I read the other day that the cost of petrol in some parts of the United Kingdom has hit £2 a liter. That’s $11.25 a gallon, for those of you playing along in the Colonies (EDIT: It’s actually $9.30. See comments section). It is also double what petrol cost two years ago, when I rode a Harley-Davidson Sport Glide to Britain’s furthest points east, west, south and north.
Normally, when I write road trip-type articles I like to put everything in the present tense because I think it sounds cool. But that time feels so far away now. It’s hard to place myself exactly in the moment. When Cam and I were rumbling toward Dunnet Head, mainland Britain’s most northerly point, I’d not had a haircut in 5 months. I was 8 months away from getting my first Covid vaccine.
LIKE THIS SORT OF THING?
Check Out More Stories
I was still living in Wales, still working as a copywriter for The Royal Mint, and had no sense that it would all change in less than half a year. Travel restrictions had eased just enough for Cam and me to do this trip but we constantly wore masks or pulled our neck buffs over our faces, even outside. Roads were quiet and, as I say, the cost of petrol was a lot less, having fallen to about £1 a liter.
What I remember most clearly, though – and the thing that makes this trip feel otherworldly in my memory – is the air.
The air in northern Scotland feels, tastes and smells different. Better. It’s as if that part of the world is an inlet for the planet’s fresh air; you’re standing at the top of the mountain, drinking pure and unsullied snow melt before it runs down through fields and past animals to the river where everyone else drinks. The air seems to tingle in your nasal cavity, sparking your brain. It’s crisp, clean, cathartic; air that makes you feel free.
There are other strong memories from that trip: wispy clouds and bright blue sky, looking to my left as we sped along coastal roads and seeing the ocean sparkle in the sun, the sound of Cam’s laughter coming through my Bluetooth headset, and the strangely haunting cry of bagpipes wafting across our campsite at Clachtoll. And, of course, the golden thread running through it all: the indomitable sound and feel of two Harley-Davidson V-twins.
Both Cam and I were riding Sport Glides on this trip. Mine was borrowed from the nice folks at Harley-Davidson UK & Ireland; Cam’s was his own – bought in no small part thanks to my relentless praise of the bike. Even in the face of the excellent Pan America 1250 I still say the Sport Glide is about the best Harley you can buy.
IN THE SHADOW OF BEN NEVIS
The ride to Dunnet Head was the final leg of my summer-long quest to visit the four furthest points in Britain and it effectively started where the previous adventure had ended: Ardnamurchan Lighthouse in far northwestern Scotland. After several days of cold and rainy misery, the sun had suddenly come out and I was able to peel off my waterproofs and let them dry on the handlebars while Cam and I scrambled over large rocks to take pictures of the sea.
The trip north started by again trundling in second gear along the crumbling B8007 – the main, and, in fact, only road on the Ardnamurchan Peninsula – en route to Fort William. Rarely wide enough for one car, let alone two, the road requires a cheerful patience. Especially when you meet massive oncoming campervans helmed by retirees who only drive the thing once a year. Thank goodness for the weather; on a sunny afternoon it was the perfect sort of place to be on a cruiser.
After about an hour we made it onto a faster road and the weather turned a little more typically Scottish. By the time we got to our campsite on the edge of Fort William the weather had become changeable, with bright sunshine occasionally broken up by very, very light but dedicated mist.
Glen Nevis Camping Park, our home for the night, sits in the shadow of Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in the United Kingdom. Take that with a grain of salt – mountains aren’t all that tall here – but it makes for an impressive view from one’s tent and helps to distract from the general soulessness of the campsite.
I’ll spare you yet another rant on how how camping in the UK isn’t what I want it to be, but suffice to say Glen Nevis Camping Park is the embodiment of pretty much everything I complain about: sprawling soggy field littered by campervans and tents set up in put-that-anywhere fashion. No trees. No sense of personal space or hygge. Imagine a post-apocalyptic scenario in which a golf course has been repurposed to house refugees. This is not camping; it is sleeping rough in a crowd.
Cam and I spent a little while stomping around trying to find a spot that was relatively dry and midge-free. Eventually we chose practicality over atmosphere and set up within earshot of the paved area where we’d parked our bikes, also conveniently located near the toilet blocks. Romantic. Though, in fairness, I did have a pretty good view of Ben Nevis.
