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It's a long climb, to get to the bottom of things

know yourself. trust yourself. and hold on.

UNITED KINGDOM | Friday, 30 July 2010 | Views [525]

The doomsday clock maliciously turned hours into seconds as my final days in Iceland wound to an end. I scampered about, wishing desperately that I could gather up the entire country into one big bear hug and refuse to let go!

I had a big plan to sneak out to the Snaefelles Penninsula for the day- squeeze every drop of adventure out of the day. My first stop was Stykkishólmur- a port town that wants desperately to be Cape Canaveral but lacks the corporate sponsorship to really enact that kind of synergistic utopia experience. This is land of the TOUR GROUPS- lunch at a small diner took almost two hours, and all the kitchen could concoct in that amount of time was a bowl of soup, some bread, and an icecream sunday. Lunch of Champions. Already behind in my intention for the day, I cruised the coastline until the call of the crystal sand beaches drew me out to sea. The hardest part of having such beautiful beaches is that the sun never surrenders the potential of the scene. The cold frozen wind nips at the iceberg waves and toes shrivel in fear at the very thought of testing the water. The seagull calls mimic the Floridian morning, but only a fool believes the birds... brrrr!!!
I drove down to the big National Park with the mountain and glacier which lends the region its name. It was impressive, stoic, and throwing a climb-me gauntlet in my face- but time was not on my side. My hour was spend investigating the secrets of the most scenic graveyard in the entire world, filled with Sigur Gunnerssons and Kristina Karlsdottirs that bespoke the connections tying all together in eternity. My last hurrah for this field trip was a boulder along the lava rock beaches lining the return to Reykjavik and give the cliffs their proper indian names of Fat Man's Beer Belly, and Turtle Racing Horse Cliff. The Snaefelles is a little microcosm of Iceland. A little bit of all the scenery contained within a days drive. Only making it that much harder to say goodbye at the end of the day. The only way to cheer up a girl being deported from her newfound love is with CHEESE> dinner at Viking World it is!
So, to be fair, perhaps Viking World has some moment of full out popularity. Perhaps the stars align, the booths fill with token seeking tourists, and the servers forced to dress in "period" viking regalia actually bluster up the energy to give a good growl as they slam down the wooden goblet of ale before you... but definitely not on a saturday night at 10pm...and if not a saturday, then when??? Instead, it is depressively consigned to be a hotel bar filled with crusty old business travellers lacking in humor or exuberance for living the VIKING dream... more the pity. I contented myself with reading a few Saga summaries and mulling over the fact that the rotting carcass of shark was the least suspicious former sea inhabitant on the plate before me. And no Black Death moonshine chaser was going to sear the taste of pickled herring from my tongue! Little did I know that the exotic Ptarmigan poultry dish would have me yearning for the nasty little fish once more. Not even dessert could salvage the belly churning disturbance of a traditional Icelandic meal... ugh.

I had one last touristic monstrosity in mind. Along the road, everyone kept talking about the devastation wrought by the eruption of Eyjafjallajokull. I had been through that area on my first day of driving, but hadn't thought to pay attention for the signs of where it had happened. I wanted to drive as far as I could for the morning and then return the car by early afternoon. The area I had thought was just smooth dusted farmland was really massive mounds of volcanic ash. Circling a farm that said closed for camping, I found the forlorn swimming pool floaties looking on in catatonic depression at the black ash-filled pool. It struck me, the threats of environmental tragedy that the population endures on a constant basis creates such a fragile treaty of trust between the people and the land. They build up everything in the shadow of Eden, knowing that at any moment, they must allow it all to fall away. The price payed for opportunity here are more heart wrenching than some stock market number crunch- the hard work investments are ever more personal in depth. A bus pulled up by the roadside at the entranced as I meditated my moment of silence. Suddenly the doors opened and camera clicking tourists poured out of every hole! They crouched to the group clutching tiny plastic bags and began the ash inside as if it banked the value of Gold. Hundreds of disaster hunters visiting each day- I can only hope it acts as free aid to the farmers trying to unbury their land.
