the cheese wagon that we Bostonians hated the Yankees, too.  But even as an adult who has lived three-quarters of his life below the Mason-Dixon, I often find myself an outsider in this culture.

And yet, I know it fairly well, even if I don’t get it.  I’ve traveled its back roads, climbed its mountains, sang in its churches, drank its sweet tea and ate its grits, paddled its rivers to gain an intimate knowledge.  Like many of us here, I take the same paths over and over and over again, a regression I found recently as Nic and I pointed the Prius in a southwestardly direction to see her family just across the Louisiana border in Beaumont, Texas.

For many who do not know or are not familiar with the south, the perception can be one of abject misery and backwardness, a point driven home by a Wisconsan at AP Training who lamented the strangeness of our national politics and then pointedly said, “but I guess you’re use to this, being from North Carolina.”  And as we make the travel from 85-65-10—through the “Deep South”—we pass through cities that can be laden with heavy American history.  Sherman’s march through Atlanta.  The Montgomery to Selma march.  Mississippi Burning.  Hurricane Katrina rips through New Orleans.  But for us, there are very personal memories on this path raised on this path and new memories created every trip.  There’s the impromptu high school parade at the Jonesboro exit.  Our walking tour of the Auburn campus.  The worst hotel sleep ever in Mobile. Strolling the beaches in Gulfport and Biloxi.  Walking through the French Quarter.  Chicken on the Bayou.  A speed trap that caught me in Vinton.

As we enter Texas, the speed limit raises and we enter narrow construction lanes.  We stop at a What-a-Burger somewhere between Orange and Vidor, then cruise all the way to Beaumont.  From there, it’s a week of tacos, board games, and laughter.  I know all the streets in my in-law’s hood from running over the years, and I’m starting to remember how to get to the Starbucks and the gym without having to use a GPS.  This paths are well worn indeed.

But the history of this town is obscure to me.  It’s a city of over 100,000 people, which makes it large and modern in comparison to the many towns of fewer than 10,000 that surround it.   Beaumont, it seems, has a relatively high murder rate for its size in Texas.  My in-laws’ church in the heart of the city recently participated in a successful gun buy-back where they received many weapons but–just as importantly–many threats from the people in the city.  The following Sunday, community leaders sat in a panel discussion about potential solutions to murder with the BBC filming for documentary purposes.    The preacher spoke euphemistically a few times about “the sins of our fathers.”  I’m not sure I know exactly what the sins are, but judging from the panel discussion, it seems that—like a lot of Southern cities—Beaumont probably has some racial skeletons in its closet, skeletons, that—like a lot of cities in this country, including Charlotte—still cause social problems today in the correlation of race and poverty.  This church is attempting to at least bridge that gap, to take steps to solve what is often a heated, uncomfortable issue by reducing the violence that plagues the city.

It’s hot in Texas, and I spend a lot of time inside reading when I’m there.  Perhaps serendipitously the thread of race relations wove through much of what I remember reading.  There’s this essay in one of my favorite publications about he virtues of Tarrantino’s Django Unchained.  The author compares how Germany and America use art to portray and deal with our relative racists and genocidal pasts.  He argues that unlike Django, most American films that deal with race paint the racists as unrelatable villains as opposed to everyday people, minimize the actual violence and pain caused, and look to a hopeful future, as if this is all behind us.  That night, we watch The Help on TV.

The second read was Paul Beatty’s The Sellout, a 2016 Man Booker award winner.  For me, it’s often refreshing to read a book without having to worry about how I would teach it.  The book satirizes the state and history of race relations in this country in a way that has me cackling.  Like most good works of satire, it is both irreverent and poingant.  I know lots of people I want to convince to read it just so we can talk about it.

If this book left me in stiches, the third reading regarding race left me with dread.  It was a brief article on my favorite left-leaning political blog, announcing that Charlottesville had voted to remove a statue of General Robert E. Lee from Emancipation Park (once Lee park, but changed).  The move mirrors such efforts in other southern cities to remove symbols of the South’s confederate past, from the removal of the Battle Flag over the SC state house after the Mother Emmanuel AME Zion shooting in 2015 to the recent effort remove Confederate monuments in New Orleans.  The rationale seems to be that removing these symbols of the racist past are necessary for us to move forward.  I thought about Beatty’s narrator, who would likely argue that removing the statues won’t end racism any more than having a black president did.

The trend to remove these monuments has gained momentum.  But Southerners are fighting back.  The monuments in New Orleans had to be removed under the cover of night with police protection.   In all of these cases, the removal has met with charges of disrespecting Southern Heritage, memes quoting George Orwell, and the prideful opposition of southerners regardless of their state.  A slight in New Orleans or Charlotteseville is slight across Dixie, it seems. So in Charlottesville, a Southern university town that—like my beloved Chapel Hill, likely believes it is above the dirty past of the rest of the South–a  “Unite the Right” rally had been planned to protest the removal of the statue.

I cringed.  This wouldn’t end well, but I had no idea how explosive a situation it would become.

By Tuesday, we headed home, mapping a different route through Dixie, heading north to Little Rock.  Randy, who has travelled these roads all his life, ticked off the names of the small towns through which we would pass: Lumberton, Kirbyville, Jasper, San Augustine, Carthage, Marshall, and finally to Texarkana. Small town after small town where a NC tag and  a Prius surely made us seem like outsiders, but not so much that we needed to worry if we stayed under the speed limit and I kept my hair tucked under my hat.  Lucky us. How privileged.  Soon we were in Little Rock.

I had hoped through our new route through the old confederacy we would see the markers of history.  Unfortunately, time, traffic, and Little Rock’s tenuous relationship with our GPS kept us from Little Rock Central High School.  As a teacher, I inherently see education as a tool to social progress.  So, it’s odd to think of a school as a site of one of the most regressive battles of the Civil Rights Era.  Here, Governor Orville Faubus, pandering to his white supremacist base, refused to comply with the Supreme Court and integrate schools.    Eisenhour tried to talk him into changning his mind, but eventually had to bring in the National Guard to protect high school students from an angry mob of “ordinary” white people. Watching the “respectable” white people is revolting.  It seems so hopelessly out of time, and yet even in Charlotte, once a national model of integrated schools, educational disparity at the nexus of class and race persists and reform often meets a genteel, polite resistance.



Sadly, we only have time for a walk in the park, where the dogs frolic in the fountain, and lunch at Stickyz Chicken (which is lets us put our dogs on the patio, and has a great space). Instead of the high school, we go to the beautiful, renovated waterfront district, where bands can play and public art brackets public water parks where we see black and white children playing.  Every thing seems so peaceful, so newly renovated, the shadows of the past paved over in brick, shiny glass, and sculpture.

We need to get to Memphis, which is another 2 ½ hours east.  Memphis sits on the eastern bank of the Mississippi.  Named after an ancient Egyptian city, Memphis greets us with a gaudy, mirrored pyramid emblazoned with the Bass Pro Shops logo to commemorate the city’s etymological heritage.  We turn right off the interstate as soon as we get into the city, the GPS  leads us to one of the most unlikely of historical markers—The Lorraine Motel.

You’ve seen the pictures.  In 1968, Dr. King had come to Memphis to help the working class, to march with striking sanitation workers.  The night before, his speech suggested he was aware of his own impending demise.  The next morning, an assassin’s bullet pierced the Memphis sky and struck King.  Today, few citizens are venerated in American history as Dr. King.  The Wall Street Journal claims that his “I Have a Dream” speech magically ended all racism in America.  Talk about your out-of-touch costal elites.  But here, a somber reminder: the motel, which fell into disrepair in the early 80s has become the foundation for the National Civil Rights Museum, which also includes the boarding house where the bullet originated, the whole moment of King’s death captured in the eerie trajectory of a few hundred yards of city block.

I’ve been to many awe inspiring places: the Grand Canyon, Machu Picchu, Stonehenge.  But I am overwhelmed in a tone I have never known.  The nexus of so many intersecting strands.  A clash of ideals.  A true crossroads of our nation.  The courage and the fear inspired in one man’s actions brought to a mighty head in his assasination by motivations obvious, yet still myriad and dark.  Now this motel sits somewhat anachronistically in what is clearly an effort for a revitalized Memphis, with newly painted signs, down the road from a hotel honoring the history of blues—the very heart of American music, borne painfully in slave culture, once reviled by the clergy as the Devil’s Music—a few blocks from Beale Street, a few more from a gleaming NBA arena that the city has just apporoved for $1.7 million in renevations an a state-of-the-art AAA baseball stadium.

We have one more place to see in Memphis, but the GPS gets us lost again.  Around the corner from the Lorraine, we see a middle-aged African American woman, alone at a fold-out card table with signs and brouchures protesting the construction of the Civil Rights Museum. I slow down enough to see what seems on the surface a contradictory argument—that the King memorial is destroying the very people he fought for.  But as the GPS leads me through Memphis, we see the cracked streets, the shanty houses, an elementary school that has been boarded up in disuse.  The GPS, in trying to find Sun Studios, keeps trying to take me through Foote Park, which is currently surrounded by construction fence guarding the concrete rubble of what once was.  Like Charlotte, Memphis is a mid-level city trying to grow, and that means sometimes it is clearing out the “the undesirable” for the new and gleaming.  Frustarted, we decided to head to the hotel on a brand new 240, but finally find Sun, where Elvis, Cash, and many others got their start.  It’s now a museum to iconic musicians who Nicole decided, after watching Walk the Line for the first time a few weeks ago, were kind of jerks.  Regardless, it remains a testament to the fact that the American South, perhaps because of its pain and suffering, is the fertile soil in which so much of our music began to blossom.

