Pushing limits and seeking clarity
There is something quite calming about seeing a sea of moss drenched trees climbing a steady slope, dodging low streams, cutting their way through the earth and falling as often as you’d hope. Snow capped mountains in the background and a piercing, yet gentle glow of the sun weaving it’s way through the lively trunks. Peace and clarity are highly unavoidable in environments such as these. It’s an environment which gives me an uncontrollable pitter-patter in my chest — A feeling so intense, washing over me like a wave of inspiration and leaving nothing but a wanting for more.
Sitting on the train from Glasgow to Fort William, I only manage a sentence or two of this blog before my eyes find themselves gazing out of the window in astonishment of what beholds me. Endless waterfalls flowing into the bluest of lochs, beneath sharp, dramatic cliff faces. I sure was excited to get off the train and into these landscapes to experience them up close. Suddenly, the train passes through a tunnel and my reflection is left staring back at me. I catch a glimpse of myself, and notice a true feeling of happiness in my eyes. If this is the feeling I get on every adventure, then a life of adventure awaits.
This is a blog about my recent cycling trip to the Highlands of Scotland. After being presented with some mighty challenges and life changing decisions, I needed a journey to push me to my limits, connect me with nature and allow me the time to think. The mountains of Scotland presented the perfect opportunity and here, I will recount some of the stories, challenges and my own rambling thoughts whilst on the bike. So there’s your warning. This is not going to be a crafted piece of writing that will flow from word to word and leave you wanting more (I’m not capable of that anyhow), or a run of the mill travel blog. But rather a dump of my thoughts and an attempt to analyse what it means to take on an adventure and push myself to the limit, big or small. Read on at your leisure :)
Oh, and I really like train journeys.
Day one — Welcome struggles
A challenging day to say the least. I had arrived in Fort William at 12:30, I hadn’t eaten much and my bike was feeling very heavy. This was before stocking up on food! So I made the decision to post some stuff back to London to save on weight and space.
With a symphony of creaks and squeaks, I crawled out of Fort William (noises from both the bike and I). It was late in the day, so I decided to only cycle around 40–50km before finding a camp spot just past Invergarry. About 20 minutes in, my back was in a lot of pain and I’d figured it had something to do with taking a backpack — a reluctant decision but ultimately a necessary one. It contained my camera equipment and snacks. I couldn’t go to the highlands of Scotland and not take my camera gear! As for the snacks, for anyone who has not been on a cycle tour before, you want easy access to your snacks or you will empty your panniers on the side of the road in search for a snickers.
I passed Invergarry and began to look out for a good spot to set up camp but that was proved very difficult as the land either side of the road was either a significant gradient, was covered in felled logs or was essentially a swamp.
30km later I was still searching for a suitable spot. Checking every side road and clearing possible. I had run out of energy and could barely get out of my not-so-low lowest gear. It was proving to be a tough first day! It was getting dark and the next town was 80km’s away, therefore unreachable. Suddenly, in true Scottish fashion, it began to rain. My morale was taking a beating!
Luckily, there was a random little pub in the middle of nowhere that knew of great spot, right next to a waterfall. So I pitched my tent and feasted on a bowl of rice, surrounded by snow dusted peaks and mountain sides shaded with every colour of green and brown imaginable. To the soundtrack of a river, I fell asleep in paradise.
Day two — A Viking to the rescue
The clock struck midday and I was still sitting by the warmth of the fire in the pub. A storm had hit and showed no signs of letting up. Roads turned to rivers and the wind picked up significantly. It was, of course, a headwind. After much deliberation, I plucked up the courage and set off. Within seconds I was drenched. The ‘waterproof’ shell I was wearing was about as effective as a fishnet vest (thanks, Charlie)
I soldiered on regardless, fuelled by the landscapes around me. I don’t even know how to begin to paint a picture for you. Endless mountains layered one after the other, fading and hazing away with distance. Jagged rocks reaching for what seemed like miles into the sky, the highest of which strewn with snow. Each of the mountains could be stared at for hours discovering new features, waterfalls and colours. Complementing these ancient 400 million year old rocks lie beautifully aligned armies of pine, juniper, birch and willow standing to attention in perfect geometry. The vibrant green of the trees and the soft, puffy look to the leaves a welcome contrast to the sharp greys surrounding them. Streams and waterfalls flow in every direction, carving their own path through the earth and feeding the lochs dotted around. I have never seen so many streams and falls in one place. It made for the most wonderful of soundtracks. If only I could hear it over the howling wind! I wanted to ditch my bike, climb one of the more dramatic peaks and explore until I could explore no more.
