YYou learn things about your friends on a seven-day bike tour across the Scottish Highlands. You learn that your friend Sandy has a deep and heartfelt love for his homeland, for its feature-film-worthy landscape (“Crap scenery, eh?” he likes to joke), and its cultural eccentricities.
You learn this because as you push your bag-laden bike up a 20-plus-per-cent dirt grade, you’re kind of cursing Sandy.
At a grocery store in →ort William, anticipating a flat, easy day ahead, Sandy had stocked up on Scottish junk food: jars of Branston Pickle, fruit shortbread and fig roll biscuits, bags of dry-roasted nuts, midget gummies, Irn-Bru (the →anta of Scotland), and packets of ‘crisps’. We’d divided the guilty pleasures among our panniers, and now we’re literally bearing the weight of Sandy’s affection for Scotland.
Yet for as much as Sandy identifies as Scottish, he cannot live in this country. He grew up in a former mining town outside of Glasgow in the 1980s. When the Scottish steel plants began to fail and local industry tanked, adolescent gangs flourished. Kids like him, who differed from the norm because they rode BMXs and listened to punk music, became easy targets. He visited the US for the first time after thugs smashed a bottle over his head. After he was stabbed, he left Scotland for good.
Other things you learn, you learn about your friend Nick, who has to stop during your tour to take medicine, because he sometimes suffers from dizzy spells; because, you learn, he has a cancerous 5cm tumour inside his skull. It affects his memory, too. But he does remember when doctors drilled a hole in his skull to examine and biopsy the tumour, and then told him that because of its location near sensitive areas of his brain, they would not be able to remove it.
Nick is perhaps the strongest member in our group, and midway through our trudge up this hill, he throws a leg over his bike, and – with an animal howl – begins hammering up the wall-like gradient.
We learn soon into our trip that Dean is the weakest rider in the group, and we are okay with that because Dean is okay with that. In his post-BMX life he’d run marathons and achieved other feats of endurance, but over the last year he’d done little more than bikecommute a few kays to town and back. When Sandy invited him on the trip, he almost declined. But two weeks before we left he thought, You know what? No kids. No boss. I’ve set up my life for adventure like this. I’m in.
He wills himself along, welcoming a push to reach the top of a long climb or a bit of amateur physio treatment on his aching knee, and proves that the mind is indeed more powerful than the body.
After an hour of huffing and heaving to the crest of the hill, we descend into an uninhabited valley, where someone points excitedly at the Glenbuck Bothy, a two-story structure draped in golden light.