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  • Wednesday, September 24, 2014

    Hitching to Durness, Scotland

    (Photo: Ruins of Ardvreck Castle)
    Hitching for the first time after not doing it for a while feels like the first day of school. You're a little bit nervous to put your thumb out. You feel like you'll be judged, and you probably will be. You wonder what you must look like to perfect strangers, which never occurs to you when traipsing alone through the woods.

    When someone stops and tells you to hop in, it's like making a new friend. All the nervousness vanishes and you're reminded that, like before, you're going to be just fine.

    (Photo: The girls from Belgium exploring the ruins.)
    My first ride was with two girls from Belgium on holiday. Having had to hitch on the Isle of Skye recently, they felt they should appease the hitching gods by returning the favor.

    They would be able to get me 20 miles closer to my destination, Durness, Scotland. Along the way, we stopped to explore the ruins of Ardvreck Castle, built in the latter half of the 15th century, and the nearby Calda House, built in 1726 for the wife of Kenneth MacKenzie, who didn’t care for the austerity of the castle. Aesthetics aside, I’d probably feel the same way after learning about the violence, murder, executions, and sieges that had taken place at the castle.

    (Photo: Ruins of Ardvreck Castle and Calda House in the background)
    A Scottish fisherman picked me up almost immediately after the girls drove away. Rusted and worn tools filled the passenger seat and floor. He tossed the stuff in the seat into the back of his truck. I climbed in and pushed the stuff on the floor to the side with my feet.

    After telling him where I was going and why, he warned me of biting midges and the September and October weather.

    (Photo: Ruins of Calda House)
    “I should be okay,” I said. “I’ve hiked in the Smoky Mountains in December before.”

    “Ahh, but the Scottish Highlands are not like other mountains. You may not get a lot of snow or freezing temperatures, but it’s a wet cold. The rain and bogs will chill you to the bone and it could go days before you get enough sunlight to dry your clothes.”

    I didn't really want to hear that. I prefer living in delusion. He dropped me off before heading to a nearby harbor for work. It was sunny and warm today at least. The next hitch took a bit longer, but not long at all.

    “Where you headed?” a woman said from the passenger seat.

    “Durness.”

    “Perfect, we’re going to Durness.” She got out to open the trunk for my pack.

    (Photo: Loch a' Chairn Bhain)
    The couple, named Pete and Mairi, were recently married and expecting their first child. She grew up in the area and knew the land well. Mairi had backpacked alone before, but the idea seemed foreign and fascinating to Pete.

    “In the military you go out with everything you need in a pack, but you have other people there to back you up if you need anything. I'm not sure what that would be like.”

    “After a few days there’s this feeling you get from being alone in the wilderness,” she said. “It’s very calming and peaceful.”

    “I know that calming feeling,” I said. “It’s like someone just switched off a staticy radio station that you didn’t notice until it was gone.”

    (Photo: The Northern Highlands of Scotland)
    “That’s a good way of putting it,” she said. “Oh, down that road is a cafĂ© called Cocoa Mountain. Go there, they have the best hot chocolate.”

    I really liked this couple. We had a lot in common to talk about on the way, backpacking experiences with Mairi and pinched sciatic nerve pains that Pete related to. We also talked about things I didn’t know much about, like the Scottish Kiss, also  known as headbutting.

    (Photo: Sango Sands Beach in Durness, Scotland)
    Pete stared at Mairi when this subject came up.

    “Oh I’ve never hurt you,” she said.

    “I noticed you didn’t say, 'Oh I’ve never headbutted you,'” I said.

    “Ah, it's just affection,” she said.

    When they dropped me off, Pete pulled a twenty-pound note from Mairi’s purse. “We want to contribute to your adventure,” he said.

    (Photo: The Best Hot Chocolate)
    I told them they didn’t have to do that, but he insisted and told me to buy myself a mug of that hot chocolate. This also covered my food costs for the day, and the cost of the ferry and bus ride to Cape Wrath where I’d start my hike across Scotland. And she was right about the hot chocolate. It was the best, and not only because they actually called it “The Best Hot Chocolate” on their menu.

    Thank you Pete and Mairi! With trying to keep my budget to $10 per day, your donation covered the cost of a lot of new memories to come.