Life in the Midden
Shaken after an unexpected break in my marriage in 2016, I decided to traverse the United Kingdom, north to south, on my bicycle. I was inspired after reading about Frances Willard, an early reformer who learned to ride a bike at age 53. It was Frances who popularized the motto: ‘Do everything.’ I took these words to heart by setting off solo from John O’Groats to Land’s End. Along the way I encountered headwinds, roundabouts, and the loneliness of long-distance cycling.
It is near sunset and it has been raining all day. The word ‘rain’ is too broad. I’ve heard the Scottish have as many names for liquid precipitation as the Inuit have for snow. The day has been all over the dial of wetness, ranging from drizzle to misty fog, to scattered showers to sudden downpour. As a reader of English literature, the phrase “dying from the damp” comes to mind, likely some poor Dickens’s character, a wayfaring orphan, Oliver Twist’s mother.
The damp has seeped into my soul, through the goosebumps on my forearms, through my colourless wrinkled toes. But, for now, I’ve shed my soaked tights and spongy wool socks. I’m dry sitting in the door of my tent watching the sun go down, a blaze of poppy-orange and mauve watercolouring the sky above a hillside where sheep graze.
I feel as if I’ve climbed inside a serene Turner landscape painting as I rest in the Scottish countryside—except the day has been fraught with self-doubt, short, steep climbs—more walking than riding the bike. This is not what I imagined before setting out on a solo ride from the top to the bottom of the United Kingdom or what the locals call an End to End.
More like an End to End Her. Me, a middle-aged frumpy housewife trying to find herself at the end of her marriage.
But, I’m getting ahead of myself. I’m at the beginning of a bike trip that will ultimately take me 20 days and 1,099 miles from John O’Groats to Land’s End, north to south, down the spine of the isle, from Scotland, through Wales and England to Cornwall. My tent is pitched behind a pub off the side of a road that borders Loch Ness.
The tea in my thermos is still warm, little wisps of steam waft up. For now, the wind has stopped whipping my coffin-size tent. I’m a city-girl from Chicago—not Chicago-ish, but the true inner-city complete with gun shots, muggings, and police helicopters whirling overhead. As I watch sheep—I guess they’re sheep—dip their heads to chew and eat, bleat and baaa, and shuffle their feet, hooves, I wonder: How did I get here?
Of course, I know how I got here. By bike. By pedalling using my own two legs. With great effort. But how—what brought me to this place, this moment, this fulcrum, or what T.S. Eliot in the Four Quartets calls ‘a still point’? The universal dance.
Watching the sun douse itself in deep reds and purples before subsiding into the west, I remember a recent news article that explained the science behind Turner’s vivid skies: disaster. A cataclysmic volcanic eruption of poisonous gases that killed tens of thousands produced otherworldly sunsets.
That’s me I think, on the brink of change, hoping to wring beauty from pain.
My tea has grown cold and I toss the dregs before screwing the cup back on the thermos. It has begun to rain, again.
At the hostel in Oban, I heard a weather report that sounded ominous. Gale-force winds. Word was that the ferries that would take Alex, a fellow cyclist whom I met the day before on the road, to the Outer Hebrides were not running. The next morning, I quietly gathered my things while Alex slept.
After yanking my bike out of a tangle of other bikes in a store room, I climbed aboard my rig and headed south, hoping to catch a ferry to the island of Arran and then over to Ayr—if the weather held. A big if.
Sometime in the afternoon the winds picked up and I found myself pedalling hard, standing on the downstroke—stock still. The wind whipped a piece off my helmet. I quickly checked my phone and maps to redirect.
There was a campground at Lochgilphead—if I could get there. Another big if.
Luckily, I found it and was able to call the proprietor who came out of his house to show me a flat piece of ground in a boggy field, where my tent would be fully exposed to the winds. Then, as if reading my mind, he walked me over to a stable, where I might set up. I was about to release my bungees on the back of the bike. But, wait! He then unlocked a caravan parked next to the shower house and said I could stay there. I burst into tears of relief.
The little RV wasn’t connected to water or electricity, yet it was more than a hollow shell. There was a couch and a little table where I could spread out my stuff. For the next couple of days, it would be my refuge from the storm.
The next day I awoke to fierce winds whipping up the narrow loch slip to a frothy brew. When I opened the little aluminium door, it flew out of my hands and slapped the side of the trailer. I ran across the grounds to the bath/toilet house. Even within the cement block walls I could hear the wind whooshing.
At the shower house I met a woman who had recently retired. She was staying at the campgrounds while volunteering at a Bronze Age dig at the Kilmartin Dig. I’d passed signs for it on the way to a café stop at the museum.
