I stood saying goodbye on the windblasted deck, as the engines sluggishly turned over and began to push us out to sea. The railing vibrated gently as the gulf between the ship and the dock became wider. I was leaving a piece of myself behind; cutting off and pushing away. Committing another sad sayonara.
A dull melancholy sank itself upon me, as the lighthouse slipped farther and farther away. I’ve always loved Ireland, but never really knew anything about it. Now I’ve got a reason to love it, and it wasn’t easy leaving.
But I’m on a mission. I’ve dedicated myself to this world bike tour, and the world ain’t gonna pedal itself under my tires. My foot is healed, my bike is fixed – I’m a travelin’ man again!
The approach into Cairnryan brought on a familiar giddiness; another new land, full of new experiences, and inherently adventurous. The solid weight of my rig was eager to roll – zoom! – down the ferry ramp into Scotland! It was only nine a.m., since I made the seven o’clock voyage, and it wasn’t even raining on this side of the Irish Sea! I was laughin’!
CYCLING IN A CLOUD
I found my way onto a nice back road, and the elevation started to rise. Some downhills, but mostly ascent, up and up until I was in the blustery heights with the wind turbines. It wasn’t the Highlands, of course, but it sure felt like it. Crossing the Galloway and Border Hills, I climbed till dusk to reach the highest point, right up into the clouds. The sky actually touched the earth there, and the mists gently lay themselves directly upon the pastures, swirling thick; muting sounds and obscuring nearly everything. Every once in a while, cycling in a cloud, I experienced a strange phenomenon: I ran into a massive glob of precipitation, like a hanging shot glass was carefully emptied onto my cheek, my knee, or my head. It’s quite surreal – I had to make sure I wasn’t actually dreaming. I’ve often wondered what causes this(I experienced the same mystery on Faial’s clouded peaks, in the Acores), and I believe they’re progentior raindrops, the freshly condensed, that haven’t been slivered by the wind of falling. Whatever they are, what I learned was this: even if it isn’t raining, Scotland can still soak you.
CAMPING IN THE COLD
Camping up there wasn’t too bad; plenty of thick moss and dry wood, and wooded areas that were frequently enough flat and with decent access. I suppose I should say it wouldn’t be too bad, in summer… because it was freezing. Bone-chilling, sub-zero fridge-toes cold. Cycling is no problem – the most comfortable time of the day; if I stay moving, I stay warm(mostly). Cooking, reading, and writing are tolerable, within the globe of warmth from a campfire. But it’s bedtime out there that I dread. Even with all my layers, even with a bottle of boiling-hot(at least for half the night) water between my feet, even with my crinkly emergency foil blanket wrapped around me inside the sleeping bag, even with my long johns, my hat, my gloves… it’s hard to rest peacefully. And if I have to answer the call of nature in the dead of night, after the fire has died out and the moon has abandoned the sky, and step outside into the frigid winter breeze…. There’s an ominous, malicious weight out there in the darkness that seems to whisper, “Freeze to death… freeze to death…” as if it’s hungry, and it can’t eat you unless it turns you into an icicle first.
THE BILSTON PROTEST SITE
Outside of Edinburgh, just off the A701, there’s a group of activists camped in the valley, protesting the projected “A701 Re-Alignment,” which would redirect the already nice and straight road through the wooded Bilston valley. They’re successfully squatting in the way of progress, down there six years now, constructing as many domiciles up in the boughs of the trees as they can(a treehouse valley!), trash-picking all their food from local dumpsters, and living the simple, electricity-free life of the woods. Basically they’re trying to make it so expensive for the government to evict them that the road work becomes fiscally inviable. But the UK actually has a national eviction team, complete with brutal security guards and specialist climbers, so they’ve got their work cut out for them if they want to save the trees.
I wound my way down the muddy slopes and found the communal outdoor kitchen-campfire and introduced myself. I was expecting hard-to-understand Scottish accents, but the only guy there at first only spoke Spanish, so I was introduced and showed around the place without English – no problema! I chopped some wood, had some tea, and helped bring the latest scavenged food supplies down the muddy banks to the pantry-shack. There was another Spaniard with no pants on, a British girl that ignorantly compared me to Colin Powell when she learned I was from the States, a kid that had moved down to the site as soon as he was legally allowed, on his 16th birthday(his girlfriend climbed trees better than he did), a couple of rough-around-the-edges old Scots with a blind-n-deaf doggie, who was falling in the river and forgetting his tail in the fire, and a bunch of other crusty, low-tech Scottish hippie punks.
