The Journey Travel

Part III: Leaving John Muir’s native land

At Carter Bar, marking the England-Scotland border.
If life were a TV series, this episode would probably, for the sake of dramatic license, start with me standing on a no-name country lane, somewhere off the A91 in Perthshire. Actually, I’m not standing, I’m jumping up and down in circles, waving my clenched fists in rage and screaming at the top of my lungs. 
I am angry at a whole host of things, not least of which the present moment –– in which I am suddenly unable to control my temper enough to safely ride a motorcycle. And I am subconsciously aware of just how ridiculous it must look to see a 38-year-old man throwing a tantrum in full riding gear and full face helmet at the side of the road. To that end, I have deliberately chosen this remote spot for this moment. But I am aware, too, that I need to sort myself out quickly because even on Scottish country lanes it is never so very long before a car comes along.
It is a little past 11:30 a.m. and this moment is a boiling point –– a culmination of annoyances that have been building since 7 a.m. That was when I had rolled out of bed in my hotel and headed downstairs for breakfast. For those of you playing along in the United States, the hotels here serve actual breakfasts. My goal was to fill up my belly for a full day’s riding, pack my things and be rolling by 8:30 a.m.
I should have known from previous experience this goal was stupidly overambitious. An offer of free pints of Schiehallion the night before had meant I’d gone to bed without packing, leaving it for morning. Throughout the trip, stuffing the Viking Bags AXE Saddlebags was in and of itself a fiddly process; in combination with the packing of my backpack and tank bag, it meant that just getting everything ready to go on the bike took at least an hour.
So, it hadn’t been until just before 9 a.m. that I found myself finally lugging everything out to the car park to begin strapping it all to my bike. I took off the heavy duty cover I had brought, rolled it up and packed it into its bag. By this point I was already sweating profusely, the sun of Perthshire morning being warmer than I had anticipated. I strapped the cover bag to the rack, along with cans of chain lube and GT-85, and the heavy security chain I had used to lock the bike to a birch tree. Then I put the fully loaded saddlebags on, adjusting the straps several times to ensure everything was secure. I strapped my backpack to the seat. After that, I pulled rain covers over the rack-and-chain bags and over the backpack. Two straps of Velcro, two luggage straps, four trident buckle straps, five bungee cords, and one cargo net. I would go through the gear-loading process four times on this trip and at no point would it take me less than an hour.
So, when I finally rolled out of the hotel’s car park at about 10:45 –– more than two hours after my intended departure time –– my annoyance level was approaching a 6 on a scale of 1 to 10. At the petrol station, the guy at the counter wouldn’t wait for me to dig 53p out of my pocket so I could give him exact change. When I tried to give him the 53p regardless, so he could give me a £5 note rather than an overflowing handful of coin, it was clear he was unable to do such math on his own. The cash register had told him to dispense £4.47 and he was unwilling to trust the arithmetic trickery of an American. My annoyance level notched to 7.
I rode out of the petrol station and almost instantly spotted in my side view mirror that I had forgotten to zip up the jacket pocket in which I keep my wallet. I immediately pulled to a side street, performed an awkward U turn, cut the engine, made sure all the zippers on my jacket were secure, started the engine and couldn’t help feeling that the clock on my dashboard was taunting me. My annoyance level notched to 8.
The countryside of Northumberland National Park
Within a few hundred metres I realised a lot of air was pushing up my right leg; I had forgotten to zip the leg of my riding pants. I immediately pulled to a side street, performed an awkward U turn, cut the engine, made sure all the zippers on my riding pants were secure, started the engine and promptly found myself stuck on a too-narrow-for-filtering road behind the slowest driver in Scotland. My annoyance level notched to 9.
Before long, though, I made it to the motorway. I opened up the throttle as a kind of emotional release. When I tucked down I noticed that I had neglected to hook my tank bag to the headstock. That’s just a safety measure, the bag actually being held in place by magnets. But after several minutes I managed to convince myself that despite my lateness and annoyance, or perhaps because of it, this was not a good day to ride without strapping the bag to the headstock.
So, I took the first exit I found and discovered it to be one of those exits where there is no return ramp to the motorway. I had been dumped in the relative empty of the Perthshire countryside with no idea how to get back on track. I would have to stop, dig out my map and sat-nav just to figure out where I was, and burn even more time getting back to where I wanted to be. My annoyance level hit 10.
Which brings us back to the present, where we started this episode. I have ridden just a short way down the quiet A91 to the most backcountry-looking road I can find. I have cut the engine, carefully stepped off the bike and immediately launched into a full-on toddler tantrum. My face shield is fogging up and I am hyperventilating slightly from using up the oxygen in my helmet. Through the fog, though, I am suddenly able to see my bike is listing severely. I have parked it in mud and the sidestand is sinking.
In a panic, I rush over and muscle the bike upright. Then I push it well onto the solid pavement of the road. With all the calm I can muster, I remove my helmet, set it careful on the ground on top of my gloves, and return to jumping up and down and shouting obscenities.
