Episode 232: God’s World and the Wee Beasties


I have just completed the NC500! It’s a glorious drive around the northern Highlands of Scotland, across miles of one-track roads, some of them terrifying, and past acres and acres of rolling heather-covered hills. I have been tested and found competent in many ways. I have met some lovely people and shared some brief but satisfying encounters. It has been a time to treasure and remember forever.

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Hello, hello my friends. Hello from Scotland. Hello from Gairloch. Look it up. It’s way over on the northwestern coast. Tiny little town. Very cute, and I am in a campsite that cost me a whole $17 for an overnight and electricity and showers and everything. Awesome. What a deal. 

And the wind was blowing like crazy all night long. I thought the van was gonna tip over. I’m in a van that I’ve rented and it has a poptop, which is cloth, and it was just whipping in the wind the whole night long. And I was like, okay, so it’s like a bit of a violent hand rocking you to sleep. Sure. Yeah, I’m sure my mom was kind of like that when I was a baby because she didn’t want babies. She was probably fierce and not quite gentle in some places. So it was a familiar feeling, shall we say perhaps. 

This is my fifth morning in the campervan. And I’m gonna tell you a little bit about Scotland, through the eyes of what it’s like to be sleeping in this weird little space capsule that I’m in. Traveling is stressful in a myriad of ways. It is a test of grit, resourcefulness, endurance, and flexibility. When you’re traveling you discover qualities you didn’t know you possessed, sometimes for the good – like a depth of patience that you never knew you had. That’s a rare one, though. More often, you will suddenly become aware of some lurking prejudice that you never had to face before because the catalyst was something or someone that you rarely come across. That’s why it’s so important to travel – not merely to take in the sights, which I am finding that most people do far too quickly, but to force yourself into situations where you can face your small dark demons that can otherwise remain hidden away during the course of your comfortable routines. 

Travel is a big test of a relationship too. When you’re traveling with a friend, you may find new commonalities that bring you closer together, or you may discover that this is a person who does not make a long term companion. Again, the reasons could be wide and varied. Maybe you’re an early riser, a get-up-and-get-going kind of traveler, and your friend likes to sleep till 10:00, by which time the lines at the Uffizi Gallery are absurdly long, and you must give that up until another day. Or maybe it’s you who insist on three sit down meals each day, whereas your friend thinks that that’s a waste of time and would rather just munch a protein bar in between museums. 

This line of musing started because this morning, as I was enjoying a quiet cup of homemade coffee in my overnight parking spot by a lovely loch, I was suddenly alarmed to hear a car come swerving into the small parking lot and come to a screeching halt, gravel flying. This was accompanied by the shrill voice of a woman arguing loudly in German. She was completely freaked out as she leaped from the driver’s seat and screamed out in the direction that she had just come from. Then I heard a man’s voice from farther up the road arguing back, he returned in a huff to the car, grabbed the keys out of the ignition and crossed the road to stand with his back to her, his shoulders heaving with large breaths. She continued to yell, but her words seem to turn from freaked out to supplication. When he had calmed his breathing, he turned to face her, uttering only a few words. As far as I could put it together, he had jumped out of the passenger door 100 meters back. What must that argument have been to suggest to him that the solution lay in leaping from the car? And how will they resolve it sufficiently to allow them to carry on for today? We are miles from any airport, so they can’t just part ways and be done. They’ll have to figure it out. At least in the short term. Today’s sightseeing might be lost in any case. That’s a shame because they are headed in the opposite direction from me and the countryside I have just driven over in the last 24 hours was some of the most achingly beautiful landscapes I have ever beheld. 

