What follows is a more-or-less realtime journal of this month’s travels to Scotland to celebrate our 18th Anniversary. 18 days abroad!
Right now we’re on layover at Frankfurt before heading to Aberdeen.
We managed to get off from Seattle fairly smoothly, though the living room table is still something of a clutter! While I didn’t particularly like the long layovers the frequent flyer travel plan gave us at either San Francisco or Frankfurt, they have proved a blessing. The flight out of Seattle was late because aircraft coming into Seattle are being delayed because of “smog.” (Thank you for tarnishing our rep, British Columbia!) Then a total 3-hour delay out of SF due to the usual stuff plus the unusual: damaged shipping containers that fouled up the loaders in the 747′s cargo bay. But that won’t affect our connection in Frankfurt at all!
Getting to Scotland was pretty unthinkable back in December when I booked the travel. My work schedule wouldn’t allow it, we were facing another bleak financial year due to spiraling heathcare costs, and Jenn’s health had put her on palliative care. We honestly didn’t think Jenn would see Valentine’s Day, much less be able to trek to Scotland for two-plus weeks.
But we booked the trip anyway. Jenn cashed in her retirement fund from Regional (all $2000 worth after tax penalties!) and the ol’ rewards credit card miles got us these wonderful three-leg airline tickets. The seizures that plagued Jenn throughout 2016 and into the early months this year stopped, and Jenn’s hips finally got sound enough (just in time!) to be able to walk a couple hundred yards without resting.
We’ve already had several “trips of a lifetime,” but here’s hoping this one takes the cake.
Services for the disabled traveler at Frankfurt are truly amazing. In contrast to the US, where check-in clerks want to haggle for an hour over whether your boxes of medical supplies are subject to excess baggage fees (they are not; stick to your guns!) and mostly-surly attendants over-whisk you from gate to gate and then unceremoniously dump you to wait amongst the hoi-polloi (I jest on this latter point), the disabled taveler at Frankfurt is treated like a visiting dignitary. Because I was functioning as coulee rather than visiting dignitary, I, of course, was still left panting under my load in the wake of the procession, but Jenn was treated most warmly and comfortably. First, we skirted all the usual security checkpoints, and the one we did go through was private–no one else to contend with as our passports were hand-carried to customs agents while the lone pair of us went through the most cursory of security screenings. And we are basically checked into an infirmary designed to accommodate six or so travellers (I typed “sic” there… how fitting!). We have been here over four hours now, and we are still apparently the only disabled travelers on layover in this entire terminal. (Probably should not have used THAT word. Very foreboding.) Yes, traveling on disability is hard… but apparently it is getting both harder, and more tolerable if you’re willing to risk it!
Lesson to the traveler destined for after-hours arrival at small airports: do NOT trust third-party vendors’ assurances that your car rental will be waiting for you upon arrival. We cleared customs at Aberdeen about 11 PM, and then discovered that the formerly in-terminal rentals desks have, since 2012, been relocated to a separate building way out by the rentals car park. Tonight, the joint facility has long since been closed, and the keys to our long-booked rental have not been left for us. A mixed blessing: as our Lufthansa wheelchair attendant taps at the door, lo and behold an Avis agent appears. She is waiting for a late-arriving customer on a delayed flight from Manchester, and is able to book us into a spare Ford Fiesta. It will set us back an unexpected wad of cash, but it feels like a godsend after 30 hours of travel.
Two nights, sort of, at a wonderfully small hotel catering to business travelers in Dyce, very close to the Aberdeen aiport. We checked in just after 1 AM the first “night,” after wandering around a bit because the Google map of the area that I printed out at home proved woefully inadequate in detail. A stranger’s mobile phone map proved equally helpless, but a £ 6 gas station map of Aberdeen and Dyce did the trick. (Yes, old school solutions.) Jenn slept very late the first morning, and rose after I lunched early on soup and “baguette” in the hotel’s pub. Not much beyond reorganization of our supplies was accomplished on Saturday, though I did get out for a bit of a walk around the grounds, including the neighboring kirkyard, and dined on cider and chips for a very light dinner.
Today we are up on schedule (hooray!) for our drive to Glenferness. Instead of our usual route up through Elgin and Forres, we have the luxury of time on our side and will be taking lesser-driven roads via Corgarff and Tomintoul, back-dooring into Ferness via the lovely Grantown on Spey.
Glenferness… voila! After stops in Tomintoul for groceries (and what pleasant surprises on prices!) and Grantown for coffee and fresh-baked treats (other errands must wait, it being Sunday and Scotland towns being, well, Scottish) we arrive just after 3 PM, right on schedule. The drive was indeed leisurely and wonderful, over roads I have not driven since 1995 with Mark and Gretchen, 1998 with Elane, and 2002 with Jenn. A few miles of road were even virgin territory to me!
I made an astoundingly doltish discovery as we crested the Cairngorms just past Corgarff: Those dark swaths in the high hillsides that I’d snapped photos of with Jenn in 2002? And which feature in Jenn’s last hanging at The Scotch & Vine from our 2012 trip? Highland heather! Because the blossoms are so small, they don’t really look purple from a distance. They look more, well, an odd shade of brown. I pass this realization along to Jenn and she laughs. She’d known it all along!
The studio at Glenferness is just as we left it in 2012. Built in the 19th Century by the estate’s owner for his painterly bride, it perches on the edge of the Findhorn river’s bluff, some two hundred feet above the river and three hundred yards distant from Glenferness House and gardens. Its construction is Norwegian in style (yes, it is good–Norwegian wood!) and is still 19th Century in flavor, with the exception of tiny appliances hidden in an armoire and a tidy WC. It’s a lovely base for excursions into the countryside… and the estate itself, which in the 21st Century caters to sport fishermen rather than artists, boasts over 27 miles of trails through river gorges and ancient forests. And we get to stay here for around $55 per night! Heaven.
