Monday, August 12, 2019

End to End: Two Everests

Day: 30 (Thurso to John o' Groats then to Wick)

Average Speed: 10.5 mph 

Distance: 37.2 miles 

Distance Cycled Total: 1,347.3 miles 

Feet climbed: 1,430.4 ; 63,897.1 total

Difficulty level: Easy

The John o' Groats sign post... much more graffitied than the protected one at Lands End!

There's no real joy in finishing these rides, which seems counterintuitive. At the beginning, it's easy to imagine some dramatic finish and an elaborate victory dance, but that's not how it goes. I hate to use the word "sad" as a descriptor, but it's much closer to that. I never want them to end, and if I had the time, I'd pedal right back to Land's End. 

With only 20 easy miles to pedal from Thurso, I set off into another gray day, slowly pedaling my way towards the famous sign post at the northern tip of Scotland. And it stayed gray... for the first half of the leg. But then, in almost storybook fashion, a beautiful patch of blue appeared, and I was heading right for it. Gray to the back. Gray to the left. Gray to the right. But blue in front. And for the first time since somewhere in England, I was fumbling around in my front bag for my sunglasses. The coat came off. And I had all but forgotten about the hellish weather from the day prior. 

The sky was patient and polite enough to wait for me. It didn't ask me to pedal faster. And
The Mandatory Pic
when I shimmied my way through the literal boatload of tourists to get the mandatory picture, it felt exactly like the day that I started. Two Everests ago. 

There's this thing called "Everesting," where cyclists repeatedly tackle a hill in a single day until they've climbed the equivalent of the height of Mt. Everest. Not too many have been able to do it, and it's not something I am eager to ever attempt. Besides, I think it's a rather ridiculous goal. Comparing anything grand to Everest is like comparing anything evil to Hitler. It's a cliché.  

John Oliver has a hilarious (and fascinating) take on Everest. If you haven't seen it, I highly recommend. (I would embed the official HBO clip, but the bootleg will have to suffice since John Oliver is not made available in the UK)

Still, regardless of how trite it is, it's fun to say. Two Everests. Don't take that away from me,
My bike at the tip of Scotland
John Oliver. 

And no, I certainly didn't break any records. A 55-year old woman just set the running record of 12 days (!) for the direct route. People have unicycled it. This guy just did it on a Penny-farthing. There are all sorts of ways some try to get their names into record books. 


I'm happy to say that I am, without a doubt, the only person from Westtown, New York to complete the route and finish on a Saturday while seated on a Brooks B17 green saddle. 

That's good enough for me. 

Thank you for coming along. 

And thank you for your support.

 Especially the beers. 





On every trip, I inevitably see a sign that says "Thank You" for no particular reason. 
I love it.

Saturday, August 10, 2019

Ignoring the Warnings

Day: 29 (Tongue to Thurso)

Average Speed: 8 mph 

Distance: 46.2 miles 

Distance Cycled Total: 1,310.1 miles 

Feet climbed: 3,599.1 ; 62,466.7 total

Difficulty level: Extremely Challenging

Bike planter outside of Kyle of Tongue Hostel

I'm tempted to leave this post blank.

I can hear my grade school teachers saying "If you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all!"

That was a terrible, terrible ride. I enjoyed zero percent of it. 

Actually, that's a lie. I had a chicken caesar salad for lunch. I enjoyed that. 

And occasionally I would shift in my saddle, causing the warm butt water caught between my chamois and my midsection to run down my legs. I enjoyed that too. 

Everything else? Awful. 

Today's painful elevation profile
I was about to head out on my penultimate day when two other cyclists were entering the hostel I'd stayed at. They were calling it quits, and they were shaken. "You don't want to go out there," one warned. His tone was devoid of humor, and there were no pleasantries exchanged. Both were immediately on the phone with their wives, calling a cease and desist on camp setup and redirecting them to their new location. 

They were right. I didn't want to go out there. But the hostel I'd booked in Thurso had a 10% cancellation fee. I'll be damned if they were going to steal £2 from me.

So I sucked it up, and pedaled away. 

The already challenging terrain was made exponentially more difficult by the 40 mph
First sign I've seen directing people to John o' Groats
headwinds and the stinging horizontal rain. Seconds felt like minutes. Minutes felt like hours. From the first pedal, I wanted the day to be over. It felt like I was cycling into a hurricane, and it never let up for a moment. 

The wind was screaming in my ears, drowning out the sounds of cars approaching from the rear so that each one that passed me on the single-track road was a jarring surprise. "THE DAY BELONGS TO ME!" the wind yelled. "GO HOME! YOU DON'T BELONG HERE!"