The next day takes us through Nashville, where we briefly stop in Centennial Park, home to a full-sized replica of the Greek Parthenon, the home for Nashville’s art museum, stands across the green from a modern Southern temple–an SEC football stadium at Vanderbilt.  We have lunch and ice cream from the food trucks where a mom leaps back in front of me to ask the ice cream lady if the chocolate and peanut butter ice cream she just ordered for her kids has nuts in it.  I shake my head.  How can you choose nuts and think you won’t have live with them.

From there, we move further east, to a small town called Decatur, where family has done us the grand favor of loaning us their house for a few days.  We drive twisty roads through the mountains into what is truly the rural south.  “Towns” are few the further we get from the interstate, and soon we arrive to this small enclave (a town of around 1,500 people) punctuated by a Piggly Wiggly, three gas stations, and Italian/Mexican restaurant (which Nicole dubs “a crime against humanity”) and a few fast food joints.

The next day we explore.  The land is beautiful, surrounded by massive rivers that I long to kayak.  We stop at an isolated gas station where the clerk answers my questions about fishing and directs me to his goo ole boy buddy in the parking lot when I ask him the best place to put in and camp.  “Wherever you can find a place.” As we drive around, we begin discussing what it would be like to live out here.  Are you stuck or are you fortunate?  In many ways, the area embodies much of the virtue people extol in the south.  It’s simple, relaxed, a contrast to the fast-paced urban, modern life.  Lots of time for reading, playing music, fishing, and thinking.

We point the car home on Friday.  I convince Nicole to let me take the scenic route over the Cherehola Skyway, a winding mountain road between Tellico Gap, TN and Robbinsville, NC.  It means going rural instead of interstate, through Athens (a booming town of 15,000 with a university a third the size of the high school where I teach), then Etowah, a winding road on which we count four Rebel Flags, one on the same porch as a New England Patriots flag.

I begin to think a lot about the people who live here and the flags they fly on their porch, flags that people defend with slogans like “heritage, not hate”, flags that proliferated after it was removed from the Columbia State House, flags that will stand along the Nazi swastika in Charlottesville.  I went to a high school where the flag was a common clothing accessory way before I could digest what that meant.  On the last day of school, kids with big trucks would attach huge battle flags and race up and down the street in front of the school.  I know the people who live in the rural south who bring buckets of vegetables to my mom’s house when their garden is abundant, who kindly give me directions about where I can find a dock for my kayak, who let me out of a speeding ticket with a warning because I know a little “aw shucks” routine.  I know people who fly the flag who have done me immesurable acts of kindness. I also know people who can be hostile to the wrong kind of outsider.  I want to believe as I drive through this beautiful country that none of these people would take their flags off their porch to use them as symbols of hate in Charlottesville.  But I also know that historical symbols and monuments accrue meaning by their use.  That one owner of the flag can’t escape the meaning that others ascribe to it. That any monument serves us best as a point to reflect where we are going, not just a reminder of where we’ve been.

But that wasn’t going to happen in Charlottesville.  There was not going to be a quiet contest of ideas.  The statue was coming down by order of the city council.  As a carpet-bagging yankee, it fills me with great ambivalence.  I know lots of my southern brothers and sisters who see this as destroying a past worth preserving.  But even as a child I had a hard time understanding the desire to venerate this history.  Certainly, the flood of outsiders escalating Charlotteville proved that racism is not endemic to the South,  but we can’t deny that the South has frequently been on the wrong side of moral history.  From slavery to Jim Crow to resisting the Civil Rights movement.    There is much about the South to celebrate.  But values that make the South a wonderful place to live—generous people, genuine music, amazing natural resources—are not embodied in a flag that has become a racist totem nor in statues  to men who died protecting the Confederacy and its economic model of violent, immoral human enslavement.

We didn’t drive through Charlottesville, but it came to us in our living room as soon as we returned home.  I’m not sure I really care whether or not a statue stays or goes, but I find the argument that we should preserve history to be somewhat hollow.  All monuments fail to tell the entire story, but these celebrate the valour of a defeated army.  On the other hand, making the destruction of these monuments the focus of racial reconciliation also seems superficial.  Sure, it is a powerful symbolic victory, but does little to do the work that we need to work for a more harmonious society. But harmony has always been hard in the South.  Part of the trick of the Jim Crow South and the birth of the Klan, according to several historians, was that the wealthy landowners convince poor whites to intensly hate the poor blacks so they would never realize that their economic interests would be better realized if they worked together.  That racial animus became the series of laws and “Sundown Towns” throughout the South, an animus even exploited by Nixon’s Southern strategy.   What has stood out the most for me, however, is that while otherwise well-intentioned people from the South have pitched a battle that has allowed White Supremacists, neo-nazi assholes, and the freaking Klan to come out of the woodwork in 2017. And once again, these groups begin to convince alienated white people that their path to Southern Shangrila lies in hating People of Color while claiming it’s about “heritage, not hate”.  But if Southerners really care about preserving our history, we better look it in the face.  Because we can’t just we want to preserve heritage and act like hate wasn’t a part of it all along. And if we can’t find a way to differentiate, to celebrate the South while doing the work to repair the sins of our fathers, to really make the South an amazing place for all the people who live here, then that rebel flag and those monuments will contine to have the taint of racism that those hoodless Klansmen put on them every time they show up to defend another statue.

Almost a year ago, my beloved city erupted into nights of protests and property damage after the police shot Keith Lamont Scott.  It seems like it is Charlottesville’s turn to go down this road.  Ironically, the actions of white supremacists and neo-Nazis in Charlottesville has only emboldened cities and colleges to remove these monuments.  And with citizens, politicians, and college students alike looking to right the wrongs of the past, it feels like we will continue to travel these roads for sometime.  As we do, it helps to remember that there are two pernicious lies that arise about race and the south–whether the monuments stay or go.  The first is the favorite of the white supremacist–that the past was glorious and valorous, and we need only return to it.  The second is the refuge of what King called “the white moderate” who prefers order over justice–that the past is in the past, that all our problems have been solved, and that every thing is cool if we just leave well enough alone.  It is perhaps as deadly a lie, as it catches us off guard when conflict erupts over unresolved issues.

In another week, I will return to my job of teaching young people how to interpret visual communication, parse rhetoric, seek truth, and perhaps most importantly, be a valuable member of a harmonious community.  As our trip through the Confederacy comes to a close, I realize that progress in the South is still to be made


Epilogue: On our Brexit and Wanderlust

We began our own personal Brexit early on a Monday morning.  Big hugs, thanks for coming, and thanks for having us–all exchanged as the Uber drove to take us from corner of Arlington and Denbigh for the last time.  The corner flat that had been our home for 19 days began to recede in the distance as we made our way through Ealing to Heathrow.

The flight home to the Promised Land was a tale unto itself.  While we were in line to check our luggage, a family queued behind us, and their three year old went into full Linda Blair meltdown mode when their six year old wouldn’t relinquish his suitcase to his little brother’s whim.  “Hate to be on that kid’s flight,” we said.  In London security, I lost a jar of English Mustard and Horseradish respectively.  Apparently, I didn’t figure out they were liquids.  Also, I forgot to switch my knife from my backpack to my suitcase.  So, while I am down one knife, at least they didn’t think I was a terrorist and give me the full cavity search.  

The plane was full, and I hoped to get some sleep, as Nic noted that I was barely awake as I was walking through the airport.  I even began eyeing the full empty row of seats to my left as a crash spot.  But as the doors closed, Nic said, “Ooooh…. Fuuuuuudge.”  It could only be one thing.  The terror slid right in beside me.  So, long story short, I caught two movies on the international flight along with two complimentary Goose Island IPA’s.  Back to American brew.  The mom was not so lucky.  Her precious little darling threw her wine on the floor, so she had little succor as he bit and hit her and repeatedly kicked the seat in front–seven and a half hours.  Sweetheart, would you please stop?  Here’s a better question.  Where’s a Benadryl Blow Dart when you need one?

In Newark, our turn around from one plane to the next was under two hours.  We had to grab our luggage, check it back in about 200 hundred yards (not meters–back in the States) further.  We had to go outside one terminal to get to another to make our connecting flight, which got us caught on a train with some very confused and oblivioius French girls with large suitcases, so Nic pulled out the teacher voice to move them, much to the pilots’ mirth.  But that gave us little special status, as we had to go through security again, which means the water you put in your water bottle on the plane from London is no longer safe to board on the plane to Charlotte.  The guy thought he was doing me a solid by letting me back in at the front of the line to empty my pockets again after I poured the water out–and I guess he was–but I’ve still to travel through an airport security in any city that has not make me think of the term “security theater.”  Down, down, down, all the way to the anus of the C concourse in Newark.  We had to hurry cause in twenty minutes we’d be boarding at the terminal gate.  Somebody help me get outta New Jersey, just help me get to Queen City town.  The flight just long enough for pretzels and a cup of ginger ale.  Swing low chariot, come down easy.  The flight was over, and we had or bags soon.  Kristen met us at the front and took us immediately for Mexican food and Mojitos with Drew.  Nic’s chips and salsa reserves had been depleted and she needed a re-up stat!  In fact, two days later we went and re-upped just to make sure she didn’t lapse.

