Thursday, May 24, 2012

Day 82: We made it!

Distance: 18.4 miles
Days to go: Zero!

Here's the picture we've been waiting to put in the blog:

Yeah, baby, that's right - we made it! It feels great. Really great! Maybe we'll post something more eloquent later, but for now, that's the best I got: it feels great!

Today's walk, taken on its own merits, was pretty unremarkable. Eighteen miles, most of it on a straight single track road through very gently undulating tiny hills, alternating between moorland, forest, and pasture. We cruised through it, as you might expect after 1200 miles, and given the significance of the day for us. We'd polished off twelve miles by noon, when we stopped for lunch, and we made it to the signpost before three.

We really wanted the signpost picture, and we knew to get it, we'd have to do business with the signpost man.

That's because the sign is not a run of the mill public sign - it's owned by a private company. The sign is surrounded by rope; part of the signpost man's job is to shoo off anyone who tries to sneak in and get a picture for free. The deal is that you pay ten pounds (eleven if you live outside the UK), then signpost man customizes the sign, takes your picture, and sends you a copy via snail mail. When signpost man goes home at night, he takes the sign with him. Fortunately for us, signpost man was there, and after we'd done the deal, he was happy to use our camera to take a few pictures as well.

We started the day with a cracking good breakfast! We ordered our usual: a full cooked breakfast for me, and poached eggs on toast for Dawn. First breakfast course was the normal yoghurt and cereal, which was good. But the second course, the cooked half, was just outstanding. I've learned now, after 82 cooked breakfasts, that they fall into three categories. At the bottom are the places that save a few bucks by buying cheap ingredients: fatty sausage, greasy tasting bacon, canned button mushrooms. I won't even describe what these sort of places consider "coffee". Sadly, many B&Bs fall into this category. The next level up makes things better by spending money: good sausages, and organic local eggs, and maybe even some reasonable coffee. But the best places, like the Loch Watten house, get to the highest level by spending less. They serve their own eggs (typically collected that morning). The sausage and bacon comes from the small farm next door. The marmalade is home made. That was our early breakfast this morning. It's probably my last full breakfast of the trip, so I'm very happy it was so good!

Breakfast, and a packed lunch, powered us through the walk and to the sign. But we had more traveling to do. Because we plan to catch the morning train to Inverness we're spending the night in Wick, at the end of the rail line, twenty miles south of John O'Groats. After our sign pictures, we checked the bus schedule. We'd missed the bus by five minutes, and the next was two hours out. So we sprung for a cab. It arrived twenty minutes after we called, and a half hour later we were checked in to the hotel.

The big downer of the day is that the eye problem Dawn had back on day 47 is back with a vengeance. This morning her eye was red and had some sensitivity to light, but nothing too bad. At least, not bad enough to stop her from walking eighteen miles to the end of the road! But during the cab ride to Wick, the sun shone in through the front window, and the pain started for real. She's sleeping now. Hopefully a night's rest will help and she'll be ok for two days of travel before seeing her doctor in Oregon.

Thanks to all of you for reading our blog these past three months, and especially for commenting! Thanks to Michael and Jan for walking alongside us for two weeks, to Larry for virtually walking alongside us, and to all of you who have put whisky in your oatmeal, or kayaked, or walked, or whatever! Your support and thoughts have meant the world to us. Really!

I'm still in shock. We made it!

Location:Cliff Rd,Wick,United Kingdom

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Day 81: Watten

Distance: 13.9 miles
Neolithic Cairns: 2

Bleak. That's the adjective we heard, more than once, when we described our route from Lybster north. The normal route to John O'Groats goes up through Wick along the A99, a busy highway. There's also an alternative route, which follows an unnamed road north away from the coast, passing by Loch Watten. In the past three days we've had our fill of walking on A-roads, so we opted for the bleak route through the moor.

The road goes through the flow country, the largest expanse of blanket bog in Europe. We expected that there would be nothing but grasses growing on wet peat, but we were wrong. There were sheep pretty much scattered everywhere. There were wind turbines, and lots of construction of new turbines. There were thankfully almost no cars. There were even a few farms, though some, it seems, have seen better days.

The scenery alternated between open moor and forest. Seems that some of the flow country has been planted with trees, at the expense of the environment, for the tax benefit of wealthy Britons. At least, that's what Wikipedia says. They named Phil Collins as one of the bog destroyers! C'mon Phil, wasn't it bad enough what you did to Genesis? Do you have to wipe out the flow country too?

About half way along, we came to one of the most important neolithic archeological sites in Britain: the Camster Cairns. These stone structures have been here for five thousand years, back before the bogs formed, when this area was scrubland. The cairns are big igloo sort of structures made out of rock. You can crawl into the middle of them through a super tiny tunnel on your hands and knees. We both wimped out and just stayed on the outside. In the picture, the cairn is the big pile of rocks. The other thing is just a sheepfold, probably only a hundred years old, but I think it looks cool, so I didn't crop it out.

