The Journey Travel

Part II: A ride to John Muir’s native land

A panoramic view from the summit of Cairngorm Mountain in Scotland 

I spent a few days in the Lake District, my bike protected from the frequent rain by a heavy-duty cover I had bothered to strap to rack. I was up there for a conference, which somehow translated into walking up a mountain in the pissing cold rain and wind, followed by many pints of German lager. The second part I liked most, obviously, but in hindsight I enjoyed the first part, as well. It was one of the most fun work-related things I’ve ever been to. Next year’s conference is in the Broads and I am already planning my route.

Back in the Lake District, a perfectly timed break in the rain meant I was able to strap all my gear to the bike in the dry. It started raining again right as I pressed the starter, as if the button were wired not only to the Honda’s engine but the clouds. I settled into it and hoped my motorcycle gear would hold up better than my hiking gear. The day before, I had ascended Scafell Pike with a group and discovered that my rainproof hiking gear was ridiculously sub-par when confronted by eight hours of constant rain.
Your faithful correspondent at the summit of Cairngorm Mountain.

On the motorway, the rain turned to hail at one point, which was less than pleasant, but I stayed dry. And huge love goes to the guys at Michelin for the Pilot Road 4 tires they gave me recently. Honestly, those tires are (so far) fantastic. They hold so well in torrential rain that I legitimately thought to myself at one point: “You know, when pondering which bike I want next, I may want to consider limiting my options to those bikes that can wear these tires.”

So, you know, bikes like the BMW F800GT or the other sport tourers I wrote about not too long ago. Indeed, despite my extreme love for bikes like the Victory Cross Country, I couldn’t help feeling that a middleweight sport tourer is considerably better suited to my present needs. Effectively, that’s what I have now in my Honda CBF600 SA. And, but for a few additional creature comforts, I can’t say I desired for much more on this trip than the bike I already had. That was especially true when I had to ride on gravel or spin the bike on its centre stand. Less weight means a bike that’s easier to push around. Middleweight sport tourers aren’t the bad-ass rumbling machines that some part of me seems to want, but this trip showed they are ideal for zipping around Europe.
I pumped my fist in celebration as I rolled across the border to Scotland. In total, roughly 9 years of my life have been lived in the UK and this was the first time I had managed to get to this part of it. By way of welcome, the rain subsided as I rolled into the services at Gretna. I ate a KFC lunch and took in the Scottish accents around me.
If you follow Steve and Sash and their various Road Pickle adventures, a common occurrence with them is their eating at unique, local places. It’s much harder to find such a thing in the UK. At least, it is if you’re just rolling into town and don’t know the place. This is in part due to the fact that eating out in the American sense is a relatively new concept over here. They’ve long had fine dining, of course, as well as hotels with (usually not that great) restaurants, but they didn’t really have a large middle class with lots of expendable income until the 1990s. And as such they didn’t have a whole lot of stand-alone restaurants.
When I first came here as an exchange student in 1996, a restaurant of the sort like TGI Fridays (ie, not terribly expensive but also not a greasy spoon cafe) was extremely rare, usually very new, and generally only to be found in ultra-cosmopolitan places like London. I am inclined to digress into a train of thought on how utterly different Britain is now than it was two decades ago but the point is simply to say that when you are travelling from point A to point B in the UK you still too often find yourself eating at chain pubs and American fast-food joints. The best places are hidden and generally not open for lunch.
With my belly and gas tank full I got back on the motorway, riding through increasingly sporadic squally showers. The rain was never so heavy that it obstructed my view, and as I rolled toward Perthshire, the picturesque mountains of Cairngorms National Park loomed enticingly to my north. By the time I got to Perth, my home for the next four days, the sun had come out.
Loch Morlich in Cairngorms National Park

Traffic, too, had thinned to the sort of levels one might experience in farm areas surrounding a major US metropolitan area –– not so quiet that one could even begin to think about setting up a baseball game in the street, but sparse enough that I could maintain a steady speed for more than a minute. If one had such a feature he or she could almost –– almost –– consider clicking on cruise control. I have some very good friends who are originally from Scotland and they have long responded to my complaints of Britain’s crowded nature with suggestions that I visit the wide open spaces of their homeland. I suspect that if I were to take them to a place like Paint Rock, Texas, the sheer quiet and solitude of it would cause their minds to melt.

But in comparison to the claustrophobia and pollution I had encountered between Liverpool and Manchester it was bliss. The air smelled fresh and clean. The vast majority of drivers around me behaved in a sane manner (safe following distances, reasonable speeds, etc.). And already, within hours of arriving, I was making promises to myself to return to Scotland soon.

That night I ate dinner at The Bothy, a great local pub in the heart of Perth that sources many of its foods locally. I drank pints of Schiehallion, I struck up a long conversation with my waitress who said her boyfriend looked like Benedict Cumberbatch (she showed me pictures; he does) and felt thankful for the life I have. Then I went back to my hotel and sent rude texts to Jenn.

Some pictures from Scotland

A field of bluebells I came across whilst walking in Battleby.
Looking up to the Cairngorms from Loch Morlich.
View from the summit of Cairngorm Mountain
Gorse flowers in Battleby
The tranquility of Perth city centre on a Sunday evening