Saturday, December 29, 2012

Cycling for Nessie

It was 1988.  I remember because it was the year of the Libyan sponsored Lockerbie plane terrorism in Scotland and very few tourist were traveling there as a result.

The fabled monster of the Loch
When you work for a German firm, as I did, you get a lot of time off.  Six weeks paid vacation every year, twenty plus holidays, and yet another two weeks at Christmas.  It’s the law!  This particular year, I had gotten a bug up my trousers to go to Scotland and see Loch Ness for myself.  It was far away.  It was exotic.  Who knows… I might get to see the famous Nessie!  Since I was living in Augsburg, taking a long bike ride  to Scotland and a faster train ride back home seemed like just the adventure that would put to good use the extended vacation time available.

For several months leading up to this adventure I started training five to ten miles each night and twenty to thirty more twice on the weekend. Being a whole lot younger and in pretty good shape to begin with, this really was not much of a challenge.

Winters in Bavaria, the southern farming district of Germany are quite mild; comparable to Virginia in the United States.  By late April, when the journey started, the days were reaching into the low 80’s occasionally and rain was only an intermittent problem.  So I packed about sixty pounds of gear on the frame of my brand spanking  new fancy French ten speed bicycle and proceeded with the expedition.

The total distance from Augsburg to Inverness, near where Lock Ness begins, was about 800 miles; not including the journey across the English Channel by boat.  Even at 30 miles a day this made for a rather tight schedule and left no room for lolly-gagging, site-seeing, or a margin for any kind of problems that could arise.

To be on the safe side, the first 300 or so miles were aboard one of those precisely punctual German trains.  The rubber really did not hit the road until the Mosel valley where, to my dull taste buds, some of the best sweet white wines in the world are grown.  From this pleasantly buzzed lay over, good time was made across a piece of France and into Amsterdam where a day of recovery and a trip to a 17th century art museum made for a total burying of any care about work or the normal stresses of day-to-day life.

From Amsterdam it was a short boat ride across the pre-Chunnel channel to a little dock just south of London.  Being my first time in London, I learned that the heavy dark dipping vinegar meant Fish-n-Chips are nothing like what we eat state-side.

The rest of the journey up to Scotland was quite pleasant, but it did seem to be getting a bit colder each day.  It was not until I checked into a little bed and breakfast in Inverness that something seemed quite out-of-place and even then I could not quite put my finger on it.


The image and sound of meeting the graying plump Scottish proprietor of that comfy establishment will be burned into my brain until I pass along from this mortal existence.  When I told him who I was and asked to check in for the night he replied with suppressed laughter, “Och ye will be stayin' fur mair than a body nicht loon, an' a trip tae th' sweater merchant will be in order tay!”  The semi-sardonic smile of the lady, whom I later found to be a good cook and his admitted better half, should have warned me for what was to come.

Inverness was a quaint town on a hill, with many old Tudor style buildings and a profusion of steep cobble stone streets still in use.  Resolved, I was, to start my journey early the next morning for the last few miles overland to the start of the Loch.

A mild drizzle was coming down as I biked my way up that hill and reached the crest where the discovery that Inverness is a naturally sheltered harbor and that there were no other blockades between the fierce spring winds on the North Atlantic and my pedaling.  It was not until much later that I found out this particular latitude was only a few degrees south of the arctic circle.  Yet there I was, in early May, going against a forty mile per head wind and it was not just drizzling anymore.

From the crest of that hill, I made only 6 miles the rest of the day.  Most of it was walked, pushing the bike and sixty plus pounds of stuff along. Even with my hi-tech scotch-guarded rain gear, I was soaked through to the elastic in my underpants quite quickly.  The baggy rain gear acted like a wind sock slowing me even further.  The effective temperature had dropped well below the freezing point of water when you factor in the wind chill.

