“In daylights,in sunsets, in midnights, in cups of coffee. In inches, in miles, in laughter, in strife.”
That’s right, we started with a quote from Rent. But it rings true: the way we measure a day back home may be in hours, books, or classes, but on the road it’s different: we can eat our way through the day, from one meal to the next (kind of our M.O. all the time, really), or we can watch the miles tick by, a hundreth at a time, or we could count the number of cows that pee directly at us as we pass. It’s all a matter of perspective.
Last week we were lucky enough to share our trip with family; first with our dear friends Peter and Gemma, who cycled with us from Inverness to Edinburgh around the east coast, and then a lovely weekend with Ian’s cousins Paul, Ann, and progeny. We have our routines, but the moment we spend a day with others, our rhythm, our methods of measuring time and finding our way, drastically change–as does our point of view. This week’s riding was all about navigation, and where GPS units, maps, or advice from locals on the corner can take you.
Day 6: June 13, Glenmore to Cawdor Castle, 69.6 miles.
We awoke with the sun, which in Scotland near the solstice is just after 4am, with the ambitious plan of riding 45 miles into town to meet Peter and Gemma as they arrived by car, with their own tandem in tow.
Finding friends without phone reception in a new country is an exciting experience. Our ride all morning, through blustery rain and wind, was tinged by mild anxiety; we were accountable to people beyond our small domestic tandem sphere!
We arrived in the busy city of Inverness with time to spare (that’s how we roll), but with no knowledge of where Peter or Gemma were. Our time in Inverness was alternatively spent searching for maps of the area and searching for our friends, both with the same objective: knowing where we should cycle next.
All was well; communications occurred, and we found our friends (though not our maps), jetlagged but excited to ride. After reassembling their tandem in the airport, out of the wind (thank you, Inverness!), we were ready to roll by the reasonable hour of 6pm.
Already, our biological clocks were reeling. We should have eaten dinner, showered, and been in bed by now, or at least playing cards! Instead, we rode under clearing skies up the grassy bluffs of the coast towards inland woods, where we found picturesque gardens and an impressive drawbridge at Cawdor castle (unfortunately two-hours closed). Ian was terrified we’d be chased off by dogs, but we spent a happy hour enjoying the grounds before wheeling across the road and into a wood for night of camping among a carpet of blue flowers under beech and pine.
Day 7: June 14, Cawdor Castle to Dufftown, 52.3 miles
Peter and Gemma graciously handled all the planning for our week together, setting a winding route through central-eastern hill country that chased distilleries and castles. And they were prepared with routes pre-programmed into a GPS watch. This digital technology proved powerful and helpful, but lacked something our on-the-ground experience could provide. No matter how much we had ‘dropped the dude’ on Google Maps (try it sometime) to locate the most scenic routes, we had discovered from experience that most ‘A’ roads, although innocent looking on a computer screen’s street view, were essentially highways, frequented by heavy traffic. So, technology, gut reactions, and well-signed National Cycle routes collided and carved us a brilliant track through whisky country.
Measured by Cycle Route 1 road signs and bleeps and bloops from Ian and Peter’s fancy watches, our days were punctuated with destinations. Peter and Gemma were hell-bent on Belvanie, a small, local distillery in the town of Dufftown. It was strange not to pilot ourselves, but Peter led well, winding our way along country roads, and even over a ford in a stream! That evening we arrived outside of Dufftown excited for the next day of whisky tasting. We set up a lovely wild-campsite above a stream, complete with stump chairs and tables, and enjoyed a delicious meal under a massive, old tree.
Day 8: June 15, Dufftown to Ythan Valley Campsite, 55.1 miles
We arose excited for a morning of whisky. We cycled into a very quiet Dufftown, where no GPS, WiFi, or information center could find us breakfast. Ian wandered around until he found a woman rushing to work, and aided by local knowledge we found ourselves in a family-run hotel, eating breakfast in what felt like a living-room, listening to a mother in the kitchen singing “if your happy and you know it…”
Time drifted over sausage and haggis, and we unknowingly showed up at the Belvanie distillery 30 minutes late for a tour. Undaunted, we headed next door to the mother-distillery, Glenfiddich, where tours are plentiful, as is the whisky.
