Monday, July 31, 2006

 

Confluence

I have some confessions to make. I hope you'll indulge me. I hope, even more, that you won't think me a complete and total idiot for some of the things I'm about to say. Some of these are a little embarrassing to admit.

I chose the dates for my trip almost at random. I knew the trip needed to happen during
the summer months and I knew it had to occur during the Edinburgh Book Festival so I could spend a little time there. Those were really the only criteria that factored into my plans. A more seasoned world traveler, I'm sure, would have carefully researched the intended destination and sought interesting festivals or events that corresponded with their interests and chosen dates based on that. I did that but to a smaller extent. "Ah. Book Festival. Cool. I'll show up sometime during the Book Festival."

Serendipity has decreed, however, that far much more will be going on in Edinburgh than just the Book Festival. For instance, the Edinburgh Tattoo will also be going on for
pretty much the entire month of August. Here is the next of my painful confessions: I'd never heard of this. My friend Carolyn recently asked if I was going to be attending and all I could do was stare blankly at her. Of course, now that I've researched it, I VERY MUCH would like to attend. Sadly, on looking at their Web site, tickets are completely sold out (and for an event that runs August 4-29, I think that's pretty amazing). They do say to check back periodically to see if resale tickets become available and I may do that once I'm over there but I won't hold my breath. It would be very, very cool to attend. I would very much like to attend a performance of bagpipes while I'm there and the Tattoo would probably be the ULTIMATE experience in that. So, by not doing a little more homework, I missed out. Bad world traveler. Bad!

On the other hand, I had indeed heard of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. This will also be in full swing for pretty much the entire month of August. I guess I never thought much about seeking this out because, as I understand it, you can hardly stroll through the streets without bumping into a production of something. It's only recently, though, that I began perusing their Web site to try to find something I might want to see during the time I'm there. Sadly, the Web site is near unnavigable and unless you know the name of the show you want to see (heaven forbid you simply know the dates you're available), it's hard to get information. So I'll end up winging this, maybe getting a guide to the Festival while I'm there and seeing what's available the 20th and 21st.

I'm not too downhearted. It's hard to miss what you never knew you had, right? (Of course, now I know I COULD have had these but...oh well.) Really, the trip is about the biking. It's about seeing the landscape and meeting people. I'm a little sad about the Tattoo, now that I know what it is. But maybe I can track down a resale ticket. But missing it won't ruin my trip.

Now I'm afraid to check out London and see what's happening there during my visit....

Saturday, July 29, 2006

 

The Plan



My goal is to be on the road by 8 or 9 each morning so I can spend the morning and only part of the early afternoon biking. The rest of each day will be spent (hopefully not comatose) exploring the city I’ve arrived in. Here is an overview of my planned trip.

Friday, August 11
Fly non-stop from Minneapolis to London

Saturday, August 12
Arrive in London at 9am
Take train to Edinburgh at 12:30pm
Meet Roy and Ian at 5:30-ish

Sunday, August 13
Bike from Edinburgh to Glasgow










Spend Sunday afternoon touring Glasgow

Monday, August 14
Spend day touring Glasgow

Tuesday, August 15
Train from Glasgow to Johnstone
Bike from Johnstone to Gourock
(The train is at Ian’s recommendation; apparently the bike ride from Glasgow to Johnstone would be icky.)
Catch a ferry to Tarbert (actually, there’s more biking and another ferry involved but that’s the shorthand version of what I’m doing)













Wednesday, August 16
Bike from Tarbert to Oban
(This is something Ian recommended and I think it’s going to be some of the most beaut
iful parts of my journey.)








Thursday, August 17
Bike from Oban to Fort William
See the Harry Potter viaduct and (hopefully) the train they use for the Hogwart’s Express (and maybe they’ll be doing some filming…?)











Friday, August 18
Bike from Fort William to Fort Augustus
Do lots of touristy Loch Ness stuff (take a lake cruise, lots of pictures….I wonder if they’ll let me swim in the Loch?)









Saturday, August 19
Bike from Fort Augustus to Inverness
Bum around Inverness for part of the day
Take a night train back to Edinburgh
Spend night with Roy and Ian









Sunday, August 20
EDINBURGH BOOK FESTIVAL!!!
I hope to spend most of the day at the festival. Sadly, the author I really wanted to see—Jonathan Stroud—spoke on the 19th so I got a ticket to see Alexander McCall Smith instead (I haven’t read his work—he writes mysteries—but I have several friends who love him and he was the one name I recognized).
Hopefully, I can twist Roy and Ian’s arms into showing me around Edinburgh at night

Monday, August 21
Historical Edinburgh
I want to see castles and bookstores and nooks and crannies

Tuesday, August 22
Morning train back to London
Spend afternoon touring London

Wednesday, August 23
Tour London
See a show in the evening?