We have completed our inventory of supplies and have a very short list of things we have forgotten–and none of them medical. The most pressing need: glue. The Vibram sole of Jenn’s left Merrill trekking shoe, purchased for our 2005 trip, started coming loose in the Frankfurt airport. We were able to secure it by looping the laces underneath the sole; but while in Tomintoul it came completely loose.
Tomorrow’s goal: fix the shoe, and fill in the gaps in our supplies at Grantown. Including the primary mission: a stop at the Walkers Shortbread outlet store!
I am up WAAAYYY before sunrise, as I have still not adjusted to the Scottish clock. I step outside to utilize the fire ring, one of the wonderful amenities at the Studio. A little later, Jenn opts for extra sleep, so I wander over to the walled garden and peek around. As I expect, the gardener and groundskeeper, David, surfaces; and, as I suspect, he’s got a bit of superglue that might at least provide a temporary solution to the sole of Jenn’s shoe. It indeed does the trick, so after the obligatory morning routine I grab a bite of lunch and off we go to Grantown… with two good shoes for Jenn!
The first stop is indeed at Walkers. We load up on factory seconds for homebound supplies (just over one dollar for two boxes worth of shortbread fingers, half the prices of what they were five years ago and a tenth of what you’d pay at QFC!) plus some extra goodies and souvenirs. While Jenn stakes out the pharmacy, I visit the home and hardware store and pick up bug spray, waterproofing spray for our shoes (I did our jackets during a sunbreak at Dyce), and a replacement for David’s exhausted superglue. I also stop into the local sportsman’s (gentleman’s!) shop for a quality carving knife. I find a superb Old Timer folding model of Schrade with a widely serrated blade for rough carving and sawing, a blunt blade for fine work, and the standard long blade for the smooth strokes. (I have found a length of dry rhodonendendron wood that I think will make a fine cane-like walking stick for Jenn, and am eager to start carving.)
Back at the pharmacy, Jenn has selected a slick, lightweight folding HurryCane and other sundry supplies. We finish off the trip with a short visit to the local charity shop, where we collect some hopeful reading material (Stevenson and Morris, all vintage editions). We are closing up shops as we go, the welcome mats rolling in as the afternoon expires.
On the way home, we drive by Lochindorb, crossing from the east to the west. I haven’t been on this road since ’95 with Mark and Gretchen, and it was raining so hard we could barely see the castle. It’s nice to have clear weather and the time to just pause and snap as many pictures as Jenn likes.
We settle in for a relaxing evening back at the studio, and take a short walk toward the garden.
Sleep day for Jenn. Knife in hand and warm fire nearby, I make great headway in several hours of carving Jenn’s walking stick. The rhodie is beautiful wood, and it is telling me how it wants to be detailed. There are lovely seams running down both sides of the stick, and when they are leveled they will make exquisite white detailing.
I later take a splendidly long walk for a couple hours after Jenn returns to sleep after her late morning wakefulness. In past visits we have seen precious little of the estate’s trails, and I am determined to right that wrong. On today’s walk, I discover the main pheasant rookery on the hill above the entry drive. I visit the abandoned and shuttered boat house on Loch Leven, overgrown with reeds. A tiny frog catches my eye. I scare up a long-eared hare, countless pheasants, and even manage to catch a red deer napping in a forest clearing before she senses my presence. Sadly, I am not quick enough to capture her on my camera before she bounds away.
I also suspect that the road I am following circles past the estate’s cemetery, and I am correct. The compound is encircled by an imposing rock wall with iron rails, and the plot itself, down a long stately gallery of towering trees, is dominated by an enormous carven Celtic cross. Though the estate passed to the Balgonie family late in the 19th Century, the site continues to be used by the family of the original owners.
During this walk I pass through some of the most extraordinary groves of trees. As I have remarked on previous explorations of the Glenferness trails, much of the place evokes the varied descriptions of Tolkien’s Middle-earth. These ancient deciduous groves, in particularly, are littered with hundreds of years of fallen leaves. Nothing grows beneath their spreading branches. On the one hand, I think of Lothlorien; on the other, I think Mirkwood.
Back at the Studio, I read some of the letters of Robert Louis Stevenson. He talks about the appeal of literature, which he compares to the effects of opioids (both of which he knew a good deal about). His words recall my own description of film as the crack cocaine of the art world. When you need a fix, nothing else will do. Makes me feel kind of guilt for wanting to read! I console myself that my primary vice is the “gateway” drug of non-fiction.
We are off to the Grantown Show, an annual event the second Thursday of each August. It’s not a Highland Games, but it sure has the feel of the same. Instead of caber tossing and dancing, though, the focus is on showing off the amazing livestock. Horses and cows like I have never seen! Amazing beasts. I lunch on a “highland burger” and chips, and buy Jenn a nice slab of shortbread-layered fudge. We browse the highland craft booths, and Jenn strikes up lengthy conversations with several sellers.
The weather is typically Scottish–broken clouds with sun breaks, the flavor changing about every ten minutes. But not a lick of rain! So far all my waterproofing has been wholly untested.
And then, to cap off our visit to the Show, Jenn stops into a large multi-aisled tent to browse for coats. The one we have brought with us we purchased for our 2012 trip. It has served her well, but has never been quite the right size. With her weight loss over the last year, she fairly swims in it now!