That night they put me in “the teepee,” which was disappointing to hear(I really wanted to sleep in a tree) until I realized the teepee was actually in a tree like all the other dwellings, on a platform and erected around the trunk. I love treehouses!
In the morning I had a delicious dumpster-dived breakfast of tea and dark rum, bread with organic Scottish cheese, and organic yogurt. I hefted my rig out of the muddy valley and out to the road, and I was on my way into Edinburgh.
I got a funny feeling, coming into the city. A feeling of familiarity. Funny enough, it was a parking lot that reminded me of home; it looked like the East Towne Target. Soon I was thinking, “I could see myself living in that flat,” or “I could be a student here; it’s just like the University of Wisconsin.”
Then I crested a hill, and saw a mountain, and the familiarity fled, replaced by medeival architecture and exotic earth-shapes that we just don’t have back home. The original Dùn Èideann, in all its gothic majesty. A dark tower spikes into the colorless sky – the Scott monument, dwarfing the glittering ferris wheel below. Calton Hill, and the towering cliffs of Arthur’s Seat in Holyrood Park, frame a bit of the bay: the Firth of Forth, leading to the North Sea. And across the center, Edinburgh Castle commands the skyline from a summit all its own.
I was stunned; with every turn I was brought deeper into a travelers’ high by the style of Edinburgh. I explored the city on my bike with a giddy grin and an enthusiastic greeting for every passerby. The place was all decked out for Christmas, happy thick Scottish accents in holiday-mode.
I met Shannon, my host in Edinburgh, who’s also from Wisconsin, and we shared the experience of celebrating the season in Scotland, both of us far from the comforts of home and family. We were invited to a traditional Scottish Christmas dinner, and though it was cooked by a New Zealander, there were locals there later(they had ordered Chinese take-away). Before dinner, on each placemat was a cardboard tube called a cracker, that pops when you and your neighbor pull it apart like a wishbone. Inside for the winner, there’s a paper crown(a very common sight out in the city that day), a useless bauble of some kind, and a terrible joke. The meal was a proper spread, and delicious all around… except for the haggis. That famous grain-and-pork thing they eat in Scotland – and this one was apparently from a very reputable butcher. It’s similair to blood pudding – an acquired taste – except bigger and more bloated. Yuck; but at least I tried it!
ON TO THE CONTINENT
Soon it was time to push on, to catch the Amsterdam ferry from Newcastle for New Year’s Eve. Normally I wouldn’t bother myself with an itinerary; I prefer to reserve the ability to go slow if I want to, to explore out of my way, to go where the wind blows me, and to stop for a while if the omens are good. But I already had a ticket on the King of Scandinavia, courtesy of the Royal Yachting Association of Northern Ireland. Those wonderful folks in Belfast couldn’t help me with a sailing passage to Scotland(right before Christmas isn’t exactly sailing season), so instead they sponsored me for the ferry rides. Thanks Lisa!
My first morning out, I visited the Roslyn Glen country park and Roslyn Chapel; the chapel was toursity and expensive, and no photos allowed, but the park along the river, running through the frozen valley, was gorgeous.
I passed a lot of folks riding horses on the back roads; I always love to see alternative transportation. A woman at a random house in a tiny village graciously refilled my water bottles – a credit to her country. I took short breaks out in the cold, eager to be working up some body heat on the bike, and actually hoping for uphills, to keep up my core temperature. I crossed the border into England at the top of another nice warm-making mountain, then descended into Northumberland, into the winter air with windchilled hands, frozen tears, and icy eyeballs.
After three final days exploring Britain, and three more beautiful but dangerously cold campsites, I arrived in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, and with time to spare.
I ignored the glitzy city center shopping district, being reluctant to leave my bike alone at all, even to secure my accomodations in the Netherlands. I started meandering my way toward the international terminal, thinking I might find a library or something. In a seedy dockside district, with boarded-up buildings and a crazy shopping-cart lady, I found a pub instead, called The County, and decided to pull over and sample a pint of the local brown ale.
It was three in the afternoon, but I was delighted to find the place busy with local fellas getting drunk; the perfect venue to pass some time. The accents were somewhere between Scottish and English, and just as hard to understand as any new dialect. It’s always an adventure when you’re not quite sure what all those laughing mouths are saying. And besides, I don’t mind asking “What did you just say, sorry?” As much as it pains me to admit, I am, after all, a tourist… a poor, grubby, lunatic tourist, that goes into places that never see anyone from outside the borough.