The journey is over.  There’s lots of weight and implications in those four worlds.  Back home.  Laundry in process.  My backpack has switched from travel to toting books.  Back to work tomorrow.

Wanderlust sated?  Not bloody likely.  Inevitably, you can get roped into the “next time we come here” conversation, imagining how you would do it differently.  Inevitably, you begin to realize all thing things you didn’t get time to do or see, things you didn’t even know you could do or see until you got here.  And then there’s the “where do you want to go next” conversation, which for Nic and me began at some point over the Atlantic on our London to Newark flight.

To put an even more modern twist on this, by penning these epistles the last few weeks, I’ve connected to others in the online community who do the same: travel, write, photograph, document, share.  From reading these tales, I’ve begun to daydream about other out of the way places where my boots and backpack may take me in the future.  You fellow bloggers have read this blog as it chronicled our travels, and I have read yours.  I imagine your wonder and hope you’ve enjoyed us sharing ours.

But for now, our world traveling is on pause.  Soon (after our end-of-trip awards–coming soon!!!), this blog will become a bit less travel-centric for a while.  I’ll still be taking camping trips on the east coast, and Nic and I will continue to find new adventures, but the mind that churned the UK over the last three weeks, looking for ways to piece it together in this written space, will now turn back to the classroom, the students with whom I engage everyday.  My blog posts will turn back to the mundane and domestic–to school stuff and philosophy and yoga and race training and everyday life.  The memories, preserved here in these words and in Nic’s amazing photography, will be catalogued here and in my mind, but my imagination will run wild in a slightly different direction for a while, still trying to piece it all together one day, one post at a time.

Memories that are so vivid today–being swarmed by minges at the Fairy Pools, nearly being blown off the mountain over Edinburgh, a late night Roti with Gary and Ash–are all so vivid now, but as time passes they will become a bit more shadowy.  Even in re-reading, I recognize all the small details that were left on the cutting room floor, moments not caught in picture or writing–like the old man dancing on the street at Camden market, conversations over drinks at the Robbie Burns pub (“I hear all people from Texas are crazy…but good crazy”) or Nic’s proclivity for making people laugh on the Underground (“But really, thanks again for that laugh.”).  At the same time, the seeds that found root in our journey will continue to blossom over time–like improving my repertoire of Scottish folk songs from 0 to 2 (so maybe I can play along next time, though Nic will surely punch me if I pursue my dream of writing one about the Jalpeno Pasta at Pizza Paradise), or learning how to turn around blog posts, not letting them sit in the draft folder unfinished.  Hopefully, these fruits continue to bloom.

It would be easy to lament this change and worry that soon these beautiful days will grow dusty on the shelf in their disuse, but doing so would undermine the gratitude I feel for having this experience.  For the sacrifices we both made to make it happen.  For the opportunity to travel.  For Gary and Ashely’s warm hospitality, their kindness, their love, their laughter, their honest conversation in quiet moments.  For having the great fortune of landing serendipitously in Chelsea’s flat.  For people along the way (the old man at the castle, Alex from Aberdeen via Latvia, the Dutch teachers) who gave us memorable community in our travels.

Gratitude is often easier to cultivate in extraordinary situations.  In travel (as Blanche du Bois once noted) “the kindness of strangers” becomes an amazing gift.  You put yourself into the strange and unfamiliar and you often prove that not only can you do amazing things, but that other people are capable of amazing acts of kindness. large and small.  One of the political speeches I heard at the RNC before I left characterized the world as a dark and scary place, and sometimes in our country we often view the rest of the world with suspicion.  Fortunately in the pocket of the world we just traveled, that turned out not to be so.  People were kind and conversant everywhere we went.  But now as we slide back into the familiar, the known, it becomes easier to take for granted our everyday opportunities, our potential, and also the small contributions people make in our lives both large and small.

It’s inevitable, I guess, to see your own culture through the lens of the one you just left.   And the comparison goes much closer to the skin than which side of the road is correct or the difference between trousers and pants and underwear.   Our roads are wider and we drive more.  We don’t have 70 degree summer days.  We don’t have screeching fox roaming our neighborhoods at night.  We don’t have venison or cider as readily available.  We do have free refills on soda in most place and thunderstorms, as well as fairly accessible public restrooms.  Not everyone has to be like us, and we surely don’t have to be like everyone else, but seeing how it’s done differently can both give you gratitude for what you do have and give you a reality check for what you could really do without.

Hopefully, that drama will play out on another stage for us soon.  I remember the day we walked into Blackwell’s in Edinburgh and thought of all the books I had yet to read.  Traveling, it seems, is having the same effect.  Taking one trip fills me with wonder and happiness, but it also makes me aware of all the many glories on this Earth left for me to explore.   Perhaps temporarily satisfied, the wanderlust, the daydreams of seeing things, observing customs, and meeting people I’ve never seen before will still hold sway in my mind.  Where next?  Belize? Prague?  Bali?  Kilimanjaro?  I guess we’ll see what happens when our paths take us there.

Day 16 and 17: Sometimes, You Get what you Need

Weekends are for relaxing.  Leisure.  Late day pajamas, Hanging on a Saturday Evening date, doing the Sunday puzzle, seeing if you can find all the hidden clues.    21 in total, I think.

Our turnaround day left us much more exhausted than anticipated.  Although we got sleep on the overnight, by the time we fell into sleep after Roti around midnight, night-day-night of being Midnight Ramblers left us exhausted.  So, we decided for the next day to wake up slowly without plans–a leisurely weekend for the last days of our vacation.  Gary cooked breakfast (not “proper English,” because nobody in this house needs baked beans with their eggs) while we showered, folded laundry, and read leisurely.  Around noon or so, we made our way to the Underground.  Our goal–the Saatchi gallery.  More art for the day, it seems.  However, our plans were foiled as the regular exhibit had been shunned to the side like a bunch of dead flowers.  Well, I guess you can’t always get what you want.  In its stead was a pay exhibit–Rolling Stones: Exhibitionism.  While I love the Stones, the Saatchi was not about to pry £20 from my sticky fingers.  We were trying to play it cheap and easy for the last two days, and parting with more of our money can’t get us no satisfaction.  So, we walked around the market outside the Duke of York square with all the other men of wealth and taste before we hopped back on the Tube to hit Tower Hill.

With no set schedule, Time was on our side.  We passed back by the tower and over the Tower Bridge–rated the most popular selfie spot in London–to get to Tower Centre, where we would find a public viewing venue for Team GB in the Olympics  We got some food and found front row seats.  While Olympic fever may have had London under its thumb in 2012, the crowd seemed more a light afternoon party rather than a frenzied sports crowd.  No dancing in the streets.  No one stood to save the Queen when the music played.  After eats and a Pimm’s Lemonade (a great summer drink), we wandered back down the Thames bank, down an back river alley where we stumbled into a bridal shoot.  Nothing to see, we made our way back to the bridge.

There, a facsimile Mississippi riverboat-dredging water deep from the Delta across the Thames–made the Tower Bridge rise, so we had to wait.  Foot traffic slowed to a halt.  Across the bridge, the bridal shoot party had caught up with us and posed under the tower.  A tourist mom asked if her children could take a photo with the bride.  The bridge lowered.  

Foot traffic began again, and soon were were on the Tube back to Tottenham Court where we could renew a weekend tradition British style–bookstore date.  Only this time instead of our local B&N, we plopped at the 6-story Foyles In Westminster.  To be fair, one floor is a meeting space and one is a full cafe’; nevertheless, it’s a pretty monstrous store. In our haste to find shoes, we had walked right by it on Day 1.  It was not to be missed today.

We agreed to work our way down and meet on the ground floor.  Nic gushed at the seven shelves of drama.  She nearly wept at the sight.  I started in on the fourth floor–esoteric knowledge–and worked my way down to history and politics.  Nic found a number of humor writers making mint off Donald Trump’s expense.  I moved over to philosophy to hear a dad and daughter discussing Camus while their mom tried to muscle in with a book about tidy living.  They seemed to get the absurdity of it all.  I then moved to the music-racks and racks and racks of Jazz, Blues, Avant-Garde, and Americana.  Under a tapestry of Sarah Vaughn, I flipped through the names:  Dylan, Cash, Waits, Davis, Coltrane, so, so many live Monk shows.

I made my way out with two discs and wandered under the traipsing voice to the film section, plopped on the floor and enjoyed the show.  Soon, Nic was wondering “Has anybody seen my baby?  We reconnected and eschewed the night life, reading the map without having to shine a light on it, heading back on the tube before the sun fell of the horizon.

 There have been days where we felt like we had to see it all, when wild horses couldn’t drag us back home.  But today, we were glad to have a slow day and an relaxing evening back in Ealing where we could get some shelter.