A very enterprising salesman declares, “I have just the right coat for you! Wait here!” Off he scurries… and he is right. It is a wonderful slim-cut shortwaisted lined oilskin coat. “Oh, but how much?” Jenn asks. “Don’t worry about that,” the salesman replies. “Just try it on, and then I’ll tell you.” Jenn does, and belts it smartly. Our man quickly snaps a photo on his phone and shows Jenn how wonderful the coat looks on her. It is ideal–for both Scotland and Seattle.
“In the stores, this coat is £ 148,” he says. “But I’ll give it to you for 85.” This is well outside how much Jenn has wanted to spend. Since 2012, Jenn has been hoarding the last $50 bill that she came back to Seattle with, wanting to spend it on something special in Scotland. But £ 85 is twice that amount. She demurs on the offer.
“70,” he says. “You should have the coat.” I encourage Jenn to take the deal. I have priced oilskin for nearly twenty years, and know that this coat would easily sell for $200 in the States. On our honeymoon, for instance, I bought an oilskin in Jasper for $250. Even though this one is a knockoff copy and not one of Britain’s name brands, oilskin is oilskin. You can’t beat it for beating weather.
Jenn agrees with my encouragement, smitten, and dons the coat immediately. Just a few days into the trip, Jenn and I both have our dream purchases: I, my Schrade blade, and Jenn her oilskin. We return to the Studio very, very happy campers.
Several hours on foot yesterday has naturally taken a good deal out of Jenn, and today is a bit of a lounge-about day. Jenn busies herself with reorganizing things, while I finish up the carving on her walking stick and read a bit more Stevenson.
I also make a big circuit on the fishing trails on the estate.
I make a beeline for the Princess Stone, the ancient, illegible Celtic monument to an ill-fated Scottish princess and her Danish (and equally star-crossed) lover. From there, the trail heads into the Findorn gorge, and the stone-buttressed footpath which clings to the walls reminds me of Faramir’s lair in Ithilien, and the Forbidden Pool where Gollum is captured.
Jenn and I have been on this trail once before, but our exploration was curtailed before we found the return trail that comes back over the bluff near the cemetery. Instead, in 2012, we had forged our way through a long-disused road choked with deadfall and weeds. We had eventually connected with a footpath, but it was a less-than-ideal walk which I regretted leading Jenn into.
This time, my walk is more open-ended. I manage the full looping arc to where the fisherman’s trail ascends the bluff, and even though I am totally uncertain of which forks to take, my past forays (this year and in years past) help me decipher the lay of the land. Finally, at the last branching of roads, the direction of the prevailing wind tips off the right direction and I am soon back at the road above the Glenferness garden. Success!
Today’s outing: one of our favorite destinations, Logie Steading. We discovered it on the recommendation of Glenferness while first staying there in 2005. Logie’s history is as a working farm, and in the 21st Century has made a continuing go of it by branching out into tourism. In 2005, the Steading featured a small art studio, a coffee shop that served very limited lunches, a craft shop, essentially a butcher shop selling Logie meats as well as an assortment of cheeses, jellies, and honies… and the Logie bookstore, a six- or seven-room former stables specializing (yes, specializing) in used books. If you know Jenn and I, you know how delightful such a thing is for us!
Over the years, the Steading has nearly quadrupled the size of its operation, now more slick and polished than Bohemian. During the summer, they host outdoor theater shows, and have a full program of children’s entertainment on weekends. The artshop has expanded to fill what used to be the coffee shop… which now occupies its own entire building and operates as a full restaurant seating perhaps 100 guests. A new outbuilding has been added to house a high-end art gallery and the “farm shop” and nursery.
In past years, we have never encountered more than a scant handful of people during our visits to the Steading. But today… today, we could hardly find a parking spot! There must have been well over 200 people milling about the property on a misty, gloomy Saturday.
It’s lunchtime when we arrive, so we share a bowl of cream of mushroom soup and thick slices of farm bread. The soup is a real surprise as it is 80% mushrooms and 20% cream, about opposite the usual mix of ingredients. We top things off with some deadly ginger cake and chocolate tort.
And then, oh yes, then, to the bookstore.
Even after all these years, the bookstore is still the same fabulous bookstore.
Jenn picks up a few New Testament commentaries and a Herriot-like memoir written by an English surgeon while I do my usual: head for the mountaineering section. I pick up two titles entirely new to me, an English translation of Bernard Pierre’s account of the 1956 ascent of Nun in the Karakoram plus Bonington’s The Next Horizon.
Again we close up the shops at the end of a long afternoon. We linger to shoot some photos before heading “home.”
To finish off the day, we drive into Forres to round out our supplies. Lactose-free cheese, more fruit, and some British candy bars!
Finally, after nearly a week away from home, we’re starting to feel ourselves again after a long, dark struggle through trying times. Even this first week away from the usual adventures of work and health crises, Jenn and I have often felt like we are on different trips: Jenn absorbed in the details of organizing, I absorbed in a futile attempt to recapture the feel of our impossibly ideal 2012 visit to Glenferness.
Earlier, as I read the opening chapters to A Mountain Called Nun Kun while Jenn shot some photos at the Steading, Pierre’s musings about the nature of “expeditions” and their appeal caused me to reflect on the very reasons that Jenn and I continue to travel even in the face of its difficulty and, frankly, inadvisability given Jenn’s health condition. (After we rafted the Grand Canyon in 2006, Jenn’s surgeon remarked, “Well, that was stupid.”) To paraphrase JFK, we go to Scotland, and do the other things, not because they are easy but because they are hard. We might as well be aiming for the moon. And while we are on these trips we experience, as Bonington describes it, the immediacy of war. We are out on a ledge, paired on a single rope, and any misstep can be fatal to both. The same is true at home, of course–but now after 15 years, that home-health routine has become a stale, nightmarish slog. Here, in Scotland, thousands of miles from lifelines, the Internet, and our healthcare team, it’s all vital once again.