Calm day on the Loch
By night fall, I was no where near my next planned destination for lodging, so I made a little shelter of branches a bit off the road and tried to rustle up some food.  The only way I could keep my can of Sterno lit was to shelter it inside my rain gear.  This provided a cup of much needed hot chocolate and some instant soup to tide me over.  To get any sleep at all would have seemed impossible, but the day had been so physically hard that I slept at least three hours straight.

Venturing forth in the barely visible next daybreak, I found that the previous leg of my journey had been a mere preamble to the real storm that blows through this beautiful landscape in what was still late winter there.  It was about seven miles to the next hotel and I was bound and determined to make it there that night.  Mother Nature had a different plan.  At one point the wind and rain where so fierce that I was literally pushing the bike on my hands and knees in order to reduce the wind drag and minimize my profile against the relentless pounding of the rain.

When the road turned a corner and the powerful wind blowing off the long east-west Loch was sheltered for a moment, it felt as if I were light as a feather.  But then the road would turn back into the wind and the weather would slam like hammers into my face, chest and equipment.

Despite three layers of clothing under the rain gear, every thread was wet within an hour of starting, but at least some insulation from the breeze to my body was provided.  Despite my best efforts when night fall came again, I was still a couple of miles from the next village where arrangements had long since before been made to put up the previous night.  It was not until after midnight that I finally dragged my way into this village with out street lamps or moon light to help me see what was there.

In desperation I knocked on the door of a house with lights on asking for the location of the Inn.  I must have been quite the sight as the lady of the house after looking at me through the curtains called a man to answer.  He gave me a wayward eye and pointed just down the little lane to a dark building and promptly shut the barely cracked door.

As I stumbled up to what I was so fervently wishing to be end of my dreadful day and banged on the door, but no one answered right away.  If you have ever been in a situation where you’re miserable, it’s amazing how easily your manners can “go out with the wind”.  I was not about to go anywhere else at that time of night in such weather so I kept knocking for what seemed an eternity until finally what seemed to be a recently awakened proprietor appeared.

My explanation of being held up and needing a room was met with hesitation to say the least.  At first the gentleman in his robe and slippers took me to be a thief, common criminal, or vagrant at least.  After I dug in my bags and produced my passport and reservation receipt he started to consider letting me step across the threshold into his dwelling.  In his consternation, the master of the inn demanded cash up front and once I had proffered him this payment, he pointedly demanded I change my clothes before I came in as not to dirty his house.  Stripping down to my undies, I stood outside and put on the cleanest, but not dry at all, changes of clothes from my kit available.  At least I was no longer dirty when entering his warm, dry establishment.

Late the next morning, when I arose, the innkeeper was much friendlier and I could tell that he began to see me as a normally strange American. After a good hot bowl of porridge and tea, I resolved to bathe.  Such feelings of ecstasy from a soak in a tiny tub are indescribable unless you too have suffered severe privation and filth upon your person.

The inn proprietor's  kindness in providing me with a weather forecast indicating the next several days would be just like the one before, terminated with his firm recommendation to stay at on at his establishment until the storms passed.  I was discouraged but still seriously considering continuing on even then.  He earnestly pressed that the next village was many miles on and it would be the height of foolishness to travel forward.

Looking out his large wavy glassed window at the Loch, my will gradually diminished until I considered, then resolved to head back to Inverness; putting aside my grand plan to bike the length of Loch Ness and leave that legendary aquatic beast within it unseen.

 Having a tail wind made the journey back quite fast.  In fact I road my brakes the whole way back to Inverness so hard that the brand new little braking rubber’s where worn down to the aluminum by the time I reached the Inverness lodgings again where I was greeted by a smiling "Awrite".

The rest of my vacations travel was chiefly by rail.  I returned slowly to Augsburg , after taking a long ride on the Royal Scotsman around the scenic Scottish highlands and Lochs.  If you ever do go to Scotland, take my word for it; see it through comfort of a glass windowed sleeping car atop two thin rails rather than two thin wheels.  Oh, and be sure you go in August when its warm and balmy.

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