Sunday flowed at a similarly leisurely pace.  We left the house around 11, starting at St. James Park wand working our way park.  The park abuts Buckingham Palace, where we passed hundreds of tourists, huddled in queue to enter the building.  Outside the gates, people waited turns to have their pics snapped in front of the large insignias.  Not our cup of tea, so we made our way over to the Victorian Monument, also festooned with people tourists and Sunday morning park goers alike.  We decided to make it a nice Sunday, grab some ice cream and amble through the park like it was our own lazy Sunday afternoon.

Signs are clearly posted throughout the park to not feed the birds, but far be that from an impediment to some tourists. You can asks them to have some courtesy, have some sympathy, and some taste.  But polite signs are oblivious to some little devils.  Two young boys caused a traffic jam on one path by bringing an entire bag of uncooked rice to feed pigeons, drawing about thirty of them to fly at and away from every pedestrian who walked by.  We crossed the bridge where the Eye could be seen over the river.  Our walk took us near the parade grounds, near the back of Parliament, past the Churchill War Rooms.  On the south side of the park, we found to boys playing “Pull the Bread from a family of swans.  One pulled so hard that he lost balance and fell on his roly-poly behind, and I got the vibe that some people walking by were pulling for the swans to pull away his fingers  But otherwise, morning was uneventful in its beautiful simplicity.  From the park, we made our way to Earl’s court for a very specific purpose–to see the TARDIS.  That moment in time accomplished, we got back into the station when a mysterious Inspector Sams was paged repeatedly, for a brief moment like it’s own surreal Dr. Who episode, we expected chaos to come.  But none did, and the train took us away–right on time.

Our last stop of the day was the Notting Hill neighborhood and the Portobello Market.  Known to most Yanks for a Hugh Grant/Julia Roberts rom-com (and yes, you can buy the t-shrit),  Notting Hill was a photo destination for Nic, its pastoral rainbow row houses basking in the afternoon sun.  The market held the streets with open air antique, clothing, jewelry, and knick-knack dealers.  Knock-off pocket watches interspersed with fine China.  Cat and Dog Pillow covers.  Art prints (not the cheap Chinese crap copies, the stall assured us).  A beer mug of Churchill’s head (Would I love it? Yes, but not for £250)  The uniquely and stereotypically British to the strangely ubiquitous (it seems you can buy a poop emoji anywhere on earth, even a rainbow one like the Squatty Potty ads).  Among it all, crepe makers raked at their discs of dough with the tranquility of sand in a Zen garden.  We grabbed lunch at a deli, then hit the “Unofficial Banksy Shop”–pretty sure there’s not an official one, so I hope he got a cut of my quid–and caught the Central line–our last tube ride–to Shepherd’s Bush to meet Gary and Ashley at their church.

Later that evening, we settled down to watch the Olympics.  Curious to how Britain–Ealing specifically–would be watching the Andy Murray gold medal match, I walked up to the corner store to get a beer, but stopped in at the Drayton Arms.  The match was on, but there seemed little interest.  There was a guy challenging some Honky-Tonk Woman–some bar-room Queen from Memphis–to her first Jaeger shot.  Otherwise, the pub was tame.  Apparently, gold medal tennis doesn’t inspire the same sort of street fighting man as football or rugby does.  I walked back to Gary and Ashley’s house, staying up into the wee hours of the morning to watch Bolt win the semis and Murray take the gold.  “Hope your boss is a sports fan tomorrow,” said the British announcer.

It’s now 10:30.  I’ve been up since 6, which is 1 a.m. at home, where I’ll be in a few hours.  We’re on the plane, but a bit behind the take off time, but hopefully I’ll get some sleep to start changing the jet lag clock.  Time to close my eyes and paint it black for a bit.


Day 14 and 15: Trains, Turnarounds, and Tunnels:  new twists on old paths.

The Greek philosopher Heraclitus once quipped, “You never step in the same river twice.”  The same is true for traveling.  Whether you or the path or both, the return journey always differs.  Largely, when you have reached the turning point, when the vector of your journey points home, you’re more prone to think about the comforts of a familiar bed and the exuberant welcome of your pets.

Our turn point started on the Lochalsh to Inverness line.  What was once exciting.  What was exciting as hurtled northwest toward Skye was shrouded in rain and travel stress on the return.  Inverness itself was cold and rainy.  We tried to make a go of exploring, but we were so spent that when we entered a giant book store in the shell of a 16th century church, Nic came over to me and said, “I can’t even…I’m so overwhelmed.”  Yes.  You read that right.  Nic turned down a two-story book store.

We were happy to find that the Caldonia Sleeper, the overnight train from Inverness to London, had a complimentary lounge where Nic entertained the Scottish host by regailing her with descriptions of Moon Pies.  We crossed the street to have dinner at the Ash Hotel.  Back in the lounge, we availed ourselves to the free beer and tea, rested, and waited for departure.

Several sites I read claimed the sleeper train, which left Inverness at 8:48 and arrived in London at 7:15 the next morning, was the way to go.  Let me add my support to this notion. We saved an entire day of travel, though we certainly learned a new meaning of “close quarters.”  Our suitcases took up half the available floor room, but it was a relief to get out of our boots and clothes that we had been wearing since we’d been soaked at Elgog, damply clinging to us all day.  Newly shod, we settled into the lounge car for a drink–she a cider, me a Glenlivet—and quiet reading.  A British couple next to us kept trying to name the station, while Nic briefly chatted the girl at our table about her book.  Her cider finished, she headed back to her bunk while I finished my whisky.

That done, I order a Bailey’s and Hot Chocolate.  Train sleeping, I assume, will be like camping sleeping: wear yourself out and add a stiff drink or two and you can sleep through damn near anything. My nightcap combo intrigued my British neighbor, who has been talking to a Scottish man at the table behind me about the stops.  He joins my table and I find out why.  They rented a car in Dalwhinnie (a whisky destination to drive to Inverness only to have the train drive back through Dalwhinnie–there and back and there again. We all share the tales of our travel, and the Scottish fellow starts spinning a yarn of his friend who “hunts Nessie”‘and charters boat tours on Loch Ness: they haven’t had a sighting in a decade, and–according to his friend–they could use one soon to keep the Yen rolling in.  I laugh, and they move into local references that are lost to me.  I finish my night cap and his them a good night.  I climbed into the top bunk, donned my complimentary mask and ear plugs, and slept through pretty much everything, including the switching of locomotives in Edinburgh.

By 6:30, we awoke.  Our breakfast arrived.  I’m eating smoked salmon and eggs sitting in my bunk: for the third straight Friday, we’re waking up in London.  Off the train at Euston Station, we are walking into the teeth of London morning rush hour.  After our Scottish excursion, we feel a bit out of place.  While we are still dressed for Scottish wind and rain, people in London are clean, perfumed, wearing shirts and skirts. We, by comparison, are crunchy.  I haven’t wanted a shower this bad in some time, and we still have to get on the sardine-packed Central line back to Ealing before we can be clean.

By 11, we are back out.  We meet Gary for lunch and head to the Tate Modern.  We still had a weekend in London, and even with all the time we’ve had, it’s impossible to see it all.  Today was going to be an Art day.  The Tate sits on the banks of the Thames, a former power station with several floors of both rotating and free exhibitions.  We had passed it on the way to the Globe last week, its festivity adding to our walk.  Today, we entering the festivity, contributing to the huge crowd by entering.

Here, dear reader, it would be easy to slide into a “what is art?” discussion.  And with a wide array of art–abstract shapes to portraits to political statements; paintings, sculptures, audio and video installations; traditional, trippy, and bizarre, such as a giant room filled with what looks like overgrown potato sacks–this could be an appropriate discussion

Perhaps another time.  Perhaps what was just as interesting was the hordes of people and how they interacted in the space.  Photography was allowed, but not flash, which meant some people still used flash.  Every time  people spied a Dali, Matisse, or Picasso, they leapt to have their pic snapped or take an exuberant selfie, regardless of the mod of the actual work.  Not trying to be judgy:  I grabbed a few pics myself.  There was a girl who went old school–plopping beside the pond of abyss of her journal in the middle of the floor, penning a reflection on Dali’s Metamorphisis of Narcissus.  Parents wrangled their kids to get just the right shot.  Perhaps most entertaining were the girls taking goofy-faces selfies in front of photographs of genocide and torture.  Funzies!!!

Ashley joined us at the Tate, and we enjoyed a leisurely cup on the terrace.  Friday afternoon turned into 5 o’clock here.  The crowds grew.  The pubs swelled.  The walk beside the Thames grew busy as the after-work crowd met the tourist crowd.  We passed trees petitioned to stand, a skate park, a statue of Olivier, then cut left between Jubilee Gardens and the eye for a different type of artistic experience.

Leak Street Tunnel has Has been closed off from the main road for seemingly some time, so it has become a de facto museum of street art.  A little-known underbelly of London but to photographers and street artists and a handful of innovate tour guides, much art is every bit as worth as the Tate without the ropes, security, or reverence.  Paint a beautiful mural and see it replaced with the mundane.  The tunnel has all the feel of entering into a seedy underworld, but after the madness of the Tate, the quiet, dank tunnel was something of a welcome relief.  We saw a couple of artists in action, one who traveled from Greece and was making his way around Europe tagging in major cities, but his tag bled into the hundreds of artists who have painted and re-painted these hallowed halls beneath the city.  As we exited the tunnel, a taxi exited a blind garage like it just got a GTA paint job fix up.  Three streams of city-bike tours flew past us, one lady precariously driving with her selfie stick in hand.  “Five bucks says she eats it in the next mile.”