The campsite would normally have a restaurant but it was shut because of Covid, so Cam and I rode two miles into town for dinner. Named after William III – the Dutch fella whom Protestant English politicians invited to come and overthrow James II in 1688 because he was Catholic – Fort William is the last big town in northwest Scotland.
Sitting at the head of Loch Linnhe, it serves as a focal point for adventure pursuits. There is Ben Nevis, of course, but Fort William is also the start/finish point of the West Highland Way long-distance hiking route. The Scottish Six Day Trials are based here. In the winter, skiers come to Aonach Mòr, about two miles north. In light of all this, you might imagine Fort William to be a pretty nice place. It’s not. Imagine if a loved one took you on a surprise birthday trip to Toledo, Ohio; it isn’t hell but it’s definitely not what you were hoping for.
Even at the most Covid-free of times, dining options in Fort William are limited. On this particular visit, Cam and I could find only two places that were open: a pub and an Indian restaurant. The pub was the same where I’d “lost” my keys three years before, when Cam and I had passed through en route to the Isle of Skye. We knew the quality of the food there and, as such, weren’t heartbroken when they informed us they’d stopped serving for the night.
Because of its interpretation of Covid restrictions, we weren’t allowed to go into the Indian restaurant to ask for a table. We had to stand outside for several minutes, then communicate to a waiter who spoke to us furtively through a barely opened door. It felt as if we were trying to blag our way into a speakeasy. To compound that feeling, we were eventually led through the kitchen and up the stairs to a deserted room that had probably last been redecorated when Chumbawamba were a thing.
I drank a lager drink, Cam drank a cider drink, and we both stuffed our bellies with food that, although not delicious, was filling, hot, and – as evidenced by my being able to sit here and tell you about two years later – not poisonous. Sometimes that’s all you can hope for.
By the time we returned to our bikes the aforementioned very, very light but dedicated mist had grown even more dedicated but not so much that it spoiled my mood. We roared back to the campsite through the cool dark of dying summer and something about the ride made me think back to being in a small town in New Jersey a few years before, watching dudes on Sportsters roll up and down the main street.
The mist was turning to rain as we parked the bikes, so we quickly said our goodnights and crawled into our respective tents. I put in my earplugs, cocooned myself into my sleeping bag and slipped into a multi-hour coma that was only once interrupted by the need to pee. My tiny bladder is a strange blessing when camping because waking up in the middle of the night gives me a chance to observe the eerie and alluring quiet of pitch-dark night. On the way back from the toilet I spotted about half a dozen little lights moving up the ascent to Ben Nevis: hikers keen to see the sunrise from atop the mountain.
Cam’s a good guy to travel with. He snores and doesn’t care enough about breakfast (It’s the most important meal of the day, FFS!) but he’s easygoing, good humored, doesn’t get hung up on whose round it is, provides excellent running historical commentary on everyone and everything to ever come from Scotland, and he is immensely patient. You have to be to travel with me. Or, indeed, just to be around me. I’m infuriating. Especially when I’m doing something, like traveling, that is outside of my everyday routine. This is because I have a weird sort of borderline OCD, where, to prevent myself from giving into obsessive compulsive disorder, I do things very slowly and meticulously.
“I am zipping and buckling my bag,” I will tell myself while doing the same. “And I am watching my hands as I zip and buckle the bag. And I am seeing them zip and buckle the bag. And I am feeling the zip and I am feeling the buckle. And now I am seeing that the bag is zipped and buckled… So, five minutes from now, when I panic that I have perhaps left my bag open, I can remember this moment. I can remember that I have zipped and buckled the bag and that I saw that the bag was zipped and buckled. And everything is OK.”
And so on and so on. I find this behavior really tedious, and I can only imagine what a colossal pain in the ass it must be for anyone who’s around as I do it. Somehow Cam takes it in stride, though, and has developed the ability to avoid making me feel rushed (which, of course, would only slow me down more). It’s an extension of his having three kids, I suppose. Good dads are patient people. So he’ll sit there pretending to be interested in his phone until I get my helmet on; only then will he put on his jacket, helmet and gloves – thus saving him from having to just sit there and get overheated in his gear. Even so, he still usually ends up starting his bike before me.