When the cairns were first excavated they found human bones and other artifacts in there. So archeologists think they were burial sites. Unfortunately, the cairns were first excavated a couple of hundred years ago before they had iPad apps to keep track of stuff, and so all the things collected back then has since been lost. We were happy about the nifty boardwalks leading to the cairns, so we could get to them without putting our boots on.

For lunch we found a nice rock outcropping and had the oat cakes, babybel cheeses, and apples that we'd picked up yesterday. Dawn got to eat a bag of hula hoops, too. I got a little peckish last night and ate my whole bag of pita chips before bed, even though I didn't mean to. I made my sad face at lunch today and Dawn split her hula hoops with me. Yay!

See how this is just a regular post so far, as if we're just going to keep doing this, day after day? That's because it has not yet sunk in that tomorrow is really our last day. If we had the kind of terrible, stormy weather that Ken had up here last year, then maybe the end would be easier to anticipate. But spring has arrived, and we've got a real nice rhythm down each day, so it's hard to imagine how soon it will be over.

But all good things must come to and end. We especially appreciate the kind words from commenters that they'd like us to keep going - but we miss our kids and friends and family. So after walking to John O'Groats tomorrow, we really will catch that bus down to Wick, then the train to Inverness, and then the airplane home.

It's a long walk tomorrow, something between sixteen and twenty miles, depending on who you believe. We're planning an early start; breakfast is scheduled for seven, and we hope to be on the road well before eight and get to that sign at the end of road in the mid afternoon.

Location:Watten,United Kingdom

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Day 80: Lybster

Distance: 7.3 miles
Tumbles: 1 (Al along the uneven pavement at the edge of the road)

We just figured out that today was our shortest day of the whole trip. I guess our B&B hostess was right this morning. She gave us the distinct impression that we were complete slackers for only walking to Lybster! I'm glad we did because it gave us a chance to visit the harbour, which is about a mile and a half from our B&B. But I get ahead of myself.

The weather continues to hang in for us. It was a bit misty out at sea this morning, but sunny and lightly breezy where we were. We saw the last of the A9, which turned north to Thurso, and continued on the A99 towards Wick and John o'Groats. It was slightly quieter, but as a big van screamed by me from behind as he passed a line of cars, I thought longingly of our turn onto quieter country roads tomorrow.

The land along the coast continues to be mainly livestock fields. Sheep are the predominant population, but today we had a first. A whole field of deer. I guess this is where the venison burgers we've been seeing on pub menus lately come from.

After we settled in at the B&B we headed into town. Lybster is a village that was built to support the herring fisheries of the early 19th century.

For less than a hundred years the community thrived, but by 1900 the herring had "disappeared", as the sign board noted. They didn't really disappear. The 200+ boats operating out of Lybster just caught them all. Once the herring were gone, they caught all the whitefish. So now there are a handful of boats fishing for crab and lobster and Lybster's big attraction is an internationally known glass studio.

Another interesting feature of Lybster is their super wide main street. Apparently they used to haul boats up from the harbour to be worked on, since the harbour sits about 200 feet below the town in a narrow inlet. In the heyday, the available space was taken up by the fish processing facilities, so it was up to the main street for boats that needed work. Now it just seems to highlight the quietness of the town.

Down at the harbour there's a little exhibit about the history of the town and the herring fishery. It included this super creepy display about the women who worked gutting and packaging the fish.

The bloody hands were a nice touch. We looked for headless women around town, but didn't see any.

I can't believe we're so close to the end. It will be strange not to be doing this everyday. I'll have to choose what to wear again since I won't be wearing the same thing every day. Maybe I'll stop hobbling around for the first few steps when I get up from sitting! It's going to be weird. I am looking forward to being back in Corvallis again, especially now that Ian is home from uni, as they say here. The biggest surprise to me is that I could keep going. I'm still enjoying it and don't feel like I need to stop, like I kind of expected to by now!

Location:Quatre Bras,,United Kingdom

Monday, May 21, 2012

Day 79: Dunbeath

Distance: 15.5 miles
Countdown: T minus 3

One of the frequently asked questions we've had on this trip is "doesn't walking every day get boring?". The answer is "no", because every day offers some new challenge, or new scenery, or interesting new people to meet, or something. That's been true for more than 11 weeks of walking. Seventy eight days, and every single one delivered something different. Until today. Today was an extension of yesterday. A day of walking north in pleasant weather along a busy highway, dodging lorries, marveling at the insanity of British drivers, oohing and aahing at cute lambs, and longing for the footpaths of the Borders, or the quiet lanes of Cornwall. It's not that I'm longing to be finished - far from it! - I just want to get off this damn highway. One more day.

