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Succulent Scotland

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After an emotionally challenged expedition in Norway I was filled with optimism as I boarded the boat from Stavenger, Norway to Newcastle, England. A group of cherry young Polish cyclists were celebrating with a trip to the duty free shop on the boat so I joined them with a bottle of champagne. As I saw Norway fade away in the distance I was filled with appreciation and positive memories from three weeks of unforgettable experiences in Denmark, Sweden and Norway.

The boat ride was a blast with some drinking and dancing to live music as we all celebrated our unique expeditions. We arrived at the Newcastle port at about 11AM and I had a fun 20km ride in Newcastle, England to the train station to hop a train to Glasgow where I decided to start my UK and Ireland expedition. I arrived at the station just four minutes before an express train left and the ticket agent was extremely cheery and optimistic saying that the tandem would be no problem since thee was a separate baggage car on the train. So I hussled on over and before I knew it I was on a posh train to Glasgow with Wifi internet on the train and bar service to your seat (well, if you know how to sneak a seat in first class, that is ;))

I had a good feeling about Scotland and had always dreamed of traveling there. I had a Couchsurfing host named Mark meeting me at the station at 5PM on a Friday night so I was looking forward to a weekend in this lively town. I was putting together my bike when I looked up and saw a smiling face on a bald head come my way and there he was. We liked each other from the beginning and I could tell he was a solid chap from the get go. He suggested we let the traffic die down before pedaling the 7 miles out to his house so we grabbed a beer at his favorite vegetarian restaurant and I filled him in on the recent adventures and he shared his.

We rode to Mark’s place, which was a cozy and classy little flat in a typical Scottish region of Glasgow called Carlyle We were getting along like brothers and conversation never seemed to end between us. He shared some good news that he was able to get not only the weekend off work but also the following Monday and Tuesday so we both shared the excitement and freedom of the adventures we might conjure up together. Mark works full time as a drug counselor with the Glasgow Drug Crisis Center helping mostly heroine addicts through various phases of getting clean. He was also an amazing musician who had a CD out but who had grown frustrated with the financial struggles and unstable lifestyle so his musical endeavors were in limbo at the moment.

I always love hitting the town on those festive Friday and Saturday evenings and Mark was a kindred spirit in this regards so we began cooking up some food, sharing some beers at this house, getting showered up and ready to rock the municipality. By the time we were heading to the train into town I felt like I had known Mark for ages and it was like going out with a friend. He did not really feel like a host. We were off to a good start and it was only going to get better since we were off to meet an old Scottish friend of mine Morag at a funky bar called “Nice and Sleazy”.

Morag and I first met in 2004 when I was cycle touring in Tasmania, Australia with my mom Carol, Cousin Shannon and friend Heather. Morag was solo cycle touring herself and we met at a cute secret lodging cottage that I can’t tell you the name of but is disclosed to a few locals to travelers worthy of its grand location, beauty, charm and very low price. Like Mark, Morag and I got along very well from the start and had kept in touch over the years and especially as I got closer to Scotland.

Morag was now over 8 months pregnant so her pedaling days were on hold for the time being but her and her partner Shug came in with big smiles and a really big belly on Morag. It was great to see her and catch up, meet her partner and be tiling drinks with super cool Scottish locals as the pub started to fill up and the music getting louder. We had some great chats and it was great to catch up in person and even after four years apart we still got along great.

As the night went on we decided t meet some of Mark’s friends Denise and Matt at another venue where we continued our festivities of dancing, chatting away, laughing, and plenty of nice Scottish beer. I also liked both Denise and Matt right from the get go and the feeling was mutual. We all grooved for hours to some truly top DJs and the crowd was cheery, the vibe right and it was the kind of Friday evening I look forward to all week long—fun, fun, fun!

We were up very late and the next day neither Mark nor I had any desire to get up too early so we slept in until about 11 or so. We had some breakfast and decided it was time to take the tandem out for a spin into town in the daylight hours. There is a gorgeous bike path right on the river from his house into town loaded with bright green plants, trees and colorful flowers. Mark had strong legs from cycling almost daily to work so I knew I wanted to do some touring with him and we were already talking about options for a ride from Sunday to Tuesday.

