Lessons From the Highlands

Rush hour on the Ben Nevis trail

Rush hour on the Ben Nevis trail

I really was here

I really was here

I picked up a book called A History of Scotland at the National Museum in Edinburgh. While trying to decide between two different books, I went with Neil Oliver's because his began with a lengthy chapter on the geology of the northern UK and the influence landscape has on a country. I couldn't agree more that in many ways geography is destiny, or at least a considerable influence. And as our journey north was proving, we were far, far away from the pastoral gentility of southern England.

There aren't many places like the Highlands of Scotland. Their mountains are lower and more ancient than ours in the western U.S. so they are smooth and broad-shouldered. The landscape is strikingly un-forested except where trees have been intentionally planted for agriculture. When you plant a tree farm, you don't bother selectively harvesting your trees to preserve a habitat or the aesthetic of the scenery. So, once mature, these areas are clear-cut and resemble a post-apocalyptic waste land. Given this combination, it's the kind of territory where it's easy to imagine marauding mobs of painted-faced clansmen. Or it could be the setting for The Battle of the Five Armies where Elves, Dwarfs and Men go up against Goblins and Wargs. Roads are few. Except for an occasional group of grazing deer, vast swaths of land sit empty. It feels like the kind of place you would raise ruddy-cheeked, hard-scrabble children who chew all day on a piece of dried venison while collecting peat for the fire. In the driving rain.

No nasty Scottish rain today

No nasty Scottish rain today

We actually had great weather, unprecedented in fact, given it was a bank holiday weekend and according to the locals it's "never" sunny on a holiday. We were staying at a youth hostel at the base of Ben Nevis, the UK's highest mountain at 4,409 feet. Sadly, there were no other kids, even though many of the hostels over here market themselves as family friendly. I'm starting to think the laughing children we see in their brochures are paid to sit on the outside steps looking happy, despite the lack of pools or TV. Generally, we like hostels and they are usually clean and convivial. We can often get a private room for about $60 and pick up another $20 worth of food on the "Free" shelf in the communal kitchen, left by people staying there the week before.

If you don't want to sleep in the top bunk, try the drawer

If you don't want to sleep in the top bunk, try the drawer

C hiked to the summit of Ben Nevis the morning Z and I arrived on the train. He ran into ice on a precarious slope near the top. About the time he turned to look for an alternative route, one of the other hikers on the slippery path took a wrong step and fell hundreds of feet down snow and rock, necessitating a helicopter rescue. Which just goes to show that non-technical hiking can still maim you. I bet the guy wasn't from Scotland. I bet the Scots are patient enough to let the snow melt before traipsing to the top.  I've since decided mountains in the U.K. are a lot like the motorways: though relatively straightforward, they're mobbed with people and you'll always see some wreck by the side of the road.

The Hiker: the shot to take if you've just finished the 96 mile West Highland Way

The Hiker: the shot to take if you've just finished the 96 mile West Highland Way

The way C and I stay recreationally sane is to do what we call the Tag Team. Sometimes we both get to have an active day outdoors, but very rarely together. Occasionally we have a Family day. More often it's his day or my day and Z gets a Mama day or a Daddy day and everyone is happy. When I called C on my hiking day from a valley on the north side of Ben Nevis, he and Z were still throwing rocks in the river, just as I'd left them. Seems we've both figured out the easiest way to have an enjoyable time with our son is not to set out to do something, but let the day unfold and avoid resistance. On my day with Z we constructed a row of rock cairns and took turns throwing stones at them. For two hours. These are the moments when you try to convince yourself as a parent that you should find joy in doing the same thing over and over and over. And sometimes it happens, especially if you catch his expression when he's just won the game.

Mama Hiking Day : no sweeter walk have I ever taken

Mama Hiking Day : no sweeter walk have I ever taken

 

Because we always prolong our vacations I opted to book us on an overnight train back to London arriving at 6:30 am on Tuesday, at which point, I figured, there would be plenty of time to get Z back to St Albans and off to school by 9. A sleeper cabin for the three of us was nearly $600 so I opted instead for the "sleeper seat."  

Our seated sleeper coach offers a comfortable level of overnight accommodation. Most seats recline for added comfort and, in addition, have individual foot rests, tray tables and individual reading lights in an air-conditioned, non-smoking environment.
— ScotRail Website

I was convinced the experience was going to be like business class on an airplane and anticipated that the low lights and gentle shake of a moving train would be a terrifically restful way to return to England. Once again, the difference between expectations and reality was so vast I felt my Incredible Hulk coming on. For one thing, the seats "reclined" about as much as those on an airplane that abut the toilets. Secondly, they were again in that crazy, uncomfortable, facing-each-other configuration so that even if you could recline you would have to negotiate with the person across from you whether you put your legs between theirs for the first few hours or vice verse. I did manage to trade seats with an understanding man so I could at least put my feet on Z. But a "comfortable level of overnight accommodation" was such an impossibility that I eventually decided to try reading...all night long. When we disembarked at Euston station I had that buzzy, hungover feeling  without the memory of a fun evening. 

At 6:35 a.m. C took off for work wearing his backpack and I managed to get Z back home and to school before the gates closed. Then I lay down for what would be a three-hour compensatory nap. I decided Mr. Oliver was right when he said the Scots are a product of their rugged, rain-drenched, inhospitable landscape. Clearly, to endure the torture of ScotRail's overnight seat, you must have been brought up to believe that upholstery and heat are a luxury and body position is irrelevant to a good night's sleep. I've heard that if a negative experience happens at the end of a trip rather than the beginning, you're more likely to perceive the entire trip less favorably. And really, the Highlands don't deserve to be sullied by my sleep-deprived crabbiness.  So after stretching out unempeded on the sofa, I did manage to savor the memories of quiet valleys and dramatic scenery and ponder returning to The Highlands...when Z agrees to hike.  

Dad, here’s a walking stick for you. You can pretend you are an old man. Actually, you are an old man. Here take this and bend over and walk.
— ZFW 3/23/14