I cannot figure out why I am behaving this way, but also I cannot stop. Some part of my brain feels it is better to get it all out of my system rather than risk carrying any of that negativity on the bike. My throat is starting to hurt from screaming. I am drenched in sweat. And suddenly I have this sense of myself and my place in the universe. If life were a TV programme, the camera would be rapidly pulling back, showing a ridiculously angry middle-class white man throwing a fit in the tranquil late spring beauty of Scotland because… uhm… he’s running a few hours behind on an arbitrary schedule. A schedule that has no meaning. He doesn’t have to be anywhere at any time. The whole point of this day is riding and meandering to a budget hotel in Northern England where he’ll spend the night. That’s it. There is nothing to be upset about.
I stop screaming and within seconds the birds in the tree I’m parked near go back to flirting with one another. It is quiet and warm and I am surrounded by green. I dig my map and sat-nav from my tank bag, figure out where I am and where I need to go, then suit up –– triple checking that all zippers are zipped and buttons buttoned. As I start my bike, an attractive woman in a high-end Land Rover rolls past and winks.
Border country
At Carter Bar. The trailer in the background is the roadside cafe.
Getting through Edinburgh was confusing because in order to go south and east you had to follow roads that claimed to be heading to Glasgow, which is due west. Eventually, though, the traffic opened up and I was speeding to the English border. It was well into that part of the day that could be called “lunch time” by the time I hit Carter Bar, home to a 16th-century border skirmish between England and Scotland, and I considered grabbing food at a roadside cafe but decided to press on.
I did this despite the fact I knew I was entering Northumberland National Park, which holds as its claim to fame the fact it is the least-populated region in all of England. Which, of course, means pubs are few and far between. But the thought of stopping to eat a bacon sandwich served from a dirty old van made me willing to try my luck. 
The roads of Northumberland were fantastic: well paved by British standards, with little traffic and good sight lines on the curves. Again I feel the need to praise my Michelin Pilot Road 4 tires, because ever since having them fitted I’ve felt more confident in corners. I was able to ride smooth and flowing, and was having such a good time I almost didn’t mind that I was hungry. Almost.
I slowed at the only place I had seen for miles, the Camien Cafe. Its car park deserted, a sign out front declared: “BIKER’S AND HGV’S WELCOME!” (a) Some day in the not too distant future I plan to write a post about what makes a good motorcyclist pub/cafe. To me, one of the tell-tale clues that you have not arrived at a good place is a large, grammatically incorrect sign out front welcoming your “kind.” To me, such a sign is, in fact, saying: “WE EXPECT YOU TO HAVE LOW STANDARDS!”
I rode on. After realising my options were incredibly limited I followed signs to Otterburn Mill, where I got a meal that wasn’t pre-processed pub food. Not that homemade sausage casserole is so much healthier, mind. But, hey, those grilled onions and bell peppers count as vegetables, right?
With food in my belly, my mind seemed to unwind some and I found myself able to enjoy Northumberland even more. On certain sections of road I would like the run so much that I’d turn around and ride it again. When I hit the long straight of the B6318 I delighted in its undulating hills, hitting the throttle right as I crested so as to lift the bike just a little.
That road is straight because it runs parallel to Hadrian’s Wall, a 1,900-year-old defense built by the Romans to, well, prove that the Romans could build a wall from one end of Britain to the other. And perhaps to serve as everlasting proof that it is actually possible to build stuff in straight lines in Britain, despite the circuitous and nonsensical planning habits of the island’s native inhabitants.
The view from some of the finest toilets Rome ever built.
I stopped to stretch my legs at Vercovicium, a fort along the wall that housed a large Roman garrison for about 275 years. I sat on Hadrian’s Wall and thought again on the issue of significance within the universe. Here I was, a middle-class white man in the tranquil late spring beauty of Northumberland, sitting on a structure built by an empire that ruled this place for nigh 400 years –– a space of time greater than the space of time between the present day and when the Mayflower pilgrims arrived in North America. As I thought about this, my phone rang and I suddenly got looped into a conference call at work, a surreal situation that allowed me to utter this brilliant statement: “Well, I’m afraid I can’t answer that question right now as I don’t have my computer in front of me. Presently, I’m standing in some latrines built in 122 AD. They’re quite impressive. So, if you’d like to learn about Roman toilets, I’m your man. On other topics, it might be best to wait until I get back to the office on Monday.”
I lounged for as long as my anxious self could allow. Despite having no particular place to be I still had the pressing feeling I was running behind schedule. Plus, I wanted to get back on those Northumberland roads. Sadly, they soon became crowded Cumbrian roads and thereafter Lancashire motorway. I arrived at my hotel just before 6 p.m. I got all the luggage off my bike, oiled the chain, took a shower and discovered that like the staff in every hotel everywhere the people at my hotel were utterly clueless about the surrounding area.
In hindsight, I should have just eaten at the restaurant in my hotel. But I felt there would be a tiny bit more atmosphere at the chain pub across the road. I was totally wrong on that one. My first-ever experience of eating at a Brewer’s Fayre served not only as my last-ever experience of eating at a Brewer’s Fayre but also one of the most depressing dining experiences of my life.
Walking back to my hotel in the warmth of late-spring sunset, though, I shook it off. I thought again of my place in the universe and what a lucky little place it was to be: a man out on a road trip across Britain, with another full day’s riding ahead of him.
(a) HGV stands for “heavy goods vehicle.” A semi-truck, in other words.