Over the Hills and Far Away: Jenny

Posted on November 25, 2011

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Over the Hills and Far Away: Pictures

Over the Hills and Far Away: Video

When my Dad left for home, it really began sinking in that our time in Europe was coming to an end. We had a week in Scotland, then a week in Ireland, and then we’d be coming back to the States after six months on the road. I was relieved that the English-speaking portion of our trip was at the end, because a bit of travel fatigue had set in, and being able to converse in our native tongue was making everything that much easier. I wouldn’t say we were homesick, but I wouldn’t say we were fresh as a daisy either.

Although we felt the clock winding down, we were each determined to enjoy our last couple of weeks to the fullest. The lush, laid-back greenness of Scotland was just what we needed. I was brooding a little on the drive from England, hoping my Dad made it to his flight okay, thinking about how soon we would be back in our old lives and wondering if we’d been changed by our experiences.  But the beauty of the Scottish highlands was hard to ignore, and soon I was oohing and aahing out the car windows along with David.

Our first stop was Oban- pronounced “Oh-ben,” where we were staying at a B&B we found in a travel guide. After reading up on Scotland and Ireland, it sounded like B&Bs were the way to go. We were glad we followed this advice, because it turned out to be very sound (thanks, Rick Steves). B&Bs seemed to be a good value because they served a hearty breakfast, featured friendly hosts, had comfortable rooms, and were generally in good locations. And due to the aforementioned travel fatigue, all of these things were very welcome. We’d roughed it plenty during our trip, and now it was time for a little comfort.

Oban was a fairly touristy little fishing town, but also quite enjoyable for a couple of days. Our B&B hosts Jim and Liz Montgomery were friendly but always professional. Jim is a well-dressed gentleman about my Dad’s age, and he was wearing a neck brace when we met him due to a recent cycling accident.  He still gamely carried breakfast trays each morning, and joked that he’d always wanted to ride in a helicopter, but not while flat on his back. We enjoyed his quick wit, and of course his jokes were much funnier because he told them in a Scottish accent.

After fueling up with a huge traditional breakfast, we took a small ferry to the island of Kerrera for some hiking. There are only about 40 people who live on the island, and most of the available land is used for animals and hikers. This means there is zero development and lots of natural beauty, so we spent a blissful day just exploring. Knowing that our home state was in the midst of a brutal drought and searing heat wave made us savor the cool wind and heather covered hills that much more. We stopped occasionally to watch the sheep graze, the ponies play, and the cows scratch themselves on the wire fence.

The final stop on our island circuit was a ruined castle, which neither of us had quite gotten over yet. I’m sure people who live in Europe are like, “oh look, another big ancient pile of rocks. Yawn.” But even after six months we were still excited by the sight of one. “Another castle!” we would cry, visions of damsels and dragons dancing in our heads. We clambered around in the Kerrera castle as much as safety would allow, then made a circuit to try and get the best picture.

The next day brought another hike, this one into the “Hidden Valley.” While they did not have any delicious salad dressing there, they did have a beautiful trail winding up through a mossy, rocky, forested landscape. It made its way next to a stream, and ended up in the aforementioned valley, a rocky bowl with a gravelly bottom. We admired the hiddenness of the valley, ate our lunch and watched the helicopter rescue squad practice their flying techniques above our heads.

The Hidden Valley hike was another chance for us to have a long discussion about coming home. As we felt the pull of our old lives more and more, we knew it was time to put together the outline of a plan. Nothing was set in stone, of course, but having a framework, not to mention an idea of what the other one was thinking and feeling about the future, helped us reduce the amount of stressing we were doing. Being so far away gave us the time and distance to think through all of our options subjectively, and forced us to talk everything out with no distractions or interruptions.

Seeing the Lochs region of Scotland allowed us to do something respectable and something super cheesy at the same time. The lochs are truly picturesque and beautiful, and worth any traveler’s time. However, an entire tourist industry is built around Loch Ness and the “monster” that is said to live there. There are entire museums and tourist centers devoted to Nessie, not to mention massive quantities of merchandising, I’ve always loved the mystery of Loch Ness- I remember watching a PBS special about it as a kid and being completely fascinated. I was convinced that not only did Nessie exist, but if someone would just take me to Scotland, I would find her immediately. How hard could it possibly be to find a giant lizard in a lake?

Seeing the loch in person, all these years later, made me realize a couple of things. One, the scientists were right and I was wrong: it would actually be very difficult to find Nessie in this huge, murky expanse of deep dark water. The man hours! The technology! The expense! Second, though I’ve grown much more skeptical over the years and didn’t expect to actually look for her while we were there, I could hardly tear my eyes away from the mysterious water. Even sitting in bed in our hotel room, I found myself staring out the window, straining for a bump, a ripple, anything. Somewhere in the depths of my psyche, I apparently still believe that a remnant dinosaur is swimming happily in an ancient lake, dodging boaters and sonar detectors and PBS camera crews. When people ask me what I learned about myself on my travels, expecting some kind of Eat, Pray, Love answer about self-fulfillment and awareness, I think I will tell them that I looked into my soul and I found…Nessie. Sounds pretty deep.

