“I planned each charted course, each careful step along the byway…”

I have to end with Frank, thank you Mr. Sinatra.

The Zipper and Velcro Banquet was a blast. Sue & Ali, who produce this amazing event were spectacular. Russ was his own inimitable self, congratulating the first crossers and admonishing those who have done it more than a dozen times.


The calm before the storm.


Russ, a gifted walker, talker, and all round good chap.


Emma Woolf and the Foul Weather Alternatives, practicing for their later performance, with Lord Elpus in the foreground, enjoying it immensely.


The famous Alan Sloman in the foreground with Lord Elpus and name I forget, who none-the-less, shall be leading British reform.


The room 200+ strong. The most exclusive club on earth (with the possible exception of whatever Kim Jong Un has to offer).

That’s it. I sit in a club at Heathrow, waiting for my flight to board, with first a train from Montrose to Aberdeen, a bus to the airport and a flight to London. It’s back to reality. Back to earth. Back to wearing cotton.

In retrospect, it was the Best Crossing Ever. Thus endeth the sermon.

Yip yip.

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The Best Crossing, Ever.

Montrose, Thursday

Well, it wasn’t. And it was.

I’ll come back to that but first of all, once I was back on my feet and at Braemar, I finished my hike.

Last day hike, 26 kilometers, 127 floors.


Yours truly, on a cove on the North Sea, Portlethen.

I left Banchory at 08:15, knowing it was going to be a long day. It was overcast and perfect for hiking.


Ready to hit the trail.

The weather on this crossing had been phenomenal, with literally no rain the entire trip. Compare that to last year when it rained on me every day. First timers to the challenge this year, have no clue just how great it was (“Best weather in 18 years!” Russ).

I was following the Deeside Way, which is an abandoned railroad bed. A train had run along this from 1868 until 1966.

It offered a level hike with little chance of getting lost.


“I can see for miles and miles and miles and miles, oh yeah.” (thank you Pete Townsend).


Bridges through bridges.

It was a straight haul down the Deeside to Aberdeen, my new final destination. Only when I looked at the map, the last five miles were through Aberdeen itself.

So I made another audible and half way to Aberdeen, at Peterculter, I took a right and headed overland to Portlethen. I’m glad I changed my route, Mick didn’t and hated the last bit.


A cove at Portlethen my final destination.


The rocky (and slimy) shore.

12 days later, the East coast.

I passed another TGOCer, headed to the cove, who said there would not be a train to Montrose for hours but there was a bus stop, a mile or so away. I hiked there, only to find it was on the freeway and with no indication it was the right bus stop.

I decided to hitchhike but the cars raced by, with nowhere to be picked up safely. Across the freeway, was a side road with cars lined up to get on the busy road going my direction. I raced across the freeway and tapped on the window of the first car for a ride. Damian, an oil and gas guy, in a brand new Audi SUV, gave me a ride to the Stonehaven bus stop. As we passed the time, Damien said the oil industry is coming back and thinks $80 a barrel is the optimal price (good to know) that helps the public and the industry.

I thanked Damian for the ride, and at the bus shelter, looked at the posted schedule—with Thomas, who was also waiting for a bus—helping me out. It turned out I had a 30 minute wait. “Let me buy you a pint, mate,” said Thomas and dragged me off to the corner pub.


Thomas, Brian, and another patron.

Thomas was a retired engineer, formerly from Glasgow, “I’ve heard of Minnesota,” he’d said. And then called up his number one daughter to come collect him. “No need for the bus for me.”

Brian, also a Glaswegian, was an oil and gas guy who had worked in just about every oil producing country on the planet. At 68, Glen was looking good. “I’m a Harley man, Thom. An’ my bike (a three-wheeler) takes first place in every show I go to.”

The day was getting cooler and the pub was warm and inviting. But my bus was on its way, so I said thanks and as I walked out the door, a young guy overhearing the conversation, said “Go Twins,” on my way out.

I climbed on the bus and found the Challenger who had mentioned the bus originally, sitting next to me. It turns out the bus stop on the freeway was the right one after all.

