I have a confession to make. I love cities. I do. Just not the ones in my own country. Well, maybe it’s that I don’t like the ones in the western half of my own country. A professor of mine once described Tucson as
“phhhhhttttt, one layer of peanut butter, spread across the desert”. Western cities are wide and flat. They are endlessly gobbling up the landscape that surrounds them and mostly at the rate of single-story high buildings. Horizontal expansion rather than vertical. Everything about them is based on the scale and the needs of the automobile. They are utilitarian but ugly. And when they do claim to have character and beauty, you can bet they are referencing their setting. I have tried to love them. I’ve failed miserably for years.
There, I’ve said it.
Sorry, Tucson, Phoenix, Albuquerque, the Colorado-Springs-through-Denver-and-on-to-Ft. Collins megalopolis and ALL of Southern California. Even my own beloved Santa Fe has its sections of urban sprawl. Cerrillos road looks like every main boulevard in every city I’ve just mentioned. Let’s not kid ourselves about it.
Why, oh why, can’t they be more like European cities? European cities are beautiful. Not just the setting they’re in. The cities themselves. They are full of wonderful colors and textures and craftsmanship and three-dimensional interest. I like being in a European city.
Take Inverness. Not a large city, by any means. But what a great environment in which to spend time. I wandered in the evening to find dinner (Restaurant 27, a good ‘in), some toothpaste, and a cash machine. The next morning I wandered some more. I visited a museum, I wandered across a bridge, I took a long walk along the river, I wandered through neighborhoods. I even shopped a bit.And the entire time, the environment around me was invigorating. Not necessarily super clean or fancy. Just very rich. Lots to look at. Interesting avenues to explore. Like a patchwork quilt of many, many elements – people, buildings, greenery, cars and buses, stairs, old bricks and new, shiny glass, movement, stillness, intent, density and open space. How to spend half a day entertaining yourself in a European city? Just hang out with no agenda. And enjoy.
Lisa, my host, had arranged for me to catch a ride from Inverness to Scoraig with friends of hers. I was to meet them at a grocery store next to the train station. I made my way over there and was scooped up by this lovely family of three. They had been in town for a birthday excursion for their son, Alex. They threw my luggage into the back of their car, put me into the front seat (so I could see), and we headed out of town.
Leaving town on a Friday at 5 pm, headed out toward the countryside, looks the same everywhere I gather. Freeway. A bit of stop and go. Then about ten minutes later, we passed around a traffic circle and got free of the snares.
There is one road that heads from Inverness up into the Highlands in the direction of Scoraig. And it’s not a big one. And we didn’t pass many buildings on the hour and 15 minute drive. I don’t even think we passed anything that qualifies as a town! We did drive by miles of forbiddingly steep, rounded peaks and valleys.
Here’s a phenomenon I’ve observed repeatedly in Scotland: the trees, thick stands of conifers and hardwoods, tend to proliferate in the valleys and the bare parts of the landscape are on the mountains. At home, it’s just the reverse. In New Mexico, along the plains, it’s too hot for trees to survive. They need the cooler temperatures and increased moisture of the higher elevations. So the lower flat parts are bare and the mountain slopes are trees. I keep forgetting to ask someone about it. I don’t know if it’s a climatic response or if it’s that most all the big trees here have been planted. There’s not much old growth forest left in Scotland. Over the thousands of years of habitation, it’s been used and replanted, used and replanted.
We did finally seem to enter a small village. We’d been driving along a loch for some time. A few buildings, a tiny restaurant and a smattering of outlying homes could be seen. Then we took a right turn toward the loch and went steeply down a long hill. There was a small jetty with a few boats below us. About a dozen cars were parked at all angles there in the grass. Cathy, William and Alex began pulling out shopping bags of groceries from the car. They also pulled on waterproof jackets, pants and boots.
They turned to look at what I was wearing. “Do you have any other shoes?” asked Cathy. “Like boots?”
Quickly I started rummaging in my bags. “Oh. Sure. Just a minute,” I responded. I was wearing a dress with leggings and a light cotton sweater and nice black leather shoes on my feet. Oops. I took out my hiking boots and grabbed my raincoat as well.
“Hmmm”, said William. “Never seen a white waterproof (raincoat) before”. He looked me up and down.
“Well, won’t stay white for long!” he laughed.
Just a disclaimer here… First of all, it’s not white. It’s off-white. And second of all, it has plenty of grass stains, miscellaneous marks, increasingly grubby sleeves and a variety of black smudges from my time at Castle Creavie.
But these people, including Jonah, the boat taxi captain, were in gear that looked like something out of “The Perfect Storm”. I mean, I think people in Massachusetts might have jackets and pants like theirs. But certainly no one from New Mexico would!
Luckily it was a beautiful afternoon. The sea was calm. I understand it’s not always that way.
We gingerly got into the boat with all our stuff and set off. I think the boat crosses to the opposite shore in about 12-15 minutes. It’s really not that far. But this process – car to jetty, jetty to boat, boat to jetty on far shore, unload and walk home – is how most Scoraig residents come and go when they need to leave town. Some keep a four wheeler on the Scoraig side, in case they need to move supplies back and forth or heavy loads on a trailer. (The set up looks much like Charlie’s four wheeler with attached trailer previously posted). Luckily, Cathy and William have just such a four wheeler. My suitcase and their groceries plus a few bags of lime that I’d not seen previously were loaded on and went off with William. Cathy, Alex and I began to walk.
When I looked around, I saw two small houses ahead, a tract of dense trees, a rocky coastline heading away from us in both directions, and a one-track (or as we’d say, “single lane”) dirt road headed up the hill. We started walking up the road. I had no idea how far we were going.
I felt like I was at the edge of the known universe.
I wanted to turn right around and get back on a train to Castle Creavie. Of course I would have had to swim across the loch first. Not an pleasant thought. And there were two new WWOOFERs sleeping in my old bedroom by now.
“Well, crap”, I thought to myself, and started walking behind these two people who obviously walk A LOT and think nothing of it.
I hoped Lisa’s house wouldn’t be too far. And that it would have indoor plumbing.