Tower Hamlets Wheelers Western Scotland and Inner Hebrides tour, or welcome to Scotland, may I see your rain gear please.

29 April 2006 - 8 May 2006

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Day 1: London to Lochranza
Day 1 pictures
Dave A. and Caroline's Photos of Scotland

Up before the dawn, an early day, have to get to Finsbury Park to catch the train. My first big bike tour. I hope I packed the right stuff. I did some last minute oh I need this and jettison that in a vain attempt to find the perfect balance of stuff to get me through the week. Much wiser now, the next time will be perfect.

No Kings Cross because of maintenance work (note this item as a reoccurring motif through out the day. Dear England and Scotland, this is your railroad, we are closed for the bank holiday weekend, please stay home and don't bother us. Hugs and kisses, National Rail.) I would see many happy faces today as everybody found out that trains were delayed and canceled all over the place.

So, skip ahead to much later, made it to Edinburgh. On the way, I admired the fields of yellow. Pretty stuff. Not the same stuff as the yellow bushes all over Scotland. Gorse, I asked many times, forgot just as many. Will not forget now, gorse, gorse.

Rage started showing. I made my way to the car with the bike rack on the Glasgow train and made sure I was first on. A dad then crowded on with his three sons and their bikes and when the conductor told them there were too many bikes on the train, he raged and cursed and said many colorful things about the rail system. (See, a motif.) He must have worked it out later because two of the sons ended up back on and I presume the rest of them somewhere else on the train.

Glasgow, off to my 15 minute tour as I tried to find the other train station for my connecting train to Androssan. Hmm, more trouble on the horizon, there are no trains to Androssan today. Please Ms. nice ticket lady, write down exactly where I need to go and what trains and where to switch. Of course it didn't matter because the train from Kilwinning got canceled anyways. After a while, they found a coach to take me, my bike in the cargo hold, and a bus load of pissed off yet jolly passengers to somewhere. They let me off somewhere in Androssan, which was close enough, go that way behind those buildings and there is a ferry there.

Found it, got tickets, only 30 minutes to the last ferry of the day. So, considering everything, not bad. Met up with Gursh and John there and rode the ferry over. The ride from Brodick was uneventful, lots of sheep, earth tone colored plants and landscape, wind, hills, and the sun set on us. The hill seemed awful at the time but in retrospect it was probably not much at all. Today as I was leaving for work, I loaded a bunch of extra stuff I probably didn't need at work into my pannier, I suppose as a sentimental thing, or maybe so that I don't lose my edge so quickly.

We were the last arrivals, so things were already winding down for the night. Dinner had already been served and the local restaurants had all closed. Gary hooked me up with spare pasta that was around and I was happy. This introduced me to the never ending wonder of food on these tours. For one thing, I don't even like food all that much but there was just so much good food, and so much of it too. And also of the wonder of the packrat tendencies. Nobody had any food but pretty much anybody could pull together stuff out of pockets and panniers to feed a family of eight, which I suppose would feed two cyclists. And locusts, and in other news, a pack of 11 cyclists descended on town X and tore through the entire scone supply and only left a small trail of empty tea cups. 22.30 miles for the day. Sorry, I don't know what that is in kilometers since I don't speak kilometers. America beat off that pesky metric system in the 70s.

Day 2: On Arran
Day 2 pictures

Starting out at Lochranza, lots of small subgroups had their own ideas about what to do for the day. I chose the sightseeing group with Dave and Caroline and Rob which promised standing stones, caves and many tea stops. A few deer had been fighting outside out back of the hostel, the weather seemed hopeful and as I remember, somebody gave me some porridge too. Oats, I ate a silo full of the things. It is amazing how many different forms oats can take.

Anyways, heading off down the west coast, we ran into Gursh at the small shop down the road, starting another theme for the day, and for the trip as a whole, of Gursh disappearing and reappearing at random times. Where he went, nobody seems to know. We ride off and I'm quickly distracted by a cute little graveyard just a bit further on. But we have a tea stop to get to, where strangely enough (or perhaps not strangely at all), we run into everybody else who had left so much earlier than we did. After tea, we make our way to Machrie and the standing stones there. We walk, we pass sheep and climb over fences and there they are. Most are tiny and mostly missing stones, but two of the circles have pretty impressive tall stones still left.