When we reach town there is a huge park called Glasgow Green where there was a bag pipe competition going on. But the high entrance price and lack of interest in pipe music kept us from going in but there were kilts in every direction and bag pipe music permeated the air for a nice ambiance as we cruised the streets near the park. Our first stop was a vibrant shop called the International Mobile Phone Center owned by a family from Pakistan. They were so excited to hear about my adventures and we were all joking about. They even gave me a free SIM card for my mobile phone to show their support.

After that we were on another mission to get my bike fixed. I had bent my derailleurs cake badly when I had to push my bike over various obstacles on the Newcastle bike path and it was in a bad state. We luckily managed to find an top notch mechanic at Tiso who fixed it up good as new for free, but I was still having some challenges with the chain skipping at times and I had a feeling I would need a new drive train faster than planned.

The last stop was a typical curry dinner that the UK is quite famous for. All the pedaling around and checking out the sites had built up a nice appetite on us both so we hit a fun and funky part of town for a nice dinner of spicy curry washed down with cold brews. All the while the conversations between Mark and I were non-stop, and most of it was quite intellectual, philosophical and progressive so it was a grand pleasure to spend another day in his presence.

As Saturday evening rolled into action we both agreed that the town was calling the two bald brothers out for another round of giggles and grooving. Mark wanted to meet up with a few more of his friends and I was just happy to get out and watch Glasgow cutting loose once again. We started at a lively sophisticated upscale bar with more of a 30’s and 40’s age clientele. We met a handful of Glasgow’s professionals out drinking fine wine and talking about their real estate investments and it was an interesting change from the typical bar chats but not quite our style for long term festivities.

From there it was off to the groovy Bar Buddha where the Saturday night party got rockin with some dancing, meeting gobs of friendly locals and plenty of laughter. (Update on this—I actually reconvened with some party crew from Bar Buddha on a back road in Northern Ireland. Small World!) Both Mark and I were taking it a bit easier this Saturday night on the beers, and pacing ourselves with pints of ice water, to ensure we were ready for a cycling adventure the following few days. But that did not stop us from having a blast until the wee hours of the night.

Sunday was another lazy day watching the Olympics at Mark’s pad and lounging around the house. The weather was lousy in the morning so nothing better than chilling in his lounge watching Britain win gold after gold that weekend. But the weather soon cleared and it was like a magnet to get ourselves and the bike out into nature and explore. We checked over some maps, Mark made some phone calls, and before we knew it we had a grand plan of a 3 day adventure together.

A famous cyclist was recently killed by a van on the road from Glasgow to the northern Glencoe region so Mark opted for taking the bike in a car out of town. Most of the best riding is on the smaller, more scenic roads up north so I was in full agreement with this plan. Mark’s mom was very supportive and ever offered her more spacious and reliable car for our adventure. She was a sweet woman and I’m eager for our moms to get together one day. We set up a lighter touring load, packed up some food and hit the road towards the beautiful north of Scotland.

The further we got away from Glasgow the more beautiful the scenery became. We drove by lakes, rich green forests and eventually into the breath taking mountains around Glencoe. In the heart of the mountains you can’t help but be flabbergasted. The steep, lush green mountains shoot up into the clouds in all directions while waterfalls tumble down with water from the higher elevations. It’s truly one of the most gorgeous places I’ve ever seen and you’ll have to check the photos to really see what I mean.

We arrived as the sun was going down and found a riverside campsite where we had a nice meal of hot soup and bread. The scenery from our campsite was wonderful with a gentle river, trees and mountains in every direction. We decided to hit the local hostel to see if any music was going on and play some pool at the pub. This little pub was too cool with dozens of bottles of Scotch whisky on the wall, traditional wood furniture, a pool table and cold Guinness they claimed was as good as in Ireland.

We ended up meeting several cool people that night including a fellow bald two wheel explorer out on his motorcycle and a Frenchman Pierre who invited me to his house when I ride into Paris. The locals, travelers and staff were all very open, friendly and easy going so it was a nice mellow night out before bed. Back at the tent we went to sleep with gentle weather but were woken up by fierce winds and rain in the middle of the night. Mark did not sleep well at all and I got a decent sleep. We both would have preferred more before a hard two-day off road mountain bike adventure.