In my efforts to return the car, I pretzeled Reykjavik even more haphazardly than the first day. When I ended up trapped behind the airport again I couldn't help but pound the steering wheel with Viking shouts of "I hate you stupid Reykjavik" (what? were the vikings more eloquent??) I set out for the Runtur- my airport transfer leaves at 4am, no sense in sleeping when the pub crawl is going on! I erased the horrors of Ptarmigan by trying Puffin in Blueberry Brevin sauce, much nicer. And as long as I am being completely wrong and killing off my friends, I will say that whale is hardly worth the sadness that comes as a shooter on the side. I found a local bar off the strip- identified by blaring of American Cover songs jarbled out with the gusto of a massive man so talented he can still manage to change the riffs perfectly under the blitz of alcohol radiating from his blood. An old man came up and asked me to dance. Never one to pass up life, we swung around the dance floor in the classic style forgotten by the cyber generations today. My laughter blended into the symphonic track of glasses clinking together and feet tapping in time on the wooden floor. He gave me one of the best compliments of my life- "you are so completely unspoiled by life... so open and joyful" and ladies, i have learned very well on this trip one truth to life: no matter how unlikely the promise of the man, always take the compliment to heart, and say thank you! Let it brighten your day.
It is time to leave Iceland.
I absolutely want to stay forever, but the only reason I will get on that plane is because the last scene before me is Reykjavik- the bratty partying stepdaughter to the country I love.
I arrived in London a cracked out mess of the night before. Eyeliner shadowing my raccoon eyes, jeans under the dress from the night before, I am certain that immigration was skeptical if I could hack it in the formal English world. I decided to go all in and just hop the train straight to Edinburgh. Knocked out on the train, I woke up in a macabre medieval fantasy land leveled like a huge game of Mousetrap gone awry.
The culture shock of the scottish accent, the cars attacking from the road in all directions, the streets that could not decide upon one direction so they just as soon went straight up!, it was all too much for my sleepless mind to grasp. I huddled into some comfort food in the rainy night, and listened to the Gaelic local band until the pints of beer lulled me to sleep. And then I went home.
Now the viva vacation! attitude has trashed by body completely by this point. The least popular girl in any hostel dorm is the one hacking up a lung in the middle of the night. At this point, one week of no running, bronchial tubes weighing my lungs with ten pound gallons jugs, I was sick of being sick. Desperate for relief, I started taking the 2-yr expired antibiotics I always carry in my bag. You know what goes well with Antibiotics? Whisky. So begins the Scotland Whisky Experiment. Start stupid, I always say, and in Edinburgh that would be the Scottish Whisky Experience- an amusement ride in which you ride in a barrel of whisky through a Disneyfication of the brewing process. Im-aaaaaa-gin-aaaa-tion, Im-aaaaa---giiinnnnn--aaaaa-ttttiiiooon (if you have not been to Epcot, you will not get that reference). It all ends in a whisky tasting room, and I swear, the heat of the Laphroaig calmed my abused lungs and the coughing stopped for a full hour! It only started again in the Black Plague Room of the Real Mary's Close tour. The close is the name for the narrow alley the winds its way seven stories below the modern street. There are hundreds of cross stitched Closes all slanted down the hillside, geniusly running the sewage of the medieval city into the Nor Loch (bay to the sea). Effectually polluting the most likely source of water for the people, creating the long standing tradition of exclusively drinking whisky or beer. Mary's Close was particularly hit hard by the Black Plague- nearly 85% of the residents died. It highlights as one of the most disturbing and haunted places in the city as when superstitious turn of the century folk refused to live in the cursed locale- the city built a massive hall on top, using the old buildings as foundation and sealing the Close in a frozen timewarp of tragedy. Now, they have opened enough holes to allow the tourist access and hired ghost-impersonating actors to seal the deal.