I made my way to Montrose and checked in at Control Central, received my goody bag (minus my certificate of completion) and headed for my room and a bath.


The lobby at the Park Hotel, more rucksacks than you can shake a stick at. I tried and my stick broke.

I made my way down to the hotel bar, and it was packed to the gills with Challengers. Drinks were poured, stories flew and the bonhomie could be felt to through road weary bones. I might also mention, the place had that peculiar odor only 12 days on the road can produce.

A little later, I mentioned to Humphrey. I was going out for Chinese food and did he want to join me. And that he did, along with Shep.

Humphrey, is a designer who has traveled the world and you are hard pressed to find a trail he hasn’t been on, or a dive in any country he doesn’t know. Hump has pulled together a band for tonight’s entertainment. More on that, when I hear them.

Shep is a Set builder, and until a few years ago, had a huge company that built most of the sets for the movies you’ve seen, produced in the UK (and as he says, a bunch of movies you’ve never seen).


Humphrey, Shep, sizzling Beef in Black Bean Sauce, Chicken Tao, Beef in Curry with Peppers. My third time to the Peking Palace in three years. I dream of this place along the trail. The next time you are in Montrose, I highly recommend it. If you don’t like it, I’ll pay for it.

That’s it.

All that is left is the Velcro and zipper banquet tonight. A room full of man-made fabrics, Velcro, zippers and the best people on earth. More on after it happens.

But, back to The Best Crossing Ever.

That was my mantra for this trip, as I prepared for it over the winter months. I believed it would be my last and I wanted a right tough challenge (and there are tougher crossings than mine). I planned as best I could. I had my route down cold. I had enough bandages, pain killers and blister packs to outfit a small pack of boy scouts.

But I didn’t plan on my knee going out. I did not plan on a body part not working like it had for 66 years.

So it was the worse crossing ever because I didn’t make it. I failed. I tried and I failed.

But it was the best crossing ever because of the Challengers I hiked amongst. Those who did make it. Those who cheered me on, offered knee braces, hot tea, and stories. Of the 300 who started off this year, over 50 had to drop out. One in six, including yours truly.

So I look forward to next year. I look forward to redemption. I look forward to perhaps walking with my daughter. And if she doesn’t join me, she has a whole life ahead of her to join the most exclusive club in the world; TGOC.

But right now, more than anything, I look forward to the Velcro and Zipper Banquet. More on that after it happens.

Yip yip.

“Take me to the river, drop me in the water, take me to the river, dip in the water.”

Thank you David Byrne.

While I have been able to clean up fairly well, my actual hiking clothes are stiff enough to walk themselves. And when I wear them, even the mosquitos stay away. So there is an advantage to the hobo life.

I left Ballater on a 10:00 bus bound for Aboyne, to reconnect with my route.


Lovely old church and graveyard, along the Deeside Trail.

I am taking the Deeside Trail (thus the river reference above and any excuse to fit in Talking Heads), which will eventually take me all the way to Aberdeen.


It was a very dark day with ominous skies that thankfully only remained ominous, like a brooding Markle relative.


The River Dee.


I cannot get enough of this Gorse. It smells like a Pina Colada but with barbs that can tear your skin.

The trail was well marked and I arrived around 14:30 into Banchory, and got a room at the Burnett Hotel.

Had dinner with Rosie and Rich, and Jean and John. All multiple crossers.

That’s it. Wish I had more to say. But one day left and then back to reality.

Yip, yip.

“Oh the days dwindle down to a precious few, September, October…”

Ballater, Sunday recap

Is it at all possible to travel and not reference a song that Willie Nelson sang?

The days are dwindling down, but not into September or October, but rather Tuesday and Wednesday.

Before I sink into my typical despair of a trip ending, let’s recap the last few days.

I hitchhiked out of Beamer, bound for Balmoral Castle, to reconnect with my route. I was picked up by the first car, a new black Volvo, driven by an old white guy. John, was a dairy farmer with 250 head of cattle (“Small for the states, but big here, aye.”) and of all places, he had been to Minneapolis. “They have wonderful sperm in Minnesota!” He said.