Thursday, August 24
Tour London
See Billy Elliot

Friday, August 25
Day trip to Stonehenge and Bath
See The Last Five Years at night

Saturday, August 26
Fly home

And that's what's going to happen. I think. We'll see.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

 

Tools Of The Trade

I'm a little worried about hiring a bike when I get to Scotland. My bike and I, we've done a lot together. I know her ins and outs. And I HATE when I have to use someone else's bike. If I borrow my roommate's or try my boyfriend's, I always end up scowling because...well, because it's not my bike. Roy has very generously offered to let me use his for the trip but it came with the caveat that it's too small for him. Given that I know Roy is slightly smaller than me, I know that won't work either. So I'm hoping to find something that fits me nicely and won't leave me with an aching back at the end of each day.

The plan is to travel as lightly as possible. Two sets of clothes--the ones I'm wearing and a spare set. Also a set of long pants/long sleeve shirts in case of cold and/or midges. I'll handwash my clothes at wherever I'm staying that night and use the fresh clothes in the morning. (Suppose I'll need something inoffensive to sleep in too.) The question became:
how do I pack for a two week trip but still have a way to get around on a bike.

The solution came in the form of
Camelbak. I love Camelbak. I bought the one pictured here specifically for this trip. I own another one--a sleeker, more slender model--that I use for my everyday biking. The new Camelbak (which has an impressive name like the Camelbak 4000 or something like that; I just can't think of what it is) has a bladder that will hold 3 liters of water and just about anything I'll need for my week out (bug repellent, maps, journals, etc.) The key, again, is to keep it as light as possible. I've gone backpacking with 50 lbs. of stuff on my back and I can tell you right now that I would have made a lousy Hebrew slave in Egypt for my level of tolerance to this sort of thing. (Oh, wait. Now I remember. It's called the "Camelbak Motherload." Yeah, I can see why I didn't want to remember that name.)

I'll have my bike helmet, of course. A small bike repair kit (utterly silly when you realize that I wouldn't have the first clue on how to use it should my bike fall ill...I'll simply have to wait along the bike path and hope some burly Scotsman who's mechanically inclined comes along to help). The necessaries: money, tickets, passport, camera.

Am I forgetting anything? I will, of course, have another suitcase with other changes of clothes that Roy and Ian have graciously offered to guard for me whilst I'm out and about on my travels. But is there anything else I should take on the biking stretch of travels? Let me know if you think of anything.

Friday, July 14, 2006

 

I Want To Write My Bicycle, I Want To Write My Bike

I’m picky about the travel writing I read. I find so much of it to be dry and self-involved. Not that I’m a connoisseur; it’s not a genre I seek out on a regular basis. But when I do read an essay or a book, I typically ask two things of it. 1) Take me there. I don’t want a generic description that I can get in a tour book. I want to know that YOU saw it and experienced it. 2) Show me how this affected you. Good travel writing, in my opinion, is about change. If you went somewhere and it had no impact on you whatsoever, then why the hell are you writing about it (if it’s to exercise your descriptive skills, stick to writing a novel). Tell me what traveling did to make you different, to force you to see through new eyes, to jar you out of the commonplace (or acquire new respect for the quotidian).

A year ago, in anticipation of this trip, I took a class in travel writing. I’ll be honest: it was not a good class. After buying all the required texts, the professor made some of them optional (and I couldn’t return them). We spent some time discussing some of the assigned reading—what worked and didn’t work for us—but all in all, things seemed very disorganized. On the second to last class, the professor asked if there was anything else we should cover in our remaining classes and someone said, “I’m still not exactly sure WHAT travel writing is.” So we set about carving out a definition….something that probably should have been done during the first class.

To make matters worse, the professor was the exemplar of why I’ve always feared I couldn’t teach writing—she wanted very much for you to write like her. She was not at all concerned with style or technique, more about typos and grammar. Granted, anyone who’s read
my other blog knows I hold these factors in esteem but any time you tried to employ any sort of device that played with the narrative, she would freak out and start marking your paper down because you were “writing wrong.” Case in point, the final essay that I wrote was set in two time periods—what was happening now and a series of flashbacks. I set the flashbacks in present tense and the current events in past tense. I thought I was using a bit of technique, trying to say something about how the past was impacting my present thoughts. She marked me down a grade because I constantly switched tenses (if she’d just studied the damn thing, it was clear that all the flashbacks were consistently in present tense and all the current events were consistently in past—it’s called technique). She didn’t care what I was trying to say, she just cared that I was deviating from what she considered proper writing. (In fairness to my MFA program, no other professor would have done this. We’re always encouraged to experiment with form. This woman was just a nutjob.)