On a more positive note, we are so glad to have not only Larry, but now also my Mom, Julie, and Julia, all doing something related to our walk for these last three days. To echo what Larry said, just do something vaguely related to our trip and then post a comment. Could be anything - go for a walk, or a run, have a wee dram, eat a lamb burger, drink a pint, get stuck in mud - anything! Your comments are the fuel we need to power through our last three days.

Yesterday's post mentioned the boar's head at our hotel, but I didn't have a good picture. This morning I fixed that, so you all could imagine how awesome it is to run into this guy on your way down for breakfast. You're welcome.

Once you get past the boar's head, and the dozens of deer heads, and the odd fish head, and miscellaneous other heads, you finally make it to the sweet and friendly head of Broxy.

Broxy gets a nice Scottish breakfast every morning: two slices of bacon and toast with butter, plus the odd sausage if guests don't clean their plates. He reminds me of a full size version of the fluffball puppy my sister just adopted.

We walked down and then up a couple of deep, wide valleys cut by beautiful looking streams. But mostly the road was on a plateau, a few hundred feet above the ocean. The plateau ended with a steep drop down to the water. With us on top were a few cows, lots and lots of sheep, and plenty of seagulls.

We walked by hamlets today that were so wee, you couldn't really tell where they were. Usually there was at least a house or two, but this place seemed to have nothing. I suffered nettle stings on my thighs for this picture, so I hope you like it.

Near Dunbeath we caught glimpses, through trees, of the turrets of an impressive white building at the water's edge. We knew from our map that it was Dunbeath castle. Just as we reached the best viewpoint, the bus stopped, and this man emerged carrying two shopping bags and a burlap sack.

I asked if he knew about the castle. "Oh, aye", he said, with a distinctive accent that must be the sound of the far north. We learned that the castle is a private residence, not open to the public. "Have you been in it?" I asked. "Oh, aye. My father was a handyman there for 34 years". His brother and he had worked there as well. I really enjoyed the conversation - what a terrific friendly man. After I snapped a picture of him, he pulled a camera out of his jacket, and got one of Dawn and I.

We saw the castle from across the bay tonight at dinner. Since there is only one restaurant in Dunbeath, our choice of where to eat was easy. We'd been told it was good, but were a little skeptical when we got there. Just check this out for curb appeal.

Picture the interior you'd expect when you walk through the door. I was thinking greasy spoon, probably with a view of a dumpster. Here's what we got.

A solid real ale from the local Orkney Brewery and great food. I had lamb hot pot, while watching lambs out the window! (Dawn had spaghetti.) We had an amazing view of the shoreline cliffs, castle perched on the edge, in the evening light. And the owner is personable, with a tenuous Oregon connection. In the eighties, he owned a horse that won a race (with a nineteen thousand pound payoff) at Cheltenham. The horse's name: Oregon Trail. He had a large photo of a younger version of himself, and an eighties looking lady, and a horse seventeen hands high.

Tomorrow, thankfully, is our last A-road walking: a short eight miles to Lybster. From there, we turn inland, for a two day walk through the flow country and to John O'Groats!

Location:Dunbeath,United Kingdom

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Day 78: Helmsdale

Distance: 11.6 miles
Boar heads in hotel: one (that we've found so far)
One of the big decisions in a Britain-end-to-end walk is deciding which way to go: north to south, or south to north. I think we made the right decision. One reason is psychological: walking north past the highlands really feels like you are approaching the end of the earth. I know we passed through parts of Northumberland that are more sparsely populated, and the peaks of the Pennines are more rugged, but somehow this place just feels like its getting increasingly remote. Maybe the coastline plays a role (coasts are at the end of the land), or maybe it's the accents, or the Klingon translations on the street signs, or the lack of good coffee (our last B&B offered a choice: "instant" or "fresh"). Not sure, but I do know that it feels like we are approaching the end of the world.

A more practical issue is that walking on the A9 sucks. Spending three days in the first week walking on the thin edge of this road would have been just brutal. I could imagine Dawn slipping me a mickey, and waking up on a train bound for the French Riviera. But coming this direction, with so much already invested, a few days of road walking seems like a minor obstacle between us and that signpost in John O'Groats.

One thing that helps make the A9 a lot more tolerable: after six weeks of rubbish, the weather has turned brilliant! When we left this morning, it was a quiet, cool, beautiful morning, and it just got better as the day went on. I didn't even have to hunt around for a nice forecast; all the online forecasts tell us that we can expect mostly sun with highs in the mid teens for our final four days. Perfect.