I tell you all this to explain how I got up before 6 am but we did not leave the campsite until 9:30.
In the grand Choose Your Own Adventure book that is life I tend to feel I’ve picked the wrong direction if I’ve ended up in a McDonalds, but on this particular morning it was literally the only place in Fort William serving breakfast. And when the light rain that had been falling overnight turned to torrential downpour, that sausage McMuffin was the best-tasting thing on Earth. Dry and warm, we watched other motorcyclists pulling into the parking lot looking like drowned cats, ordered more hot drinks and waited for the worst of the weather to pass.
After skirting the shores of Loch Ness we eventually found ourselves following the North Coast 500, a tourist route that bills itself as Scotland’s version of Route 66. Cam and I had ridden the whole of the NC500 back in 2016 and the western section we were on now had been my favorite. It’s the Scotland that they put in postcards: rugged coastline, dramatic mountains looming in the distance, sudden squally downpours followed by blinding sunshine. And, as I say, the air.
The last time Cam and I were here I’d been riding a Honda CBR650F, a model that was woefully under-appreciated – to the point that Honda scrapped it after only a few years. But I’ll admit that it was not as suited to the go-slow-and-take-it-all-in nature of the NC500 as the Sport Glide. We were definitely not ‘making progress,’ as the RoSPA kids say, but we were having a hell of a good time.
In Lochinver we ate lunch so late that it served as dinner – haggis, neeps and tatties pie from Lochinver Larder consumed by the waterside – then arrived at our campsite in Clachtoll with plenty of time to hang our tents and other wet gear out to dry while we wandered down to the beach. The beaches in this part of Scotland look like the sort of thing you’d expect from a Caribbean island – pristine sand and crystal-clear water – but in the video I took from that day you can see that Cam and I are wearing sweaters and light jackets. Someday I’m going to be brave enough to go swimming at a Scottish beach. You probably won’t ever hear that story, though, because I’ll die of hypothermia.
If you are reading this outside of the United Kingdom, you may not have ever heard of the Clap for Carers, and if you live in the UK you may have already forgotten about it. During the first wave of the pandemic, from roughly March to May 2020, it became popular to stand at your door every Thursday at 8 pm, clapping and cheering and banging pots and making whatever else sort of noise you could in support of the country’s frontline medical staff.
The people of Penarth, where my wife and I were living at the time, fully embraced the idea and would shout at the top of their lungs for a solid 5-10 minutes each week. Kids would bang on drums or play trumpets and we’d all take the opportunity to shout “hello” to our neighbors. My wife, who was (and still is) frontline medical staff, would cry every time.
At least one person in Clachtoll had the same spirit. When Cam and I’d first arrived at Clachtoll Beach Campsite its owner had explained that we would likely hear bagpipes that night because a neighbor had taken to playing each week during the Clap for Carers and kept up the tradition ever since.
Sure enough, as Cam and I sat by our tents that evening, enjoying the cans of beer we’d stuffed into our panniers back in Lochinver, we heard the sound of bagpipes strike up at exactly 8 pm. The piper carried on for about 45 minutes and the experience of hearing them was something I don’t think I’ll ever forget. We tend to think of the bagpipes as a novelty instrument, reserved for jokes or military funerals. But when you hear them in their true habitat, their sound wafting across windswept hills in the Western Highlands, they are beautiful, stirring and mysterious.
Night comes late in northern Scottish summer but eventually light drained from the sky and we each fell into our tents. Warm, cozy and (finally) dry in my sleeping bag I slipped into one of the better sleeps of my life.
A WEE GEM
As the crow flies, the distance from Clachtoll Beach to Britain’s most northerly point is not that great – only about 75 miles. But Cam and I are not crows and there are few things a Scottish road engineer hates more than a straight line. Actually, to suggest that the routes of northern Scotland are in any way engineered or intentional is to give them too much credit.
Many thousands of years ago, humans travelled via the paths of least resistance, paths flattened out or cut by large animals, such as bison. That made sense because, generally, the only reason they traveled was for the sake of hunting said large animals. They weren’t really trying to get from A to B. On the meandering single lanes of the Scottish Highlands it is hard to imagine that the roads are anything more than an extension of those old routes. I suspect people just kept using the same animal tracks over centuries; villages were created because some people got lost along the routes and thought, “Fuck it, I just live here now;” then, at some point in the 20th century, they poured asphalt on the routes and called them roads.