Visiting Scotland’s capital, Edinburgh, started out as a disaster. Our first fiasco was trying to turn in our rental car. Driving on the wrong side of the road in a major city full of tourists while trying to find something that has been very well hidden gave me a taste of David’s pain over the last few months. We circled the busiest intersection in the city in our boat-like sedan, dodging clueless groups of teenagers and trying to find the sign for car rental return. So much for everything being easier in English. Several wrong turns later, we were free of the giant Vauxhall and on foot once again.

Our relief quickly turned to chagrin. We followed the instructions we’d received from our Air BNB host, but could not find the bus line that would take us to her house. Now instead of driving, we were walking up and down the busiest four blocks of the city, schlepping our huge bags and dodging more clueless tour groups. Our host grew increasingly impatient with us via cellphone, because she’d delayed some plans that afternoon to stay and greet us. Finally she lost her temper and told David, “there is no possible way it could have taken you an hour to find the bus.” We hailed a taxi (also more challenging than it should have been), and gave the driver her address. We were both trying to think of ways to get out of staying there (none came to mind), and envisioning potential confrontations when we finally arrived.

We found the building and dragged our stuff up the stairs, expecting the worst. But when we arrived, our host was apologetic and understanding of our situation. I think seeing us in person, with our bags, helped her realize we were actual people, not scam artists giving her the run around. We learned then that the reason she was upset was because she was leaving to go out of town for the holiday weekend and wanted to introduce us to a French exchange student who was living with her. Our guess was that she wanted to make sure we were okay before leaving us with this girl, who couldn’t have been older than twenty-two or three.

After some pleasant conversation, our hosts were off for the holiday weekend and we were back out in the streets exploring the city. The good weather in combination with our aforementioned determination to enjoy our last hurrahs soon removed the final traces of our crappy morning. Despite our inopportune first meeting, we liked Edinburgh already. A long walk down high street and some pints in an Old Town pub soon confirmed this feeling.  The Old Town is the medieval-built area of the city, with many buildings dating back to the sixteenth century. There are lots of tall, light brick facades with the occasional spire peeking out. On one end of the old town the huge Edinburgh castle perches on an extinct volcano, and the main drag leading away from it is called the Royal Mile. This is, as you’d expect, both an interesting and very touristy part of town. It’s lined with historic cathedrals and plenty of shops selling t-shirts. Ghost tours also seem to be very popular, and we saw lots of signs for guided walks through the most “haunted” parts of the city.

The next day would be a long one, but worth the exhaustion. We walked all over the city, visited Edinburgh’s free museums, and had a picnic lunch on Arthur’s Seat. Our host had strongly encouraged us to go there, and once we did we understood why. Rising up on the edge of the city, just past the parliament building, Arthur’s Seat is a large, green hill (short mountain?) with a flat top and spectacular views of the city. It makes a perfect exercising spot, picnicking spot, or just hanging out spot. We did a little of all three as we sweated our way up, ate lunch, then laid down with rocky pillows and enjoyed the sunny afternoon.

The one place I’d read about that I insisted we go was Elephant House, a small pub where the first Harry Potter book was written. The food was supposedly good, and I thought it would be cool to stop in since we would be walking by anyway. I was glad we did- the pub was small, inviting, reasonably priced, and the food actually was good. We ordered a bottle of wine and kicked back, watching the sunset over Edinburgh. The best part, though, was the writing in the bathroom. I know it sounds odd, but it was very moving. At some point in time, people began coming to the Elephant House when they found out Rowling had written her first book there. There is no Harry Potter memorabilia in the restaurant, just a small picture of J.K. on the wall. But when you push open the wooden door to the bathrooms, you see the handwriting of hundreds of people on the walls, thanking the author for “the best books ever!!” “Thank you for my childhood,” was probably the most touching, but “Harry Forever!!!” and “Ron plus Hermione = Love” also made me smile. By the time I’d stood there for a few minutes, reading notes from people of all ages, from all over the world, I was teary-eyed and sniffling. I don’t know that David understood, but he patted my hand and agreed that it was very cool.

We ended the evening with a fireworks display over the castle, which was spectacular but quite long. It was part of the annual “Military Tattoo,” a big event held at the castle celebrating “martial music.” After forty-five minutes of leaning against a concrete wall watching sporadic bursts of fireworks (accompanying a show we couldn’t see inside the castle walls), we decided to call it a night. As we did, the show ended, and we found ourselves walking through the city with huge streams of people all making their way home. As we walked, the crowds thinned, and we soon found ourselves walking down our street, alone again. Tomorrow would take us to Ireland, and to our last week of being the TravelWeeds.

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