Caledonian Absolution Part One

        Late fall in Scotland can be a beautifully depressing place. Undulating hillsides
dotted with sheep and the occasional lowing cow, trees aflame with the gold and red hues of autumn, cobalt skies reflected in the long, narrow lochs of the North Country. The Highlands. And then heavy clouds roll in off the coast and all becomes grey, dark, black. Boots become buckets.

        It is creation all over again; something formless hovering over the void that once was the land of the Scots. All is a deluge. You remember Noah and his ark. You consider cubits. You ponder names for all the beasts that are soon to come, two by two, parading to you. In this mist you sit, contemplate myths. This landscape, these often treeless hillsides covered in blowing heather, lends itself to a story waiting to be told.

        After a long lesson on the supremacy of Scottish cask ales delivered by a couple of friendly locals in a pub older than the country I come from I suddenly find myself chatting it up with a South African five years my junior on the last bus leaving Inverness. Loch Ness bound the road winds through twinkling villages perched at the edge of darkened lochs. Rain whips the road in front us, wind spurring us on from behind. 

        Jonathan, a blond haired, blue-eyed Dutch descendent from Cape Town, South Africa, is all smiles and inebriated tales of travels far and wide. When he finds out I’m an American he shoots me a sidelong glance and makes a quip about President Bush. It’s 2007 and much of the world is not a fan of the Man, to say the least. I laugh right along with him, letting him know that while I may be from America I am a free man. I pledge allegiance to no one. I make no mention of the apartheid. Every country has its closets, skeletons spilling out from open doors.

       Our bus pulls up to a bench, one lone streetlight blinking dimly in the night. Through the window I can see rain blowing sideways in the light of the glow. I ask Jonathan how far the hostel is from here. He stares at me with a silly grin. He has no idea. We stand in the rain as the bus rumbles away, taillights eventually disappearing behind the curtain of night. Welcome to Loch Ness.

       The tourist map I have, the one with advertisements for boat and balloon tours, pub-crawls and weekend cabin rentals running lengthwise across the top and bottom, says we are still over half a mile away from our destination. I think back on the cute girl in the shoe shop in Seattle that sold me these brown leather boots and how she promised me they were waterproof. Time to put the word of a saleswoman to the test.

       We trudge silently through the water, me in the lead as if I somehow knew better then he where we were going and the best way to get there. Ten minutes later a small wooden sign up ahead reads “Loch Ness Travelers Hostel” with an arrow pointing toward a street across the road. The road is gravel when dry, a river during the fall and winter months.

       We pass cottage after cottage, each hearth burning bright with flame in an attempt to ward off the damp chill of this late October storm. Jonathan is soaked and looking miserable. I can’t help but laugh. Two road weary travelers washed up onto the shores of Loch Ness. Only Nessie, that mythical leviathan of the deep, is wetter than we right now. Towards the end of the river road we see the sign for the hostel. It has always intrigued me how the words hostel and hostile have nothing in common except pronunciation (and even that depends on who is pronouncing it). One an invitation, the other a provocation. A small courtyard populated by a fire pit and two wooden picnic tables are a welcome sign that warmth and a dry bed are soon to follow.

       A girl with a cheery Australian accent greets us as we pile inside, leaving the downpour to the loch, the trees, and the mysterious lady of the sea. We step into warmth and homeliness. A long dinner table is the centerpiece of the dining room; a full size kitchen with big picture windows sits just to the left of us and in the living room a charcoal fire burns quietly in the fireplace.

      We have found the exact solace I was pining for as we passed those inviting cottages along the way. Travel tends to lend itself to a litany of paradox. You travel to lose yourself yet your “Self” is what you so often run smack into. You roam to journey away from the familiar, from the drudgery of a routine yet you end up longing for something familiar, something that is a little piece of home away from home.

       The Aussie girl tells us it has been raining like this for days but it is supposed to clear up tomorrow. Too bad providence doesn’t watch weather reports. She shows us to the group dorm we will be staying in for the next few days. We flip a quarter to see who takes a shower first. South Africa wins.
I take off my shoes and drape drenched socks over the screen in front of the fireplace. Squatting, I watch flames undulate and dance in an erratic almost erotic way. Fire. The primal element.


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