We decided to his the West Highland Way trail, which is a famous hiking path that runs from Fort Williams to Glasgow and is especially beautiful in this region. We parked up the car and decided to take the tandem without the trailer since we were told the path was quite rocky and intense. Our adventure started with a steep, rocky, challenging climb out of Kinlochleven but we were soon working together as a team and bazzing along (Baz is a slang outdoor Scottish work for moving along slowing) the trail towards Fort Williams

Words can barely do justice to the beauty we experienced and the mad adrenaline that was constantly rushing through us that day. The trail was extremely challenging with big boulder fields, stream crossings, drops and steep climbs and descents. Mark is not a serious mountain biker so I heard him in the back literally scared to death as he trusted his life with me--but he held on and we ripped up the trails as some of the most magical scenery passed on by.

Just when we thought we were done for the day, totally “knackered” as they say in the UK, I looked at the bike with total horror as I realized we lost a pannier somewhere behind us! Panniers are those bags you see clipped onto my bike, and in all the crazy mountain biking one of them found its way loose. Our only option was to back track all the way back up to find it, and it turned out to be miles and miles up steep climbing and muddy terrain. Needless to say, by the time we found it way back near our lunch stop we were dead tired and ravenous!

We had no idea where we were going to camp but, as always, the perfect camp spot revealed itself right next to a fork in the river on a flat, soft, grassy plot with a fire pit ready for us. We wheeled the bike over the river and were immediately greeted by thousands of midges. Midges are very small, annoying, biting insects with an insatiable appetite for human skin. “You have not been to Scotland unless you truly met the midges”, Mark told me. Well, I met them, and boy are they a treat! Not.

Mark got the fire going to minimize the attack as I set up the tent. If it were not for the lovely scenery, our shared adrenaline buzz and the total gratitude we both felt for the adventure we were experiencing we would have gone mad with the midge attack. But somehow we were able to “become one with the midges”—a technique I learned with the sand flies in western New Zealand. Mark cooked up an epic meal of risotto, we bathed in the cool river (well, I did but Mark was a chicken), and settled into a night in wild northern Scotland. Life was good.

We both slept like babies this evening as Mark clearly settled into the vibe of camping with his new brother from another mother and we woke up feeling strong and content. We opted for a hilly paved road to minimize the clear beating my bike was receiving riding loaded on the harsh terrain of the trail. The weather was perfect and the scenery jaw dropping as we climbed steep hills with the friendly sheep, farmers and rare logging truck. We fueled up on a big meal in the charming town of Fort Williams before we hit the road back to Kinlochleven.

Our last day of riding together was nothing short of perfection. This region of northern Scotland is divine with dazzling lakes, lush forests and views around every bend of the various mountain ranges. As we approached Kinlochleven I decided to let Mark take the front of the bike, something I have never felt comfortable doing with the loaded tandem until then. He was shaky at first but soon enough he was leading the bike along the lake and I got a taste of the experience I have given countless guest riders over the years—relax, pedal and check out the scenery. Now I know why people love the ride so much, it’s pretty darn epic back there!

One of the most important moments of my trip in Europe happened when Mark and I decided to do some filming at the end of our ride. I had been in quite an “artistic slump” over the past few countries and had not been filming with the passion and conviction I did in Africa and some parts of Europe. My fire seemed to fizzle out as I doubted the “commercial value” of the filming project, which made me want to leave the cameras in the case more than ever before. But this was about to change.

Mark is also an artist and ironically was going through some of the same challenges. He is an amazing musician and had spent much of his adult life working on his art. He even put a CD out, which received very positive reviews and was performing regular gigs. He had a studio in his house as well, but this studio was now collecting dust and had become more of a storage room than a studio. As we rolled the cameras and rode we talked a lot about this funk we were in and this is where my breakthrough came in.

