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   hitchhiking to Ballachulish
Friday, August 3 2007

setting: Mclays Guest House, Garnet Hill, Glasgow, Scotland, UK

The goal for today was to gather all our stuff (which we could crunch down to one backpack each) and hitchhike northward, with a goal of making it to the western village of Onich by nightfall tomorrow, where Gretchen had made us a reservation at a vegetarian bed and breakfast. We didn't know anything about how to hitchhike in the UK, and I even feared that perhaps the thumbs-out sign might be some sort of derogatatory gesture in British culture. (One of my colleagues at Launch UK used to jokingly make nasty gestures at me, and I'd just shrug because they meant nothing at all in the land of baseball and rhinoplasty.)
Not far from Mclays was the M8 and we found our way down to a feeder road and tried to flag a ride, but it seemed clear we were never going to get one. They were going too fast and we were too close to the middle of the city for them to know whether or not it made sense for them to pick us up or not. I hadn't hitchhiked since 1998 (when I hitchhiked from Ann Arbor, MI back to Virginia), but my experience was telling me that it was crucial for us to get further from the center of the city. What with the cars whizzing past dangerously close and the uncertain nature of the entire enterprise, Gretchen and I soon began squabbling about the best way to proceed. The great thing about nearly all the hitchhiking I'd done up until this point was that I had been doing it alone and didn't need to reach a consensus with anyone before deciding to try something else.
Eventually that consensus was to climb back up to surface streets and cut over to a part of the big road more obviously headed in our hoped-for direction. At some point along the way we came across a random man on the street and Gretchen asked him what was the proper protocol for hitchhiking. He stuck out his thumb and said that he thought it was done that way, though he didn't seem particularly practiced in the art. At least this put the rest our fear that it might be an offensive gesture.
The sky was overcast and threatening rain so it was easy for us to get turned around in Kelvingrove Park and start heading north, through beautiful neighborhoods towards the University of Glasgow instead of south, towards the River Clyde and Pointhouse Road, the big western artery to get us going in the right direction. Asking lots of directions soon corrected our trajectory, and on the advice of someone we opted to take a bus out to Victoria Park. The bus driver, by the way, was the first person on our trip to treat us in a gruff manner. He did this because we didn't know the fare, didn't have exact change, and because we didn't know to take our receipt.
We'd read about a fossil grove in Victoria Park, so this was where we went. Behind a huge, ugly formal garden was a large building that was really just a roof over an excavation. And in that excavation were the remains of an ancient forest: downed logs, stumps that looked like someone had cut down a tree, and some branches. But none of these things were made of wood. Now all these things were stone, comprised of the minerals that had replaced the wood when it rotted away three hundred million years before our arrival. Beyond what I said there wasn't much to see and we couldn't wander among the stone trees, so the experience was more of an anticlimax than anything else. But at least I knew our luck was soon going to take a turn for the better. My camera, which had been giving me memory card errors again, was now working. And I'd figured out the key to fixing it as well: just take out the battery and wait about twenty seconds.
The guys at the fossil grove gave us another set of directions which sent us on a walk of about a mile, and we ended up hitchhiking in front of a gas station. The setting was still much more urban than we would have preferred (and thus we might easily have been passed by as obvious carjackers), but at least the cars were all going toward our destination.
The waiting for a ride went on for awhile. People pulled in, got their gas, and pulled out, ignoring us. Others shrugged or did that thing where they point at some unknown symbolic object as an excuse. As always, the most annoying were the drivers who gave us the hitchhiking thumb. That one is also common among smartasses who don't pick up hitchhikers in the United States.
Then, unexpectedly, a tiny little car had stopped and we were clambering into its back seat, as the passenger seat was already occupied. The driver was a young Glaswegian from the west end out tooling around with his kid brother. It was soon clear that the biggest problem on this ride was going to be surmounting a communication barrier. We were both speaking English, of course, and the driver had no difficulty understanding our familiar (and extremely generic, teevee-friendly) American accents. But he and his brother could speak a whole sentence without us having parsed a single word. The short, sharp vowels had such resonance that they seemed to undermine and subsume the consonants on either side. From context and gradual acclimation, we gradually got a handle on the content of the speech, but it was easy to hear things that weren't there. For example, when the driver mentioned a friend who is "in jail," Gretchen heard "a Jew." Gretchen had him repeat himself and again she heard "a Jew." So I jumped in with a response using the word "jail" to help get the conversation back on track. Our conversation was mostly about sectarian divisions in Glasgow, with the driver saying there are neighborhoods in the city he can't enter without being stabbed. Something about his youth, the newness of the car, and a mostly undecipherable transaction that happened via cellphone led me to suspect that the driver was a drug dealer. If so, he was a kindhearted drug dealer, because he went well out of his way and drove us all the way to the south end of Loch Lomond. Gretchen and I walked to the end of the pier at Duck Bay Marina (56.016511 N, 4.608856 W), relieved that hitchhiking was going to be a viable means of transportation.
