Cycling Britain-Day 23: Last full day of Cycling

Miles: 52.2, Where I slept: Campsite in Thurso, north coast of Britain

10 August 2011

When I woke in my tent next to the old house, I could see raindrops, resting on top of the fabric above me. I would be packing a wet tent. That also meant I would probably not be able to camp that night, since sleeping in a wet tent is a formula for a bad night’s sleep. That meant I would need to find a hostel, or maybe even a hotel. That would be a pity since this would be my last full day of cycling, and I hadn’t stayed in a hotel or B&B yet. I knew it would be my last day because I passed the 99.9 mile mark yesterday.

That mark meant I had less than 100 miles left, after cycling more than 1,000. After seeing that yesterday, I carried on for 10 or 20 more miles. The same enthusiasm that shows up when I finish a marathon was showing now. Even if I punctured a tire, I’ve had plenty of practice at fixing them in 15-20 minutes. I hoped to cycle about 50 miles this day and leave an easy day tomorrow, during my last day. With luck, that easy day would only be 20 or 30 miles.

I also thought about the previous day, in the barren landscape, with the midges, and the unusually difficult time I had finding a place to stay. I looked forward to finishing and staying in my own bed again, back in London, but I already missed this trip. There wasn’t too much time to dwell on these things. Mornings are busy times, and I rarely leave by 9am as I always hope to.

Packing my panniers has become second nature, not surprising after 3 weeks. I loaded up my bike, said good-bye to the old house, and hello to a steady rain. I was cycling north to the town of Tongue, which is on the northern coast of Britain. I planned on stopping there, getting some water, calling the one youth hostel I knew of, and using the loo.

My plans changed when I climbed a long hill on the way to Tongue, without pushing I should add, and saw the road that led to Tongue. It was off the route, and it went downhill. I wasn’t going to go down a hill off the route, only so that I could climb back up it later. I decided to cycle on to the next town.

On the way to that town, wherever it was, I turned directly into a respectable headwind. Most people cycle end to end from south to north, partially because that’s the way the prevailing winds blow. I found out how important that was today, since cycling into even a slight headwind on a loaded bike is like pushing a load of bricks. Just to make things more interesting, the rain also picked up, which is why there are few pictures today. I thought the rain was small hail for a while, which I’ve experienced on summertime hikes in Scotland.

I passed a business that was a shop and café, which had a “Cyclists welcome” sign in front. Of course, that may mean that they welcome anyone’s money, but I stopped anyway. It really was a nice shop. I ended up buying a common type of white highland sweater that I’ve always wanted, which the shop owners would mail to me. I also topped up on water and tried calling a hostel, in the town of Thurso. It’s about 20 miles from John O’Groats. Unfortunately, my mobile phone couldn’t get a signal. I was about to leave when I really felt cold, even started shivering. The wind and rain had picked up, and I suspect the temperature dropped too. I unpacked my rain pants, rain trousers for British readers, and put them on for the first time. That took the shivering away, but I was still cold. I figured the “heater” on my bike would take care of that, which is the body heat I create while peddling.

A couple of miles went by, and I was still cold, and the wind and rain were still strong. I decided to put on a second jersey, so I pulled into a bus shelter where I could take a clean one out of my panniers, while keeping the inside of the pannier dry. The second jersey and rain pants helped me stay warm, but another problem with the cold came up, my feet. I’ve never been too bothered with wet feet, but I don’t like it when my feet are too warm. So when planning this trip, I chose shoes that breath well but are not waterproof. That worked pretty well for the entire trip, until today. My feet were entirely soaked and very cold. For a while, I couldn’t feel one of my big toes. The headwind and rain continued to be strong and steady, and I was starting to miss the trip less.

I also seriously considered staying in my wet tent, since I passed some campsites, but stopping at one of those campsites would have an unfortunate domino effect. Stopping at a campsite now, to get out of the wind, rain, and cold, would mean that tomorrow would be full a day of cycling. Something I haven’t mentioned yet is that my trip doesn’t end at John O’Groat’s. After reaching that endpoint, I need to cycle another 17 miles to a train station, in the town of Wick. So, if I stopped at one of the campgrounds, I would be rushed tomorrow to reach John O’Groats and Wick, for a train. I wanted to hang out at John O’Groats a while, talk with other cyclists, and absorb the whole experience.

I passed the campgrounds and decided to press on to Thorso. At one point, I was able to get a mobile phone signal, but there was no answer at the hostel. There’s not much to describe about the trip to Thorso. It was challenging. The wind, rain, and cold feet never stopped. I just pressed on, knowing I was almost finished and doing my best not to feel like I was “just getting this over with.” I don’t like that feeling.

About 5 miles from Thurso, I stopped in another bus shelter to get out of the rain and call the youth hostel again. There was still no answer. I tried calling a few hotels. They were all full. When the fourth or fifth hotel told me they were full, I asked if something special was going on. The hotel owner told me that Prince Charles was going to be in town, great.

My sat nav  showed a campground very near Wick and on the same road I was cycling on. It looked like I would need to find a way to stay in a wet tent, if the campground would take me on short, or no, notice. It was looking to be the only option, since I was back on a busy road and wasn’t passing any sites for wild camping.

After the longest day yet of wind and rain, I reached the campground, desperately hoping they had a spot for me. I spoke with a man who owned the campground with his wife. Something was different but familiar about him, but my mind  was too tired to tell. I focused on seeing if I could pitch my tent. He said I could, since a 1 man tent takes very little space. I went to my cycle to get my wallet and realized what was different about him. He had a North American accent. I went back inside, paid him, and asked if his accent was North American. He said no. It was Texan. We chatted for a while and he told me how he was in the Navy in the UK and married an English woman. He also told me about the value of smaller government. I really wanted to say that included smaller pensions for Navy retirees, but I was worried he’d kick me out of his campground, which would really sting on a day like this one.

As I set up my tent, I decided that I would stay in a hotel after I reached John O’Groats, probably in the town of Wick where the train station was at. I could still say I never stayed in a hotel or B&B during the end to end journey. Staying in a hotel after John O’Groats meant I could break some rules of cycle-camping, like putting a wet towel inside of a pannier. It would only be there for a day or two. Breaking that rule meant I could wipe down the inside of my wet tent, which worked pretty well.

I was looking forward to a hot shower in new and creative ways. As I stepped inside the shower, I noticed I couldn’t feel one of my heels. It became numb from the cold. Unfortunately, little heat came out of the shower. That really stung. I just gritted my teeth and accepted the cold, again on this cold and wet day. When I dried off and walked out of the shower, I saw a button to switch on the hot water. Being tired and cold does make you miss important details.

I had a similar problem with my camping stove, which I’ve now used many times. It needed to be filled up with fuel. I know better than to fill it all the way up because that causes a problem with the gas-air mixture. That leads to very little flame from the stove, and low flame leads to water that barely bubbles, instead of boiling. Tonight, I missed that important detail and over-filled the stove with fuel. The water didn’t boil. The rice was firm, and I worried the sausages weren’t cooked well enough. I just ate the stuff.

It was  tough day, but I was now within 20 miles of the end, at John O’Groats very hard to believe. Like the previous night, I fell asleep thinking about the challenges of the day but still felt content, at least my feet were now warm and dry. That meant a lot.