A deer runs across the road as birds swoop for cover from the rain and I pull off the road for a break from the whiplash of turning my head from the road in front of me, to the myriad of beauty surrounding me, and back. Hills are one thing I have always despised on a cycle trip, and for the same reason as any sane person. They’re painful and tiring. Don’t get me wrong, I love the challenge and feeling of accomplishment when reaching the top of a climb, but they still suck. However, I found myself loving the hill climbs of west coast Scotland (and there’s certainly no shortage) simply because it meant slower travel which in turn allowed me more time to look up, rather than look forward.
I only managed 40kms on the second day as a result of the demoralising weather. I stopped at Kyle of Localsh, the entry point for the Isle of Skye, and was led to a community shower and tumble dryer by a viking descendant, or so he claimed from his facial features and extra hard hands (something to do with the rowing). Argyle — I don’t know if that was his name, but it’s the first Scottish name I thought of — kept me out in the cold for a good 30 minutes while we chatted adventure and viking history. He could talk for as long as I could cycle (which isn’t actually that long apparently..). Argyle told me all about his life of adventure and the history of Skye. Just when we got to book recommendations, I had to cut him off and get to the not-so-warm showers.
Clothes tumble dried, toes warmed up and hot tea brewing, I began to re-think my entire journey and even consider ways to get home at minimal cost. The weather and weight of my gear was having a harsh effect on my morale. I checked trains, buses, rental cars and local hostels, but at the end of it all I realised that I would regret pulling the plug, and end up sitting at home thinking of the adventures I could be having. So I put away all digital devices and decided to find a camp spot for the night. I’d rethink in the morning. Had I discovered that I don’t like cycle touring? Or were my pains, the weather, and maybe even my current mindset plaguing the journey?
Just as I was about to leave the cafe, a knock on the window revealed Argyle from before. He had gone home to collect a book he had recommended earlier, and brought it back in the hopes that I was still floating around. It was Life Cycles by Julian Sayarer who broke the world record for cycling around the world in 169 days. Argyle sat me down and began to tell me the tales from the book and show me some of the pictures of Julian after many days on the bike, non-stop. He was talking about tough guys, and what it takes to be tough — apparently soggy feet after 40 hours in the saddle will get you there. Argyle believed that everyone should follow their dreams and stop at nothing to accomplish their goals. His personal motto was “If you don’t, you won’t”. Inspired by Ernest Hemingway’s shortest short ever — “For sale. Baby shoes, Never worn.”
Argyle and I sat at the cafe for another hour as he drew a map of Scotland and Skye in my journal and began to detail every walking route, cycling route and places of natural beauty from memory. This was exactly what I had needed to inspire and motivate me to push on through the struggles. In the grand scheme of things, my small week long tour was minuscule compared to the epic journey’s we had spoken about, and I had been reading about for the past 10 years. But this helped to reinforce just how much I needed the challenge.
It’s wonderful how moments like these can pop up at the most crucial of times. And this was one of many, as we’ll soon find out in days to come.
To challenge and push yourself to your limits will show you who you truly are. The real you is not the one who takes the easy road; it’s the one who remains when the easy roads run out. The real you is not the one who rides his luck, but the one who remains when that luck runs out.
Day three — Reach for the Skye
After camping in the garden of a backpackers in the south of the Isle of Skye, I made the decision to leave 70% of my gear at the backpackers whilst circumnavigating Skye. The weight was just too much and the sudden change to a heavily laden bike had taken it’s toll on my already frail spine. I dreaded the after effects of this journey on my sciatica — That sentence should not have been written by a 23 year old… — but I was excited to get moving. With 10kgs lost, I planned to cycle 120km.
The first 10kms were utter bliss. The sun was out (a rare occurrence in Skye) and I had made some modifications to my handlebars so I was sitting a lot more comfortably. Man, was I happy I did not pull the plug and go home!
I have such distinctive and clear thoughts whilst cycling, or on any journey or activity for that matter (surfing and running especially). Everything slows down and becomes simplified. I tell myself stories of previous events and play out moments of the past with such clarity and definition. Thinking through any sticky situation and solving it becomes simple. I can think up ideas and strategise next moves.