John had been on a buying trip for his dairy farm, and had been very pleased with the results. I thanked him, on behalf of Minnesota sperm makers and replied there is so much more to Minnesota than just sperm. 3M, for example, has a wonderful line of tapes and coatings. But enough about the draw of Minnesota.

I hiked out of Balmoral around 09:15 and arrived in Ballater before noon.


Monuments like these are scattered willy nilly at Balmoral Castle.

7.8 miles and only 33 floors. The weather has been magnificent. Sunny everyday with not a hint of rain. Compared to last year, when it rained on me every day, this is heaven. Every Challenger has commented on the weather. Russ has said, after 18 crossings, this is the best weather. Ever.


The track through Balmoral. No Queen in sight.

To lighten my load, I shipped my tent and sleeping bag onto Montrose, which necessitates finding a place to stay in every village.

I rolled into Ballater slightly concerned, and after looking around, found a bedroom above a bar for 30 quid a night. After a bath and a clothes wash, I walked into town, to the Alexander Hotel, a known hangout for TGOCers.


Before the Alexander, I stopped by my favorite Chinese take-out for some wonton soup in the park.

There, sitting and eating away, were Humphrey and Shep.


Humphrey on the left and Shep.

We traded stories, with more TGOCers wandering in and joining the conversation.

Back to the hotel for a rest up and then back to the Alexander for dinner and more stories. Here is one story worth sharing, to give you an idea of why this is called the challenge.

Glen is a Texan and the founder of Gossamer Gear, a designer and manufacturer of ultra light-weight hiking gear, who is traveling with Ian, another Texan and a young couple from Colorado (sorry did not remember their names), who are hiking fiends.

They were hiking across a bog, in day two or three, when one of the men, not Glen, went down in the bog up to his hips. It was terribly funny, with photos taken and laughs all ’round. Only, he could not get himself out, he was stuck. As Humphrey described it, he was standing on the bones of Scotsmen who had fallen before him.

His friends were naturally able to get him out with more than a bit of work. But think about it. Had he been on his own, he would surely have died. He could not free himself. Stuck, upright, like a shrine at Balmoral Castle. For eternity, an American as a cautionary tale.

Monday, Ballater

Up and on the road by 09:15, a lovely path along the River Dee, that goes all the way to Aberdeen, on the coast. It is an old railway bed and level as it can be. A quarter of the way down the path, I came up to Mick, and he and I walked together into Aboyne.


Mick, the Iron Horse

Mick is ex RAF, a submarine hunter (and headed to a reunion further North in the next month). He and his wife Gail, have hiked just about everything there is to hike. They have hiked John O’Groats to Lands End (the Southern tip of England to the Northern tip of Scotland), 500 miles on the Pacific Coast Trail (PCT) and countless other hikes. Mick is finishing his 10th crossing and while he is doing that, Gail is collecting mountain tops.


The gorse is in full bloom.

We hiked and talked, and talked and hiked. Gail is following along (using her time to climb anything tall and dangerous) with the caravan, the one they spent eight months in, traveling through Norway and Europe.

Am I envious? Well, I do not believe there is an emoji available that fully connotes this but I imagine it is green and looks like envy. Oh, and maybe a little bit like Kim Kardashian (someone never satisfied).

We arrived in Aboyne in record time. Once there looking for a place to stay, I spent a fair amount of time with a very kindly shop employee, looking for a place but to no avail. So I grabbed a bus back to Ballater and my original room, above the bar. Did I mention they do karaoke? Did I mention I hate Karaoke?


Your faithful journalist arriving in Aboyne.

Tomorrow, it is a bus back to Aboyne and then on to Banchory. Two days left of hiking. Two days left of TGOC 2018.

Two days…

Yip yip.

“I’m back, I’m back in the Saddle Again.”

Saturday, Braemar

Thank you Gene Autry, for those words of promise, written in 1939.

I’ll get into my rebound in a bit but first of all, it is the Royal Wedding right now and I am sitting next to Mary, 76, who is giving me (whether I want it or not) a play by play of the Royal Family.