So I didn’t learn much in that class. I did read some great stuff and, often, I learn more just from studying the works of other writers than I get anywhere else (although a classroom is a great forum for talking through what I’m seeing and experiencing). I think what intimidated me most about the class was not trying to forge my own understanding of what travel writing was all about but the knowledge that I was the only person in the classroom who’d never traveled away from North America. I felt conspicuous, a clog dancer at a tango competition. Two of my classmates had even discovered that they had, unknowingly, both spent the previous New Year’s on the Eiffel Tower, separated by only one floor. I tried to imagine spending New Year’s somewhere other than home. The thought excited me.

Here I am, less than a month to go and, believe it or not, I’m worried about what I’ll have to say about all this when I get back. Can I write an essay about biking the Scottish Highlands that accurately portrays what I went through? Will I be able to make subtle allusions comparing the sweeping landscape to my own inner journey? Will I become so bogged down in trying to be poignant that the writing comes across stilted and forced? Should I even bother or should I just write “
I went to Scotland and it was OK.”?

It’s too easy to psyche myself out about writing, especially on the creative nonfiction turf that I find both fascinating and frightening. Emotional honesty, especially on display, does not come easy for me. I admit; I like to hide behind fiction. It’s safe and easy. And maybe I should be adding that to my list of reasons for taking this trip. I have no assurance that it will be safe and easy. It might be just what I need to shake things up a little.

I need to let the landscape affect me. I need to let something inhabit me long enough that, when it’s time to let it out again, it’s as changed by me as I am by it.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

 

The Allure



I've always been drawn to the UK. From my childhood, growing up watching Doctor Who and other British staples, through adolescence and Monty Python, into adulthood with Blackadder and Red Dwarf, I have always found something very alluring about that part of the world.

In central Wisconsin, where I grew up, you had to look hard to find culture. You had to get out a pith helmet, pick axe, and go spelunking to find someone who wasn't as white and plain as you were. Not to say that we're not a fun bunch of people in that part of the country, many of whom were able to develop great personalities and go on to do good things with their lives. But, not to put too fine a point on it, a black person in town was a visitor. (This was, of course, in the 70s and 80s. My hometown has diversified a bit more in recent years, owing to an influx of Hmong refugees to the area. But I digress.)

Hearing people who spoke in affected voices, who were obsessed with tea, who had different mannerisms and different ways of addressing one another... for a kid in small city central Wisconsin, this is culture shock. Just shocking enough to assure me that there was something out there beyond the dairy state yet safe enough so as to be entrapped in a box in the living room that I could shut off at any time and be returned to what was familiar.

I'm sure this sounds completely insane. But trust me: the UK represented something that I knew I had to see for myself. A great prize, a great lesson in not being who and what I was when I dealt with bullies in school or family skirmishes. Kids spend a lot of time wishing they were someone else. In my heart, I knew that England could make me someone else.

It's taken 36 years but I'm going. Finally. A few weeks ago, I got my very first ever passport in the mail. There I was, staring back with a holographic eagle stamped over my face. I flashed to all the horror stories I'd ever heard--do not lose your passport; keep it with you at all times. I slipped the passport out of the Priority Mail envelope and flipped through the totally blank pages, I dunno, maybe half a dozen times. The number of flips didn't change anything--nothing magically appeared. But I was 12 again. And I was seeing stamps for all the exotic places I was going to go, all the tangible ink blots that proved I wasn't who I was anymore. Validation at last.

There are many urges I will fight while there. The first is the urge to find a job (not that I haven't, in my more fanciful moments, perused the BBC's Web site from time to time). The second urge is to look at graduate programs. It's totally bizarre. To be so sure that I will love it there and never want to come home. I can't explain why this is something I believe. But it's something that's been with me a long time and that can be hard to shake.

After two weeks, I'll board the plane to come home. My cat will be glad to see me, having put up with my roommate on his own for far too long. My boyfriend will be glad to have me back. Family will be pleased to know I was able to dodge the siren call. And maybe I'll leave part of me there, something that I have to go back for. Or maybe it's something that I'll never be able to reclaim. I don't know.

The point, I suppose, is that I finally have the chance to see. I'll finally get to show my heart if what it's been wanting all this time is worth it. There's the fear it'll be anticlimactic. There's the fear I'll have one mishap after another (as I am wont to do on vacations, I'm not sure why). But with my passport, I'll be making the decision on my own.