These are the moments that inspire me to write. To record these thoughts and universe shattering realisations. And not for the purpose of being published and read by others, but simply to train my mind to better understand the thoughts and emotions flowing through it. I imagine my mind being like a endless bowl of spaghetti (cooked, of course). Noodles of thoughts all tangled up amongst each other, making it impossible to follow a thought from beginning to end, to fully examine that thought/emotion and take any necessary action. But writing allows you to reach in and take one of those noodles out from the bowl, see it fully and have a much more defined understanding of that thought/idea/emotion and, in turn, yourself. When I’m on a journey of some sort or exerting myself physically, it almost feels like all of those noodles have become straight and organised (uncooked), no longer tangled up. Making it no effort at all to think through ideas and emotions from beginning to end. Having a resolution to a problem in the same moment as realising the problem exists! The biggest difficulty with all of this is that the moment I step off the bike and try to revisit one of those noodles and write down any findings, I forget the thought process and stream of thinking. Only parts remain. It’s incredibly frustrating but we can still get there in the end. It just requires a bit more time. And time is in abundance at the moment. One thing I am yet to be clear on is what about being on a journey or activity makes it so easy to find clarity? And how do I find it more often?
I had been pushing myself to near limits on this trip. Whilst it was not ground breaking, a world first, nor a very arduous trip, I was out of my comfort zone and struggling along. Constantly being reminded by how unfit I was, and just how badly smoking has affected my lung capacity (I gave up again yesterday, for the umpteenth time! But this time with punishment of dead arms from Jonny Miller if found cheating). I thoroughly enjoyed the struggle! Maybe not so much at the time but now I can look back at it and the take aways are endless. It’s reminiscent fun, and was helpful to challenge and experiment with myself. To be able to find the answers to questions I needed to hear. How far can I push myself? How strong am I on the inside? What are my limits physically and psychologically? What does adventure mean to me?
The Isle of Skye receives thousands of visitors each month. And it’s not hard to see why with the jagged peaks of the Quirang, falling of Kelt rock waterfall (image below), the Fairy pools and countless other stunning sights. Having the pleasure of cycling up and around the east peninsula was simply jaw dropping. Mountains to the left of me, oceans to the right. Here I am. Stuck in the middle of Skye. In fact, if there’s a better coastal cycle route in the UK, I want to hear about it!
110km and a whole lot of hills later, I arrived at my resting place for the night. Belly full, I walked down to the coast line with my notebook and a small bottle of whiskey. The writing came easier than ever before as I sat for hours, filling pages with chicken scratch handwriting.
“Of the Gladdest moments in human life, methinks, is the departure on a distant journey into unknown lands. Shaking off, with one mighty effort, the fetters of Habit, the leaden weight of Routine, the cloak of many Cares, and the slavery of Home, one feels once more happy. The blood flows with the fast circulation of childhood…. A journey, in fact, appeals to Imagination, to Memory, to Hope — the three sister Graces of our moral being.” — Sir Richard Francis Burton
Day four — Reaching new heights
The morning started fast, I had made it back down to the bottom of Skye with a whole day to spare. I decided to leave early, knowing that I’d be meeting the infamous Bealach na ba on this day. I’m not going to hide it, I was scared shitless. With the weight of my bike and my lack of hill climbing in the past year (London Bridge every morning barely counts..), it was facing up to be a little more than a challenge.
For those who don’t know what Bealach na ba is, it’s a very unique mountain pass in the Applecross region, just north of Skye. Unlike most mountain passes that go through the valley, this one passes over the top. 6 miles of climbing wonderment through hairpins, a 20% maximum gradient and a whole lot of pain. Bealach na ba, Gaelic for ‘pass of the cattle’ was a pass every cyclist should climb!
I was so excited (nervous?) that I expected to see the pass around every corner. I caught up with two other cyclists who were doing the North Coast 500. The three of us stopped at the base of the pass to shed as much weight as possible. Food eaten, water drunk and rubbish disposed of. It made near as makes no difference. I still weighed as much as a small house. I set off before the other two and began climbing the first mile of the pass. An easy 4% gradient. I got a bit excited and decided to pick up the pace. Oh what a shit decision to make. Within 200 metres I was panting. If my legs could sigh, they surely would have. A car rounded the corner behind me and I had a knee-jerk idea and I pulled the car over — 5 mins later, he set off again with my panniers and camping gear in his boot. I secretly wished for a lift up to the top along with my bags. Nevertheless I felt as light as the wind! Zooming up the next mile with not a thought in my mind and an unbreakable smile.
Around the next corner, the road began to wind upwards for 4 miles. 610 meters up. The road ahead of me empty, but cars approaching behind me frequently. Stalking my behind and burning their clutches whilst waiting for a passing place. I soldiered on thanking the weather gods for the beautifully sunny and calm weather. It turns out I spoke to soon, as the wind picked up at 400m. So strong I could no longer cycle and was forced to get off and push for about 500m before being able to get back in the saddle and spin around the series of hairpins. I turned back to catch a glimpse of the view and what revealed itself has to be one of thee most stunning landscapes I’ve had the honour of witnessing. The image at the top of this chapter is that view. If only the camera did it justice.