I’m in a remote section of Scotland called the Northwest Highlands Geopark.  I had never even heard that name before yesterday. I’m driving through this area and a small rented VW camper van. It’s the size of a VW van – that cute kind from the 60s – but it’s wider and boxier. It’s red and white on the outside and the inside floor is a black and white checkerboard, but that’s where the cute factor stops. The rest of the interior is gray and black, gray countertops, gray carpeting on the walls and ceiling, black upholstery and curtains for the windows. I guess commercial motorhomes use those dreary colors to appear neutral, but they certainly dampen the charm of the whole experience. Once I’m shut in at night with the curtains drawn, it’s like being in some kind of space capsule. So I usually try to leave one or two sets of curtains open to have a glimpse of the outside. Yes, it’s a risk. The axe murderer might peek in while I’m sleeping and know that I’m all alone in there. Nevertheless, it’s a risk I have to take or I’ll suffocate from claustrophobia and die anyway. 

Yeah, I get a little manic about my sleeping situations. My kids can tell you that. So if you’re going to be a long term traveler with me at some point, here’s a heads up: I can never close the curtains in hotel rooms. Even if there are bright neon lights outside. It just feels too closed in since I can’t open the windows in those places most of the time. Then I have a weird thing about small points of light, like the red dot from a TV or an alarm clock. I have to cover those because they make me think of lasers that are boring a hole in my skull while I’m sleeping. Too many sci fi movies as a kid? Perhaps this would be one of those things you discover about me when we traveled together that makes you think I’m too neurotic a traveling companion. Well, my kids have learned to laugh it off when they see me getting out the washcloths to cover up the bedside phones. In the grand scheme of traveling neuroses it’s a fairly harmless one. 

I’m lingering a while in this spot this morning because when I opened the door to get some fresh air into my abode, a cloud of midges swarmed in my direction. I slammed the door in horror, lunging for the Raid! So much for fresh air. Even now I can see them billowing hungrily at the windows like a miniature zombie apocalypse. I’ll just hang out in my space capsule until the sun gets a bit higher, thank you. If you’ve never been up to the highlands, perhaps you’re not acquainted with the midges, or the “wee beasties,” as the locals call them. But that’s way too cute a name for this menacing swarm of evil. They are minute mosquito-type critters that swarm by your face in particular, and fly up your nose, into your ears, and all through your hair. Now before you say “Well, fuck it, I’m never going to Scotland,” let me tell you the good news. They only come out at dawn and dusk. They settle back when the sun is out. Even if it’s covered in clouds. And they disappear when darkness falls. So yeah, those lovely hours when you might want to be sitting outside in a chair, sipping your whiskey or your morning coffee, the wee beasties will prevent you. However, they won’t come near you if you’re wearing Skin So Soft. The Scots discovered this when the American tourists realized the midges weren’t bothering women, but only men. And – long story short… (Hi, Temi)  they found that was the reason. And don’t despair, you needn’t hunt down that bothersome Avon lady. Most convenience stores here sell it. They also sell various other sprays and solutions. And if all else fails, you can buy a face net that you pull over your head like a beekeepers coif. Did I get one of those? Oh yes, I did. Haven’t used it yet, but I might need to resort to it soon. But, as my aunt always says, you gotta take the good with the bad and the good far outweighs this miniature annoyance. 

Yesterday I drove from John O’Groats to Durness across miles and miles of meandering single track roads, through acres of hills covered in 10 different shades of purple. The heather is in bloom. There are almost no trees to break the gentle roll of hillsides, and in the distance above the hills, a dramatic peak will rise up now and again. This collection of higher mountains is called the Monroes, and people challenge themselves to climb them all, but there’s like 200 and something so I don’t know how they do that. The single track roads are plenty of challenge for me. This is no lazy cross country drive, one must be on high alert for oncoming cars in order to pull into the next passing place so as to let them pass. These passing places fortunately come about every 400 yards or so. Every driver, without fail, waves their hand in thanks as they go by, and that custom has made allies of us all in some way. 