Fact is, finding anything to do in Edinburgh that does not involve alcohol or dead people is pretty slim pickings! This city is morbidly obsessed (and this is coming from me!!!)
The castle was a main-tout attraction, and I doooo love a good castle. Pretty enough in moments, steeped in incomprehensible history, it did not really compare to the Wawel Castle in Krakow for my favorite vote. The exhibits ranged from artillery to Crown Jewels, impressive enough for a peasant American, but the moment with the most weighted gravity was the War Memorial filled with books upon books just listing soldiers fallen in every battle ever fought by the British empire. Then names seem to march in an endless brigade of sadness. The honor in their courage as smooth and solid as the grey slate walls, dedicated to protecting the citizens within.
Reflective, I took a hike up to King Arthur's Seat in Holyrood Park- a mountain that rises out of nowhere just down the street from tourist row. It was a steady challenging climb, and the sunset view was payoff enough for the day.
Off to Inverness! Capital of the Highlands, it will always be shopping mall shitsville to me. The one salvageable moment of Inverness was the hike a mile out of the city to Ness Islands- a really nice park that the locals use to work out in- everything from bootcamp to fishing in the river, it was a calm and welcoming few hours that had me napping comfortably on a bench. I met a local guy walking his dogs who will live forever in my mind as the only Scotsman I met who lived up to my expectations of who they would be. Stocky, burling in accent, and charming in temperament, he was rough around the edges in the nicest way. He told me that the Isle of Skye was really touristy and not as beautiful as Glen Coe and gave me a ride back into town, warning me of the shady parts that I should avoid after dark. I should have avoided it all after dark, as the English soldier barracks empty themselves on the town and the men gravitate towards estrogen like piranhas smelling blood.
I made it out of town alive, but man, I will never be in a hurry to go back!
It was here that I has to make the hardest of tourist decisions: I really don't give a shit about the Lochness Monster. I stopped here because it is touted in every tourist guide, on every tour and ever itinerary for scotland. And less than an hour away, I realized that I don't want to even waste one hour making a pilgrimage to a lake that hold absolutely no interest for me... now why was that such a hard decision to make? do I think I might be missing the coolest attraction that Scotland has to offer? Sometimes the hardest part of traveling is knowing yourself. If I know that I would rather hike in the mountains than spend a day on the tour bus, I should trust in that knowledge of myself, embrace it. Because that is why I am here! So you will have to forgive me if you were dying to know what it is all about, I don't care...
I did a day trip out to Isle of Skye, but believed my Inverness friend's advice only minutes after arriving in town. All Tourists. I hiked over the bridge between 'Land and Skye' and then hopped the first bus to Glen Coe.
The very minute I arrived, I fell in love. This is Scotland as it was always in my mind. Green, mossy, rolling forests dark with mystery... Tiny little cottages bursting with flowered plants advertising their inhabitant's taste. It was perfect in every way. I was savoring every minute of my 3 mile walk to the hostel right up until the local pulled up and offered me a ride. Perfect.
I stayed for a few days, in a wonderland of hiking and hospitality. Exploring the tiny little town Folk Museum, I met the alter-world Emily- a woman in her 40s from Chicago who married a Scot and moved back home with him to Glen Coe. She runs the little Folk Museum and spends all her time chatting up the locals and the tourists, bridging the gaps of knowledge in between. She had traveled the world in her youth, and envied my freedom and courage in striking out alone. I envied her roots and her settled cozy hometown security, her sense of belonging and the luck with which she landed somewhere so tranquil and filled with peace. I think I am learning about myself that perhaps I don't want to live in the big city anymore. Perhaps the pace of life is running me out of myself in ways that I don't appreciate... but that's a bigger discussion.