Just a few more hairpins to go! Having reached the 20% gradient, and needing to zig zag at points due my lack of a ‘granny gear’. My motivation to finish was thoughts of the epic downhill to come. Back to sea level from 600m up was sure to be a thrill. I reached the top but could not stay for long as the wind was relentless. Freezing any exposed part of my body. I donned more clothes, adjusted my brakes and set off.
I reached 30km/h before a cross wind stole my front wheel and I was seconds from high-fiving the road with my face. For the next 4 miles, I was forced to sit on my brakes at 10km-15km/h down one of the best descents I’ve come across. My heart ached for days! I climbed a big old bastard hill and didn’t get my reward. Well, I did in the form of haggis and some live music:
Belly full and energy restored, I team up with the two bike packers from earlier and we set for the coastal road toward Torridon, confident of an easy 50km. Oh how wrong we were. Bealach na ba was just the start. A rollercoaster of sharp lumps in the earth seemed endless as we cycled into the night. I know I said the coastal road of Skye was the best I’d experienced, but I take that back. I was blown away by the coastal views and distant mountains along this road.
At 10pm, we pulled into Sheildag, found the only pub for miles and set up our tents quite literally next to the road. Locals were more than happy for us to do so bar one drunk Scot who pointed us to a nearby campsite. “It’s just up that hill over der” he said. I pulled out my sleeping bag the moment he said hill..
Day five — Clarity with a side of haggis
Gary and Nick were pretty rad dudes! Both in their early to late 50’s, with adventurous spirits and some pretty damn strong legs. They were attempting to cycle the NC500 which happened to follow some of the same route I had planned so we joined forces from Applecross to Kinlochewe, where we parted ways.
The 50km journey from Sheildag to Kinlochewe was filled with flat roads. Flat! Ok, there may have been one or two climbs but mostly flat. The road weaved between soft, rolling mountains with the jagged peaks of Torridon in the distance — Where Gary and Nick were headed. Lucky buggers!
Along the journey, Gary and Nick would tell me of their years in the Marines or otherwise, and all about their lives. I learnt a lot about these two chaps during the first day and thoroughly enjoyed having some fellow cyclists to appreciate the lands with.
Nick then turned to me and began asking about my past and what lead me to this trip. I explained about recently being made redundant and searching for answers as to what to do next. Having the world at my fingertips is a truly wonderful opportunity and I feel very grateful to be in such a position. It is, however very daunting as I suffer badly from the paradox of choice. Nick asked me what I was going to do next and I could not answer him. I baffled for two minutes about some of the ideas I had but ultimately gave in, was honest and told him that I had absolutely no idea. And I still don’t to some extent. What I do know though, is that a lifetime of discovery, adventure and tremendous friendships awaits me.
Skipping forward to the end of day 5 after Nick, Gary and I stuffed our faces at a cute little cafe called Whistle Stop and parted ways, I set off for Inverness. Toward the end of the day, I was just making my way up a little side street in the town of Kirkhill towards Alan and Fiona’s house, my warmshower hosts for the night, when I had a sudden realisation that genuinely stopped me in my tracks — There was absolutely no reason for me to stop cycling. I had been planning and dreaming of cycling around the world for 2 years, and I was doing it. It’s not what I had intended, but I could of cycled down to London, and kept going in whichever direction my curiosities directed me in. I had everything I needed, and anything I didn’t have I could just buy along the way. But it was not that realisation that stopped me, it was the realisation that one does not need to meticulously plan for months and months for a round-the-world trip. Sure, there visa’s to plan for and credits cards to apply for, but nothing that should take longer than a few weeks (visa application times an exception — but you can wait for those whilst on the bike). What I’m trying to say is that I planned my route the night before, borrowed everything expect the bike and my enthusiasm from a friend the day before and set off without much thought (you could buy it all for no more than £500 though). I could have set off for Scotland that morning, or I could of set off for the world.
You don’t need to be a seasoned ‘adventurer’ to plan, or go on a big journey. And you certainly don’t need to be one to write a long blog post just like this one. I am by no means an adventurer, nor a writer. I hope to one day be both of those things, but the biggest change in my mindset has been my understanding of how to get there. Get out there and do it. Fuck all of the little details, they’re sure to fade away in the winds whenever you get to where you’re going.