Days 56 - Finish

Day 56

Incredibly, a second day of favourable winds, so smiles all round.
Set off in sunshine, bound for Durness, not much more than 30 miles away. There was an opportunity to take the road (much) less well travelled, so I took it.
The road to Foindle was as single a single track as it's possible to get, and like the rails of a wooden rollercoaster, bucked and twisted through and over the ribs, ridges and drumlins of Assynt which, as we've previously discussed, is an old Viking expression of surprise and frustration with the topography. Foindle itself was much less of a place than an idea, a hiding place for tiny sheds, scrap metal and all the short, steep hills and orphaned bits of road that had lost their triangular gradient warning signs, their badges of office. It was a siding, but one which afforded sneaked views of Ben Stack, glimpsed between the rock gardens and across tiny brackish lochans.
The road to Durness fell as steadidly as it had risen, and with the tailwind the long downhill afforded me a 37mph freewheel, careless and effortless, into the town.
A tiny heart-stopping moment as a near invisible sheep took an unannounced detour across the road. I missed it by inches, but it sharpened my concentration and broke the spell. I pedalled into Durness, feeling lucky.
I ambled across the dunes of the campsite, rattling and rattled, and saw a familiar figure ahead of me. Daz had taken the direct route, and had arrived just minutes before me. We wheeled down to a flat pitch with clifftop views over a tiny secluded beach, and set up camp, Daz pausing for a brew and a smoke and I stopped for chocolate milk.
I decided to investigate the village further, so I went for a cuppa to the White Heather café. It was straight out of 1962, with blue gingham tablecloths disguising an ad hoc collection of furniture, several table lamps of no discernable function and a collectors item of a cake/snack display screen, with widely spaced tins of pop and chocolate bars illustrating the fare on offer. There was a Beatles poster on the wall, presumably in honour of the village's  - and, who knows, maybe the cafe's - connection with John Lennon.
Tea was 90p, and was delivered wordlessly by the owner. I didn't take it personally, as she didn't appear to be the speaking type when confronted with other, more lucrative, orders from othe guests. Their cans of pop, hot chocolate and beans on toast were also delivered without either ceremony or unneccesary human contact.
Service not included has a whole new meaning...
The village actually has a John Lennon memorial, next to the village hall. It's sort of halfway between a sculpture and a mobile, being an upended metal squid-type-thing with glass balls on the ends of the tentacles, and it wobbled and quivered in the wind, which seems to be in plentiful supply in these parts. Not really my cup of tea, but you may like it or perhaps understand better what it's supposed to represent.
Not wishing to buck the local trend of eccetricity, I took my bicycle into Smoo Cave. It was a very impressive structure, and the short guided tour given by a stout, bearded man with a strong local accent and a good grasp on many foreign languages was interesting and entertaining.
Met a couple of students who were riding a 2000 mile route round Scotland's extremities. They warned me about eating in the 'wierd' pub in Melvich. Hmmm, we'll see...
Back at the campsite, Graham had now arrived. He'd been to Sandwood Bay, and was disappointed.
I went for a wander on the beach, shooting the incoming tide and the daggers of basalt, and then filled my belly with pie and beer before sitting down to witness an almost completely circular double rainbow.

Day 57

The tailwinds disappeared today, and made the 40 mile journey to Bettyhill a long old slog. Fortunately, the sun was out and the scenery was possibly the most amazing anywhere in Scotland.
Past beaches which, in Cornwall, would have been stuffed with haphazard weekend surfers, screaming children and litter, here deserted and pristine, golden sands and white pebbles, crystal turquoise waters lapping at the shore.
If it took all day to ride to Bettyhill, it wouldn't be so bad, would it?
Tea stop with Anzac biscuit on the banks of Loch Eribol, and a long haul up A' Mhoine, a windswept lunar landscape standing between me and Tongue.
I've run out of superlatives for describing the north coast of Scotland, so I'm not even going to bother.
I was running out of motivation for the ride too, and was mostly keeping my head down, trying to make progress against the headwind and humming tunes to myself to keep my spirits up. I would have loved to be able to tell you - honestly - about the spiritual, clean, stark beauty of the mountains, but I can't. Today was not about beauty, today was about endurance and perseverence when all the motivation is disappearing and all you can think of is going home.  Yes, it WAS beautiful, and I did stop to take photographs and admire the views, but I had to carry on, and I had to choose between just getting it done and just resting. I couldn't do both properly.
At day's end, I pitched my tent and settled for chocolate milk and a Magnum on Farr beach. It felt like a holiday, at last.
Baack at the campsite, Daz had caught up and was pitching next to me. Also present was a man known, in mountain marathon circles - so he said - as "The Rustler", because everything he had was in plastic bags, and his mate, Mr Tupperware, who tended not to speak; there was no need, as The Rustler was happy to speak for him. The Rustler used the same tent as me, and was keen to share tips on how to make it even lighter. In fact, he could tell you the weight of any piece of kit and how to make it lighter. He could tell you most things, if you let him.
Surely, Graham from Oz must be about to turn up? Oh yes, here he is...