Back in the sunlight, we cross the bridge in front of Parliament, always slammed with tourists, entering the Underground at Westminster, always graced with street buskers.  A long tunnel from Kennsington turns directly ito the Victorian Albert Museum, open late and free on a Friday night–12.5 acres of exhibits.  We caught the Renaissance European Artifacts–desks, instruments, guns, swords, wood panels, paintings, etc.–in the basement before making our way to the Asian artifacts collection, or as one visitor quipped, “Where we can see what they stole from everyone else.”  In both religious ideas and design, however, the line of appropriate is a bit less clear.  As we move through the Middle East with heavy influence on geometry (including an ancient rug lit only twice an hour to preserve its colour–British spelling, sorry) to India to Southeast Asia, we see cultures both distinct and continuous.

There really is too much to see and ponder in this city.  As Gary said, “If you’re bored with this City, you’re bored of life.”  We noticed that there was an underwear exhibit  (Note: pants= underwear  and trousers=pants), but we were too tired to dig into our trouser pockets and go that close to the bare naked human experience.  After such a whirlwind 36 hours–from Elgog through rush-hour London and back out in the city–we had logged over nine miles walking for the day, exhausted to the core.

We made our way back to Ealing, our familiar path home every night in London, to grab some dinner at Gary and Ashley’s local pub–The Drayton House.  We arrived about 9:55 and mulled over the menu for about seven minutes before Gary went to the bar to order and have them tell him the kitchen closes exactly at 10.  The hangry anxiety began to set in.  We went to a fish and chips/Chinese joint that was still open, but they were cash only.  Again fail.  Rotisserie Chicken and egg rolls had sounded mighty tasty.  Gary said he thought we could find one more place and he led us onward.

There, for the first time, we found Roti, a Trinidadian dish that is about twice the size of your average burrito, rolled in dough, cooked, filled, and cooked again.  Julian–who had also lived in California, Colorado and Massachusetts–was about to close shop, but he saw us roll up in despair and agreed to stay open long enough to feed us.   As we were the only patrons, he was giving with his time and knowledge. The spice palette was uniquely Carribean, and Julian swears this is pared down to have more mass appeal.  The slaw, the chickpeas each had their own specific heat, as did the mango chutney and the pepper jelly.  Gary broke out in a sweat and I gulped my bottle of water halfway through the Roti.  Nic and Ashely swore of the hotter additions.  But we were all satisfied and grateful, a new twist, a new stop on our path home, one that Gary and Ash agreed to visit again.  As we left, Julian wished us safe travels back to the states.

The turn around travel from Skye to London was probably the most frenetic day on our tripBy the time midnight came ’round, we literally fell into sleep and agreed to take it easy the next day.


Day 14:  How to be a Chump Yank Tourist without even trying.

Nic wanted to check out a jewelry store before we left Skye.  Right outside of Broadford–for a tiny shop, it had a large car park.  I pulled out the key and we entered the shop.

She bought the Celtic rune stud earrings.  She’d lost the back of one of her pearls, and her lobes had felt naked ever since.

I suggest we cross the street to the cafe’.  It’s still raining , and I could use something warm before the last 10 miles to Lochalsh.  Luxury Dark Hot Chocolate and a dried fruit scone.  We cross back to the car, ready to leave the island, eat a leisurely lunch at Lochalsh, and take the train home.

I get in.  Turn the ignition.  Nothing.  We look at each other.  I try again.  Again, nothing.

I go back in the store and ask the guy at Remax if he has any jumper cables.  “Leads,” they’re called here.  Never thought I’d have to learn that one.

“I don’t, but I can call a guy.” He does. “The guy wants to charge £20.”

“That’s okay,” I say.  “Thanks.” The rental car company, among many things, said that if we had any problems to give them a call.  If I can’t find anybody with “leads,” they should do it for free.  Nic calls them, they would, but they can’t right now.  They can send a guy–for £20–if it needs to be soon.  It does.  Our train leaves in under two hours.

I feel like an idiot.  I probably left the light on one too many times.  The lights turn off when the car does, so I assumed it was cool.  Guess I was wrong.

Because here we are, waiting in a parking lot, stranded on Skye, Train clock ticking down.

I can’t sit still, so I pace the parking lot. I try to play the “It Could Always Be Worse” game.  It could’ve happened in Elgol, a more remote part of the island.  I could’ve wrecked the car, like the one we saw last night.  None of this brings comfort.

Two ladies who were in the jewelry store came out and I asked them if they have  jumper cables.  They do!  Great!  They pull beside me, and I pop the hood. Batteries have more protective plastic in the UK, but I manage to squeeze the leads on.  I turn the key.  Everything works, but the engine still does nothing.  I thank them.  They tell me where there’s good coffee up the road while I wait and wish me good luck.

I’ll admit, I’m not the most mechanically inclined person, but I’m baffled.  Nic guesses it’s the alternator. She is dealing with the stress of this better than I am.  She has been checking train times and calling the rental company. More bad news. They now say that since I let someone “uncertified” work on it that I am liable for all the damages.

Now I start playing the “Worst Case Scenario” game.  We’re gonna miss the train.  We’ll have to rebook our overnight to London and find a place to stay in Inverness tonight.  They’re going to tow the car and charge me the full deductible.  Even when Nic calls bullshit on this after reading the rental contract, this sounds like a long protracted battle against a Scottish rental company from 3000 miles away.  I pace. I check my watch.  I stretch.  I walk down to the street to look for the truck.  Nic calls back to remind them that we have a 1:30 train.  They’re not sure why the mechanic hasn’t left, but they say they’ll  double check.

Finally, he arrives.  He gets the battery pack.  He asks for the keys, sticks his head in the door. Makes one click.  Turns the key.  Starts right up.  WHAT THE HELL? Is this some secret Scottish trick?  A racket for local mechanics?  He looks at me dryly and solemnly as he pulls his head out of the car.

“Usually, it has to be in park for it to start.”

I laugh at my own stupidity.  All my worry for a stupid, easy fix.  At home, I do this all the time–try to pull the key out in drive–but my car won’t let me.  Luxury has spoiled my good sense.  I have made the dumbest and most simplest of mistakes.  

“They told me I’m supposed to ask you for £20.”  I sheepishly handed over the quid.  

In playing the “Worst Case Scenario” game, humiliation and being the butt end of a dumb Yank tourist story at the pub never occurred to me.  And while it wins the “It Could’ve Been Worse” game.  It’s still little consolation.

“I’m going to laugh about this at some point, but it sure as hell isn’t now.”

“Too close to my side,” she says.

We make the train with time to spare

But probably more harried than we would like.  The Guiness Amber in my bag goes to good work as soon as I get a cup from the trolley.  I write.  Nic lolls off to sleep.  Here’s to letting someone else take care of the driving.

Day 13:  A Scottish Act of Faith

We rise in the morning to an island drenched in last night’s rain.  Such is the conundrum of booking a place like Skye to vacation.  You book months in advance–knowing you come here to be outdoors.  Kayak, camp, bike, boat, whale watch–people don’t come here for the theater.

But there is always the real possibility of rain.  And today’s weather map makes that an almost certainty.  Based on accuweather predictions, it seems like our best window is between 2 to 5, so we plan our day on an act of faith that we will see enough dryness to hike the Quiraing in that window.

In truth, we need this miracle.  The two provisions every site says about the Quiraing is 1) don’t hike when it’s rainy and 2) don’t hike when the visibility is low.  On the whole, the sky in Skye portends poorly for each, but we set out on our quest regardless.

We begin our morning over oatmeal and fruit in the kitchen before the rest of the house is awake.  Soon a couple from the Netherlands joins us at the table.  They, too, are working a similar timetable, hoping to get a hike in before they return.  The hiuse’s resident Scottish Deer Hound pays us a visit at the table.  Then we hit the road.

Through the ride up the east coast to Staffin, the rain spits most of the time, but because I believe the weather will break our way, each shift in the clouds seems a good omen.  We see some pull off attractions and take our time moving up the coast:  apparently, some dinosaur fossils were found near here, and Staffin, unlike many of the lightly marked hikes on this island, have made an effort to highlight their ancient historical and geological  features on this part of the island.  Down through a valley are the ruins of an old Germanic house near the shore.  A few miles up are is Mealt Falls, which plummets straight to the sea, and Kilt rock.  We find lunch in a small cafe right near the turn.

By all accounts, we have timed this perfectly.  It’s about 2 when we make it to the car.  It’s still raining, but we have staked out day on this shift:  no turning back now.  The trail is only a short drive up a B road between Staffin and Uig.  As we begin the ascent, a ram stands sentinel against the road.  He is motionless and stoic, the gargoyle to the entrance hunched over the gates.

Our pilgrimage does not confirm our faith, unfortunately.  The further we climb, the harder it rains.  When we reach the trailhead car park, a food truck style RV is selling tea and paninis.  But the soul of the day is pea–thick, moist, and a visibility of less than 100 meters.  The rain is only seen in its splatter against the windows and the ever increasing mud puddles on the road and trail.