It’s a privilege to be here. Yes, it’s a struggle–but a privileged struggle. On the drive back to Glenferness I share these thoughts with Jenn and apologize to her for the shortness of temper I apparently packed in my bags and brought with us. We have been away from home for nine days, but I think I am finally ready to be here.
As we settle into bed for a pre-sleep game of Red Hot Yott, we spy a red deer grazing under the giant beech trees in the pasture. It’s a buck! Both of our cameras are handy, with charged batteries, amazingly enough. We quietly step out onto the porch in our jammies and creep out to the car park, zoom lenses ready to go.
In the stillness of the evening Golden Hour air, the buck hears the slight whirring of lens motors–and he raises his head bolt upright, staring straight at us. Jenn and I both have just enough time for one shot, and our shutters click simultaneously. The buck bolts away, with Jenn and I in quiet barefoot pursuit for the next twenty minutes or so. We have stalked a deer!
Jenn’s photo was perfectly exposed, but out of focus. My photo was perfectly focused, but much too dark. Yes, between us we make quite a team.
It’s 6:30 AM. We had planned to go to church today in Grantown, but we are in a crisis. Jenn has awoken in a puddle of perspiration and is running a temperature of 104.4. We run through the potential causes: sepsis, abscess, virus, pneumonia. We know all the symptoms of these only too well, and aside from the soaring temperature none of them present.
Pneumonia? Jenn would be hypoxic by now, and she is not. Abscess? She would would be intolerably painful somewhere, and she is not. Sepsis? There are no chills to accompany the fever, and Jenn knows the “feel” of sepsis intimately. She is not “radiating” heat; she is just HOT.
We know that Jenn has been sleeping too warmly, and that she is under-hydrated. We finish off the overnight run of saline and switch over to a litre of TPN. With the aid of fluids and diclofenac, Jenn’s fever drops to near-normal and we settle in for a day of impromptu “infirmary.” We follow with yet another litre of saline as Jenn drinks as much as possible. I devour Pierre’s account of the ascent of Nun as Jenn naps, exhausted.
When she awakes, Jenn apologizes for being “such a drain” and for “wasting our vacation.” I remind her that I have always watched her sleep a lot when we travel. Even during our first trip abroad in 2002, during two weeks in Scotland and a week in Romania, Jenn slept probably twice as much as I did; and she wasn’t even deathly ill at the time!
Having just completed Pierre’s book in something over 24 hours, I also remind Jenn that in 2012 I read SEVEN books over those two weeks. So my hours of whittling and walking this last week have NOT been out of the ordinary.
It is true, however, that Jenn is only capable of moderate activity every other day this year. I doubt she will make it down to the river while we are here. I even wonder whether she will be up to a visit to Duffus, which sits up on a pretty steep hill.
It is also true, right now, that the jury is out about Jenn’s current condition. Will her temperature spike again tonight? What does it mean if it does?
We know that others will think about our situation as Dr. Thirlby famously did about the Grand Canyon in 1996. Are we stupid to hole up in a remote cabin and wait for Jenn’s temperature to drop… or spike? But we have gone through a lot in the last fifteen years, and know full well the triage routine in the E.R., as well as the risks of inpatient treatment. We can analyze symptoms with the best of them.
Even if we were at home we wouldn’t be calling any doctors. Not just yet. When we planned this trip last December, Jenn had already decided that she would never again spend a night in a hospital, much less die in one. That decision is precisely why we are even in Scotland, holed up in a remote cabin. We will not likely get this chance again.
The stakes are higher, of course, when you are on the other side of the planet. We shall see what the morning–or night–brings.
We are awake by 7 again, and Jenn’s temperature is back up, bouncing between 102 and 104. Clearly there is something wrong. But what?
We triage again, and settle on bronchitis. Jenn has had slight rales since our first morning in Scotland after having regurgitated some food while she slept. The rales are now obvious.
After a very quick and serious consultation, we settle on a plan. While Jenn gets a little more rest, I will pack the food, medications, and other supplies. In an hour or so, I will wake Jenn and she will pack. We’ll then head to a hotel near Aberdeen, by which time our medical team will be arriving at the office in Seattle. We’ll get a consult while we arrange emergency flight changes to return ASAP.
With both of us at peace with the decision, I sit on the edge of the bed and Jenn holds out her hand. As I take it, she asks, “Greg, am I ready to die?”
“Yes,” I say. “You are.”
“How do you know? How can be I sure that I have fulfilled God’s purpose for me?”
I choke up and fight back tears as I respond, just as I am now while typing. “Did you hear what Jim said at the Logie bookstore?”
Outside the shop on Saturday was a rack of clearance titles. As she was browsing, Jenn struck up a conversation with a 90-year-old gentleman named James and his son John. They talked for over half an hour, even comparing the age and heritage of their hand-carved walking sticks. Jim had admired the white piping I had incorporated into Jenn’s.
As he finally passed into the bookstore, Jim looked me in the eye and said, “She is a blessing, that one!”
“Yes, she is,” I smiled in return. “Yes, she is.”
This morning, that is answer enough for Jenn.
9 AM. Time for Jenn to start packing.
As I empty the leftovers into the trash, Jenn takes her temperature. It’s now down to 97.7! The miracle of diclofenac? Highly unlikely.