The picture is the Clynelish distillery, just a mile or so down the road from Brora, where we started this morning. Even after three months, I still miss easy things on the map. If I'd have been paying attention, we could have walked right past their visitor center, maybe even had an early morning wee dram, for just a few hundred extra yards of walking. Instead, we had to be content with a view across a couple of fields.

We've been admiring drystone walls throughout our walk, and in the last two days we've come across two of my favorites. One, from yesterday, is the iron age broch - a wall that was lasted over two thousand years. And today we have the amazing curved wall in the picture above.

These last two days we've seen a few cyclists who have that end-to-end look about them. There have been plenty of them all along, no doubt, but it's only now that we are all sharing the same road: one of the very few advantages of the A9. When we saw the small convey above pulled into a layby, we stopped in to say hello. The cars and camper were there to support a half dozen cyclists, who were on the last stage of their eight (8!) day Lands End to John O'Groats ride. That's just over 120 miles per day for their route. The ride is in memory of Tony O'Connell, and his daughter Amy, who both passed away over the past two years. They are raising money for charity on the way. Fun folks to chat with and we hope they enjoyed their champagne this afternoon!

Near Helmsdale, Dawn met a lamb. "Baaa, baa. Are you my Mommy?" asked the lamb. "Baaaaa-noooo", said Dawn.

Helmsdale is a wee fishing village with a small harbor, a couple of hotels (we're staying in one) and a restaurant with terrific fish and chips.

The hotel is festooned with dead animal heads on the wall, perhaps as a warning to keep animals from coming into the hotel. It's not working, there's a large friendly dog downstairs who does not seem in the least intimidated.

Tomorrow is our longest stretch on the A9 - fifteen hilly curving miles to Dunbeath. Hopefully Larry's matching run is on a more pleasant track!

Location:Lilleshall Street,Helmsdale,United Kingdom

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Day 77: Brora

Distance: 18.7 miles
Match of the day: Hearts vs. Hibs

We started the day watching the telly. The Olympic flame started it's relay from Lands End. I was surprised to see that you can actually see the ocean from the sign post. It was cool to see the place and recognize where we were. We even caught a glimpse of Penzance when the flame arrived there an hour after leaving Lands End. Those torch bearers must be fast! It took us a whole day to walk that.

It looks like the weather is finally improving, just in time for our last few days. It's still on the cool side, but the sunny skies and lack of rain make it perfect for walking.

We were able to avoid the A road for a while by taking some back roads north from Dornoch, but eventually we had no choice. The roads have to get around an estuary and the only way across is the A9. We were on it for about 6 miles. 6 terrifying miles.

There's no shoulder, but we can jump off onto the verge when necessary. It was necessary every minute or two. I think the scariest thing is how the drivers here pass so aggressively. At one point there were 5 cars heading in the same direction as us up a hill. Three cars moved out to pass the first one at the same time! Without being able to see if anything was coming over the hill! Two made it past the first car and the third had to duck in, since someone was coming over the hill. I was still trying not to think of what would happen to us if cars start swerving and colliding when a truck lost a spool of rope about 20 yards ahead of us. It came bouncing our way then off into the ditch. See the spool down there. Glad it bounced out when it did because getting conked with that would have been a real bummer.

So, to say that walking on the A9 sucks is a big understatement. The only upside is that we do pick up our pace, even though it feels like time slows down while we're on it.

The A9 led us into the town of Golspie where we found a lovely little cafe serving lunch. It was a welcomed break from the noise and terror, plus they had lemon cake with iridescent sparkly sprinkles on it for dessert! I think Erin would approve.

Outside the cafe, we saw this sign.

All the signs from Inverness north have been bilingual. The Celtic looks completely foreign and sounds like Klingon when Al "reads" it.

Thankfully there is a coast path that we could take north out of Golspie all the way to Brora. It was a beautiful day to walk along the ocean. Just out of Golspie we passed the Disney-esque Dunrobin Castle.

It's the home of the Duke of Sutherland and has almost 200 rooms. The gardens are supposed to be super fancy, but we were outside the walls, so couldn't see. Makes Downton Abbey look our house!

We spent a good part of the walk to Brora giddy at being away from the A9. The beautiful scenery helped.

The bluebells are in bloom.

Nothing beats walking on the coast on a sunny day.

The seals were as happy as we were to finally get a bit of sunshine.

We stopped to check out the ruin of Carn Liath. It was a tall stone roundhouse that dates from 2,300-1,900 years ago. Quite a bit of the structure is still intact, including an interior staircase. Pretty cool.

Finally we made it to Brora and our B&B. It was a long walk and hopefully we won't have any longer days from now on. I hope Larry's 17 mile run went well today. Thanks for the California style sunshine! I'm sure it's a result of your virtual companionship.

Location:Academy St,,United Kingdom