Mary my color commentator, you should be so lucky.

Braemar has no proper pub, a befuddlement to an otherwise lovely village. So those of us interested in watching are gathered in the lobby of the Invercauld Arms.

It’s really almost like we are there.

Now the odd thing is that we are in Scotland watching an Englishman’s wedding and the Scots are not happy with it. 400 years since the Jacobite Uprising and they still carry a grudge.

I will add updates to this as they unfold, and as Mary tells me.

Update 11:33:

As you can see, all are seated (Elton John, George Clooney, other people) and the Queen. I know these photos practically put you right in the chapel, consider these my gift to you.


Prince Harry and Prince William, walking in. Mary believes he has had his chin done. “I certainly hope so.” She said.

Update 12:01

Meghan arriving at the chapel. By the way, you are welcome to share these exquisite photos of the wedding, but please they are not for commercial use.

Update 12:11
The vail was lifted and this room broke out in awes.

13:07

And here they are getting into the carriage. This will end my coverage of the Royal Wedding. I am thinking of printing a limited edition, boxed set of these wedding photos. Suitable for framing, gifting or litter box liners.

Back to hiking.

Friday morning I took the train back to Aviemore, from Inverness and arrived at 10:23. Karen picked me up at the station and we headed off to Braemar, maybe 25 miles away as the crow flies (or TGOC hikes) but two hours away by roads. We had to go around the Cairngorms.

My thought was to have Karen drop me off at Balmoral Castle and I would hike into Braemar. First to check out my knee and secondly to shorten my hike on Sunday.

And that I did. I changed into hiking clothes and soon found the trail on the other side of the entrance to the castle grounds. And for £11 they would let me through. After much back and forth, they hinted that if I walked East a bit I might find a way in. But that is all they could say (I believe for fear their heads would be cut off, after all, 11 quid is 11 quid).

I took their hint (and several brochures) and walked the wrong direction until I came to a golf course greens entrance. No one was around, so in I went and found the trail.

Ten minutes later I was back to my starting point and a view of the castle:


Hey, Your Majesty, you want my 11 quid? Come and get it!

The hike was mild, which was a blessing for my knee. I did eight miles in about 3.5 hours with a climb of only 49 floors.

I checked into the Invercalud Arms, had a bath and walked around town.

And who should I run into, but Harry, who arrived by bus. “I’ve taken myself out of The Challenge!” Russ said.


Chatting with Russ and Ian. Ian had crossed 15 or so times and now brings his caravan along the major routes and hands out breakfasts, lunches and at night, soup, beer and whisky.

Russ, as I had earlier thought, was not heading towards Pait Lodge, but going slightly south with Herman. And he was doing it with a 100º+ temperature. That, coupled with a twisted knee and a fall a day or two later, forced him to call it a day at Drumnadrochit.

Russ walked off to his B&B with the promise of coming down to the Arms with Herman for a beer later.

I had dinner at the hotel with John (23rd crossing) and his wife Norma (13th crossing). Norma is dropping out due to blisters. They are so severe, she is two inches taller than normal..

Soon, the bar started filling up with other TGOCers.

There were John and Norma, Russ and Herman, Lyndee and her husband Ron, who came to offer support. Paul and Karen, of course, Stewart and Lauren. And Allen, who has done several crossings and just started in Aviemore, to simply be a part of this years’ crossing. And many others who names I could not capture.


The troops begin to gather.

It was an adhock meeting of one of the most exclusive clubs on earth. You can’t buy your way into it. The Great Outdoor Challenge.

I’m back. Yip, yip.

“Dear Prudence, won’t you come out and play…”

Inverness, Wednesday

That’s what is playing, as I sit in a pub along the River Ness in Inverness. It continues:
“The sun is out, the sky is blue
It’s beautiful and so are you
Dear Prudence, won’t you come out and. Play.”

But all I hear is:
“Hello darkness my old friend
I’ve come to talk with you again.

Early Simon and Garfunkel is hitting my chord a little more than The Beatles right now.