The tour itself was a fascinating exploration of time. We, adjusted as we are to days of constant movement, were disoriented. We had ridden 5 miles, and as we stood in the close and aromatic dark of a warehouse filled with barrels waiting decades for their time in the sun, we thought of the late evening of cycling ahead. The process of distilling whisky is a practice in patience and stillness, and while the story Glenfiddich told was fascinating (and sometimes laughably cliche) it stood in wonderful contrast to ourselves. Theirs was a story of tradition, rootedness, and aging in the cool dark, attempting to preserve a sense of timelessness in a changing world, while we intruded in our neon spandex as we traveled along our transient way.
As it was, whisky got the better of us, and after a lengthy tasting, we wobbled out to our bikes well into the afternoon, with 50 miles ahead of us. Our spirits were understandably fortified, however, and we biked through rain with gusto. A late night of cycling paid off, as we were welcomed at 9pm in Ythan Valley Campsite, looking forward to a day off.
Day 9: June 16, Ythan Valley Campsite, 9.8 miles
Navigation, measurement, and numbers fly wonderfully out the window on days off. We awoke to a delicious home-cooked, locally grown breakfast by Libby, our splendid host, and set out to explore the local estate of Haddo House while cycling and walking as little as possible, and eating and sleeping as much as possible.
This our little group excelled at. We explored massive rhododendrons on the House grounds, critiqued the geometric but not fully filled out flower beds, ate nutella, searched for a non-existent pheasantry, hopped fences, and ultimately enjoyed one of the best naps of all time, suspended in nests in a climbing structure. There is nothing quiet as spontaneous as climbing rope-rigging and then deciding to sleep.
The day ended in fine form at the local pub in Methlick, where we took the Legion’s table, where educated of its history, and proceded to make fools of ourselves sampling local beers and haggis balls all evening.
Day 10: June 17, Ythan Valley to Stonehaven
So far Peter’s GPS had taken us cross-country, dodging A roads, but today was the first day we would rejoin National Cycle Route 1, and trump digital planning with the established route on local trails. That said, we couldn’t find the damn map. Ian saw it back in Glasgow our first day in Scotland, but decided not to buy it. Big mistake–we never saw it again.
Instead, we relied on a combination of Route 1 road signs and Peter’s watch. They are reliable, but offer just enough ambiguity to produce seeds of maddening doubt, requiring us to scry the satellite gods.
We decided to visit Tolquhon Castle on the way, which required an abandonment of backroads, but paid off. We explored an abandoned ruin for free, before it opened for the season.
We made our way into Aberdeen, which stretched its suburban tentacles for miles, and ensnared us in traffic that did nothing for our moods. Ian did his best to wayfind by sight, but after literally turning the group around 180 degrees, it took GPS to get us back on track. A twenty minute side trip attempt to find the ever-elusive map, to no avail. Aberdeen may have chewed us up, but when it spit us out, we were cruising down a sunny(ish) coast, with the North Sea stretching out to the east.
Spontaneity is best when driven by the stomach. We found an award-winning fish and chips by the sea, and abandoned any camp-cooking for a greasy meal and ice cream. The day ended cycling down cliff-paths through nettles and field-gates to the cliff side castle of Dunnottar. We found arguably the best wild campsite ever overlooking the castle ruins and the sea in a soft gully, where we watched the evening pass while sharing whisky.
Day 11: June 18, Stonehaven to Tayport, 66.4 miles
Time can get away from you. Dunnottar is in its own time-zone, and we slowed down enough to soak in the details of its history, stretching back at least 800 years. We all share a love of history, and we spent a fine morning thinking of the lives that were lived and lost on this rock. Even in the pathetic sliver of human time in this universe, we felt tiny when exploring such an old and weathered artifact.
When we decided to join the living again, it was lunch time, and Ian did his best to get everyone to try marmite. It did not go well. Christine preferred pies, especially mac n’ cheese pie.
On our way south, Route 1 failed us. We followed one sign and found ourselves on a busy highway, brutally intense. We headed down to a coastal path, and it was cobbled with tetrahedrons, pointy side up. We’re pretty sure it was beautiful, but we can’t tell you for sure, because we were too focused on not getting hit, or not crashing.