Head back to collect our bikes. Hi Gursh, bye Gursh. And ride south to Blackwaterfoot and have lunch in the golf course cafe. Head back up north to trek through the woods, across a ridge where we can see the plains where we just were with the standing stones, and down the coast to see King's Cave where Robert Bruce hid out, much like the dozens of log cabins (built out of modern logs years after his death) across Illinois where Abe Lincoln (who wasn't born in a log cabin) was born. Still the walk was nice. Hi Gursh, bye Gursh, and then we make our way down to the ocean and try to figure out which cave is the right one. Must be the one with the steel grating in front, which fortunately was unlocked so we could experience history first hand. Much like the family in the cave next to it who was living history by camping out in that cave.

Ahh, then the fun starts, although I don't know how we came out better off than Gary did in Iona with his muddy shoes. But anyways, we could have gone back over the same trail or taken the adventuresome trail through the woods, which was noted might be somewhat boggy. Ok, wiser now. It was fine going up the hill and into the woods, but at that point the trail disappeared as did a lot of the dry footing. Rob had a compass which was probably good otherwise we would have ended up probably even further off the trail. Eventually we ended up back on the original trail and had to backtrack a ways, but at least it was dry.

We called it a day and headed back, up a few steep grades and through 45 minutes of rain. Dinner was prepared and the walkers tried in vain to get us to join in with their Scottish dancing. They actually looked like they knew what they were doing and didn't have somebody calling out confusing and contradictory instructions, and somehow skillfully avoided the big pole in the middle of the room. So, way beyond my abilities. 35.91 miles for me for the day.

Day 3: Lochranza to Kilmartin
Day 3 pictures

Leaving Arran today. Even though Gursh had scouted out the shop yesterday with pretty decent bacon sandwiches right by the ferry, when it came down to it, we completely forgot, terrified by Gary's strict set of rules, the 9 pm check in policy (or he is calling the police) or the no futzing with your bike any later than 15 minutes before the assigned leaving time, and some other ones that I forget now. You know Gary, blah blah blah.

An earlier group had gone to ride a longer distance, but being the lazy person I am, I opted for the more sleep and less distance option. We swing by Lochranza Castle, considering it is like 20 feet off the main road, it was silly not to. I was a bit disappointed by the plastic sheeting and scaffolding. If I wanted to see historic scaffolding, I would go back to Brooklyn. Some of that stuff has been in the same place since the beginning of time. Caught the ferry on time and all was good. I seem to remember a bit of rain then, but that could cover most days.

We started out again at Clanoaig and started up over the pass towards Redhouse. Not awful but practically nothing jumps out of my memory about it all. I was a bit mesmerized by the alternating black and white striped poles. A few steep sections but overall not bad. A descent down towards the water and turn north towards Tarbert. As things go, my thoughts turned to thoughts of the next tea stop. In Tarbert, I toyed with the idea of the full Scottish breakfast, but I didn't want to deal with black pudding. If you start pulling items out, then what's the point, a lot less full breakfast then.

Later, up north in Lochgilphead, we slowed down to use an ATM and we encountered a chatty old man who wanted to talk about birds and lumber shipping and parts of London he knew and blah blah blah. We disengaged and moved on. We did a bit of shopping in town and decided on a picnic by the loch. I'm still a bit bitter at the couple in the shop who was behind me in line and who hopped ahead and then proceeded to order every stupid thing on the menu. And since I ordered something that needed to be heated, everybody else was far into their lunch by the time I got mine and across the street to the bench. Started raining a bit too then.

We found an entrance to the canal, just past the local BMX youths goofing around and jumping around on their bikes. We thought we were breaking the law by going on an un-Gary-approved route, but we ended up catching up with the rest of the group on the canal before we got to Crinan. Were we still rebels by going that way before we knew it had been approved independently? Well, I'll choose to think so. Breaking the law! Breaking the law!

We admired the Moine Mhor and the fuzzy faced cows and their standard of life clomping around in the mud eating substandard grass. But, the next tea stop, on to more important things. Crinan was a lovely little town, boats and locks and the whole deal. There was some famous boat there, some rusty thing that apparently was on British tv at some point but since it wasn't the General Lee or the motorcycle that Ponch or Jon rode on CHIPS, I can't be bothered to be excited about it and look up what it was. And the tea and scones were lovely too. Cheryl and Che continued their tradition of buying every post card on the rack.

Back down the canal to the turnoff to head through Moine Mhor and a last glimpse at the fuzzy faced cows. Flat, fast, and scenic. Ohh, more standing stones near Stockavullin, must go see those. Then a fast final bit into Kilmartin, the lovely church quickly coming into the foreground, with a nice looking cemetery off the side, and the day was a rousing success. 39.28 miles for the day.