(Very quick aside, Purple Rain just started playing. You can run but you can’t hide from Minneapolis.)

Last we spoke, I was in Aviemore pondering my immediate future (should I grow my hair, take up ballroom dancing, join the Flat Earth Society?).

I decided to leave Aviemore and head into Inverness, where hopefully I could find the elusive correct knee brace and if needed find a GP there.

I bought a train ticket and 45 minutes later I was in Inverness. Comical to the gods of TGOC, because that was my arrival point to the highlands, on the Caledonian Sleeper, one-of-the-trains-on-earth. Apparently I should be careful what I disparage because the very first thing to catch my eye on the platform was the Caledonian, hissing at me.

I parked my rucksack in baggage holding, and made my way into town searching for a place to stay. I tried several hotels and most were booked or too pricey. One kindly old guy, taking pity on my weeping, suggested I try across the River Ness for a B&B.

Again, most were full but finally after talking to a few innkeepers, I came across the Tavena, a lovely place on a quiet street.

Toilet down the hall.

After that, it was off for pizza and retrieving my bag. Along the way, I finally (thank you St. Clarence) found a Chemist with the right brace.

I asked my family doctor just what I had. I said “Doctor (Doctor), Mr. M.D. (Doctor) now can you tell me, tell me, tell me, just what’s ailing me?” (Doctor).

I hiked back to the B&B for a regroup. Then off for a hike through the neighborhood and found a delightful gastropub on the Ness for later.

After an exhaustive search for a Chinese restaurant (you now I need my Chinese fix), I settled on Jimmy Chung’s, an all you can eat buffet restaurant, that served its purpose. Should you ever find yourself stranded on a deserted island with limited food, starving for weeks, and suddenly a Jimmy Chung’s opens up next door, give it a try. But if you don’t, that’s okay, too.

Back to the B&B for a bit then off for mussels at the Waterfront, mentioned above.


Small portion was too much for me, but perfect.

In addition to great food, warm atmosphere and people who didn’t support Trump, they had live music.


They may not look like much, but they were great.

Today was wondering about. Admiring a beautiful town. But there is more. Alright, please don’t make me admit this, I, that is, I—think what you want—I saw the new Avengers movie. There, you I have it, no secrets between us.

The knee is feeling better as long as I don’t use it. Which is similar to having money in your pocket as long as you don’t spend it.

I do hope to spend it in a few days. My plan is to restart in Braemar and hike into Banchory, Aboyne, Ballater and finish in Stonehaven. Four days hiking.

It is by no means a hike across Scotland or doing the TGOC. It’s an attempt to reclaim some measure of the hike. And stop those Simon and Garfunkel lyrics resonating in my brain.

To leave you on a lighter note, I have found the local chapter of the Flat Earth Society, just steps from my B&B.


The Flat Earth Society, now finger lickin’ good.

I plan on stopping by later this evening for information and general baiting. God forbid, if I don’t return to Gotham-on-the-Prairie, be advised I have been convinced and simply walk off the edge of the world, something my wife says I did years ago.

Yip, yip.

Walking to Nowhere.

Aviemore, Monday

The title says it all, but we’ll get to that in a bit.

Paul and Karen picked me up at my hotel at 09:00 and we set off for Cannich in a drizzle (actually a lovely Peugot).

Soon we were off, with the drizzle (not the Peugot) with us for just an hour.

It was road walk for a few miles until we took a right and then a left onto a small track.

Stewart (2nd crossing) and Lauren (first crossing) in the foreground, Paul to the right and two more, who’s names escape me like flatulence.

The walk on was pleasant, the legs strong and the back in good shape. But my knee was starting to hurt on the downward paths.

A great path through the woods, slightly overcast with a pleasant temp.

As we walked on the knee began to kick in with protest. Quiet at first, like an angry letter to the Editor. But then it escalated to a full-blown riot. Little bits of my knee were carrying placards and torches. Suddenly, I was The Man. The Man, my knee was protesting about. I swear I could hear my knee yelling, “Tendons matter!”

Paul is an excellent hiker and retired. But retired from what? These Brits keep some things pretty close to their pocket.