Self-discovery can be a scary, scary thing.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

 

Training Update #1—My Travels With Beelzebike

Every weekday morning at 6:20, I go to Lifetime Fitness and bike for 15 miles. It seems a far cry from the 50-60 a day I’ll be pulling in Scotland but it’s what I have time for. When I’m out biking My Trail, I average 14-16 mph. In Scotland, as I’m unsure of the terrain, I’m going to shoot for an average of 10-12 mph, in order to make my daily mileage goal. So it’ll take me 5-6 hours to get all that in (longer when you consider that the further I travel, the more tired I’ll be and my speed will drop). As I don’t have 5-6 hours a day during the week to bike, I settle for 15 miles.

There are only five bikes at Lifetime that I like. They have a lot of recumbent bikes of which I am NOT a fan. I have discovered, through experimentation, that each of the five bikes has its own personality. I find this strange because they’re all the same make and model so one would expect them all to behave the same way. Not so.

I hop on and set it for a random course, meaning it throws in random hills and valleys, something I think will help for Scotland’s hilly terrain. Now, despite the fact that it’s “random,” I’ve found that there is a consistency to the randomness. My favorite bike, the one in the middle of the row of five which I’ve dubbed My Bike, is really great at starting me soft, hitting me with a few steep hills as I get into it, a reprieve with some straight aways, a few more steep hills, and so on. My Bike and I are in sync. It knows me. We respond well to each other. It knows when to push me and it knows when to back off. Now, you’d think that each of the bikes (again—same make, some model) would respond similarly. But no. They don’t. Some bikes go too easy on me, only throwing in a hill or two. And other bikes, like the one I was forced to use today when My Bike and all other options were occupied, know only pain and fury.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you Beelzebike.

Beelzebike is mean. It is nasty. It is a rabid drill sergeant with a halitosis disorder and chronic spitting. It knows no mercy. It knows only hills—steep ones that never quite go down, leaving you with the impression that you’re surely making the long march straight to heaven. The only thing we are in sync with is a mutual desire for the other’s destruction. I am too stubborn to give in to my flaming thighs, it is too evil to let me think I deserve a break now and then. Irresistible force. Immovable object.

Bring it.

I know what you’re thinking. This is the kind of training I should be doing—relentless, dogged. I should appreciate being pushed and pushed some more. As I’ve mentioned folks, I ain’t Lance Armstrong and this ain’t the Tour de France. It’s vacation. But Beelzebike will have none of this.

A couple times, I’ve chosen Beelzebike. I’ve had options and I chose to take his grueling taskmasterness. I like a challenge. But I want it to be on my terms. And I want Beelzebike to at least acknowledge that I’m doing well, responding to his increased tension and vertical insanity with a gritty smile on my sweat stained face.

Alas, there is no pleasing Beelzebike. But that’s OK. I’m not out to please anyone but me. And whether I’m enduring his Machiavellian torture or the “You rock!” philosophy employed by My Bike, my ultimate triumph will be to take as few trains as possible as I tour the Scottish countryside, pleased that my training has paid off.

OK, no, the ultimate triumph will be to do that and not die of a massive coronary. But that’s a topic for another time.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

 

One Month



Yep. One month from today I will be on my very first transatlantic flight. There's still so much to do. I don't have all my accommodations figured out yet (sorry, Ian, I know you warned me). I'm still figuring out train and ferry schedules. I don't even have a definitive list of everything I want to see. This is really about biking. Weird as that sounds. I'll be happy just to do the biking.

True, I'm concerned about the rain. I'm concerned about the midges. I'm concerned about those areas where I'll be biking on a roadway instead of a bike path. But I figure, "Eh," it's all part of the adventure, right?


Have I mentioned, though, that I hate flying? No, seriously. I hate it. The longest flight I've ever been on is just over three hours and I hated every stinking minute of it. I am particularly not a fan of take-off and landing. I was lucky enough to find a reasonably priced non-stop flight from Minneapolis to London (do you know it's cheaper for me to fly into London and take the train to Edinburgh than it is to fly directly into Edinburgh?). So I only have to deal with up and down once each on the way over and back (barring, of course, spiraling out of control into a thousand mile an hour vertical dive into the ocean...but I'm trying to stay positive). But still.... Eight hours. Eight hours on a plane. The flight over will be overnight so, hopefully, I'll be asleep. The ride back is in the middle of the day. Not sure what I'll do there. All I know is that, at this point, my plan is to employ Mother's Little Helper and hope it keeps me calm and relaxed as much as possible.

Wow. A month. This is becoming very real.

Monday, July 10, 2006

 

Welcome and FAQ



Hi there!

Welcome to my new blog, Destination: Scotland! Most of you have probably found your way here from my other blog. If not, hey, thanks for stopping by anyway.