Oh wait, lodging for the night. Yeah, not all was right with the world. John was the hero for the day. While we all sat in the pub drinking and Gary frantically made calls trying to find somebody to open the hostel, or make alternative arrangements, John tracked down the guy, interrupted his drink and followed him home to get the key. So, crisis averted. Nice detective work there.

We all had dinner in the pub, sort of a grateful gift to the bartender for all his offers to help. The food was quite nice though. Although the hostel was totally stocked, we could have pocketed enough supplies to keep us on the road for weeks.

Day 4: Kilmartin to Oban - And let it rain.
Day 4 pictures

I wandered over to the church to admire it just after getting up. The church was nothing special but the graveyard was rather nice. There were a fair amount of boring modern graves but there was also a nice selection of old medieval grave stones, I seem to remember from like the 14th and 15th Century. It had a nice view out over a sheep pasture backed by some hills. The weather seemed nice enough, slightly misty rain but nothing awful.

Then after breakfast, not pleasant at all. We had no fixed timeline for the day, no ferries, no particular time to leave, no time we needed to be somewhere, so it took a while to get moving. Did I mention rain yet? All hell hadn't broken loose yet but it was starting to warm up a bit. Everybody slowly started moving towards their bikes, putting stuff on, seeing if things were sealed. Dave A. had figured out the previous day how the covers fitted on my panniers, which was good since I would have been even sorrier. As it was, fun fact, did you know if you have a tiny hole in the bottom of your pannier and you spend all day riding through puddles, whatever you put in the bottom of the bag will end up looking like soup. It is true and I have documented proof about that.

We set out and then made it all the way across the street to the Kilmartin House Museum. Historic and somewhat interesting, but mostly dry and not raining inside. Dave T. dazzled us with his musical talents on the singing stones and we learned all about what goes in cairns and what people think the cup and ring things mean. And we dried off from our half a block of riding in the rain. And we headed out again to brave the rain. Some left and I wavered, tempted by the promise of a hot tea and a scone. Jam and cream, of course. We sat in a pleasant dining room covered in glass looking out over the sheep pasture (borderline bog) and watched the rain and the sheep clomping through the mud.

I am kind of delaying writing about the ride this day because for the most part, I don't remember it. It was straight up the A road to Oban. I know the rain must have stopped for a few minutes because I have a few pictures without pouring rain. Was this the day with the crazy descent that nearly blew me off my bike? I was already paranoid and holding on against the wind and as we came over the ridge and saw the water below, the crosswind nearly blew everybody off the mountain. I can't remember if this was the right day though. Scary stuff though, panniers act a lot like sails in the crosswinds.

I don't even really remember getting wet but just being wet for days afterwards. And the most crushing thing, I didn't cry when trains got canceled and delayed getting to Arran, I didn't cry when I finally had to leave the nice museum tea shop and ride all day in the pouring rain, but, sniff sniff, I rode 30 miles, sniff, in the pouring rain, sniff sniff, dreaming of a hot shower and you are telling me there is no hot water? It came on later but I was just too crushed and depressed to try that all over again. You know, the first cut is the deepest.

And how sad is this, 30 miles in the rain, already dripping soaking wet, we walk over to the grocery store to stock up for dinner. It was just way too much to walk back in that rain. Yeah, I'm a little bitter too at the bad people who stole our taxi, that was ours and you took it and you will have to suffer the karma for that act through lifetimes. I do think that a lot more places should install those hot air blowing door things. If I could have put my panniers under those, they might have dried out a lot sooner. The replacement cabbie was chatty and full of useless knowledge.

Nice dinner that night, cooked over across the rainy street in the other kitchen and brought back as quickly as possible before it became waterlogged. Much wine was consumed and lentil stew and a large stack of postcards were written and off to bed. Apparently Oban is a lovely place, it has an odd folly at the top of the hill, a fake coliseum, and probably has other stuff, but it was hidden under a blanket of heavy rain. Oh well, maybe another time. 28.90 miles for the day.

Day 5: Oban to Iona - Baa baa black sheep
Day 5 pictures

Probably my favorite day of the trip, long scenic mountains, black sheep, rocky wind swept islands, sunsets over the ocean, how does it get better than that?

Morning dawned and the rain seemed to have mostly passed. We had a quick look around Oban as we made our way to the ferry. The distance that seemed impassible last night from the grocery store seemed to be a bit of a joke now. On the ferry, we hopefully eyed the sunlight off in the distance, not exactly in the direction we were going but if it was there, maybe there was hope.