By now I could hardly walk down hill. Straight and up were somewhat fine (marginal pain) and I could carry on. But then, after climbing most of the day, we started several steep descents. The angle on several was 60º for several hundred yards.

Hard to see but this is straight down.

My knee was in agony. I hobbled down side ways as best I could. The hikers whom we were passing and then passing me gave words of encouragement.

Karen had parked the car at the foot of the trail and hiked back to meet us and joined us about two hours out from the end. After keeping up as best I could, I told them to carry on and I would see them later.

And off I trudged on my own. Along the way you meet other TGOCers and we watch out for each other. And here they come.

I’m walking down the trail like a very old person in pain (Just pretending, I’m really just an old person in pain) when TGOCer #167 walks up to me and correctly diagnosis’s my pain. He reaches into his rucksack and pulls out an elastic brace, not perfect for what I have but it couldn’t hurt.

He graciously give it to me, “We need to watch out for each other, Mate.” The best part of TGOC are the people.

He carries on and I do my best.

The long and the short of it is, a hike that should have taken maybe 5.5 hours, took 7.5 hours. And my knee won, they took down The Man.

This old tree was at the end of the trail, my hiking stick is leaning against it for scale.

As I reached the foot of the trail, there were Paul and Karen waiting for me. I guess when they picked my up hitchhiking, they didn’t know they had adopted me for life, like a bad penny. As fellow TGOCers came off the trail, they had mentioned to Paul and Karen, their mate was in bad shape.

As we drove into town we espied a couple TGOCers and I returned the knee brace to someone who was on the ferry across Loch Ness with 167 and offered thanks.

Karen dropped me off at my hotel for a hot bath and then ice on the knee.

Later that night I went to the Loch Ness Inn. By the by, I am staying at the Loch Ness Hotel. Everything in Drumnadrochit has the words Loch Ness in it. Loch Ness chocolate ice cream, Loch Ness Plumbers, Loch Ness Detective Agency and Pest Control (true). I met earlier a woman named, Kathryn Loch Ness Burnet, a charming girl.

At the pub I ran into Stewart and Lauren, whom I hiked with briefly today, and Paul whom I hike with in 2016. Paul is an American. from Ohio, teaching at the University in Edinburgh, and creating things in biology to save lives.

On my return to the hotel I found this poster:

Damn, but I wish I were in town for that. Now it’s also the night of the Royal Wedding. Coincidence or perhaps something darker???

As I mentioned, Walking to Nowhere.

Alright, that’s it. I think I’m done. The knee is throbbing. I walk like I’m 66 years old and from South Minneapolis (damn and I am).

I talked to my doctor in Minneapolis and he confirmed it is Pateller Tendon thingie, sometimes called Runners Knee. His recommendation is to ice it and keep any weight off it or as he said, “Your gonna fuck it up good this time dipstick.” I asked him for a second opinion and he said, “Your ugly.” Doctor Dorsey is appearing this weekend at the Comedy Club.

I’m taking the day off to reevaluate my plight.

This morning Karen was traveling on to Aviemore, as support team for Paul, which would have been my next stop after more wilderness and kindly offered me a ride.

So here I sit in Aviemore, in a pub, next to the river Spey, on a beautiful day in one of God’s gardens, trying to figure out what the **** to do (not so many swear words, my mother-in-law implored).

  • Options:
    Go home ASAP.
    Wait another day and see if I can rejoin.
    Travel to Braemar, lighten my pack and take the Spey side trail to the sea.

Whatever I do, any official crossing is over. My knee won. Bernie Sanders, I hope you’re happy. It’s simply a mechanical body thing and as Scottie said on Star Trek, “Captain, I can’t change the laws of physics!” (Scottie, now played by Scotsman, Simon Pegg.)

I will keep you posted. I will figure this out by tomorrow. I will not put myself in harms way, as best I can. But I do need adventure. Danger fuckers unit! Oops, sorry Corky.

Yip, yip.

Stats
Cannich to Drumnadrochit

20 kilometers
649 meters (64 floors)