I get out to double check the sign.  We’re in the right place. Apparently, the ancients thought so as well. The Table, if we ever get there, is labeled as “the navel of the world,” a mythological archtype in which a culture centers them existence, perhaps even with a creation story.  In Peru three years ago, I found out that the Incas believed this about Cusco; it was their point of Genesis.  There are theories that Stonehenge served a similar purpose for an ancient culture.  And while it fascinates me that cultures accross the world create these unifying stories, it shows that they are likely effective storytelling as opposed to historical fact.  The stories are not true in an empirical sense, but the belief in the stories, at some level, guides the way a person and a civilization observe their connection to the natural world.

So far, our act of faith has proven empirically false as well.  Nic and I are sitting in the car, hoping the rain will subside so we can eventually hike.  But right now she is trying to catch up on some sleep that she lost coughing in our damp and musty AirBnB.  Perhaps, our act of faith will at least bring her that.  Even if your belief proves untrue, buffeted by the harsh, cold reality of a mountain isle, what more can you do but assess where you are and move–or don’t–from there?  Right now, we are okay in the car, which is still better than being caught outside in this storm.

In my dreams. I see the light and hear the rhythm of the rain slow, and move to get my bag to hit the trail.  But when I work to actually do this, it wakes me from a vision of the world as I wish it to be to a world as it is.  We bob in and out of sleep until about 4:30. The trailer has closed up shop.  Part of me is willing to make a go of it, but it is my very impulsive and sometimes dangerously adventure seeking part.  Maybe if it were only me, I might make a break for it, but I have Nic’s safety to think of as well.

As we drive off, I see the myriad streams, new swollen with a day’s heavy rain, wash down the mountain.  At times, these streams–that now border on rivers–threaten to take over the road.  I try to tell myself that not hiking was the best choice.  I try to use my sleep to justify that this all worked out for the best.  I try to lose myself in the beauty of the drive.  But all attempts to make it okay fail.  I’m frustrated by the missed opportunity, and as I turn down A87 toward Portee, my eyes scan the landscape that will soothe my hunger for discovery.  I even pull down to the sea, only to end up I someone’s yard.  We discuss our next move, and decide exploring Portee is sufficient for the day.

Portee is the capital, which is to say it is the largest collection of buildings on the island. It has a roundabout, a high school, pubs, hostels, hotels and gift shops.  It also has the Portee harbor, which–after a brief tour of the center of town–we turn our direction.  The restaurants and pubs are teeming with thwarted outdoor enthusiasts, but down at the harbor we find a modicum of solitude and peace.  There Nic does what she does so well, pulling beauty out of the mundane–here the rocky low-tide harbor strewn with algae and underwater fauna abandoned by the tide.  She sees things others don’t and finds a way to frame it so everyone else can see it’s beauty. This is her urge in our trip. Having sated hers in the harbour, we made our way to dinner and home, unaware how much the damp of the day had settled into our bones, until we bathe and change for bed.

The next morning comes early.  I’ve set an alarm for 6:40 to try to milk every drop of say from Skye before we have to leave the island by 1.  But the sunlight wakes me early, and by 6:15 I am up and getting dressed.  Nic looks at me like I’ve lost my mind.  She’s playing slug-a-bed, so at some point I head out to explore the property while she gets out of her PJ’s and starts packing.

I make it out to the edge of the water.  It’s low tide on the northern shore of Corry near Broadford, which means the algae Nic beautified through art yesterday now festoons the muddy ground between the trail and the rocky shore.  I cross the marshy ground and sit on the rocks, listening to the waves lick the shore, watching the submerged algae move in circles with the ebb and flow, eerily like the grass amid the fierce, swirling winds on Arthur’s seat.  I remember a story I read yesterday while waiting for the storm to pass about a local artist whose father took him out to such a stone prominitory on the shore only to have the tide roll in and strand them as the night fell.  The ocean has a beauty here, but it is a powerful and dangerous one, even more so that it has been driven by storms.

Scottish philosopher David Hume once posited that an ordered, teleological universe is but the frame of a story we place on the chaos of the world to try to make sense of it, much like my belief in the story Accuweather told me yesterday.  Walking these Scottish beaches, it is easy to see Hume’s inspiration.  From the trail, this seemed a simple walk to a flat place to observe the sea.  But every stone is its own balancing act, complicated by the slippery moss and rain.  And though my comfy room is back at the house, the tide could turn and I could be marooned on this rock.  It’s just me the wind and the waves out here.  As much as I would like to make it otherwise, the Scottish weather–and perhaps the universe itself–is in a state of unpredictable flux about which we tell stories–true or not–to grasp some meaning or glean some understanding.

This, as they say in philosophy, is where Hune began to feel the fear in his bones.  Maybe it was just the wet weather of the Scottish highlands, or it was the foggy fear that our attempts to build purpose through art or myth making or travel itineraries are all for naught.  But this means we can not experience the chaos and understand it, quantify it.  But that would make order graspable.  One of my favorite philosophers, Alan Watts, repeatedly opined that if all things worked together as they do…according to The Tao…then what we find as chaos one one level is order when seen from another.  As such, he claimed, we whole embrace chaos as an integral part of life and approach it with wonder, like a piece of music we’re hearing for the first time.

All of this rain has probably given me too much time to think.  If the weather had broke my way, I might be spinning some yarn that the aisle of Skye loved us, or that we were blessed, or that our faith had been justified. But it didn’t, so I’m not.  Instead, I’ve been watching the water flood the highlands for the last two days.  Every waterfall now glows in the distance roaring with might and power.  What is a frustrated hike on my level is the flux of the water that has shaped this land–this land i’ve become entranced by–at geological and temporal levels that I can only begin to understand.  What is it to these cosmic workings that I’ve traveled across the pond to hike for a couple of days?

My faith in the weather was but my best approximation, my ebb and flow.  Like going to Skye and back, driving to Quairaing and back. I would do again and every time, as I do with my walk to the shore and back, whether the algae can make sense of it or not.

Day 12:  Fairies Wear Boots, so give me your hands if we be friends.

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. 

Day 11: A Brief Chat with the Loch Ness Monster

Edinburgh began to melt way as soon as we crossed the North Sea.  Within a couple of hours, we were in a completely new landscape.  A river roared  along side the tracks, piquing daydreams of kayaking.  Then the land began to change: the tracks sliced through a valley, brooks meandering over the land, mountains climbing and climbing, seemingly untouched by man save a solitary road and a power line that ran parallel.  For miles and miles, little but sheep scattered at random over the meadows.  I’m reading a book about Internet data analysis.  It’s fascinating, but it seems so incongruous that I keep putting my book down to stare and daydream out the window.

Much of the train ride we spend through Cairngorms National Park.  We had considered some time here when planning, and we would love to do so if we ever get a return trip.  At any rate, we feel the further north we go, the further away we are from the often enjoyably chaotic streets of Edinburgh.

Arriving in Inverness confirmed this change.  The walk from the train station to the hostel was about ten minutes.  Like Edinburgh, there were street musicians, but they consisted of a tween singing off key with an iPod speaker, a scruffy dude playing Neil Young, and a guy playing “Thunderstruck” on the bagpipes.  Most of the people seem to be coming in to do some outdoor exploring or are from Scotland.  There’s not the same broad international array of people.

I do have a bit of a bone to pick with Nessie, however.  The weather is perhaps the most Jekyll and Hyde of any place I’ve ever been.  On the way to the hostel, it begins dumping, but it gets sunny about twenty minutes later. later as we went to the river, it got unseasonably cold:  the next time I play “never have I ever”, I won’t be able to claim “never have I ever worn four layers of clothing in August.  Also, the gulls in this town are some entitled little bastards, going right after a meal someone had just set on the ground.

But don’t get me wrong.  Inverness is beautiful, and if we hadn’t planned this as a one day lay-over on the way to Isle of Skye, we could spend days here.  The city straddles the River Ness, which connects the famous Loch Ness and the North Sea.  We walk cross a bridge and watch fly-fishermen down the river.  Cyclists abound.  The city seems a bit more insulated, like its tourism is  around the river, and the rest is for the locals.  Some signs are in both Englsih and an older Gaelic Scottish dialect.   At Mountain Warehouse, a local outfitter that was practically giving away gear, the cashier scoffed at the out-of-Townes who came and complained of the cold.  “What do you expect,”‘she said.  “It’s Scotland!”  But still, it’s a welcoming place, as Jesus doesn’t mind what brings you to the cathedral.

We got in and and Tapas lunch at Las Tortillias.  Red pepper and Swyash soup was banging, and their wine captions were the best.  After raiding the local outfitters to get last minute provisions for the las leg of our journey.  After a while we began trekking around the city: old churches and beautiful views around the river. 

 Then we stopped at Hootenany’s for traditional Scotish fare.  Nic had steak and I had the Haggis, Neeps, and Tatties.  Haggis seems to get a bad rap, but I remember Chelsea raving about this dish as the perfect antidote to the cold.  Tonight we turn in early, watching Team GB Olympic coverage.  It’s on to Skye in the morning, where I have to figure out this while driving on the left side of the road thing.

Days 9&10:  The Ballad of Wind, Whisky, and Song.