Once we started going in Craignure, it was raining slightly but it cleared up after a while. It was a long slow climb over the mountains. Most everybody got pretty spread out after a while. There was a lonely broken stone house near the top with a wooden cross. It looked so sad and ghostly. I rode by myself for quite a while. It is a strange feeling being in the middle of the mountains, nobody in sight, hoping that you are on the right road and going the right way. Sort of lonely and sort of nice at the same time. I watched the black and white stripped poles go by and every hillside looked like my favorite Section 25 album cover, you know the one with the hillside with the different colored bamboo poles scattered up the side of it spelling out From The Hip in a way that only would make sense to Factory Records.

Finally, a bit outside Pennyghael, Che and Cheryl show up for a tea and oat cake break in a bus shelter, until the bakery van pulls up and starts conducting business out the back. Must have been selling dodgy cakes at a discount or something. We push onto Pennyghael and invade the solitary post office/store there, eleven teas please.

Onward to the port town of Fionnphort, we stop for ice cream and I take a quick run through the cemetery. The ferry is pulling up so we run to catch it. It isn't on a fixed schedule so we take it when it is ready to go. The other half of the group is still riding through Mull so once we get to the hostel, Dave A gets sent back to be the welcoming party. The island is only one and a half mile by three miles and there is a single road but it doesn't really say anywhere where the hostel is located.

The ride through town is nice, past the ruined nunnery, past the abbey, past lots of sheep, and to the sheep farm hostel. The island is where Christianity snuck into Britain and it has a bit of that feel still plus a new agey crystal power thing going on too. I think we disturbed some of the people in the common room, clomping in with our bike stuff as they were talking about religion and spirituality and proceeded to kind of take over the kitchen. But we left them alone for a while. The showers were fine and if riding 40 miles wasn't enough, it was time to explore the island. Why don't we climb a 100 meter peak?

Different groups went off in their own directions. I ended up with Che and Cheryl on the back side of the island, wandering through the black sheep near the hostel (seemingly the only ones of that type on the island) and then the rest of the white ones. Che saw the white sand beach and made a beeline towards that, shoes off and I swear she was twirling. I find sand in shoes annoying so I stuck to the higher ground.

Circling around then, we headed up the peak, Dun I as it is labeled on the map. The climb was a bit of scrambling through rock fields and a lot of trying to pick your way through the least boggy parts. I tried avoiding as much as I could but the criteria for a not soggy step seems to diminish as your foot gets wetter and nothing good happens when you take a really wet step and panic and lose where you were had picked your next dry step to be.

The view from the top was spectacular and well worth the climb to the top. You could see the entire island and a lot of the ocean and surrounding islands. Dave T showed up just as it started raining lightly and we were wondering how to get down, well without going through the bogs again. He said he came up a different way and knew how. (Turns out he didn't know at all, but he seemed so confident about it.)

Dinner was started, a chili, baked potato and apple crumble spectacular. There is still a bit of dispute over the potatoes, who turned on the oven, why they were nice and cooked on top and a bit raw on the bottom and how the crumble got a bit burned in just a few minutes, but no matter, it all got cooked enough eventually and there were little to no remains left afterwards. The wine might have helped too.

The sun set in the meantime and we all ran outside to see it go down and hoping for a green flash. But it was too cloudy for a flash but it was still a pretty sunset. The sheep seemed confused by the whole thing and didn't seem very impressed by the sunset. But I guess they see the same one every night. They got their revenge though, every gust of wind during the night set them off so the night was punctuated by their baaing. Very good day though, 37.62 miles and a long hike and climb up a hill (totally different muscles, you know?)

Day 6: Iona to Tobermory - Six months in a leaky boat, or the storm of the decade.
Day 6 pictures

Morning in Iona was hopeful, I even started out with my sunglasses on. And they aren't even rose colored. The sky was clear, it was warm, sheep were baaing, it was going to be a good day. I just stuck to shorts from now on. I came to the conclusion that if I wore my waterproof trousers, my legs would be all wet anyways. Or if I wore the not so waterproof trousers, my legs would also be wet anyways. But if I wore shorts, my legs will still be wet anyways but they would dry. Che kindly lent me some waterproof socks, so I was ready for anything, even after getting my shoes all boggy last night. Bring it on.

I wish I had seen more of the front side of the island, you know, the touristy parts, the abbey, the nunnery and whatever else, but oh well. I snapped a few quick pictures as I wizzed by. A pretty island, Iona, it has a neat feel to it. We head back quickly, retracing our previous afternoon. Same stuff, the cute little port town of Bunessan, and the rest of it all. We reach the outskirts of Pennyghael and Cheryl races ahead, I assume anticipating the post office/store, but Pennyghael is mean and goes on for a few miles before you get there. We somewhat dejectedly press on to the stop.