All this to say that the spacetime between Clachtoll and Dunnet Head is far greater than you might suspect.
Not that I’m complaining. After rumbling out of our campsite we spent the morning cruising through a rocky maze of vibrant greenery, blue sky and bluer water, dotted by yellow flowers. Thanks to my tiny bladder we found ourselves stopping regularly for pee breaks that turned into photo breaks that turned into “walk around and breathe in as much of the air as you can” breaks.
On the move, the twisting lanes turned from one postcard view to another and the conversation over our Bluetooth headsets went something like this:
Rider in front: “Oh, wow! Wow!”
Rider behind: “What? Oh, I see. Oh, wow! Wow!”
Rider in front: “Pretty amazing, right? Ohm, hold on. Oh, wow! Wow!”
Rider behind: “What? Oh, I see. Oh, wow! Wow!”
Rider in front: “Pretty amazing, right? Ohm, hold on…”
It went on like this until we made our way to the Chocolate Mountain Cafe, a place that was somewhat famous on the NC500 in part because it was the only cafe in that particular corner of Scotland and in part because, you know, Chocolate Mountain. Why wouldn’t you go somewhere named Chocolate Mountain? (Unfortunately, it appears the cafe has closed since 2020. So bring a sandwich when traveling up there)
From there we made our way to the faster A836 and soon found ourselves at our accommodation well before check-in. The Aurora B&B is located about 15 minutes from Dunnet Head, down a quiet road and just sort of tucked into the sort of place you’d like to be. No one was around when we arrived, so we lounged in the early afternoon sun eating some of the chocolates we had intended to take home to our wives.
Eventually the owners returned from getting groceries. They apologized profusely for not being there, which was unnecessary because, as I say, we’d shown up a solid hour before check-in time, but such is the nature of Scottish hospitality. Rather than singing “If I knew you were coming I’d have baked a cake” the attitude is: “I absolutely should always have a cake ready at all times. And tea. And biscuits.”
All of which were produced in short order, then one of the owners, Jane, ran down a list of nearby places where we could eat that evening. She then booked a table for us at one of them while we unloaded our things.
“This place is such a wee gem,” Cam said as we checked out our rooms. “How’d you find it?”
Dumb luck, in other words. Which is so often the story of my life. I’m just some white trash kid from Texas, but somehow I’ve found myself in situations where a major motorcycle manufacturer will occasionally give me the keys to one of its bikes and I’ll wander off to someplace pretty. How does that happen? What do you have to do in life where awesome stuff like that happens to you on a relatively regular basis? Dunno. Make a bunch of mistakes, fall forward on a few, et viola: you’re on a Harley in Scotland.
At Dunnet Head Lighthouse – which Cam and I visited before dinner – I found myself thinking about that kid from Texas and being deeply struck by how far away I was (and am) from the place and person that kid had imagined for himself. I’ve had moments like this before, where I’d kind of like to be able to open a time portal to show that sticky-faced kid his future and ask him what he thought.
Probably my past self would be a disappointment to my present self and vice versa.
“Hey, Chris! It’s me! I’m you, but, like, 35 years older now.”
“Thirty-five years?! You’re not dead yet?”
“Cuz, that’s really old. You’re really old. You look super old. And skinny. Why don’t you have any muscles?”
“Hush. Just look at this. I wanted to show you that this is in your future! You.. well, I rode this super-cool motorcycle all over Britain. Isn’t that neat?”
“What’s Britain? Do you have a car that looks like the General Lee?”
“Cuz I want to grow up and have a car that looks like the General Lee. Why didn’t you do that?”
“Chris, you’re missing the point.”
“I mean, you haven’t even painted your motorcycle to look like the General Lee. Are you at least famous?”
“Why not? I want to grow up to be famous.”
“Yeah, well… That doesn’t happen. You have no discernible talent.”
Cam and I wandered around for a while taking photos, then rode to a pub for dinner. Afterward, we rode back to our B&B in the dying light and I was again reminded of Sportster dudes in New Jersey and the simple joy that riding can bring, placing me hundreds of miles from any place I’ve ever called home but exactly where I want to be.