In any tourist situation, you can run yourself ragged trying to do and see every possible thing.  For us, that seems doubly true, as on top of a major international city where we’ve never been, there are the festivals with an impossible number options.  There are so many shows that we’d actually like to see including but not limited to the following:  Puddles, the sad clown; Diary of a Teenage  Christian; Austentatious, a Jane Austen parody; Promise and Promiscuity, another Jane Austen parody; Puppet Fiction, which is Pulp Fiction with puppets; Trumageddon; and finally, “In the Interest of Hillary Clinton taking me as her teenage lover.”  American politics is a popular issue over here, it seems.  Nevertheless, in the interest of not running ourselves ragged so we can hike big time at Isle of Skye, we decided to put a pause on rushing after shows and be cool for the last day we are here.  As a result, the three low-key vignettes that follow.  Come hear the show.   They’re free but they sell out early.

Saturday Night:  Burgers and Music in the Highlands.

After our afternoon nap, we finally got motivated to head out the door a little before 9.  We walked to Hollyrood 9A: Chelsea had been telling us about this place since we arrived.  Brewery and rotating kegs, great food.  When we got there, the joint was packed with what seemed like a mob waiting.  A bit chaotic.  But we got some drinks at the bar and tracked down the guy with the list.  Nic had a thistle cider and I had Fierce Panther’s Sonnet 43. (“How do I love thee?  Let me count the ways.” if it’s Browning; “When I do wink, then do my eyes best see,” if it’s Willy Shakes.). Nic got a traditional American: I got the venison with blood pudding topped with Brie.  I must tell you that I forgo all hyperbole when I see that this burger was a life altering experience.  This deer, blessed by Diana herself, must have been touched by the gods, a gift for my digestion.  Easily, one of the best burgers I’ve ever had.  Good atmosphere.  Great food.  Amazing start to the night.

Chelsea had invited us to the Captain’s pub, where her boyfriend was playing traditional Scottish folk music.  A note if you’re in E-town:  if you’re following maps or even using Google, lots of roads cross other roads as bridges, so in our walk to the pub, we accidentally went under a tunnel and into a night club district.  Thumping beats.  Louder drunks.  To be honest, it looked shady AF, but not in a real fearful way, more like a “movie setting underworld” kinda way. At any rate, we got our bearings, came up on North Gate to see a two man combo:  one playing guitar, harmonica, drum set and Djembe and the other played what looked like a vacuum cleaner hose like a vuvzela–talk about your unequal partnerships. But they rocked it out to an adoring crowd.  We danced and then scurried on down the street.  

Finally, we reach the Captain’s.  It’s narrow.  It’s hot.  It’s wonderful.  It used to be a tailor’s shop, and it’s been here since the 1870’s in a building that has been here much longer.  It has a secret basement and stairs that run through the the building–we’re told– but what it doesn’t have is a lot of seating.

 Or a stage for that matter.  But that’s fine. Ewan sits in the back with his guitar with the accompaniment of an accordion, a fiddle or two, some type of harp, and a miniature-bag pipe.  They play around a table in the back corner.  If you want to listen, fine.  If not, that’s okay, too.  But it is a joyous, warm, and welcoming atmosphere.  Church pews line the walls, and a book exchange sits under a side table.  Chelsea begins my education in Scotch whisky, and I wonder what swill I was drinking back home. Every pub here has Jack, but I can’t figure out why.  In the bars, the really good whisky is as inexpensive as the beer. The music ends all too soon, and Nic and I walk home among the iradescent streets, still teeming with late night festival crowd.

Sunday Morning: Up on the mountain

I wake up in the morning.  The air is clear, but I am a little foggy.  Nicole is upstairs, and she tells me there’s a wind advisory, and hiking is temporarily postponed.  Like all weather in regards to hiking, I remain optimistic, but at times the wind seems to threaten to blow the flat apart.  So, we take our time having a leisurely breakfast.  By 10, we see people on the trail and decide it is fine for us to make our way out the door.

Arthur’s seat is part of a large park on the east side of old town.  The road we walk leads to a path that splits a mountain on the right and a set of cliffs on the left.  We opt left across a gently sloping field.  When we reach the northern edge, we can see the castle, the unfinished Acropolis, and into new town.  To the east, the North Sea stands billows in choppy waves just on the border of the city.  Trails criss-cross the fields below and the peak to the south; hikers, runners, and dogs are all specks in the distance.  Nicole begins to get her photo on as I watch the cliff side.  Gust of winds swirl the grasses in circles, and when I stand still, I am often blown backwards.  Blustery could not be more of an understatement.   Soon, we make our way up to the ridge line where we can see the southern part of town, a part we haven’t even imagined yet.  Views from the top of the world are always breathtaking, and from here you can see why this city inspires so much love:  nestled between two mountains in the sea, so much natural beauty is easily within grasp.

Sunday evening:  The city settles to sleep.

We were grateful to have some rest after the morning’s hike.  But lunch was on our mind.  However, Chelsea had thrown us a bit of a curveball.  We’re both book nerds, and she challenged us to see Blackwell’s, one of U of E’s official bookstores.  That was a good hour of our day.  Nic found some dramatic pieces for her kids, while I sat transfixed in the eight cases of philosophy and religious studies.  I’m often overwhelmed at times like this; like that Twilight Zone episode “All the Time in the World”, I could never fathom reading all of this, and begin to think of all these authors who have poured their souls into what are now somewhat disposable books.

Chelsea’s other challenge was to see what I thought of the American history section.  In London at Waterstone’s, I had noted that it was mostly devoid of the more polemical voices–the Glen Beck and Rush Limbaugh types–that often dominate the Barnes and Noble shelves stateside.  At Blackwell’s, I began to think this was something of a practical joke, as I could never find it, and began to suspect it didn’t exist.  But finally, it emerged–two low shelves tucked away against ancient history and the classics.  A few books focused on presidents (FDR, Kennedy, Nixon, Obama).  A few each for major war periods Revolutionary and national founding, Civil War.  An outsider’s perspective on our Middle East policy, which looked fascinating.  No Vietnam or Korea. No World wars, as those would be elsewhere.  Otherwise, quite a few on Native Americans, the Civil Rights Movement, and Black Nationalism.  One book on the proliferation of guns, which seems to baffle Europeans a bit.

Our hunger for words temporarily sated, our hunger for food remained.  We had a tourist plan of attack, but we needed fuel. We thought Italian would be a safe bet, but we were fooled.  In the classic paintings, Adam and Eve always seem so grief stricken as they leave paradise, and now we know why.  Pizza Paradise seems a cruel joke of a name.  My pasta was passable, but Nic’s spicy pasta was made spicy by Jalapeños, which was a bit much for even her Texas-sized appetite.  To corroborate, I tried it. I consider myself a fairly advent erode eater.  I can’t wait until I actually get to try some haggis, but this was by far one of the worst flavor combinations I have ever tried.

Expelled from Eden, we made our way back to the Royal Mile: the crowds had thinned a bit, but the revelry continued: clowns, musicians, magic acts dotted every corner. We found our way to the Whisky museum, passed on the £2,000 bottles, but got a taste then wove through the Princess Royal Gardens–more acts, an accordion at the bottom of the stairs–and on to Princes street, a more traditional commercial area for a brief stop, then back into Old Town.  

By the time we stopped for tea, the weather had taken a traditional Scottish turn, starting with a light drizzle.  We wove through the whisky and cloth shops–can’t throw a rock in this town without hitting one or the other.  The rain intensified joining the wind that had been blowing all day.  We hustled home to dry out.  Our night concluded with take away Indian–there are almost as many Indian joints as pubs in this neighborhood–have I died and gone to heaven.  At Tikka Masala, right across the street, I played peek-a-boo with the little kids  while they finished my Mango Lassi.  At night, as we lack and prepare to leave, music hangs in the air if the city, almost as if the cloud cover has held in the music from the weekend, rocking the city to sleep.

This morning, we are headed for Inverness.  The taxi driver is the second Brit who, on discovering I’m a Pats fan asked me “What was Pete Carroll thinking on that last play in the Super Bowl?” Now the train rolls north, over the Bridge, through the meadows, past the towns, skirting the North Sea.

Days 8&9:  The Art of Storytelling–Scottish festival style.

On the road–or tracks–to Edinburgh.  Gary and Ashley have been very gracious in giving us a safe space to be.  So each day has consisted in us rising slowly, hitting the Underground, exploring London and coming back to Ealing, a warm comfortable bed.

But we are striking out this morning. A new path. A new tale.   We set early alarms, but the 4:30 sunrise had us getting out of bed earlier than expected.  Without major hiccups (and avoiding the change at Paddington) we’re sitting outside King’s Cross on a cool Friday morning with an hour to kill before our train heads north.  Outside a food market is setting up, and a few pastry stands are already open, so we decided to break bread for breakfast.  Blueberry and pistachio?  Score.  Feta and red pepper?  Great for pasta, not for muffins.  For a little extra protein, I hit Leon’s for a smoked salmon and avacado pot, which is the aforementioned ingredients with an egg.  As we board the train to Edinburgh, it might be a good point to make some odds and ends observations.

1.  You can get smoked salmon almost anywhere.  Sandwiches, breakfast, pizza, pasta.  I can’t get enough.

2.  People run with backpacks here.  And some of them are fairly big.  Don’t know if they’re all going somewhere or it’s just a trend to add difficulty, but expect to see this trend across the pond soon.

3. Bikes are well-integrated into traffic here.  They have their own lights which let them get ahead, then traffic seems to catch up with them by the next light.  And repeat.  There are lots of riders at rush hour with no apparent problems.