As we are sitting there, the weather takes a decided turn for the worst. Hey, where did our nice sunny day go? I might have to take my sunglasses off and put a jacket on again. Hmm, there's a theme I missed too, the changes. I should have kept track of how many times I took something off, changed jackets, tried trousers, or how about shorts now. Some days were just ridiculous, like all the costume changes at an Elton John concert.

Turning north then, I started out a bit late after the break so I was pretty far behind and it took a while to catch up. The road was very curved and a lot of ups and downs. I eventually caught up near where it turned into a very nice newly surfaced road through what looked like a forest that had been planted all at once and going up a very long steady climb. Once we hit the downhill, the road got a little more beat up and about 1/3rd the way down, everybody seemed to stop at the same spot, even if they were not together at the time, and knew it was time to cover up.

The next little bit is a blur in my memory. I remember it starting to rain, and I especially remember going around a corner and seeing the water off in the distance looking very rough. Somebody pointed and said that we were going to feel that. Then there was some long period of ouch after that. I remember being huddled down, trying to make as small a target as possible, still the rain found my face and felt like being poked with tons of needles. We stopped after a while to try and find a bit of shelter beside a large boulder and have some hot tea and lunch and whatever sweet we might have around. It reminds me of mountain climbers tying off their rope and hanging there under a ledge trying to escape a raging storm.

At this point, we hadn't gotten to the long ride/short ride decision point, but the painful rain made the decision for me. We pressed on, the rain lightened up for a bit and at the crossroads, three went west and the rest of us went on to Salen. We made it to Salen just as it was starting to get the worst. It was quite pleasurable sitting having a nice lunch as you watch buckets of rain, and the buckets too, being thrown at the ground. Cars kept going by and splashing our parked bikes which just seemed really rude of them and just totally wrong.

James, our odd new adopted friend came in from the height of the rain, dripping over everything. We told him to name drop the Wheelers to take one of our vacant reservations at the hostel in Tobermory. Good deed done for the day, we head out into the somewhat diminished storm and press on the last eleven miles to Tobermory. To celebrate our survival, we head down to the pub and try to see if we can tell the difference between 80 Schilling, 70 Schilling, 60 Schilling and the rest of those.

We head back and check in and park the bikes in the laughable shed. Laughable because it basically had a river flowing through it. Anyways, showers and then nobody could be bothered to cook so it was off to the other pub for dinner. The rain was crazy in the afternoon, but at this point had turned manic. The river coming down the mountain, through the hydroelectric plant, was a bit awe inspiring. You have to wonder even with that rock basin, how long will it last with that sort of water power flowing through it. Then back to the room, insanely hot, and the sound of manic rain until probably 4 am. A painful and well earned 48.66 miles for the day.

Day 7: Tobermory to Mallaig - Go speed racer go.
Day 7 pictures

Very early wake up today. We have a 7:20 ferry to catch to Kilchoan. Tobermory seems like a pretty nice little town when it isn't covered with buckets of water, but no time to goof around looking. We all spent the ferry journey over hopefully looking for signs of sunlight. Past a lighthouse and a rather impressive column of light off in the distance, confidence was high.

We land, part of the group heads off to Archnamurden Point, the western most part of the mainland of Britain. Sort of a dubious distinction there. I think I was close enough. So, if you were there and you took another step to the west, was it better. Was there another step you could have taken to be even further west after that? So, ha, you probably didn't actually make it there. Although later Dave T came back and proudly announced that he had run the western most red light in Britain.

But enough of them, this is my story not theirs. Heading through the mountains, we spot a herd of deer heading over the mountain top. We struggle over the passes and they probably wander back and forth all the time without really even thinking about the effort. Two lambs come running up to me before their mother scolds them and they head off too. We go by a nature center with a tea room, it appears to be closed though and it is rather painful riding on by. James, our temporary adopted friend, is just beyond there changing a tire. So, what exactly is the etiquette for passing a relative stranger like that. He seemed to have it well in hand, do you say cool dude, looks like you got it covered, and keep going, or do you stand there watching him change the tire and doing about the same amount of useful stuff. But the rest of the group starts showing up and we head onward. We assume he got it fixed, never saw him again after that.