“Greg, I really feel like the fever broke after I went back to sleep. I feel ‘normal’!”
We re-assess. On the very verge of aborting our vacation, we pull back from the brink. We are almost certain now that our diagnosis of bronchitis is correct… though of course we could still be wrong, and very regretfully so. But we figure if we can prevent Jenn from aspirating further liquids and keep her lungs clear, the condition should resolve itself on its own.
I agree to drive into Grantown to get some further fever suppressants and expectorants. While I am there I place a call to Jenn’s folks to alert them, and through them my folks, to the seriousness of Jenn’s dilemma, and ask for prayer.
And then I return to Glenferness to watch, and to wait.
At bedtime, we agree to head to Duffus on Tuesday… God willing, and neither the creeks nor temperatures rise!
A couple evenings ago, as she was fighting off sleep, Jenn suggested that we make a list of our favorite Switchfoot lyrics. Top of my list was from “The Sound” on Hello, Hurricane!
“Love is the final fight,” I offered. Jenn, more than a little groggy, just looked at me.
I continued to fill the silence. “I like the lyric not only because it is theologically and philosophically true, but because it bridges the gap between all-too-often sterile pacifism and the brutal reality of the world as we know it. It says, yes, ultimately love wins. But in the meantime there are a lot of wars, physical and spiritual. Yet they are just intermediate battles, little skirmishes along the way, and will not “settle” anything. In the end, love wins: and make no mistake, love is a war, a war against our own selves and the worse angels of our natures.”
The words are those of John Perkins, by the way, and Switchfoot just quotes them. Perkins knows a thing or two about the long battle of love.
Having come out of the latest skirmish with death, Jenn’s temperature has been steady normal for over 24 hours. For now, at least, our decision to stay has been a good one. We pack a lunch and head to the ruins of Duffus Castle, just about our favorite place in the world. On the way over, while I eat, we putter along new backroads to Auldearn. After all these years I’m wondering if there isn’t a faster way from Ferness to Forres.
We arrive at Duffus, and it is relatively mobbed. The car park has now been blacktopped, and it’s nearly full.
Jenn doesn’t say so, but I can tell she is intimidated by the prospect of gaining the hilltop. She hasn’t even walked up a full flight of stairs in well over a year! After a little stalling and a little goading from me (my knees don’t like standing on a sidehill for long!), Jenn puts her head down and charges straight up the slope with nary a whimper. I am stunned.
For the next hour and a half, in a mixed sense of triumph and trepidation about the prospect of moving elsewhere in the ruins–in 2012, she clambered all over the walls–Jenn remains in the ruined keep talking to the various tourists that filter through.
As she does so, it occurs to me: not only have the crowds of people at Logie and Duffus been new, another thing is new–Jenn’s extroverted interaction with them. She shares parts of her story with them, and always shares her faith.
With some, like Jim at Logie, it’s a blessing. Others, not so much.
At one point, I return to the keep after poking about and find Jenn in tears. I ask what happened. After an elderly woman agreed to let Jenn take her photo, her male companion curtly asked Jenn to desist. His coldness shocked and hurt Jenn.
I had watched the couple arrive at Duffus with some interest. It was apparent to me that the old boy was courting the lady, and had even brought a blanket hoping for a private few moments of romance. The lady’s openness and Jenn’s extroversion threatened to abort his designs and his male insecurity won the day at Jenn’s expense.
As I remind Jenn that some people, particularly in the UK, will simply not be responsive to her American chutzpah, Maggie comes over to see what is wrong. One of another party of three visiting Duffus today, Margaret has already spent half an hour or so enjoying a talk with Jenn, happily having her picture taken with her husband and longtime friend from New York. Maggie agrees with me: some people will just have rudeness to them, and they are nothing to worry about. It’s in their DNA, she says. Maggie’s warmth is wonderful.
We pass through the keep wall and settle onto a grassy shelf overlooking the grounds wall. Several families pass by and talk with us. Jock and his three kids (JJ, Evie, and Maribeth) come to Duffus every year for an afternoon of hide-and-seek and football. They meet up with extended family; Jock has been coming to Duffus regularly since he was a child, when he lived close by.
Another pair of mothers watch their gang of preschool-aged children roll down the steep hill from the keep. The youngest, Oscar, is fearless, literally flinging himself head over heels down the hill! After a bit one of the girls finds a tiny frog. On their way past us to show the moms, the knot of kids stops to talk to Jenn and let her snap a couple photos. For several minutes, Jenn and the children are one with oohs and aahs and a shared, simple love of wonder.
Just as we are gathering our things to leave, one final time as dusk approaches, another pair of travelers joins us. Fighter jets from the nearby air force base scream just overhead. For the next hour, Ross and and his son Daniel swap stories with us about about miltary service, castles, and travel. Ross is a retired US Army medivac medic with the Army, having served in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other combat zones. He has spent the first two weeks of August B&Bing around Ireland with his youngest son, who is a gangly, awkward, good-natured 13-year-old, and is finishing off the trip with five days in Scotland before returning to Texas.
Ross and Daniel have backgrounds in both the Baptist church and Seventh Day Adventist. They have greatly enjoyed our talks at Duffus–and as Ross says goodbye, he honors us with a military service coin, which he explains is a tradition of servicemen for recognizing special encounters while abroad. They are usually reserved for exchange with other servicemen, but Ross says there are exceptions. As Jenn and I clasp hands with Ross in acceptance, Jenn prays a benediction over them.
