Disclaimer: This post has absolutely nothing to do with freedom. But, I’m in Scotland at the moment, which made me think of Braveheart, which made me think of Mel Gibson, which of course made me think of -- “FREEEEDOOOOOM!!!!!”
Being drawn and quartered aside, Scotland, so far, is amazing. With just two weeks left to go in Ireland, I wanted to take one more chance to get out of the country and see something different on this side of the Atlantic. Fort William was recommended to me so I gave it a look. The general description was a small town with spectacular views surrounded by rugged mountains latticed in good hiking trails -- it was perfect. So my friend from home, Parker, and I booked the tickets and set the dates. We planned a five day trip starting and ending in Edinburgh, with a train ride out to Fort William for three days of hiking.
The trip has been eventful from the very start, beginning with a valuable lesson in booking plane tickets. I decided to go with Aer Lingus. Not the cheapest flights across Europe like Ryan Air but from travel testimonies I have heard of people flying Ryan Air, I would argue that the few extra bucks buys you security in actually getting to your destination on time and a little more comfort along the way.
I noticed as I was booking the flight that it seemed to be a smaller plane when it showed a seat diagram of two rows, each row with just two seats. But whatever logical conclusions about the flight I should have been able to draw from looking at that diagram were completely blown out of the way by my excitement in being able to pick my own seat! I had never had such a luxury before. I’ve always wanted to sit in the very front of a plane; A) the bathroom is right there, B) first to get served with peanuts and drinks, and C) you don’t have to wait for everyone with an oversized carry-on to pull it down on their head and stumble down the aisle when disembarking. But unless you are disabled, elderly, buy absurdly expensive tickets, or happen to have the senses of a Jedi and know just when to check-in online to get an A1 boarding pass, those seats are always taken. But this was it! This was my chance! So, completely ignoring the fact that the premium seating that required an extra, hefty fee to select were all in the back of the plane (psh, who would pay to sit in the back of the plane!?!?) I booked the window seat on the left side of the second row. Alllllright. This guy is traveling first class.
Fast forward thirty hours later to when I am standing in the que to hand in my boarding pass and board the flight. Surprise number one came when the kind Aer Lingus employee took my pass with a smile, and told me to proceed down the stairs and out the door on the left. Wait, what? Out the door…??? I glanced at the Aer Lingus jet that was fueled up and sitting right outside the gate we were assigned to and thought but the plane is right there.. I glanced back at the attendant and was met with the same smile and my passport being handed back to me, so down the stairs and out the door I went.
I got onto a bus with all the other flight passengers, many of whom were equally as perplexed about the boarding procedure as I was. Turns out, the plane that was sitting outside our gate was not our plane. The bus pulled away from the door and headed out onto the tarmac. We passed all the other Aer Lingus planes. We drove by all the fueled up and ready Ryan Air planes. We passed some more Aer Lingus planes. And then finally, the bus slowed and we pulled up to our ride -- the social reject plane that got put in time-out in the way, way back corner of the tarmac.
That’s when I got my second surprise. I stepped out the door, saw the plane, and thought O… It’s a really little plane. I think it held sixty passengers in total. With an overheard wing, it was driven by two props, one on either side, and looked like the aeronautical personification of old people running marathons -- though they can probably still complete the race, nobody is going to say it wouldn’t be safer to have them just sit it out on the sidelines.
The final surprise came when we were given the go-ahead to board. The door to the cabin opened at the back of the plane, and then it all clicked -- But...I'm sitting at the front...
My luxury boarding experience came crashing down around me. Looks like I would be waiting for people to stumble down the aisle after all. There was no in-flight service so that was irrelevant. But to top it off, there was only one bathroom on the plane; it was in the back. So that’s why the expensive seats were in the back.
It was the noisiest take-off I had ever experienced but other than that the flight went off without a hitch. We came into Edinburgh under the floodlights of a beautiful sunrise that set the low layer of clouds ablaze with orange and purple color.
