Cycling Across Britain-Day 22, Some playfulness, lots of desolation

Miles: 59, Nearest town where I slept: Wild camping 6 miles north of Altnaharra, Highlands of Scotland

9 August 2011

The day started very comfortable. I had a good night’s sleep in the bunkhouse near Evanton, which I had all to myself. I hoped to spend the next night in a youth hostel inside Carbisdale Castle. It was only 20 miles away, which made me worry about making enough progress, but I couldn’t resist the chance to stay in a castle for a night, especially for just £20 ($35). I called them with more hope than usual, that one bunk was open for the night. Unfortunately, they told me that the castle was closed for renovation. If houses that are a couple decades or centuries old need an occasional fix-up, I can hardly imagine the work that’s needed to keep a castle nice & tidy.

So, I had to fall back to my standard plan, pedal on and hope that a place to spend the night would be available near suppertime. In the morning, the countryside had a few simple pleasures, old bridges, streams, and trees.

Later in the morning, a few small and very unique cars passed me. About a mile later, I saw they were parked at the Scottish version of a rest stop, basically a small open space next to the road with a trash can. I pulled up and told them that, usually, people say my folding touring bike is the most unique vehicle they’ve seen that day. But, their little cars were definitely more unique.

We exchanged questions and answers about our vehicles. Their small cars were made in Germany after WWII, by companies like Messerschmitt and Heinkle. If you watched any WWII movies that have bombers or fighters, you might recognize those names. They’re the companies that made military aircraft for Nazi Germany in WWII. After the war, they were forbidden from making military aircraft, so they needed to find something else to make, like these little cars. The door to the little red car was made by Messerschmitt and even opened like Germany’s most common fighter aircraft of WWII, the Messerschmitt 109. Like a 109, the door opened by rotating the entire top sideways, windows, frame, and all. I asked if I could sit inside one of the cars. One of the owners graciously let me and took some pictures, with me inside. With my long legs, I don’t think I could actually drive one of these cars.

A few miles after that playful moment, the road became a lot more quiet. There were some interesting houses that showed how people lived many decades ago, maybe longer. Some of these houses have been fixed up and still used, talk about a fun house. Old houses have been one of the interesting parts of this trip, since old here comes closer to centuries than decades. As I’ve cycled north, the style of old houses have changed in ways that are similar to changes in accents and the landscape. Older buildings here are made from a darker, larger, and heavier stone than the buildings down south. I can see why based on the harsher winds, rains, and temperatures in the north of Britain. A solid building would is needed. The buildings look darker, but I still thought about warmer moments the families in those buildings had. For some reason, I particularly thought about Christmas celebrations with those families in those houses. This far north, a few hundred miles north of the Minnesota-Canada border, there would be very little daylight during Christmas, all the better reason to have a holiday. One little “present” I received around this time was reaching a point that was less than 100 miles from John O’Groat’s, based on a reading from my sat nav that I could trust.

A moment ago, I mentioned the road became a lot more quiet. In the middle of the afternoon, it became quieter still. I almost missed the busy traffic from the day before, almost. As usual, I became tired in the afternoon, and as usual for Scotland, a light rain came, went, and came back a few times. I’ve become used to rain and fatigue, but the landscape made both more challenging. I felt so small in the large gloomy landscape, where the only sign of humanity was the one lane road I was cycling on. It really was a relief to see an occasional car since this part of the day lasted for a 2-3 hours.

My sat nav showed very few towns. I knew there were no stels and probably no campsites in this area, based on the web search I did back at the Dingwall library the day before. Two days before, the manager of the Loch Ness youth hostel also told me there “was nothing there” when I asked her for a place to stay in this area, was she ever right. There weren’t even a decent places to wild camp. As I mentioned in a previous daily description, wild camping is legal in Scotland, but you still need a place that’s dry and has some protection from the harsh weather, which can quickly appear in Scotland. The land next to the road was lumpy, marshy, or some other form of a lousy camping site. Occassionally, a bunch of pine trees showed up just off the road, but tall fences prevented access to them. I saw some large piles of cut trees neatly stacked, with industrial timber equipment next to them. Presumably, timber companies owned this land and wanted to make sure nobody messed with it.

I finally came to a town, if you can call it that. It was Altnaharra. There were no stores near the road I was on, and I didn’t feel like going off my route, since it looked like that would be a waste of time and energy. I did pass a B&B that had a “self-catering” sign but chose not to stop. I’d gone over 20 days without staying in a hotel or B&B. Even in this place, I wanted to stay with my goal of living simpler and cheaper, by not staying in any hotels or B&Bs. I wanted to spend the night only in hostels or my tent. I saw a mobile phone tower near the town, so I tried calling the hostel at Tongue.

Getting there would require more effort than before, 10 hours cycling, over 70 miles, and arriving later than ever, around 9pm. All this pushed my goal for simple living, but the landscape had a strange motivating effect. The situation realistically applied Churchill’s suggestion to the troops in WWII, “When you’re going through hell, keep going.” I mumbled to myself, “Steven, you call this a vacation?”, stopped the bike, and reached for my phone to call the hostel in Tongue.

I was still dialing the number when things got worse. The demons were back, Scottish midges. They’re so small, you can’t really see any one of them, but you can see a sort of cloud that forms when a few dozen, or hundred when they really want to party, form around you. I needed one hand to slap the ones on my legs, another hand to slap the ones on my neck, and another to get the ones that made it inside my helmet. Once again, the best I could do is insult them, in an unusually nasty way. Of course, it didn’t stop them or even help me this time. I threw my phone into my handlebar back and peddled back to the B&B, still sending off some insults.