In the afternoon, I started the 8 mile hike to the trail head of the Lost Canyon hike. Glen Coe was the site of the MacDonald massacre during the Highland Clearances when England was trying to squash all Scottish nationalism in their bid for authoritative control. 300 people died in the fighting, women were set off in the harsh January snow without clothing or food until they died. Catching wind of the betrayal before them, the MacDonald's hid all their cattle in a Canyon hidden in the bosom of the Three Sisters Mountains. Game for a difficult hike, this one reminded me of the Swiss Alps with Marcus, sweat pouring rivets as rushing as the river below as the rock cliffs challenged my eyes to find what footprint was meant to be the path. I hadn't started out to climb the entire mountain, but once I passed the canyon and people started encouraging me that I was almost there, I felt like it would be a shame to stop now. The last mile or so was an impossible lung burner. I must be getting soft with the lack of running and the bronchial distress! I was completely amazed at the resilience of some of the aged climbers that I passed along the way. If I was so disheveled and broken by the climb, I have no idea how some of them managed!
At the top, I met with three boys my age. They assured me that I was not getting soft, that climb was near to impossibly difficult for them as well! But the VIEW!!! Coasting through the clear sky like a seagull on the wing, the View took your eyes sailing straight out to sea- beyond the Hebrides Isles out to the most western part of Britain and to the crisp blue horizon beyond! The most beautiful day Scotland has ever seen! and there we were to enjoy it!
It was a delayed bachelor party for the recently married Scot among them. All teachers, and certainly more handy with a map than I, they let me tag along the way down, mostly because my athletic exuberance put me in a category more boy than girl anyways. We took to the ridges, and ended up hiking all that the Three Sisters had to offer. It took much longer than we had imagined. Many times, the way down was a sheer drop of graveled treachery waiting to call us to a heavenly home. Several times we had to turn back and look for a better trail. But it was GLORIOUS> my favorite day in Scotland unquestioned. Glen Coe, you may not be Iceland, but you're alright!
The sad part of small towns is that you cannot miss dinner or you will not eat. We skated down the side of the mountain, running break neck speed for their car to get to the only pub and restaurant before their 9pm close. A ride home, warm food, whisky, and the company of new friends- this is what Scotland is about.
The next day, I did not want to impose even more on their boys weekend (and I would hate to get them in trouble with their wives) so I left early in the morning for the hike back into town. The bus took a solid hour to arrive and then I found myself in Fort William, facing a few hours more for my transfer to Glasgow. I decided to go to the Ben Nevis Distillery- named after the highest peak in Scotland and the first legal brewery in the region.
Now there are several categories of Scotch. Islay Island breweries are peat smoked and sea scented, very spicy and thick; Lowlands are smoothe and mellow with honey or heather calming the nerves; Speyside, a region in the east close to the highlands, is the most complex, hints of fruit and harvest underneath; and the Highlands- the rock hewn highlands are the whiskies of smoke and peat playing with the heather and honey at the finish. Ben Nevis is the last of these. The distillery only employs about 12 people, so the tour with our particularly quirky guide and a dry humorous sense of pomp and circumstance for what equates to them as farm equipment was pretty hilarious. I went for a real meal of Seafood as the region is famed for to dry out the afternoon. But when I finally got back to the bus station, there was still another hour to wait. At this point, it became obvious that when attempting to get anywhere in Scotland, it is going to take all day. Even an hour ride can easily turn out to be an 8 hour trek. Glasgow is only two and a half hours from Glen Coe, but it managed to take me ten hours to get there.
The first reality to strike me about Glasgow is this is a college town. I have never seen so many obscenely short skirts and sky high heels in my life! The friday night bustle around the town was retina searing in its frivolity. I felt old. really old. and considering how I was partying all night in Reykjavik, I was not entirely certain why. The parade of hot pink and purple hair, the doc martins mixed with platform heels and ripped fishnets- everyone was waaay too punk rock cool. Being a habitual participant in freak flag displays of tattoos and hair dye, I always feel like a double agent when in normal clothes on the scene. But for some reason, I could not feel a part of Glasgow. No matter where I went. Everyone was considerably younger or older than me, and not with a timeless welcome for the stranger walking by. I cannot really figure out this city, or why I don't like it. but I don't. Don't like it at all.