Soon, the tea stop becomes a slight group obsession. One hopeful town ends up having nothing so we sit on the wall around the loch and drink our own tea and snack on stuff. The rumor is that there is somewhere a few miles up the road. Perhaps not everybody is so obsessed, ok, maybe it was a bit back from the road and we parked our bikes on the side of the building, still, where's Gursh? That's today's question. It ends up eventually having a happy ending but it is a burning question through most of the day.

Feeling a bit better now, we press on and run into, what the hell, a motorcycle race. I can't figure it out, the seats are all weird and very low and for the longest time I think it is either a bunch of kids or just really short people. It seemed a bit weird for a bit, random motorcycles wizzing by us going the other way, much of the road here was single track. Well, and not so great either because they weren't politely waiting and there were tons of cars following behind them who also seemed more than happy to run into anybody in their way.

We go by what looks like a local school let out so they can cheer them on. One guy is doing spinning wheelies and nearly puts his wheel right down on me because he was in the middle of the road and hadn't bothered looking around to see who might be nearby. Thanks dude, you are awesome now get the hell out of my way. How many miles of this mess? They follow us on flats and curves and up hills and down. Well more like they keep running into us because they are going the other way. Idiots. How annoying.

But all good things must come to an end and eventually at the end of a very long climb and then a short and fast descent where the motorcycle riders go off road for a while, we come into Glenuig (I think, I lost track of where we were during a lot of the day) and head for a quiet place by the loch to eat lunch. Oh, and at the top of the hill Gary asks one of the motorcycle crews if they saw a lone rider headed this way. They thought maybe they did but he didn't look anything like the rest of us, whatever that means. Perhaps that might fit Gursh's description.

Ahh, a nice restful lunch on the waters edge. The moon is just above the mountain and looks nice in the briefly clear sky. The rest of the Archnamurden Point group shows up and there is a flurry of excitement over a possible Great Northern Diver sighting. Nobody can conclusively say they saw one though. Does it count or not? Discuss.

We still have a ways to go. We move on and make it to Arisaig. A rather touristy town, surely we can make a good tea stop here. But alas, the storm last night knocked out the power in town. It starts coming back on while we are there and Che sweet talks a cafe owner into making us all tea and coffee, despite him having been up since before dawn dealing with the power outage mess and being completely wiped out. Nice guy, we try to give him a pretty nice tip for his trouble. And wonder of wonders, Gursh is back from his walkabout.

Another ten miles or so go to on the windy coastal scenic road. We make it to Mallaig. We take over the backpackers hotel and they close their restaurant for the evening. Anna shows up a little bit after that to join the group for the rest of the trip. We all take over their terrace with bikes and sit out enjoying the rest of the day. We have the hopeful idea of finding some fresh fish and making a seafood stew or something, it is a fishing town after all, but they have all gone home for the day so many of us just get some fish and chips instead with a bit of wine. I still don't really understand fish and chips, but at least this time it was much better, probably the 58.76 miles that made it better.

Day 8 - Mallaig to Ratigan - Or I went how far to see a pile of rocks?
Day 8 pictures

So, a day of changing plans. 9:15 ferry this morning from Mallaig. We had to have our bikes out of the terrace by nine but no great rush this morning otherwise. Should have been a short distance day but with a rather steep and challenging pass.

We arrive in Armadale in Skye and granted we were only there a few hours and only saw a bit of it, there were other places I liked better. We made pretty quick work of the first 20 miles or so there. Nothing particually jumps out as being overly memorable about the route. Tea stop near Broadford which should have been just before our adventure over the mountain pass to the next tiny ferry. But then when we went to the turnoff, a sign said the ferry was closed, apparently because of high winds.

The leader types had a quick debate and decided to carry on over the Skye Bridge and go around the lochs the other way to get to Ratigan. And Gary still was obsessing about seeing the brochs and was determined to find a way to fit it in. Again, we make pretty quick work of getting to the Skye Bridge and head over it. I suppose it seems like an ok enough bridge, I'm not really sure it fits so well with the surroundings. The part of it that I really liked was the part that runs into Kyle Of Lochalsh and a sea of gorse. See, there's that word again, I'm going to remember.

Five of us (John, Che, Cheryl, Anna and Kerry) set off in a pack at an apparently pretty fast pace. With the speed and precision of an Olympic cycle team, we power our way to Eilean Donan Castle, or more like we let John go out front and fight the wind while the rest of us try hard to not get left behind. No, please don't leave me in the middle of lonely Scotland in the wind. But we must have flown pretty fast, we ended up goofing around the castle, having lunch, walking through the castle and then thought we surely must have missed seeing them coming around and on by when we started seeing the rest of the group arrive. The setting of the castle is pretty stunning. The castle itself isn't so bad. I'm not sure it was worth 4.95, maybe more like 3.75, but oh well.

