A New Home – Kinlochleven, Scotland

A New Home
Kinlochleven, ScotlandIn this Installment:
A perfect plan for hiking – Less than perfect equipment – Tent stores don’t usually offer free beer – Bargaining with song – Home.

I went to Scotland this summer with the following plan: get up in the
morning and start hiking; when hungry, unpack the food stash or find a
town; when thirsty, see plan for hunger; when tired, pull off the path
and pitch my tent. The tent I brought was the only tent I had ever
owned; a tiny, rinky-dink little affair that I bought through a discount
catalog because it was cheap and weighed almost nothing. I had used it
only a couple times before, and I set to making it ready for this trip
by reinforcing its corners and giving it a waterproof coating. It wasn’t
grand, but it was my tent, and it sloughed off all the “rain” the garden
hose threw at it. Along with my pack and boots, this tent would be the
cornerstone of my gear. I had never traveled in this manner before –
with a tent and no fixed goal or location for ending each day – and was
as excited as I could be about it.

The second night in Scotland would be the first night in my tent. I had
met a Czech man during the day and we decided to pull off the road early
and relax by the river Ba. We both sat back on the rocks to enjoy the
idyllic looking spot; he dried clothes in the sun and I wrote.

As evening came on and the numbers of walkers on the trail reduced to
almost nothing, we got off the rocks we had been lazing on and pitched
our tents. The area was covered with thick, wet moss, and we pitched on
the one piece of solid, grass covered ground that was near the river.
The sun began to set and the midges – tiny biting flies – rose up from
the ground like a biblical plague. My tent was barely big enough for me
to lie down in, and a hundred midges flew in every time I unzipped the
flap for two seconds so I could get out to go to the bathroom. Then the
rain came to test my tent further. One small spot slowly seeped water.
This wasn’t so bad, but the tent had no real ventilation when sealed
against rain. The humidity in the air condensed on the inside of the
tent in a thick layer of damp. There was little space where I and my
stuff could lie that wasn’t touching the sides. The cornerstone of my
trip worked, but it sure left a lot to be desired.

It was the next night at a campsite in Kinlochleven that I met Jim and
Liz, a very nice Scottish couple who had driven to the area to relax in
lawn chairs by their new tent – by one of their new tents, that is.
They told me about an annual music festival called “T in the Park“,
where people came from all over and set up their tents on the lawn to
listen to the music. The rules of the festival say that you have to take
down your tent before you go, and for some reason the tradition has
developed among some to simply flatten their tents by jumping on them
(complying with the rule to take them down), and then leave them there.
Jim and his wife had gone the day after the festival and picked up six
tents! They had then gone home, dropped off five of them, put some gear and
their two dogs in the car and driven to the Blackwater Campsite in
Kinlochleven.

…enter David, newly aware of the shortcomings of his one tent.

Jim and company were two tents over from me and his dogs – a very pale
golden retriever named Amber and some sort of brown and white boxer
named Larsen – had an impressively selective ability to feel territorial
about a small section of fencing behind their tent. They would happily
sniff and lick any human or dog on their side of the fence, but a dog on
the other side of the fence was somehow a dangerous interloper bent on
no good; if it so much as paused slightly as it walked by they would
bark fiercely and bare their teeth. I commented on this to Jim and we
started talking. He had a solid blue collar manner to him, and was very
content to be sitting in that chair with his wife and his dogs, with a
camp stove, a 12-pack of Tennant’s lager and a bottle of rum nearby. The
Tennant’s seemed to have been bought for passersby more than anyone
else, as he stuck almost exclusively to rum. As he talked I noticed
that, like his dogs, he too had fangs. Some people have more prominent
canine teeth than others, some have more pointed canine teeth than
others; Jim’s were both, to the extent that the teeth below his canines
had been removed, presumably to make space for them. He never bared his
teeth or showed any territoriality the way his dogs did, but my eyes
kept coming back to this feature as I listened to his stories. That is,
until he began telling me about how he had so many tents thanks to that
festival. They were headed back home the next day, so I asked him to
think about selling me the tent they had with them. He said he would
think about it and decide in the morning, and I headed into town to get
a hot meal. Jim said to stop by for a beer on my way back to my tent –
that I’d be able to find him by listening for the loud, drunken singing.
I stopped by on my way back from dinner and the first thing out of my
mouth was an entirely rhetorical question about why there was no loud
singing as he had promised. His entirely rhetorical answer was to simply
launch into song: “Oh well and hey wee man wi’ a big stick in his hand…”