I had about three hours to kill before meeting Parker at the airport. So I found my way to the subway service and took a train into the city. For anyone else who is the complete opposite of city-travel savy, it is the easiest possible system to figure out. There is one line, and two trains; pick the direction you need to go, and get off wherever suits.
The crowds weren’t out yet so I had the cobble stone streets of Old Towne pretty much to myself as I wandered between towering stone buildings under the watchful gaze of Edinburgh Castle. The historic part of the city really is beautiful. Small alley ways and stone stair cases wind their way between buildings and under streets using up every inch of city space. Small cafes are tucked away into corners with outside seating crowded around their entrances, and wooden doors still operate on metal latches and sit slightly skewed in their frames.
I aimlessly wandered the streets before navigating my way back out to the airport to meet up with Parker. We ended up doing another lap around the city after his arrival before walking toward the outskirts of town to walk up to Arthur’s Seat. The Seat isn’t much in elevation, just a two-humped hill that rises maybe a couple hundred feet. But it’s steepness and contrast to the low lying city-scape around it and nearby bay makes it tower over Edinburgh. From one of its many viewing points at the top, you see from miles in all directions. It’s a short hike and well worth the hour or so to go up and back if you ever visit the city.
We stayed just long enough to see the sun touch the trees on the western horizon before hurrying back to the station to catch our train. Being inexperienced train-travelers, we found the platform that said to Glascow Queen Street (the first stop on our ride) and hopped on the first car we saw. Thank goodness for the old couple we sat down next to who were chatting about going to Glascow Central Station because we quickly realized we were on the wrong train. As they politely explained, the train we needed was up ahead and leaving in one minute. We booked it out the door and stepped onto the right car at 5:15 on the dot, and finally were westward bound for Fort William.
There was a concerted effort on our part to keep track of the names of stops as the intercom system read them off, but between the poor audio quality and the conductor’s Scottish accent, it was a lost cause. So there we were, fuzzy eyed from cat naps on the five hour ride, sitting on the train as the car emptied almost entirely of passengers when the conductor came around to do a final call of destinations. When asked where we were heading, we replied “Oh, we are going to Fort William.” There was a pause, and then he responded “This is Fort William…” “Ah, right. Well, we’ll be going then.”
Eight pounds sterling and a taxi got us to the Glen Nevis Youth Hostel. We were up to about eleven miles of walking with our packs that day and I was working off of three hours of sleep within the previous forty-eight so once we got to our room, I found an open bunk, rolled onto it, and was out in minutes.
The first thing I did this morning was walk open to the window and throw open the curtain. All of our travel into the Highlands last night had been in the dark and I was itching to see just where it was we had traveled to. Peering through the window pane I was faced with the tops of trees glinting with frost in the early morning light, with steep, rugged, rocky slopes extending out either side of the frame in the background. Parker and I plowed through a hasty breakfast to get outside.
It was a fairly early start this morning on day two of the trip to make the most of our time in the Highlands. We opted for a small hike up and around Cow Hill, a 300 or so meter rise that over-looked all of the town, bay, surrounding glen, and gave a stunning view of Ben Nevis, Great Britain’s highest peak.
The snapshot of landscape I had seen from our second floor window continued in all directions as we followed along the river toward the starting point of our hike. The topography actually reminded me a lot of Jackson Wyoming, or a western Montana area. Where ridgelines seem to sprout up from nothing, and seem infinitely steeper when compared to their lowland and flat valley surroundings. The mountains have the same kind of red-brown rocky surface with dry grass that is found in southern Ireland, but the peaks here are more jagged, greater in number, and are covered in much larger expanses of tall pine forests.
Weather permitting, the hope is to go for the summit of Ben Nevis tomorrow. Many of the routes up the the summit are technical and require mountaineering gear to complete. But the mountain summit used to be home to a weather forecast station, and back in the 1800’s a path was created to the top in order to allow for somewhat easy access for workers who had to consistently go up and down the mountain. That path still exists and with any luck will be our way up tomorrow.