The next day, I could not face the city of distaste before me, so I headed out on a day trip to an Island on the Argyll Coast that I had heard was interesting to see. Arriving to the quaint little Victorian hideaway within two hours, I immersed myself in the novelty of old town, Scotland. Where everything is friendly and historic, and the newspaper has headlines of people cutting their lawns or buying a new car. I really love small towns.
Out of town about 5 miles, there lies one of the most impressive mansions I have ever seen in my life. Mount Stuart was built by one of the most powerful families on the British Ilses- the Stewart family, Marquis of Bute. Walking through the manicured forest acres surrounding the house, you would never know the difference between a national park and private property. The vaulted cathedral entrance of the house gives way to an open vestibule that invites the gaze skyward in the most natural way. The ceiling is painted with an accurate representation of the night sky in all seasons from these coordinates on the globe. The constellations are brought to life in astrological splendor. It is the most brilliant mural I have ever seen and I want one. If I had all the money in the world, my house would look entirely like the one before me. The cool seagreen halls, the mirrored ends that take the corridors off to infinity, the three libraries!!!, and two conservatory green houses! Envy! Beauty! The chapel ceiling is red glass from russia that in the afternoon light strikes the white marble of the alter with a blood stained reminder that redemption is borne through the pain of right hearted men. The bathrooms has bubble bath dreams borne of claw footed tubs. To have that much money is unfathomable! and such a dream.
I asked if the family ever visits. The curator said the current duke was visiting presently from America, but he has private apartments in an area of the house not open to the public. There is more?!?!?!
I meditation on Disney Dreams of Princes as I walked the grounds down by the Sea. My second favorite place in all of Scotland. and once again, in a small, unmentioned by tour books town.
The way home was not so pleasant. The ferry missed the train by seconds, an hour wait. The train missed the connection at Stirling, another hour. The Scottish Public Transit obviously studied with the CTA!
Walking around Glasgow at dusk, I was trying to convince myself to give it another chance. The breaking moment, when I found the Necropolis! WOW! And I thought Edinburgh was morbid! Glasgow has a whole city of gravestones rising watch over everywhere you go! The largest mausoleums I have ever seen, a veritable city within a city, of the Dead! It chilled me to the bones but I loved every second of it. I found a vegetarian bar that had a decent crowd and at least did not make me feel ancient and stodgy, so I decided maybe Glasgow could be okay, in some places.
The next day I went strolling up around the university, then checked out the street festival before leaving. Naw, still not impressed. Glasgow almost makes me like Edinburgh.... and that is saying a lot!
The problem I have with the city, both cities really, is that is seems entirely composed of tourists and Englishman. There are so many trainspotting wanna be young men trying desperately to get themselves a way into living in England. In my 10 days in Scotland, I met only four or five true Scots, and I was looking for them! Scotland reminds me of the American Indians- a country that has been so ravaged by the controlling interest of colonial masters that it takes the proud and culturally vibrant people and it breaks them. Alcohol dulls the fight of their warrior ways and they submit, opening casinos and even assimilating into the mentality of wanting to be one of their conquerors clan. But true scots, they are still holding on. In the small towns, in the kilt wearing weddings, in the stealing back their coronation stone (the stone of Scone) in the dark of night from Westminster Abbey, and in the cheeky satisfaction that the ultimate peace between England and Scotland only came when Mary, Queen of Scot's son James took the English throne Elizabeth left without an heir:
they are still holding on. Sadly outnumbered, they seem almost to be on the endangered species list. But that only makes you feel more lucky to have found them.

Tags: brenevin, edinburgh, emily predny, eyjafjallajokull, glasgow, glencoe, iceland, puffin, reykjavik, scotland

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