My only response was to occasionally blurt out nonsense syllables. 


I don't know why. 

Phone booths can still serve a purpose
I'm thankful that my legs were strong, because my mind certainly wasn't. The legs, however... I just watched them power up punishing climb after punishing climb, completely unfazed. They seemed detached. A separate entity from my body. But then again, everything seemed detached. My hands were numb and useless, and my arms were indifferent, sheltered by my neon yellow cycling jacket. 

Descents were far more painful than climbs as my eyelids couldn't blink away the rain water fast enough and the wind threatened to push me over. When you can't find happiness in a descent, something's wrong. 

I stopped only twice in the 46 miles. Once halfway through for a cup of coffee and a bite to
View from a phone booth

eat, and another time in a curiously remote phone booth, which I used as shelter while I took a leak into the storm. There was a sign in the booth, warning that it was going to be removed soon unless someone called to advocate for its existence. I tried to call to let them know I was making very good use of it. But the phone didn't work. 

I tried to think warm thoughts, but the only thing I could come up with is my recollection of the penultimate day on my last tour, where I had camped on a beach and skinny-dipped in the welcoming Ionian Sea. That just made it worse. 

There will be no skinny-dipping at John o'Groats tomorrow. You're welcome, Scotland. 

Last tour's end.
Not at all this tour.
Not even close.
I only saw two other cyclists out, heading the other direction. They smiled and waved, probably enjoying the 40 mph tailwind that may as well have served as a motor for them. I could only get myself to politely nod. 

The misery lingered at the end of the ride, when I arrived at the hostel. My pants were soaked, but I had nothing else I was willing to wear in their place when I went out in search of dinner. So I sat over a plate of nachos, shivering. 

I also skipped the beer, and ordered a Scotch whiskey instead. A foul-mouthed local named




Kenny asked why I was taking a picture of it. I explained, and he ranted about how much he hates cyclists. "All of ya' c***s! I hate all of ya'! Ridin' in f***in' packs and holdin' up f***in' traffic!" I told him I ride solo, and I'm very conscious and considerate of cars. "Yer just another c***!" he replied. 

I'd had it. 

"You know what, Kenny? I had the shittiest day I've ever had on a bike and I'm not in the mood, so go f*** yourself." It just came out. Both of us were surprised. 

"I changed my mind," Kenny said. "I like you." Soon after, we were both laughing, trading insult for insult. I didn't pay for the second or third whiskey, and it took some self-discipline to leave after that. 

My pants were still wet, and my spirit was still dampened, but everything was a little better. I was starting to hear that other grade school adage: "Whatever doesn't kill you..." 

Kenny advocates for me in a text to his friend.
Hilarious response.

Someday, I'm sure I'll look back on this ride and laugh about it. Perhaps I'll even trick my memory into believing that I enjoyed powering through it, and finding the grit needed to go on. 

just not yet. 

just. not. yet. 


Look! A urinal toy! You play soccer with your stream!
I scored four goals and was awarded a penalty kick. 
I was out of bounds twice. 

Friday, August 9, 2019

Cheeky in Tongue

Day: 28 (Bonar Bridge back to Lairg then to Tongue)

Average Speed: 9.5 mph 

Distance: 50.9 miles (including a 4 mile SAG)

Distance Cycled Total: 1,263.9 miles 

Feet climbed: 2,011.2 ; 58,867.6 total

Difficulty level: Moderate
Hostel Art, coincidentally getting both my bike brand and saddle color correct.

I woke up to an impatient rapping at my door this morning. 

“Get up!” my host, Win, called.

My phone’s battery had died, rendering the multiple alarms I’d set useless, and I assumed I had overslept. 

Today's Elevation Profile
“Coming!” I replied, trying to sound fully awake. Win was the kind of lady you don’t want to disappoint. I jumped out of bed and into my only pair of pants in nearly one motion. 

She was in the kitchen, frying bacon and muttering something about her disdain for vegans. The clock on the wall read 6:30, a solid half hour before the 7:00 breakfast time we’d agreed on. But damned if I was going to say anything. I was content to sip a boiling hot cup of coffee and play audience to Win, who was having a one-sided angry discussion with the news channel. The only portion of the broadcast she didn’t seem to have a problem with was the weather prediction, in which the smiling meteorologist discussed the different types of rain we’d be experiencing throughout Scotland today and the intensity at which it would fall hour by hour. 

When I was set to leave, Win watched my bags hawk-eyed from the window when I nonchalantly placed them outside. 