They compelled me to bring my rig right inside the pub, for security, and then the beer was flowing. I finished one huge bottle with a thirsty gusto – Newcastle from Newcastle really does taste better, somehow. The next one I drank on a discount – all my remaining British coins. And before I was half-finished with the second, and definitely feeling the first, Tony behind the bar, in his Chicago t-shirt, hands me a third. I stayed an hour or so, amidst raucous laughter and rough verbal abuse; it’s the type of place where everybody sees everybody every day. I polished off the third bottle and had to be on my way before dark. Tony gave me a token for the road, a lapel pin, and I left my new friends with hearty thanks.
FINDING THE FERRY
That objective(“sampling” Newcastle beer) now complete, it still remained to make it to the ferry terminal eight miles away. (I decided to figure out Amsterdam when I got to Amsterdam, and concentrate on finding the Royal Quays.) A bit woozy now, and with the sun dropping below the skyline, I made my way East along the docks at Willington Quay. I connected with a very convenient bike path, which took me nice n’ easy most of the way into North Shields.
Then, through some inaccurate directions and a decidedly relaxed frame of mind, I was led to cross over to the South side of the river. The signs on the bike path were clear enough, and eventually they deposited me, pleasantly away from traffic, at the lift down to the tunnel. The deserted path ran around the pedestrian escalators, and abruptly ended in a dirty back corner, where a grafittied, slightly dilapidated brick shack surrounds the bicycle elevator. Next to the crooked, dented silver door, a dubious red light blinked “Lift Operational.” With a glance over my shoulder, I pressed the button.
The lift took ages to arrive, and groaned disconcertingly as it drew up to street level. Inside, it was just big enough for my loaded bike, with faded signage and old electronics in the panel. It descended with only a few startling shudders, and after an extended ride, opened into one of the creepiest tunnels I’ve ever had the excitement to traverse…. The floor was grey concrete, stained and cracked; the walls were of dirty tiles in sickly aqua-blue; and the cieling was whitewashed and lined with a track of eerily flickering fluorescent lights. It was completely empty, and there was a morbid sense of desolation down there; I could just feel how devoid of life it was. Except there were still noises – I swear I heard a puppy cry out in pain, from the darkness at the far end of the tunnel; and the rickety escalators rattled at intervals like the taut chains of a frustrated ghost. It was impossible to forget the river Tyne above, the crushing weight of its tons of water rushing to the sea, just a few yards over my head. I hustled through to the lift on the other side with a tickle of fear in my spine and an exhilerated grin on my face. Thankfully there were no British muggers or drug addicts hanging around the shady lift shack on the other side, but I soon realized I should actually not have crossed the river at all. Ah, so much for decision-making when you’re drunk!
After sobering up a bit, and some slightly more accurate directions, eventually I made the ferry terminal. I was directed into line with the cars, but when I pulled up in queue to wait, a customs official came out to greet me(by name!) and skipped me to the front. “I know you must be freezing.” There were no questions about why I don’t have a UK stamp in my passport; only questions about cycle-touring in the winter; how many miles do I cycle every day, where have I been, where am I going. He was cool and let me past with a “Good luck!”
And I was onboard. A worker on the semi-truck deck tossed me a strap to tie my bike to the bulkhead. I gathered a few items for the voyage, and secured the rig. Upstairs I had a little cabin to myself, and after depositing my things, I went to the observation deck to say another goodbye.
After six months of Great Britain and Ireland, I was finally taking the next step – venturing, by bicycle, not just into foreign countries, but also, now, into countries where English is not the primary language. Until Australia, then – goodbye, mother tongue.
After fifteen months of this bike tour, after a quarter of the world behind me, after many challenges, each bigger than the last; after seeing deeper inside myself than I ever had before, I could still feel my determination holding strong, my resolute passion just starting to heat up. I’m going places on this bike!
And, after a fifteen hour, overnight journey, it would be New Year’s Eve, and I’d finally be in on the Continent. The Netherlands, land of my anscestors, land of tulips and windmills; and O Amsterdam! The fabled city of bohemian freedoms and lusty vices. City of canals and bikes; city of my dreams.
TO BE CONTINUED….