4. Razor scooters are a legitimate form of transportation.  By “legitimate”, I mean adults with apparent jobs and places to go use them.  People lock them to bike racks.  A kid rode one through Westminster  yesterday.  Wait.  That’s not helping my case.  Never mind.  At any rate, they are more than a toy.


Okay, back to the train, which begins the main thrust of our story.  Tourist tip of the day:  buy the seat in advance.  Technically, you can stroll up and buy a day-of, but that does my guarantee you a seat.  Maybe you’ll get one.  Or maybe you’ll be like the schlubs sitting on the floor between cars blocking the refreshment trolley.  

Somewhere near Durham, we started to get the impression that oddity was afoot.  Two girls joined our aisle at a table, displacing two day-of travelers and joining a couple already there.  In the conversation, they revealed they were part of a comedy routine on the way to Edinburgh to do a show.

I know this sounds like untowardly eavesdropping, but you must know two things: one (and I say this with love, not judgment) the two bottles of Prosecco they downed made it easy for us to hear, though Nic had her head phones in loud enough that I could hear, and I was variously engaged in sudoku, writing, and reading; two, they were stamping flyers for their show, and their new found friend–emboldened by the booze, no doubt–gallantly agreed to flier the whole train for them.  “This will be your first one,” they said, “As you’re like to get flier-ed to death when you get there.”

We weren’t sure what that meant, but on our twenty minute walk from the station to the flat, we began to find out.  I swear we didn’t plan it this way; it just happened.  There are actually a handful of festivals this weekend in Edinburgh, but the biggest–by far–is the Fringe, a monthlong festival of comedy, music, dance, spoken word, etc.  with performances in nearly every theater, lecture hall, pub backroom, bookstore, church, and street corner in town.  By the time we hit Pleasance, a street with a major venue, we were getting a new flier for a different show every ten feet.

We put that to the side at least long enough to get settled in our flat.  Chelsea, our host, is awesome.  As a doctoral student in history–whose masters thesis compared the rhetoric of Churchill and Hitler–we geeked out for a bit. 

But the best part was out the window.  Arthur’s seat.  It’s a park.  It’s 30 minutes from our flat.  It’s our Sunday morning climb.  More on that tomorrow.

Sorry, getting side tracked. Where was I?  Oh yes, festivals.  So eventually we made our way out to the streets of Old Edinburgh, which is everything south of Princes street.  Cobble stones streets flanked by high and aged architecture.  Apparently there is a modern Edinburgh on the north side–we saw it from the battlements at the castle today–but we may only briefly get there tomorrow.  Meanwhile, Old Edinburgh is the place–the physical space–where Rowling began writing Harry Potter.  The Elephant House–our first destination–is the space where she started.  Apparently, everyone and their muggle-born brother feels the same way, because there was a picture taking crowd outside, and because they actually run a restaurant there, they charge you one pound to come through the door if you’re just taking pictures.

Nic is really helpful with this as she’s read up on it more than I have.  The grandstands with the flags outside the castle are the Quidditch Pitch.  A black spire near the gardens was the start of Hogwarts.  A dark turn down the street has a plaque that says it was the inspiration of Diagonal Alley, and believably so.  Chelsea tells us that the names Tom Riddle and McGonogall, along with others, can be found at the graveyard underneath the restaurant.  Every fictional story has some grounding in reality; Rowling’s was clearly in the streets of Old Edinburgh.

But the Elephant House is packed, so we move south to the terrace on Grassmarket, a huge pedestrian street lined with pubs, restaurants, and shops.  On a whim, we choose TexMex.  True story–Nic has a jones for chips and salsa that might need a twelve-step program, but she’s been good without.  So we decide to give it a whirl.  I’m taken aback when the girl asks me if I want a glass of ice with my beer.  “Is that how they drink it here?” I ask incredulously.

She shrugs.  “I don’t know.  I’m from Ireland.  Some people do.”  Thinking this is some kind of Scottish thing, I figure “Why not?”  The beer is okay, but predictably it gets watered-down, which is a good description of the food itself: a watered down facsimile of the real thing.  

But we are sustained and move on.  At the end of the street, we see the first street performance of the evening: a martial-arts comedy act.  He mixes acrobatic strength with razor-sharp wit.  He tells one last story imploring the crowd to give after they’ve enjoyed the show, which ends when he walks over a man, two stools, another man, and then through a six year old’s legs–all on his hands.  The crowd goes wild.

Further south, we look for a venue where we have tickets.  More fliers.  It’s easier and easier to say no.  The rain starts.  There’s a saying here:  if you don’t like the weather, give it a half hour and it’ll change.  It does.  It starts raining harder.  We’re not allowed to queue up for the show, but we find a bar in the basement and hang out until the storm breaks and we can get in line.

Perhaps I should mention that the bar is in the basement of an academic building on the U of E campus.  There are five lecture halls in this general area, and each one is about to be a comedy show in the next fifteen minutes, and this is just one of the many major venues in the city–along with several minor venues–all day long, for the next month.

Our show this evening is called “24 Hours with Mary Lynn”.  The star?  Mary Lynn RaJskub, for you fans of 24, was Chloe O’Brien, the tech nerd.  You know-the one who looks like she always has cramps or has gas or something.  Her show, preview of her month-long stand at the fest, was based on the story of her life based on the “What happened to Chloe after 24?” question.  We were on the front row, close enough that when she started ripping on her husband never listening to her and doing what he wants anyway, Nic began nodding her head and Mary Lynn got her with the “Right?  She knows what I’m talking about.”

Her stories are all about eliciting laughs.  Stories about adjusting to life as a comic again, about how she typed complete nonsense as Chloe, about the daily struggles of marriage, family, yoga in Peoria, and career anxiety.  Our story resumes as she ends on a joke about Amazon Prime, and we head out into the night.  We pass under a tunnel and find a take away Indian reastaurant; order samosas, naan, and mango lassi; and head home to crash.

Our story continues continues the next morning as we make the castle or destination.   We cruise up the royal mile, which is already teeming with tourists and fliers. They have to become more inventive to stand out.  They dress as clouds and birds, they stand statue still as clowns, they stage a fake anti-GMO protest.  Statues of Adam Smith and David Hume watch over the chaos and revelry as musicians, both traditions Scot and modern fill the air.

We pass through the gates of the castle, flanked by Robert the Bruce and William Wallace, immortalized in Braveheart.  We cruise the entrance; again, buy the ticket online, not in line, if you want to save time.  We decide to skip the official tour and weave through the swarm of tourists. From the battlements, all of New Town opens up, all the way to the sea; in this town of rolling hills and many, many steps, it is easy to see why this spot was chosen for the castle.  Up a winding walk, we enter the banquet hall.  When Cromwell promised to “make Brittain great again”, he captured this beautiful hall and turned it into a three floor barracks of stench and filth, but it has since been restored and now holds both the symbols of war and merriment.  North accross the court is the war memorial.  I marvel at the monuments of scots who fought all over the world, oscillating between reverence and hearing these immortal words uttered by John Cleese in The Meaning of Life.

Back on the streets, we travel over the hills and grab some lunch and Greenmarket.  Tip:  buy your fish and chips at a pub, not a Palestinian lunch counter.  Nic was disappointed, but we washed it away at Mary’s Milk Bar, a semi-famous ice cream shop run by a Jersey girl: Nic got the salted Carmel and I got a double scoop of Goaty Gooseberry and Drunken Prunes (soaked in amaretto).  Now, to the theater.

Nic had booked a play for us months ago.  I remember her saying it was storytelling and folk music, which sounded interesting.  A one-woman show in which the author plays several instruments from traditional to the digital, Karine Polwart is a fairly well-decorated artist in Brittain.  But the truth is, I had no idea what we were in for.  Wind Resistance weaves meditations of growing up on the moors with impressions of birds flight, medieval medicine, childbirth, and football.  Think of a multi-layered, slow-burning Wendell Berry essay on nature but with Scottish folk music and multi-media platform.  Nic and I both agreed it was like nothing we’d ever seen.  It was daring and thoughtful.  Not edge-of-your-seat exciting, but more a slow moving meditation through life in nature. We ended up talking about it for most of our walk back the high street and the Royal Mile.

Polwart’s story telling, like Rowling and even Mary Lynn to some extent, weaves together many disparate elements into a cohesive whole, choosing which details matter and which ones don’t, choosing how to show the relation between the seemingly unrelated.  I wish I could say this post has done the same.  But time has been helter-skelter since we arrived in Edinburgh, and this feels like a train hurtling forward, stopping here and there along the ride. But I’m going to try to pull it into the station.  Nic and I walked the clogged Royal mile where street performances–music, comedy, magic, dance–lined every corner and took every inch of street space.  Nic did some shopping and I pulled into the Robbie Burns pub so my first real Scottish whiskey was a literary one.  Out front waiting on Nic, I began talking to Alex from Aberdeen via Latvia. He was fascinated by America.  He found out my wife was from Texas.  “I hear everybody’s crazy in Texas.  But, a good crazy.”  We share stories about our travel and ourselves until Nic arrives.  I finish my drink and bid him good day. We walk back to the flat.  Here, our Scottish saga takes a pause while Nic naps, and we rest up for the night.