As Daniel and Ross depart and as the sun begins to sink behind Duffus, Jenn and I finally have the grounds to ourselves. We snap a couple of self portraits and say our goodbyes. Jenn glows as I snap one final photo of her in this magical place.
On the drive back to Ferness, I again take backroads in a search for a shortcut from Forres. Just before we reach Whitmire, a few raindrops spatter our windshield. Out of the blue, Jenn declares, “Wouldn’t it be great if we could see a Scottish rainbow?” I laugh, but no sooner does she finish saying that than a magnificent full arc appears off to our left behind the stone wall lining the single-track lane. Because we are on deserted backroads, I can immediately stop the car as we admire the sight. Jenn snaps some photos as the rainbow struggles to turn into a double.
What a day. From the brink of death to the fullest of life. And a rainbow.
What will tomorrow bring?
High winds. That’s what.
It’s another sleep day for Jenn, and the weather starts clear and cold. There’s a bit of a wind, but I build a fire anyway and keep it stoked until late morning, reading and writing fireside. I saute onions and mushrooms to add to a can of ravioli for lunch. The wind has been strong all morning, but now it decides to really kick up. It becomes seriously unsafe to keep the fire going just yards from a wood structure, so I finally let it go out.
I move my things over to the porch, but without the warmth of a fire it’s really too windy there to enjoy the outdoors, so I move the fireside bench to the lee side of the studio, facing the pasture. There I settle in for a bit of whittling, and more writing.
Every day about noon a Land Rover shuttles past the Studio. Five minutes or so later, it shuttles back whence it came. I suspect that it’s headed down to care for the pheasants, so today when it passes I wander down to see.
Terry is the Land Rover’s driver, and he’s been caring for the Balgonies’ pheasants for 29 years. He must have started when he was a very young man! This year Terry has relocated a good portion of the pheasant flock to the lower pasture and has planted a mixed crop of barley, oats, and hybrid wheat. All planted at the same time and on the same ground, they mature in different seasons providing months of feed for the pheasants in a single crop. Terry stops by once a day to check on the water supply and care for the birds.
I ask Terry about other wildlife on the estate. He confims that the raptors circling overhead are osprey (and some buzzards), and that the large hoot-cooing birds in the trees are wood pigeons. (I don’t recall seeing the latter in Scotland at all, but this year they are everywhere!)
As I walk back the Studio, I reflect how different this trip has been–the numbers of conversations with people that I have had, the numerous encounters with Julie (who has confirmed that the ancient fair-barked nut-bearing trees lining the estate lanes are beech), my talks with David, the countless sport-fishers who have traipsed past the Studio. And the many talks with strangers while touristing. I have learned more in the last 10 days than in my previous three weeks at Glenferness combined!
While Jenn sleeps, I drive into Grantown to gas up the Fiesta and buy replacements for the French press carafe and coffee mug that Jenn and I have broken, respectively. (In 2012, it was Jenn’s turn to break the carafe–so the one I broke is probably the replacement carafe we purchased then!)
I’m lucky: the big rain squall of the day howls through while I am on the road. By the time I’m back at Glenferness, it’s simply blowing–but wow, is it blowing hard! I nonetheless decide to take a short walk along the upper pastures beyond the kennels. There’s a forest lane there I’ve wondered about for years. The wind in the trees masks my footfalls and I come upon a red deer stag feeding in a small marsh. He doesn’t know I’m there, so I just stand stock still and watch for a bit. He raises his head and looks around, stares straight at me–but because I don’t move, he doesn’t know what I am and goes back to feeding. I’m only about forty feet away. I raise my camera to focus and get the proper exposure this time, and press the shutter… and my battery dies! No photo, and the stag bounds away through the woods.
Back to the Studio, and after another hour or so of whittling, I’ve had about enough of listening to the wind. Finally, I see a branch fall! It’s about the size of a Christmas wreath. Boy, are these giant trees sturdy! They must be used to such winds.
Back inside, I finish the day with Bonington’s account of Harlin’s death on the Eiger Direct, and a little more writing. Jenn has had a very sound and peaceful rest today. No signs of fever!
A peaceful, lazy morning. It takes Jenn a while to start feeling “alive” again after two days of serious illness, a full, draining day at Duffus, and then a sleep day. I occupy myself with more reading, writing, whittling, and walking. After lunch, I take my newly-carved rhododendron walking stick on its maiden voyage on the steep trail directly down to the Findhorn. I follow the fishing trail upriver to its terminus, snapping photos of fishermen, butterflies, thistle, mushrooms, and leaves along the way.
It is a gloriously sunny morning, but as I make the return trek to the Studio, the winds kick up again as another front blows through. Scotland!
We expect to be off soon for a drive overlooking Loch Ness followed by dinner at the Cawdor Tavern. Something new, and something classic!
Okay… maybe not so classic. Cawdor was a major disappointment last night, and we even stopped by on our way out to make sure it would be open on our return. In 2012, it was our last stop of our last day, and we were the only ones there. Service was excellent, and the fish & chips top-notch. Last night, the place was packed, service was terrible, and the meal completely forgettable (except for the terrible service!).
The drive up into the Highlands via Cawdor, Culloden, Daviot, and East Croachy was dynamite, though–one of the top three or four drives ever in Scotland. A great selection of one- and two-lane tracks, and only about 100 yards on an A road. The return leg was entirely along the south bank of Loch Ness, and the sun had the courtesy to shine on us for an extended late-evening break directly across from Urquhart. Super day! Back to the Studio just after sunset.
This morning opens our last full day of vacation. Tomorrow will be punctuated by prep for travel, and some shortage of sleep.