The single track roads open up as you approach small towns and sometimes for other reasons as well. There are also well-marked parking areas where there is some beautiful vista that you are encouraged to visit. I have rounded a bend to come upon a solitary farm cottage overlooking a tiny bay with a white sand beach. No one is swimming, of course, this is the North Sea and it is ice cold; but I got out and walked down the beach to breathe it in. After three such separate beach walks in equally gorgeous tiny bays, I realized that I couldn’t stop at all of them, or I would never get anywhere – there are literally hundreds of them. So I tried to summon a shrug: “Oh yeah, it’s just another gorgeous beach. So what?” But it’s hard to be so lackadaisical. Each one takes my breath away. I find myself wishing for my own cozy campervan from back home, and a year’s worth of travel in Scotland. Even that might not be enough to truly see it all with the kind of leisure that would allow me to properly soak it in. But at least I would not have to pass by the next glorious beach-side walk and the next cliffside vista. Not that I’m one of those who is hurrying on by, just that it’s all too much too beautiful. My heart aches to bask in it all. 

It reminds me of a poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay called God’s World.

Oh world, I cannot hold the close enough. 

Thy winds, thy wide gray skies, 

Thy mists that roll and rise, 

Thy woods this autumn day, 

That ache and sag and all but cry with color. 

That gaunt crag! To crush, to lift 

The lean of that black bluff. 

World, world, I cannot get thee close enough. 

Long have I known a glory in it all, but never knew I this. 

How such a passion is. It stretches me apart. 

Lord, I do fear thou mak’st the world too beautiful this year. 

My soul is all but out of me. Let fall 

No burning leaf, prithee let no bird call. 

I am moved by that poem because I was sent it once from a long ago lover, and it comes back to me now and again. And it definitely came back to me on one of those beaches. But I’ll tell you about another beach. As it happened, I did meet one more traveler who was absolutely soaking it in, as I was. At the end of that same day which began with a cloud of wee beasties, I came upon one last sparkling tiny bay only 15 minutes from my next chosen campsite, this one where I am now. The feigned shrug of indifference does not work, my friends, so why bother? I pulled in, resolving that the campsite could wait. If it was full, so what, I’d find another roadside spot of quiet beauty. Armed with my trekking stick and rain gear just in case, (you see? I’m getting good at this now) I set off down the small wooden staircase and out across the wide expanse of white sand. It was low tide and the ebb had left many yards of rippled sand that darkened to a soft brown as it approached the water’s edge. Green hills rose sharply up on both sides of the inlet. My trail of footsteps was almost the only mar in the otherwise pristine sand scape. But ahead of me, a young woman was walking barefoot in the tiny waves at the shoreline. She walked slowly, staring out to sea, evoking the mothers and daughters of a century ago who might have watched thus for a returning fisherman. I didn’t want to disturb her, but walked quietly to the end of the beach and back. On the return I found the perfect stone that stuck up at such an angle from the dry beach as to form the perfect backrest. I sat there in splendid comfort and observed the way the colors changed dramatically as the clouds blew over them. Emerald green hills transforming into black crags as storm clouds obscured their summer brilliance. When those storms came a bit too close to me, I escaped back to my van. By then the young woman from the beach had also returned and I saw that she was in the van beside mine. I glimpsed through the open door that it was a handmade interior like mine back home. I approached and asked if I could take a peek at it. We ended up standing and talking for half an hour, even through a slight misty sprinkle of rain. We talked of vans and construction ideas, of travels and plans for future adventures. Her name was Joanie, and she spoke with a softly lilting Scottish accent, so I asked if she was local, but it turned out that she had only recently moved to the north from Glasgow. She had visited a few times and then made the leap. She was, like me, on a life changing trajectory that had begun with a van and a dream of freedom.

She said she would be spending the night right there to wake up to that beach again, but I said I was pushing on to Gairloch in the hopes of a whale-watch in the morning. We parted with a warm hug, a delightful end to an unexpectedly wonderful encounter. Travel relationships can sometimes be fleeting. I am grateful for those, like Joanie, who say yes to even a brief encounter. I learn, grow and strengthen from everyone. Thank you so much for joining me on this journey. I’ll see you next time.

Published by dianathebard

Podcasting about growing up in the Hudson Valley in the 60s and 70s, falling in love, raising kids, getting divorced and being a free and creative world traveler!

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