“I don’t think anyone’s going to steal them,” I said. The town of Lairg has a population of approximately four, and they all know one another. 

“Opportunity invites crime,” she said, and she sat there for several minutes while I gathered the rest of my things. Win might be an elderly woman who shuffles rather than walks, but I guarantee if she entered an MMA competition, she’d kick everyone’s ass. 

She called the taxi driver- one of the four locals- and reminded him that he was due to drop
The oddest store combination ever:
1/2 Post Office, 1/2 Bicycle Repair Shop
me at the train station so I could get my bicycle’s tire fixed in Bonar Bridge. He was there shortly afterward. Clearly he didn’t want to cross her either. 

Rather than drop me off, however, he drove past the station, noting how much easier it’d be if he just dropped me off where I needed to be. He didn’t charge me for the extra ten miles. Perhaps he was too entertained at the unease I was showing by sitting on the “wrong side” of the car, and that was payment enough. 

At the Post Office / Bicycle Shop (“We’re the only one in Britain!”) Chris, the owner, examined my shitty rear tire. Something sharp was embedded in the rubber itself, which was causing the punctures. He threw a new tire on, did some casual tune-ups, and I was on my way, re-cycling the ten miles I had ended with the night before and back into Lairg. 

Scene from today's ride
The day can be defined by three words: Cold, Windy, and Wet. And I guess “Ugly” wouldn’t be an inappropriate word to use since any lush green in the barren landscape was unfairly muted by the low, gray sky. It was impossible to get lost as there was only a single-lane road in which to travel, very reminiscent of the United States’ Route 50 (the so-called “Loneliest Road in America”). This Scottish version was just as un-lonely, being heavily travelled by camper vans and RV’s making their way to the northern coast. 

A comically remote inn appeared halfway through the ride, and it was open. The Crask Inn.
Britain's most remote inn
They capitalize on the ridiculousness of their location, and it’s a spot where everybody stops. If there were anytime on this trip to break my “no beer while riding” rule, it was now, and I cozied up to the bar next to a rather snooty and condescending English cyclist who, for the next fifteen minutes, picked at a scone and commented on my slow route and heavy bike. “I’d love to talk all day,” he said as he stood up to go, “but I have places to be.” Tata! 




The rain, the wind, and the cold worsened after that as I slogged my way to Tongue. The midges were there to keep me moving as well. As long as you’re in motion, they won’t bother you, but one stationary minute and you’re the center of their party. To take my mind off of the miserable leg of the journey, I started to come up with “Tongue” puns, which I think is a rather silly name for a town. 

I started off simple:

“What do you call a Debbie Downer at a pub in Tongue?”   A Tongue depressor!

What’s the worst weather event Tongue has ever seen?” A Tongue twister!

What do you call Medieval torture in Tongue?” A Tongue lashing!

Too easy. I came up with better ones:

“What did the citizens of  Tongue do when they entered an American bar?”  
Taste Buds!

“Why was the town Tongue exempt from Prohibition laws?” They had to many liquors!

And my favorite, “What did the Italian Dr. Frankenstein say when he resurrected his Monster in the town of Tongue?  It’s saliva! (say it out loud). 

I’ll stop now. I’m getting too cheeky. 

But that was five miles of entertainment right there. 

Wish you were here!
I found my way to the hostel, where everyone had a story about where they had passed me on the road during the day. One guy, named Chris Williams, had passed me on his motorcycle with a sidecar attachment. He’s a true biker dude, and a fascinating character who is a Scottish history buff. What would normally be a brief small talk conversation turned into a great couple of hours as we discussed the controversial Clearances of Scotland (which happened right here in Tongue) and Chris’s passion for HEMA, the art of historical sword fighting. 

Chris gave me a laminated card with his number on it. 

“If anyone at all gives you shit anywhere in Scotland, call me and I’ll get it taken care of.” 
I’ve got a biker on my side who is a master swordsman. 

Now let’s see if those midges want to fuck with me. 


Purchased my first souvenir of the trip. 
Had to.
There was only one left.

Thursday, August 8, 2019

Ready to Re-Tyre

Day: 27 (Inverness to Lairg)

Average Speed: Don't care 

Distance: 53.2 miles (including a 4 mile SAG)

Distance Cycled Total: 1213 miles 

Feet climbed: 2608.3 ; 56,856.4 total

Difficulty level: Somewhat challenging.

Your wish is my command.

It felt like a flat tire sort of day. You know those days... Eeyore-esque. They're gray. You grind. Oh, bother. 

View of Inverness from Kessock Bridge.
Only part of the day that wasn't gray!