We both agreed that the act of creating should NOT be driven by commercial value. I doubted whether I would be able to show my story with the world via television networks or the big screen, and this fear and doubt put me in a standstill. This was the same with Mark who was also not getting the return on investment of his time as he would have hoped. But the final breakthrough was that I needed to document this journey not just for commercial value, but for the sake of creation. And, just as important, to capture the experiences on film so our families and whoever might choose to appreciate it could do so. From this moment my fire came back and I’ll be forever grateful for this day with Mark in Glencoe area. As I write now this fire is alive and burning bright. BBC, get ready for an epic show!

After the ride we were both filled with positive energy and were able to shower off our grime at the local ice climbing gym in Kinlochleven before we drove back into Glasgow on several delightful back roads. Mark showed me some of his favorite places in nature and we were able to see some of Scotland’s mountain cows up close, tons of lakes and views that will be etched in my mind forever.

Back in Glasgow it had been raining and flooding in much of the city but where we were there was truly lovely weather. We arrived to a soaked Glasgow and everyone I talked to kept mentioning the massive storm that just passed through. Of course, this only made me believe more than ever the “Rainbow” (the spirit my mom came up with) that follows the Peace Pedalers expedition with fine weather, tail winds, great people and unforgettable experiences. I almost cry now as I’m filled with gratitude here in Wales where the Rainbow is alive and shining bright.

We had an invitation to the local friendly soccer match between Scotland and Northern Ireland but the nasty weather scared the invitees away so we went to plan B. We met up with our lovely friend Denise at a local pub to catch the action—well, it was not such a great game, but it was nice to get out and watch the action anyhow. Denise had been going through some tough times in her love life so Mark and I wanted to inject some of our positive energy we were filled with into her and I’m happy to say it worked out best in the long run, right Denise?

My last day in Scotland was the icing on the cake and Mark and I took the good lovin’ in both our hearts out to the masses. I was able to a story in Daily Record and a film crew from STV, the 2nd largest network in Scotland, to do a story on Peace Pedalers. On top of this, Mark invited me to his work at the Glasgow Drug Crisis Center to give a presentation to some of the cities most desperate drug addicts. It was a day dedicated to sharing the energy, hope and positive stories with the world and it turned out great!

I have to say the highlight of Scotland was meeting the dozen or so addicts at the Drug Crisis Center. When I shared with them that I too had hit rock bottom in 1999 when I went bankrupt and had nothing but still managed to come out of it to create this dream project. It really inspired so much more hope than I could ever had imagined. The entire group of them surrounded my Toughbook computer as I took them on a journey around Asia, Oceania, Africa and Europe and they were just so energized. They even took up a collection for me and the funds they raised bought me that new drive train I needed to keep rolling into Ireland and the rest o the UK. There was a connection with this crew that I’ll never forget, and it reminded me how important this project is to so many people.

My last evening I threw a small party at Mark’s place and our friends came over to share some of my robust Italian cooking (Mark, can you still taste the garlic?), wine and final moments together before I got ready to board my boat to Ireland the next early morning. I got my last hug from Denise for the time being and my friend Mette from Copenhagen’s Danish friend Eike even came by for some of Mark’s tear jerking musical performances on his guitar before I called it a fine, very fine, last night in Scotland.

The next morning I loaded up Eedie (that’s the name of my bike, by the way) and woke Mark up for the goodbye hug. But when you say goodbye to brother you are not really saying goodbye but rather “until next time”. And for Mark and me, without a doubt in either of our minds, it was indeed “until next time”. But that does not stop the feelings of loss and sadness from settling in as I rode solo towards the train station to get my lift to the ferry terminal to Ireland.

I’ll never forget Mark, Denise, Matt and all the people in Scotland who I crossed paths with who made it such an amazing experience. From the friendly elderly couple on the side of the road who took time to bid me a safe journey to the close bond of a new “brother from another mother”, the people of Scotland embraced me and this project with open arms. I felt welcome and at home every second of the journey and I’m forever grateful for it all! Scotland rocks—put it on the travel plans!

Big love and hugs from Swansea, Wales where I’m still filled with big love and gratitude in the love and care of more amazing human spirits!

Live Big. Give Big. Love Big.

(the new “Love Big” comes from former guest rider and soul sister Irena in Prague, Czech Republic. I could not agree more…it’s the new slogan…”)

Jamie ;


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