A nice big bonfire for the both of us! Mild morning routine followed by an early lunch of sharp cheddar toasties, cider, and fire-roasted shortbread. The latter… what a treat! Jenn beats me soundly at Scheming and Skulking, and we talk for a while with Ollie and Alex, young brothers who’ve been fishing at Glenferness for 12 years. They are related to the Balgonies, and have a week-long barbecue and fish fest with family members every summer.
We snap some fireside photos and are off to Nairn for some touristing, ending up routing over to Forres as well for some last-minute requisition of tasty treats and a quest to find some appropriate charger for the MP3 players as the one we brought along doesn’t seem to work in the UK. Moderate success on the latter front from a Five and Dime store: we can at least play music, though the battery won’t charge a lick!
The plan we have settled on for departure is a nod to the difficulties of traveling with narcolepsy. In order to make it through the Glenferness-Aberdeen-Frankfurt leg (with a 2 AM departure from Glenferness), we decide to stay up as late as possible tonight and sleep in very late on Saturday. We will then stay up through the night to Frankfurt, stopping along the way to Aberdeen for some experimentation with night photography, and plan on catching some sleep in Frankfurt.
With that, we get in some game-playing and keep a fire going until after midnight. Finally, at 1 AM, after Jenn gets her first experience with after-dark firelight photography, we turn in for the night.
Just before we left home, Jenn confessed that she can, at this point, barely tolerate anything associated with the Lord of the Rings films. (I can hardly blame her; I only recently re-acquired my admiration and enjoyment of them after ten years of Hobbit-induced disgust and loathing.) The one exception, she says, is the soundtrack for The Return of the King.
“Everything else,” she explains, “leaves me in knots. It’s all tension with no resolution.”
But the Return soundtrack?
“There’s closure. Howard Shore did an amazing job of writing a score that takes you on a journey, but leaves you someplace new. I have to finish the soundtrack, though. If I stop anywhere else, I’m left with that tension.”
It’s a pretty brilliant bit of insight, I tell her, and one that Howard Shore would love to hear. He had the advantage, of course, that the third film had a real ending (several of them, many critics argue), but Shore’s score is indeed masterful, destined to be one of the great pieces of 21st Century music. It captures what Tolkien called the “eucatastrophe,” the turning of darkness to sudden joy… and more, really: the entire scope of Tolkien’s “Escape, Recovery, and Consolation.”
I’m feeling very little of that trinity this morning–no eucatastrophic joy at all. I’m awake long before I want to be, and can’t get back to sleep. I finish Bonington’s account of the Annapurna ascent and head out for a long walk.
In 2005, I am reminded as I head toward the Princess Stone, Jenn was also very weak. It wasn’t until the last day that she mustered the energy for the very same walk I am taking this morning. As we returned, I shot the video footage that I used in opening the “This is Your Life” video I created for her after rafting the Grand Canyon in 2006. “This is your life,” Jon Foreman sings; “are you who you want to be?”
As I recall that walk this morning, all I can do is cry. I don’t want to go home. I don’t want to go home at all. I don’t want to leave knowing that I will likely never walk this path with Jenn again. In many ways, she already feels gone.
When I did the dressing change on Jenn’s PICC line at the Studio in 2005, I honestly nearly died of fear. It was my first attempt on PICC site dressing, and was terrified that I would make some mistake that would infect Jenn or render the line useless (or lethal). “I’m so afraid I’m going to kill you, Jenn!” I literally cried.
In an attempt to console me, Jenn offered a bitter solace. “People can survive a long time on PICC lines, Greg.” Like, how long? “I’ve met people who’ve had them for fifteen years.”
Fifteen years? FIFTEEN YEARS? I about choked. In 2005, I didn’t feel like I could last another month.
Now 12 years later, and almost the same exact time of year, I don’t feel like I can last another day.
Where is God in all of this? What is the bloody point? Why does God have to make things SO DAMNED HARD?
On the way back from Forres last night, Jenn and I had one of the bitterest arguments we have ever had. We have had a lot of them since 2008, since Jenn went on disability and the Great Mystery of our life began. Every year, we find better ways of coping with the ongoing stress; and every year, the stress continues to mount. Our squabble-meter rises and falls with the relative effectiveness of our coping mechanisms.
Jenn continues to struggle with a sense of uselessness and dependency, and the awful knowledge that she is a drain on society’s resources, and my own reserves of patience and energy. I continue to struggle with feeling continuously out of control. I haven’t been in my comfort zone for a decade, either. I don’t have a Maslow’s Triangle. I have a Maslow’s Abyss.
And yet our love for each is boundless. It cannot be described. Still, we continue to poison our hours with rancor. I cannot tell you, or God, how awful I feel about my role in that relational failure.
The cause of last night’s argument? Disagreement about how many purchases we’ll be able to squeeze into our luggage without incurring excess baggage fees.
Yes, that’s right. Trip of a lifetime, and I’d rather badger Jenn about too many candy bars than chalk up a $100 baggage fee as a sunk cost and move on. Where the hell does that come from?
To make matters worse, as I’m loading the “extras” into a box to take to the post office (our squabble-induced compromise; “But no canned goods!”) I realize… I’ve completely overestimated the volume of Jenn’s purchases. We won’t have extra baggage at all, most likely.
I eat generous portions of both crow and humble pie, and Jenn forgives me. “I don’t know why we want to recapture who we were,” she says as we embrace. “There’s no going back.”
Are you who you want to be?
A hare turns a bend in the trail ahead and nearly bounds right into me. He does a Ricochet Rabbit skid, treading dirt for a moment, before he can muster the momentum to change course.