I mean, it was fine and all. The ride out of Inverness took me over the nifty cable-stayed Kessock Bridge and through all sorts of twisty cycle tracks. And there were some decent climbs that I was happy to tackle, followed by quick, exhilarating descents. I enjoyed a scoop of Scottish tablet ice cream (yum) in the small town of Dingwall (Last chance to stop at a supermarket! my guide warned). Still, the ride wasn't quite meeting the norm. 

So it was no surprise when the back tire went flat. Again. It was a frustrating half hour
Flat. Again. 
stop to repair it (getting a tire off is no problem... but putting it back on can be a bear). A couple vacationing from New Zealand stopped just as I was finishing to offer assistance. Their destination was the same as mine: Lairg. A village that has one of everything most travelers need. One hotel. One restaurant. One convenience store. The couple told me they'd meet me at the pub later, as I was only about an hour's ride away. I told them if they didn't see me there, it meant that I got another flat. 

Indeed, I never saw them again. 

My last spare tube went flat seven miles later, and no amount of pumping could keep it inflated enough to ride more than 100 feet or so. I weighed my options. I could walk to Lairg, which was a little more than four miles away. Or perhaps my last tube, which I had kept, still had a bit of life in it. So I changed it again, and the midges were happy to come help
A midge.
They're way smaller.
And they travel in the millions.

People had been warning me about midges since before I set out. They haven't been a problem yet at all, and I almost thought they were a work of fiction. Unlike the haggis, however, midges are real. They're these nasty gnat-like / mosquitoish hybrids that travel in swarms. From what I can tell, they're specific to Scotland, particularly the Highlands. And once they find you, you're at their mercy. I used a lot of foul language and threatened their tiny little lives, but they didn't seem to care. Midges suck. They don't know how to play nice. And my pock-marked face is evidence. 

Also, they don't taste particularly good. 

It was another half hour pointlessly spent as, of course, the tube was worthless. I knew it would be. Just figured I'd try. 

Luckily for me (and I mean very luckily), a man named Pete Williams was out walking his
My bike in Pete's car
husky. Pete is pretty much the only person who lives in the area where I was broken down. He assessed the predicament, and while I could've camped right there, we both figured the problem wasn't going to solve itself in the morning. He was gracious enough to offer me a ride into town, which I accepted. 

Another stroke of luck was the availability of a cheap room at a B&B, run by a hospitable but no-nonsense woman named Win. I knocked on her door, gave her the £30 she requested, and then she told me to come back after I got dinner. I'm relatively certain this was the only B&B in Scotland with a vacancy. They're everywhere, even in the most remote spots, but the signs out front always say NO VACANCY. It's puzzling. Especially on a Wednesday. 

View before descent into Ardgay
At the local pub, three young guys named Douglas, Stuan, and Jordan figured out the plan for me. It would involve getting up early and taking a train back a few towns to Bonar Bridge (pronounced "boner" should you be curious). Like I said, Lairg has one of everything for most travelers. But most travelers don't need a bike shop. I was at ease though, and the conversation went from cycling to cinema. Their welcome to Lairg was extraordinary, and I had all but forgotten about my midge marks and troubled tires.


Thanks, Paul!


Back at the B&B, Win determined that I would need to be up at 7 AM for breakfast, and made no bones about the fact that she'd be knocking on my door at 6:45. "If I'm up, you're up," she said with a dry sense of humor. She also arranged a taxi ride to the train station for me. 

I frequently mention predicaments on these types of trips before saying how lucky I am to get out of them. Were it not for Derek (the Kiwi), Douglas, Stuan, Jordan, Win, Pete, and the cook who made dinner despite the kitchen having been closed, I'd still be scratching my head. 

But no one's that lucky. It's not luck at all. 

It's a wonderful day after all when you realize that's just the way people are. 


Maybe I've been around middle-schoolers too long... but I found it difficult not to laugh at the chosen graphic for the town's exit.

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Asking for Angela

Day: 26 (Aviemore to Inverness)

Average Speed: 11 mph 

Distance: 40.3 miles 

Distance Cycled Total: 1159.8 miles 

Feet climbed: 1666.7 ; 54,248.1 total

Difficulty level: Relatively easy

Bicycle Sculpture along the National Cycle Network

"Inverness is great... if you like smack and seagulls!" Gary had told me yesterday at The
Inverness in the rain
Bridge Inn in Aviemore. Not exactly a ringing endorsement. Neither smack nor seagulls seem particularly helpful to a touring cyclist. So I was pleasantly surprised to cycle into Inverness and find it to be such a great city. Though small, it's the largest city in The Highlands, and its downtown has a distinct charm to it- even through the cold, steady rain. 