Here's the thing: In August, I'll be taking two weeks to visit the UK. The majority of that time, a full week, will be spent biking across Scotland. I'll also be spending a few days in Edinburgh and a few days in London. This blog is intended to be a record of the steps I'm taking to get ready for this trip and will eventually serve as an online "journal" of my experience overseas.

I thought I'd start my first post by answering some FAQs (some really have been asked of me time and time again, others I'm just anticipating will be asked). If you're new, I hope to continue to stop back for updates. If you're familiar with me elsewhere...well, I still hope you'll come back.

1. Why did you choose Scotland?

An excellent question...and one I'm not entirely sure I've found a satisfactory answer for. See, I've never traveled outside North America before. I've been to Canada, been to Mexico...but never Europe or other exotic locales. Anyone who has known me for any length of time knows that it's my dream to go to England, in particular London. So why do the whole Scotland thing? Why not just tour England and spend the bulk of my time (rather than three days) in London?

Here's what I can tell you: the entire time I was an undergrad, my college offered summer biking trips to Scotland. It was something you could do for credit, involved some sort of schooling, but was mainly an opportunity to bike across the country. Every year, I told myself I'd do it and every year, I couldn't afford it. So, in many ways, this is an attempt to make up for that. Yes, it probably would have made more sense to take the two weeks and see more of England and/or London. But I don't always make sense. Next question.

2. You're doing this by yourself?

Yep. In June, I turned 36. In anticipation of this, over a year ago, I decided that I was going to plan a solo bike trip. Many people asked if they could join me. I politely declined. I wanted to do this for myself, by myself. It's hard to put my finger on why exactly. Call it early mid-life crisis...call it pigheadedness. I dunno. I just know that I want to head out on the bike trails and see everything that Scotland has to offer on my own. It's a little sad. I won't be sharing this with my boyfriend (who, I think, is a little hurt that I haven't invited him along) and I hope he understands my somewhat bizarre rationale behind wanting to do this on my own. But there comes a time when Brian needs to be a Big Boy in Brian's mind and this is that time.

3. Is that the bike (in your profile picture) you'll be going across Scotland on?

Sadly, no. I love my bike very much. We understand each other. I know her ins and outs. And the option to fly her over there with me was very much in the running. In the end, though, I opted to leave the old girl behind and I'll be renting a bike when I get there. Too bad. She would love it, I'm sure.

4. One week? To do the whole country? Won't you, like, die?

I'm far more concerned about dying in a flaming plane crash than I am about getting hit by a car or keeling over from overexertion. Scotland is at once a big and small country. I'll be posting the details of my itinerary in the weeks to come so you'll have a better idea of how I'll accomplish this. Sufficed to say that I'll be biking about 50-60 miles a day to stay on schedule.

5. 50-60 miles a day?! Are you Lance Armstrong?

Oh merciful heaven no. This involves a bit of training, which I've been doing (more or less) for a year now. I'm pretty sure I can handle it. I hope to be posting training updates in the weeks to come so you'll know what I'm up to.

6. What do you plan to do/see while you're there?

Hopefully lots of stuff. Part of my intinerary is flexible to accommodate suggestions, which I'll gladly take in the comments section.

7. So, is this going to be like reading a travel book, with deep, poignant essays about Scottish culture and how you tie it into your own experiences as a Midwestern American?

I can only hope. I don't know how strong my travel writing skills are, although I did take a class in it once (it was NOT a good class...). I can't promise to be particularly insightful in my entires, piercing in my thoughts, or even all that elegant in my discourse. But I promise to be honest and heartfelt about everything I post and try to give it all a bit of my own flair in the process. Is that OK?

8. So you'll be doing progress reports while you're on the road?

Erm...probably not. I'll have my camera with me to take loads of pictures and if I can make it to a computer with internet access, I may do the occasional post or two but once I'm on the plane, I'm thinking there'll be a two week lull in posts and then I'll start doing my recap once I'm back. It would be cool to do some reports on the road but I guess we'll have to wait and see how that works out.

9. C'mon. Fess up. You're a total nutjob, right?

Guilty as charged. Now, Mom, please, you're embarrassing me. Stop asking that.

So that's where we stand. I know I'm not the first person ever to travel to Scotland or even blog about their travel experiences but, and I'll be brutally honest here, mostly this is for me than anyone else. That doesn't mean I don't want you along for the trip (on the blogosphere, at any rate). I hope you'll check in from time to time to see where I'm at in my preparations. And I hope you'll definitely be back at the end of August as I start to relay my experiences.

With that in mind, here we go--Destination:Scotland!