By the time I had dropped my things in my tent and returned he
had started another � a good Scottish song about a massacre that had
taken place in the nearby town of Glencoe. I happened to know the song,
so as I sat down with the other folks assembled there I joined him in
singing it, which pleased him. He liked that I knew such a good
historical song about his country. He was a very patriotic man, and in
his army days had been in the Blackwatch; a fact he stated proudly, the
way a Texan might say that they had fought at the Alamo, or an
Englishman at Agincourt. Liz assured us that his songs weren’t chosen
because we were around, but that he liked singing the old historical
ballads regardless of audience. We all talked a bit more and then he
suddenly launched into another song. I joined him in singing this one
too, adding a little harmony here and there. He was curious about my
knowing all these good, old Scottish songs, and he started singing a
more recent one � Flower of Scotland.

Flower of Scotland is a sort of unofficial anthem of the country and
three years earlier I had heard it sung by the entire Gellions pub in
Inverness. They had all sung it with such power and fierceness and love
that I had learned it well, so when Jim sang the chorus and then
stopped, I sent it and 2 verses back to him. He, and the other Scots
there, were stunned!

It was pretty clear after that that I was going to get the tent in the
morning, the only question in my mind was what the price would be. We
continued to talk and sing and drink until late, and our numbers slowly
increased as it’s hard to come within 10 feet of Jim and not have a beer
put into your hand. Jim in particular got quite drunk (a feat in itself
as he can hold quite a bit before this happens) and at one point when he
stood up he tripped over one of the guy lines of the tent and fell on a
corner of it. Feeling pretty happy myself, I boldly called out, “Hey!
What are you doing to my tent?!” Happily, he didn’t recall this in the
morning, but he did feel terrible about breaking the tent and repeatedly
refused to take any money for it whatsoever.

They packed up and drove home to their other five tents, and I packed up my
1 new one and strapped it to my pack. That evening, after a long hike, I
unrolled it to assess the damage. With superglue, waterproof gauze tape,
a sewing kit, and a little Yankee ingenuity (all things I had with me �
hooray for being a techie!), I had it fixed and set up in under an hour.
It was a breezy evening, so the faintly lingering scent of Amber and
Larsen faded about two hours after that.

With the practice of the next few days, I could set it up alone and
without rushing, in 15 minutes. It had enough room inside to sit up
comfortably and it easily held all my gear. Its vestibule was the
perfect place for my boots and food, and I would sit there writing and
cooking my meals when the midges and flies weren’t too bad. One night
when I had to pitch it on gravel in the rain, I looped the guy lines
around small piles of rocks dug into the grit in place of stakes.
Another night, in a forest, I pitched it on the triangle of level ground
defined by the small, straight drainage ruts that merged in front of a
hospitable young pine tree that kept both strong wind and light rain
from spoiling my sleep. My new tent could comfortably sleep 1 or 2, and
its mesh was fine enough to keep out all bugs that tried to get in. A
protected vent at its apex kept condensation to a minimum without
letting in any rain. I don’t know exactly when I began referring to the
combination of this tent and my backpack as “home”, but the shift
happened so fully and naturally that I could use the term in no other
way until a couple weeks later when it was time to turn south and begin
the end of the trip.

Now back in Massachusetts, I am still wondering if
the experience of “home” having been so portable will fully wash away,
or if it has permanently changed me. I do know that I want to experience
the feeling again and take another trip as a snail – with my home on my
back. In the meantime, I have my wonderful new tent, now on its third
owner. I’d like to say that I got it for a song, but really, it cost me
three.

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