We walked out to the main road, the A82, and began hitchhiking again. Unlike American roads, those in Scotland completely lack shoulders or more than the bare minimum of lanes. Periodically a short stretch of additional lane will be added at the site of a major destination, such as the marina, so we were trying to catch a ride there. But then a guy came risked his life crossing the busy road to tell us (in what sounded like a cultured English accent) that we were in a bad spot for hitchhiking and that we should walk up to the traffic circle and try there, where he'd caught "loads of" rides.
This advice proved helpful, and we weren't long at the circle before a smallish truck stopped and we climbed in with the driver, a largish man with another impenetrable Scottish accent. He was driving to Ardlui (56.203 N, 4.707 W) , a small village at the north end of Loch Lamond. During the course of the driver's chipper prattle, we learned of his trips to Florida and Las Vegas. We advised him to return to the US soon, while the exchange rate was still to his advantage.
In Ardlui we found ourselves standing on the side of the road while a light rain fell. There was a small place for cars to pull over, and just as I was wondering if it was really enough, a modern diesel-burning VW van pulled over. The driver was an older English gentleman who was going all the way to Glen Coe, close to where we'd need to be tomorrow night. His name, we would later learn, was Ken, and he was traveling with Ben, his little Highland Terrier. Though now he was keeping busy in his retirement as an amateur photographer of the Scottish Highlands, he had once, he claimed, been a "professional liar: a meteoreologist." He'd traveled the world making predictions about rain, sun, sleet, and snow, wearing out his reputation in each place and then moving on. These days, in addition to traveling with Ben and taking pictures, he also does speaking engagements as a no-named Al Gore, raising awareness of global warming. Ken was a very nice and very agreeable man, and he knew an absurd amount about both global warming and various polar expeditions, but there were little discrepancies between what he said and the evidence in his environment that led us to suspect that all his professional lieing had caused him to tell lies even when he wasn't on the clock. For example, after Gretchen said she was a vegetarian, Ken said that he was too, but then later Gretchen opened his little refrigerator and found a package of ham. Maybe that was for Ben the Highland Terrier, but somehow I doubt it.
The Highlands of Scotland served as something of an adopted family member for Ken, who seemed to adopt things easily. His choice in dogs was clearly an indication of his newfound loyalties, though he was realistic regarding the requitedness of his love. "The English love the Scotts," he said, "and the Scotts hate the English." I got the feeling, though, that at this point in history this hatred was mostly recreational.
Heading north from Loch Lomond, the landscape became rugged and increasingly devoid of trees until at last it was an alien landscape of tall grassy mountains. Saturated with rain, their color was a saturated green. Eventually we climbed up to a high plateau (high in the British Isles means above 3000 feet) called the Rannoch Moor, a shrubby flatland with uncertain drainage, dotted throughout with natural ponds and small lakes. Ken told us that the Rannoch Moor was a very bleak place to fine oneself in the winter time.
Beyond the Rannoch Moor was the long, gorgeous valley of Glen Coe (or Glencoe). At this time of year, most of its human population was in cars on A82, but in the past it was home to warring clans living in a feudal society well into modern times. Glen Coe is infamous for a massacre that took place in 1692. Scotts still talk about the brutal killing of 37 people over 300 years ago. I said that we have so many massacres in the United States that we tend to stop talking about them after a decade or so. Does anyone still remember the shooting at Columbine? Isn't columbine a type of alkaline-loving flower?
After trying unsuccessfully to find a place to stay at an isolated inn in Glen Coe, Ken drove us all the way to Ballachulish (some miles to the west), and Gretchen managed to track down a spare room from the village's information centre. I wouldn't have expected lodging to be so hard to find, but August is the peak of vacation season in the UK, and the greater Glen Coe area is world-famous for its crazy cliffs and rock climbing. (Ken tells us that this is whay the UK leads the world in rock climbing prowess.)
Ken dropped us off in front of the place in Ballachulish where we'd be staying, the residence of an older woman named Mrs. Campbell. As is the custom in the Glen Coe area, the bed and breakfasts have a network of homemakers like Mrs. Campbell to whom they can send their overflow customers in the peak season. Basically, we'd be staying in the femmetastic canopy bed of what I must assume was Mrs. Campbell's daughter, who might well have moved out twenty five years ago.

Eventually Gretchen and I ventured out into the rain and went down to the one pub in town, Laroch Bar & Bistro. It was too early to get dinner, so we sat in the bar area drinking pints and chatting with fiendly locals and fellow travelers. As an American, one quick way to make conversation with Scotts is to talk trash about George W. Bush and then tell the Scotts that they have no idea how lucky they are to have socialized medicine.

When the restaurant opened, I ordered the fish and chips and Gretchen went for the vegetarian dish, a vegetable curry. The latter was unexpectedly delicious, though Gretchen had to pick through it in search of the little bit of it that wasn't aubergine (eggplant). She hates aubergines, though I have no problem eating them.

Later, back at Mrs. Campbell's house, a couple surly Italians showed up and moved into Mrs. Campbell's other spare room. One of them used our common bathroom and left the door closed behind him as a measure of caution regarding the toxic gases that had emerged from his anus.

Glen Coe.


See more photographs from the Scotland trip.

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