A last sprint to Ratigan with the intention of dumping our baggage and heading off to see the brochs of Glenuig. At least then Gary would be quiet about them after that. The hostel setting was amazing, right on a loch. But no time to enjoy that, why exactly did I agree to this? I'm really thinking that as the grade heads into the high teens, must have been approaching 20% at some points. Crazy stuff. My chain jumps off the sprocket once, probably an attempt to commit suicide so it doesn't have to suffer anymore, but I put it back and keep going. It was quite a rush to finally get to the top and look down and see where you got there from, way down in the valley. But then I'm thinking, no, I don't want to go down the other side, it is so on top here, so not a steep climb to get over it again. But I foolishly head on down despite my reservations. These better be really awesome piles of rocks.

We go through Glenelg, which is a lovely little coastal town and head back inland for a bit to find the brochs. There are two of them and even though both of them are a bit more than 50% gone, it is still an impressive sight and feat of building. I whine about riding over passes, I suppose it probably took a bit more work to pile that many stones up that high. We wander around, pose for pictures and consume whatever food anybody brought with them. At the second broch, a small boy comes up and seems desperate to give us any sort of information about them. I suppose we were better conversation that all the sheep around. But all good things must come to an end and we couldn't put off going back over that pass again anymore.

Surprisingly, it wasn't so bad. The climb was much more gradual and we all make our way back over again. Colin and Dave T pass us at the summit just having come over the other side. They don't end up going to the brochs but just turn around after a bit and come back. Dinner is quite a feast and Rob gladly contributes the jar of pesto he has been dragging around with him for most of the trip. 63.40 miles for the day.

Day 9 - Ratigan to Fort William - You don't have to go home but you can't stay here
Day 9 pictures

Sad, the last day with most of the group. I wandered out a bit early to walk around and take some pictures of the area. It is funny how blaise you become about all of it so quickly. It is probably like those sheep on Iona and the sunset, yeah yeah, we have seen it, do you have any food? The area is really pretty. What I find I like about Scotland is the wild uncontrolled feel, very bleak and stark too. Southern England is pretty but it has been so shaped and feels like a lot of the rough edges have been smoothed over. There is a lot of Scotland that reminds me a lot of Colorado, northern Arizona and a lot of other places like that that I love.

But a long way to go today and over not so fun roads. We futz around for a bit in the morning and then somebody has to leave. Dave A and Caroline head out first followed by Gursh. I set out a bit later and ride for quite a while by myself. The sign says 57 miles to Fort William and I don't think there is all that much in between here and there.

Long long slow uphill section. I stop to snap a few pictures of a few things, things that I meant to find perfect representations of, a picture that expresses stone bridge-ness, the perfect waterfall, mountain tops with fog rolling over them, solitary tree bravely standing on top of a mountain, etc. All a boy can do is try. The perfect one is out there somewhere, it just hasn't found me yet.

Anyways, eventually I run across Gursh snacking by the side of the road and roll on past. It gets windier and the sky starts threatening again. There is this weird illusion too where the road appears to be flat or going downhill but is actually still going up. Or maybe I'm just delusional. A bit of frustration though, when I reach what seems like should be the top, there is no nice coasting downhill for a while. The wind sees to that and it is a frustrating slog downhill with rain starting again.

Coming into Glen Cluanie, only a bit over 10 miles, Gary had said to start looking for a tea stop at around 20 but I see Dave and Caroline's bikes propped by the side of a pub and I'm relieved. 20 miles, whatever, if there is one there, we can try that one too. Let's never forget I'm on vacation here. The rest pull in a bit after that, much wetter than I got, and we proceed to run through their food supply.

Back out into the rain, back onto the busy road. The rain comes down pretty hard and traffic is miserable. But things get much nicer after the turnoff onto the A87. The wind dies down a bit, the rain mostly stops, the sun tries to come out, and the road is more peaceful. Just as I had predicted. Kerry-land might be a silly dream but sometimes the predictions are right.

We make pretty good time, taking turns fighting the wind, going past Loch Garry (who would ever give a lake a silly name like that?) and I nearly lose hope in Invergarry that there will be a lunch stop because the pub has hidden itself on the far edge of town. We order far too much and for the most part eat it all. Soup, yes please, sandwich, of course one of those too.