When I stopped in front of the B&B, I noticed it was made of the same dark and heavy stone I noticed earlier. The owner was cordial but not quite friendly, to a guy who looked more than a little disheveled and probably smelled bad. She told me no rooms were available. I asked her if I could pitch my tent somewhere near the B&B. I normally don’t ask this question since I know it’s a long shot, and I think it’s impolite to make unreasonable requests. The midges made me do it. Less than a second after I asked the question, I knew the answer, based on the look on her face. She gave some answer about having people in early tomorrow to work on the lawn. I didn’t push the issue and asked if I could at least stand in her entryway to call the hostel in Tongue, so the midges wouldn’t get me while I called. She said I could, so I stepped inside and tried to call. Unfortunately, there was no signal, probably due to the heavy stone the place was made of. If only the highlanders who made these houses one or two hundred years ago would have had the foresight to think of mobile phones.

I wanted to call the hotel in Tongue to see if there was a bunk available, but the midges here were unusually thick and determined. Trying to stop and call was not only painful but probably not possible when standing still. You need 3 hands just to slap the midges, and the person you’re talking with may think the inevitable insults are aimed at them. It was time to improvise and bend some rules, or blatantly break some rules. I think it’s morally wrong to talk on a mobile phone while driving. The risk of killing or injuring someone, especially cyclists, is simply too great, no excuses. Accidents happen quickly, when we think everything is just fine.

After I left the B&B, there was a short climb and a downhill stretch for at least a mile. The road continued to be quiet, so while coasting, I reached for the piece of paper that had the number of the youth hostel in Tongue, with my left hand. With my right hand, I reached for my mobile phone. I put my right back on the handlebar, while holding the phone, pulled up my left hand and held paper close to my face, to read a few numbers, and put my left hand back on the handlebar. Then, I pulled up my right hand and dialed the numbers, repeating this process until the manager of the youth hostel in Tongue told me they were full.

My phone is also my backup sat nav system, so the phone can find and dial hotels or motels in a nearby town. On the same downhill stretch, I called 3 or 4 hotels in Tongue, using the best “normal business voice” I could. Some places had rooms, ranging from £70-100 a night. In over 20 days, the most I’ve paid for a place to stay was £22. I was annoyed the price was so high, put the phone and paper back into my handlebar bag, and peddled on with a little more energy. I decided a location for wild camping would appear. The roadside marshes and fences had to end somewhere.

Two or three miles after making that decision, the road curved to go over an old bridge. When I came closer, I saw one of the old houses I’ve mentioned, with the dark stone. Like many of these houses, it was abandoned, but more importantly, there was no fence or marsh preventing access. I cycled up to the old house. The door was locked, and the windows were blocked with a small wooden door. I decided to wild camp next to the house, which did have a certain fun factor since it could provide a home once again, sort of. All I had to worry about was putting a tent up in the occasional rain, and of course, the demons.

Both factors motivated me to hustle and follow the same procedures I learned and applied from Ken Kifer, whose website is listed on the right side of this site. As Ken suggested, the first thing to do is start the stove and get a pot of water boiling, to make rice, lentils, and veggies. While the water is heating up, pitch the tent, very fast in this case. It took longer than I expected for the rain to start and for the midges to show up. I almost had the entire tent set up before they greeted me, and when I started insulting them. The tent was up and most of my gear was inside it when the water started boiling. I felt some satisfaction at finding a place and getting ready so quickly. I walked to the stove to add some rice. There were a bunch of black dots in the water.

The demons found a new way to annoy me. A few dozen sacrificed themselves in the boiling water, for the sole purpose of ruing my supper and preventing any of my satisfaction. Even worse, I purchased some sausages a few miles back that I really wanted to have for supper. Warm food was particularly appealing on this day, and sausages would only keep for a day or two in a pannier. But, I wasn’t going to eat them sprinkled with boiled midge. I had some cold food, but I really wanted those sausages. I told myself to let go of that little hope, as I threw out the midge-infested water. That was also hard to do, since I can’t carry a lot of water, and I wanted to have a good supply in a place like this.

The rain and midges were still not too bad, so I walked around a bit. This place wasn’t as harsh as some I’d recently seen. There was a curving river, an arching bridge, and the old stone house.

Once again, I thought about the families that once lived in the house and what their holidays were like, several decades ago. I had a moment to think about the happy and less happy families that may have lived there, and the same holidays for both. I walked closer to the house and looked at the wooden doors on the windows. They weren’t locked, so I looked toward the road to see if any cars were around. None were, so I opened one of the window doors and looked inside. It seemed like the building was most recently used for animals, storage, or both. I briefly considered hoping inside but that felt wrong.

It was a tough day but that also made it unusually satisfying to lay in my tent and think about how I was able to sleep in a warm, dry place. It wasn’t Carbisdale Castle, but at least I found a place to stay, near an intriguing old house. I dozed off feeling content, having barely won one battle against the demons. I woke around midnight to some animals near my tent. I was a little concerned, particularly if the animals were the kind on two feet, drove a truck, and drank too much. The footsteps sounded too light for that animal, more like sheep or goats. I slapped the side of my tent to try to shoo them away and went back to sleep.