Into the woods!

The ride in was nice enough. Simple. Quick. Quiet. Through the woods on a long cycle track, then through a couple of small villages, and into the Monadhliath Mountains. It's always a pleasure to see a "Summit" sign at the top of a climb, no matter how easy the climb feels. The mountains in Britain aren't tall by any means (especially in comparison with those in the States), but they're appearing more frequently on the ride and make for pleasant, light 

I passed by the Clava Cairns, ancient burial grounds estimated to be about 4,000 years old and still somewhat intact. It seemed important that I stop and take the same photos I saw other tourists taking. I always assume that other tourists know what they're doing, so when I see one snapping a photo, I often do the same. They just typically hang around longer than I do. I was in and out of the Clava Cairns in five minutes after reading an informational sign or two and checking out the rocks. "We've seen it! Let's go!" I could hear my father saying when my family got out of the car in South Dakota on a cross-country trip to glimpse Mount Rushmore. People travel from all over to see the famed landmark, but you could count the minutes we stared at it on one hand before skedaddling.

I mean, really. The ancient Clava Cairns were cool to look at, but what else are you supposed to do? Hold a séance and try to connect with the dead? What then?

The rain started as I left (I'm really getting sick of the rain... and boy oh boy does it make my shoes stink), and I hauled ass to my destination, where I Googled "Things to Do in Inverness" and examined a top-ten list, excited that I could already check off Visit the Clava Cairns. 

View from Inverness Castle.
Probably should've gotten a picture of the actual castle.
That's behind me. 
Some other suggestions were Eat Haggis (check!), Walk Along the River Ness (check!), Enjoy the View from Inverness Castle (check!), Visit the Loch Ness Monster Center (hell no!), and Go to Gellions Bar, The Highlands Oldest Pub (don't ask me twice). 

Nearly every pub in Scotland claims to be the oldest of its particular type. I don't understand why being old as an establishment is necessarily a good thing. But being that Tripadvisor suggested Gellions as a necessary site to visit, I didn't feel the need to argue.

When I walked in, two Polish women named Anya and Ivana immediately greeted me. They worked at a local guest house together and had been living in Scotland for 13 years. From the way they were groping one another, I assumed they were a couple. I had hardly taken a sip of the Loch Ness Pale Ale I'd ordered when Anya grabbed my wrist and said "Come on. Vee go now to another pub."


So I was pub hopping with Anya and Ivana.



It was fun at first, but it started to get weird when they decided to include me in the groping. Ivana eventually discovered that my lightweight pants become shorts if you unzip them at the knee, and half of my outfit was suddenly being tossed throughout the bar, at one point landing in the laps of two sisters from Missouri who were on vacation. 

"Why you have my huzband's pants?" Ivana asked. "Vee just got married and now you have hiz pants."

"You just got married?" one of the sister's asked. I (foolishly) played along with dripping sarcasm in my voice. 

"Yes," I said. "We met ten minutes ago, got married five minutes ago, and we'll be divorced before midnight." 

Yup. This is where it got weird. 
"Congratulations!" the two sisters said simultaneously.

These are the types of tourists who believe the haggis is indeed an actual creature who stalks around the Scottish countryside. When my new wife was out of earshot, I explained the truth. Ivana returned, and seemed genuinely jealous that I was talking to other people. She and Anya decided I could not be left alone, and one of them was always holding onto my arm, dragging me throughout the pub should they decide to move. 

Like I said, shit got weird. And I was super uncomfortable. 

As the Missouri couple was leaving, one of the sisters whispered something into my ear. "Do you know about asking for Angela?" she asked. I shook my head. No. "If you feel like you're in danger, go to the bartender and ask for Angela. It's code that you need help. I don't trust these two at all!" 
Ivana inexplicably hides in shrubbery

I don't know what kind of ridiculous website these ladies browsed in preparation for their trip to Scotland, but can you imagine a 39 year old man with nervous eyes asking the 18 year old girl tending bar about Angela's whereabouts was with an exaggerated wink?

I made a hurried exit when Ivana and Anya made the mistake of trusting me alone while they went to the bathroom. "Stay right here huzband! Don't you move!"

Thank God I didn't tell them where I was staying. 

They do know my final destination, however. 

So should you hear someone desperately shouting for Angela on the way to John O'Groats, rest assured that they found me. 


That moment when you're in the bathroom at a Scottish pub and are torn
between whether to purchase the inflatable sheep or the sticky willy.