Are you who you want to be?
Off to the right I catch a quick glimpse of movement. A doe and a buck have been caught napping by my quiet, tearful approach. But they sense they have nothing to fear. Instead they just rise and take a path to higher ground.
Are you who you want to be?
The hare and the deer have taken me out of my tears. Wonder and awe have a way of doing that. I know that I can go on. The despair has passed, at least for a few hours. Maybe for a few days. Maybe for years.
As I pass the Princess Stone as I return to the Studio, a butterfly leaps up off the trail in front of me. By mistake, I have taken Jenn’s camera with me on this walk–but I have had the foresight to ready the exposure controls. I watch for a couple minutes, the butterfly circling up the trail and back. Will it land? Will I be able to capture an image one last time?
It flutters back toward the Princess Stone, circles once more, then lights back on the trail.
I have it in my sights.
Postscript. Our last fifteen hours in Scotland are pretty fantastic. Jenn sleeps late as planned, rising at noon. (I wish I had been able to sleep longer!) After some preliminary packing, we drive back into Grantown for some last-minute errands (Walkers: no dice… the shop isn’t open on Saturdays; Post Office: scratch… closed at 1 PM; charity shop: bingo… Jenn scores on a fabulous hoodie).
On our way out of town, I suggest a stop by the Show grounds to look for dropped coins. Jenn agrees. When we climb out of the car in the abandoned field and start dodging raindrops, I’ve already got my eyes on the ground when Jenn, camera always in tow, has her eyes in the clouds… and brings my attention to a stunning rainbow that is developing right in the field in front of us. One end is at the stone wall at our left, and the other at the showground buildings at our right. The arc is low and bright; for the next fifteen minutes it pulsates in and out, trying to turn into both a double arc and, as Jenn shows me in her photographs, a mirror-doubled single arc. I’ve never seen that phenonmenon before.
And a glint from the sun catches my eye. A pound coin! And another, right next to it. This brings my find total to three pounds thirty-three. Jenn’s take? Two pence. From under the bed at the Studio!
A final stop at the Grantown bakery (a hot baked bean and mashed tater pie for me!) and then we are back to Glenferness late evening. After more packing, it’s plain that we are on track for a leisurely on-time departure for the airport, no problem. At 8 PM, I suggest to Jenn that we walk down to the Princess Stone. Jenn agrees.
I drive us down to the pheasant field to get as us close as possible, and we walk slowly down the trail hand in hand. In the gloaming we come to the Stone. “Let’s not say it’s the last time,” Jenn says. I agree. No “last times around” for us. Ever.
Jenn’s got her work cut out to make it back up the hill from the Stone, so we opt out of continuing down to the Findhorn. We take our time getting back to the car. It feels good to take time. It feels very good.
At 11:30 we’re out the door, saying goodbye to the Studio, saying goodbye to Glenferness. At we head out the drive, one more red deer jumps out across the road. We say goodbye to it, too. But not forever. Outside of time, at the very least, we will always walk the trails along the Findhorn.
We take the backroad to Auldearn hoping to find starlight over an attractive pasture to photograph… but no such luck. Our last night in Scotland turns socked-in, and it drizzles or rains all the way to Aberdeen on the A96 from Auldern.
But, oh! What an entertaining drive. Jenn has never been more witty or entertaining. The oddities of Scottish traffic signage (and Jenn’s spectacular failure to phtograph them in the dark!) provide ample fodder for her sarcasm.
The night proves a wonderful and fitting cap to another trip of this lifetime, our lifetime.
And I find another five pence on the way to return the car! You can’t ask for better.
I felt soooo empty the first week over there. Jenn’s health crisis really galvanized both of us, though, and I really came alive after that. While Jenn slept, I started writing and it all just started pouring out. After writing about the crisis itself, I back-filled the first week’s “journal” and then kept going, finishing up on the plane from Frankfurt.
I was kind of disappointed that I didn’t produce any poetry while I was there, but the journal did turn very poetic at points. Ultimately I was really pleased at turning out over 8000 high-quality words!
Greg this is great work. I felt like I was hiking with you at times and experiencing the different locations. I am continually impressed by you and Jenn, your honesty and faith in walking out what you call, The Great Mystery.
What a hope filled description of your journey.
We know “NLT Psalm 126:5 Those who plant in tears will harvest with shouts of joy.” (Psa 126:5 NLT)
Thank you for sharing this adventure and yourselves. For now I am weeping with you, but I look forward to the shouts of Joy.
p.s. I would love to see that hiking stick sometime. (And why do you know/expect there are coins on the ground?)
Hey, John. Thanks for the notes.
Jenn and I started competitive about loose-change-finding during our 2002 trip to Scotland. Over the years we have learned about the likely places to find it — and principally, it’s anywhere that people pull their keys out of their pockets. So in that particular case at the Grantown Show field, we knew that cars had been lined up there just days before in a giant car park. The irony? The pound coins I found were actually where cars had been driving through, not where they had been parking!
certainly enjoyed your “report” on your vacation in Scotland! Thank you very much, Greg!
Been a while since we’ve seen each other. We live on orcas island now. This journal is so special as are you and Jenn. The love, honesty, brokenness, grace, grit, hope, perseverance, joy, celebration of simple pleasures and angst at the imponderables…it is all there in its sacred celebration of life in the muddy bogs of the fallen world. My prayers are with you both….
Thank you for this. It is lovely. Jenn, you were such a comfort to me when I was sick, and I think of you often. Wishing you as many moments of love, peace, and strength as are possible.