It occurred to me that I hadn’t been spending much time just hanging out with locals, hearing their stories. Of course not, I was always on my bike or else collapsed in my tent.
Anyway, I asked the woman to tell me about Kilmartin, to tell me what I had missed.
Growing up in Ohio, I’d ridden my bike to Fort Ancient, the name given to grave mounds that had been robbed of the bodies and artefacts of Native peoples. At Kilmartin there was something similar called cairns that were being excavated. Maggie went on to tell me there were also standing stones.
I’d seen stone circles in Sweden and Ireland, where ancient tribes oriented themselves within the bigger cosmos. I’m sure they had a much better grasp of where they were from and where they were going than I.
I asked her about buried treasure. It was slow going, she told me. Much like writing, much like cycling, I reckoned. There are bright spots, nuggets in the midst of detritus. Always the biggest bonanza involves garbage: midden piles, the refuse, it is there that archaeologists discover how a society was organized, how it worked, what was important, what they threw out. It is in digging through the ordinary that one often finds a gem.
Good words for living, I thought.
Battling the winds back to the lonely caravan, I recalled I had little food. I would need to face the elements once again.
I donned rain pants and a rain jacket and struggled forward. Flags and pennants stood out straight from poles. Awnings over doorways ballooned. I passed a library and went in. I needed a book since I’d finished reading the one I’d brought and left at the hostel. The library had a second-hand prose section, books for sale by the Friends of the Library.
There I bought a copy of Wuthering Heights—a more convoluted love story has never been written. Yet, it harkened back to my early twenties when I deemed it the most romantic book I’d ever read. Everlasting love, love that spoke over the centuries, that defied the dead, the separation of this earth from the next. The idea of two hearts beating as one, a soul mate.
I was never one to fall for that kind of purple language when describing love, but, at the same time, I secretly wished it were true. I wanted a love that would last forever, that wouldn’t be corrupted by death or time. I bought the book because I hoped there was some way to go back, to find amidst the garbage and trash, something to hang on to.
Leaving the library, I held the door for a woman right out of Scottish casting. She wore a waterproof Mackintosh with a matching brim hat tied under her chin and she was pushing one of those little personal shopping carts.
‘Whew!’ She paused, to shake off in the doorway. ‘I needed the trolley today so’s not to blow away!’
I smiled in agreement before going on my way.
I next stopped at a thrift store to buy another ‘wee’ sack for food. Even here in Lochgilphead, I wasn’t far from pop culture. In the midden piles of linen dresser covers, lace tablecloths, plated tea spoons, little china creamers, souvenir Jubilee plates, I found a Backstreet Boys insulated lunch bag.
Now all I needed was food. I found a Co-op where I restocked my store of cheese and bread, cookies, and crackers. On the way back to the caravan park was an Indian Takeaway. Curried fried rice sounded good on such a raw day. I told the kid taking my order that I’d cycled here. ‘Why?’, he’d wanted to know.
In the big picture, I wasn’t doing anything too out of the normal. Visiting the library, thrift storing, shopping for groceries, getting takeout. I could have done all this without leaving home. But here I was in wind-swept Lochgilphead, walking through a prism. Each facet of the experience slightly different, taking on new colours, a new slant. I realized this is what it means to travel, to take time and not just pedal the miles, but to live in the midden. The mess.
Back at the caravan park I ran into Philip, the proprietor. He asked me how things were going and I waved my bag of takeaway at him and smiled.
He told me the Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton had fainted after a 9/11 commemoration. I’d been so far away from the news that hearing this made me want to fall down. Suddenly there is no such thing as gravity, a way to be held up. I feel as if I am in the middle of an ever-widening, ever-maddening gyre. According to the poet Yeats, ‘the centre cannot hold’. The world seems to be bending toward some kind of fiery sunset. After weeks away from the political mayhem in America, I am thrust back into the current political reality. More and more the run up to the election felt like an episode of the Jerry Springer Show, combative daytime TV.
How did we end up here? I wondered.
As a kid I saw the hand of God in nature, in the fluttered, fluid murmuration of starlings over a field, in the night song of crickets caught in the cracks of the patio, in the winking black-eyed Susans, butterflies dancing above the heads of wildflowers beside the road. The Divine was everywhere, in holding a door for the next person, a baby’s smile, poetry, forgiveness.
I was having a hard time reconciling the church of Lock Her Up and Build the Wall, messages of hatred and othering, with the Sermon on the Mount, the Gospel, the Golden Rule, ‘the greatest of these is love.’
What happened to compassion?
It all seemed upside-down. Had I been hoodwinked? Or, like, my father thought: Had I wasted my life?
I wasn’t quite ready to give up, but I had to find a way to navigate what lay ahead. AQ