We make the turn southward for the final leg. Traffic is miserable there. Apparently Gary wound up (by yelling some choice phrases that I won't repeat here) some guy in a car about him yelling at him for not wearing a helmet, so the guy is good and ready by the time he goes past us and he rants at us for a while. Che flips off a 4X4 who nearly runs her off the road. And the scary fun fair ride truck, they might bring joy to lots of kids at fun fairs across the country, but having that thing grinding behind you and then trying to get past, not fun at all.

We eventually arrive intact at the commando memorial outside Spean Bridge and it makes a good place to stop for a while and regroup. Where's Gursh? We all know he has a train to catch in Spean Bridge and are worried that he will miss it. Eventually everybody arrives and we linger around for a while. Tour buses roll in and out, we should leave but everybody is a bit reluctant. Nobody really wants things to end. But Gursh has to go. We attempt a group photograph. We suffer a lack of other tourists right at the moment we are ready. So, how many Wheelers does it take to take one group photograph with a timer? This is actually a trick question, three might have been a good answer but I believe there were more than that trying and as far as I know none of them actually succeeded.

We say our goodbyes to Gursh and decide to head to a tea stop on the canal and take that the rest of the way to Fort William instead of fighting against traffic the rest of the way. We invade another coffee shop and have tea and cake and make plans to meet up again for dinner later before Anna and Che and Cheryl head off.

So, the group shrinks a bit more and the rest of us head down the canal, which takes a lot of concentration since you are dodging rocks and holes the whole way. Still, it is preferable to dodging cars and trucks. Eventually we hit Fort William and continue on through to Glen Nevis and halt there for the day. The settings just get prettier and prettier. Ratigan was lovely but here we are basically at the foot of Ben Nevis.

Dinner is a nice affair. It is a walk up the road and then a bit off road and over fences and through puddles and over rocks. We worry a bit about what it will be like to walk back in the dark. But for now, it is the sound of people splashing in puddles and cleats clicking on rocks. Ben Nevis Inn looks like an old stone barn or something. It has a nice view from one end out the window to the mountains. We have one menu between all of us and a few people pull out binoculars to try and read the specials board.

After dinner, we say goodbye to Anna and wish Che and Cheryl good luck on their next week going through the Outer Hebrides. I thought it was crazy at the beginning of the week but at this point I'm rather jealous of them having more tour left. Colin then leads us on an exciting walk back, a special short cut leading us through numerous puddles and protruding roots and small bridges. Gary's crap TFL flashlights last for only a few minutes and are mostly useless. A few people get wet shoes and one trips but there are no lasting injuries. 61.65 miles for the day.

Day 10 - Fort William to London - Back to reality
Day 10 pictures

A few wake up early to get Rob to his early train back to London. I sleep through it since my train isn't until noon. It only gives me a few hours so I decide to go along with the ever smaller group up to the trailhead where they intend to hike up at least part of Ben Nevis. Five miles or so there fighting the wind all the way, even without baggage it is a bit of a slog. It is all a bit rushed too, I have to keep track of how long it will take me to get back.

Still, it was worth the sidetrip. The lower falls were nice and the one further on, that rolls down the entire mountainside was really nice. We lock up and head off on foot. I follow along for 15 minutes or so until I know I should head back. I say my goodbyes and quickly head back down, pick up my baggage on the way and head to the train station, stopping at the grocery store for lunch and dinner since I have an all day ride ahead of me. I really want to enjoy the ride from Fort William but I keep passing out and miss a lot of it. Oh well.

So, blah blah blah, trains, switching a few times, panic when the Glasgow one gets in late and how am I going to find my London train in time and get my bike on board. But luckily it is late getting in and all is well. I experience extreme culture shock coming out of Kings Cross. Whoa, city traffic again, give me a second to remember how to do this. But probably like 15 miles for the day. I'm not exactly sure, for some reason my odometer went crazy in a few stations on the train and suddenly 10 miles appeared. And around 420 miles for the entire tour. And what a tour it was. Thanks Gary for organizing it. It was brilliant.

And sheep count? I don't know, something more than five and maybe slightly less than the grains of sand on a beach. But the figure might fit closer to the grains of sand estimate. Mechanical problems, I believe just one broken spoke and then last rites for a rear tire which should have been buried months ago.

- Kerry Nice, 11 May 2006

(The views here represent the opinion of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the THWs or their officers or of the English or Scottish or even Americans for that matter, especially but not exclusively in matters of weather and its merits, be that wind or rain or sunshine, relative beauty, quaint customs, cuisine, and acceptable sound levels of snoring.)