The jostling of the bikes over the stones rattled our brains and soured our moods. Peter, attempting to GPS his way along, kept missing Route 1 signs on the road, and Ian, obsessed with sticking to Route 1, kept the group to the trail, regardless of how tetrahedronic it got.
Thankfully, we beat back the dementors with chocolate, smoother paths, and a kick-ass anthem that we composed and performed at the top of our lungs through the persistent drizzle.
Again, time slipped by faster than we could keep up. The evening wore on as we found our way through the desolate dockyards of Dundee, a bridge with an elevator, and eventually the quiet southern shores of the Firth of Tay. In the darkening evening we stood outside a tavern, listening to a fiddle, tempted to spend a little more time (and money) on another lovely experience, but we had run out of sunlight. We scrambled to the town’s edge and camped on the shore of the sea, ate a hasty meal, and escaped into our tents and out of the wind.
Day 12: June 19, Tayport to Inverkeithing, 62.5 miles
Peter’s watch has a function that will search for the nearest location of cafes. We cannot fathom why we didn’t think of this as we rode south through the kingdom of Fife toward Edinburgh. We cycled from town to town, looking for a tea room, a pub, anything, but between 10:30am and 12pm, nothing in Scotland is open. Everyone must be somewhere doing secret Scottish things.
Emaciated, dehydrated, and deflated we tottered into Falkland at noon. Maps and GPS could not find us the nearest scone, but people can. We approached a kindly looking couple, who explained they weren’t local, but immediately went off to find some. Baffled and appreciative, we ended up being directed to the Hayloft Tea Room, where we had a proper Scottish tea, complete with scones and the thickest cream you can imagine.
We had plans to visit an island castle down the road, but the Falkland Palace drew us in, a 16th century castle renovated in the 1890s, resulting in an anachronistic mash up of intricate woodwork, tapestries, plaster, and finery. Part of the palace has been left in its ruined state, and it was fascinating to compare the architectural bones we are accustomed to seeing with the actual home royalty lived in. Stone was the steel girder of its time; life was lived in a wooden and cloth shell inside.
Such a lovely castle had a price: we hauled ass from Falkland, but missed the last ferry to the island castle in Loch Leven by twenty minutes. We medicated with ice cream and a hill climb into green horse pastures that Gemma described as ‘revelatory.’
On to Dunfermline, just north of Edinburgh. Again navigation in the modern world proved fickle, as what GPS and the interwebs told us was a campsite turned out to be a neighborhood of homes. We tried Google again, however, and discovered Chris, to the south, and his quirky ‘Gimme Shelter’ campsite.
Day 13: June 20, Inverkeithing to Pencaitland, 33.8 miles
Peter, Gemma and we had perfected a multi-media-navigational system of finding our way, strung along by road signs, technology, and head-butting, but it was time to say goodbye. Peter and Gemma are headed to the north-west coast, and after a hearty goodbye we met Ian’s cousin Paul in downtown Edinburgh.
Peter and Gemma have shown us the joy of using every moment of daylight to squeeze in all the miles and sights a day can bring. Thanks, lovies!
Without a map (freaking Route 1 maps still evading us), we leaned on Paul as a guide. Luckily, we had found ourselves an expert. Paul took us on a tour of the city over its many volcanic hills and by gorgeous monuments and architecture. Heading east toward his family seat we did our best to keep up, and Paul dragged us over hill and dale to our weekend home.
Day 14: June 21, Pencaitland, 0 miles
It has been a lovely day off with Ian’s family. Paul and Ann have a gregarious set of twins and an affable teen son, with whom we spent the day touring Edinburgh, eating sweets downtown, and walking over dunes and through tidal pools. It was a day of rest physically but also mentally. We had no directions to decipher, and happily followed along as Paul taught us local history and shared family stories.
Between delicious home-cooked feasts and much needed baths, we poured over maps and plotted our route with Paul’s WiFi and guidance. We’ve shed two pounds of paper containing Google Map directions in this way.
As we keep traveling, we hope to be so lucky as to keep finding people like Paul, who will share local know-how and direct us to maps and websites to find the next days route. We have planned our way already, but it is with the help of others and just a little bit of Google that this trip is realizing itself.