Day 58

Daz had mentioned that this was the day the hills disappeared, and I was looking forward to that.
I shook his hand and thanked him for being a top bloke and camping mate, as he was only going to ride as far as Melvich before heading to his parents house at Wick. I had enjoyed listening to his stories of gipsy drinking benders, mad 12-hour shifts and reckless driving, and admired him for taking a hard look at himself in his 30s and deciding to change his life, determined to be a good parent and to give his daughter choices and points of view that he didn't have as a child.
Sadly, the hills didn't quite fizzle out until much closer to Thurso, and even when they did, they were just replaced by - yup, you guessed it - headwinds and rain.
Melvich was the site of my first - no, only - tea stop. The pub was the one the lads from Smoo cave 'warned' me about, but I found it to be exactly what a 1970s English boozer should be, complete with Frank Butcher replica landlord, sarcastic notices in the gents', and a 'proper' bar tarrif spelt out on a peg board. I liked it, it was the perfect antidote to millions of identikit chain pubs with handbook-trained mangers straight from university.
Wind and rain and the partially decomissioned Dounereay nuclear research establishment. No tourist facilities here, so I took a breather in a bus shelter before the last push to Thurso, which was full.
I hunted for a place to stay and found a b+b in town. Very cheap, and rather shabby, much like most of the smelly dives I ingabited as a student. I didn't mind though, and after my chinese restaurant outing (enter The Rustler and his silent sidekick) I settled down for a long, deep sleep...

Day 59

Today I am a day ahead of schedule. Two, if truth be known, as I could have ridden to John O'Groats yesterday. However, a day spent at John O'Groats is a day wasted, so I decided to take a day trip to orkney instead. Fortunately, the weather was kind to me as I stepped out of the  B+B, skipping breakfast, and pedalled the mile or two to the ferry at Scrabster.
Scrabster is defined, in Douglas Adams' book "The meaning of Liff" as a small, aggressive dog.
For this reason alone I doubt that Douglas Adams had ever visited the place, as it had considerably less to say for itself than a small dog of any manufacture, let alone a feisty, postman's bum-biting terrier.
Three sailings a day, a couple of pubs (one of which was 'done up' and doing it's best to look like it had been placed there by accident) and a small tank farm where smoking was, naturally, prohibited but far from unheard of.*
On the boat I was instantly befriended by Malcolm, a lad from Bristol who was spending 3 years' summer vacations drinking tea in every one of the UKs 92 counties, travelling only by foot or public transport. I had to conceded that, faced with such a degree of pointless dedication, I was outclassed in the eccentricity game. I shook his hand and he, quite naturally, bought me a cup of tea.
We sat and chatted some more and were joined by Big Eric, a retired bigot from Newcastle. He had plenty to say for himself and was clearly not stupid in many respects, but I doubt his overtly racist marks will win him many dinner invitations.
In any case, whilst we were helping Malcolm drink his first cuppa in Orkney, he was well behaved. I was rewarded for my early brekkie sacrifice with a Full Scottish and a cup of tea (again!) before heading off to the 5000 year old tourist magnet of Skarra Brae.
On the way, I stopped and chatted to the island's most laid back tourist (not too difficult, as most were in large gangs, winding each other up, and were mainly Italians high on ScotsMarketing, coffee, tartan fumes and whisky, or Canadians excited to be exploring their homeland), Chris from Shetland. He was fishing for trout in a generally half-hearted sort of way while his wife went for a bike ride, but was excited - it's relative - to be down south, which was also relative.
After a short discussion on the flavour of Atlantic Char ("It was very tasty but you're supposed to put them back, I found out after...") I let him get on and tootled along to the very tasteful and polite coach, wallet and bladder emptying centre at Skarra Brae, where I switched to B+W and photographed a coachload of gawping north Americans. I think it was the first time on the whole trip that I'd been to a tourist 'attraction', and I'd used it to look at the people rather than the site. Well, you would, wouldn't you?
With there being only three sailings a day, I had little time to hang about, so I more-or-less hurried back to Stromness where I found Orkney fudge ice cream and Malcolm and Eric.
They had been joined by Ryan from Warrington, who Malcolm had met previously in Shetland, (before he'd run into, and been abducted by, Eric). They were enjoying a little Orcadian sunbathing before Eric decided to take a trip down Jim Davidson and Mike Reid's comedy boulevard of shame, at which point I decided that I'd rather queue for the boat in shade, next to a line of articulated lorries than listen to his filth. Ryan soon joined me, and I spent most of the return journey swapping cycling tales with him.
*100% fact. Obviously.

Day 60

The end.
No more sunshine.
No more carefree miles, and no will to step out into the piss and whistling that had descend on Caithness and cycle the last, seemingly pointless, 20 miles to John O'F***ing Groats. Aas soon as I got there, I'd be an end-to-ender: part of a club; another long vacation worthy bore. Sometimes I just hate cyclists. I wanted to finish my journey, but as far as I was concerned, the bike ride was just the start of something much bigger, and if I didn't have to, there was no way I was going to ride to the mile post at JoG, and mug for the camera like a self-satisfied wanker. In any case, it was raining, and I'd had enough of that too.
Popped to the Co-Op for a bottle of pop to celebrate the ride's end, and slid into the soft, grey easterlies like the world's grumpiest salmon, heading upstream to his inevitable end.
Pedalled hard against the wind, but with no real conviction. I didn't want to arrive early, as it's a miserable hole of a place, and I didn't really want to go there at all but, equally, I didn't fancy hanging about in the rain in this empty and featureless corner of Scotland, the draught excluder of the British isles. My progress was, however many times I stopped and hid in bus shelters, worryingly brisk. I was travelling as quickly as I could, which was a leg-burning struggle against the wind, and loitering as often as there were places to loiter, but even at sub 10mph pace, I was still in danger of arriving before lunch time.
This MUST be what purgatory feels like. My language on the bike was turning the air blue and probably soured the milk at every farm I passed, such was my frustration. What a hateful morning.
Yes, I should have been happy, but it was a long, uncomfortable struggle to the most anticlimactic place on earth.
I arrived at the post office and got my map stamped and then, partly out of habit (as I still had plenty of supplies and no need of them) and mostly as a excuse to get dry and stay warm, I bought food and hung about in the post office until I could postpone the inevitable no longer, and had to step outside again and ride to my b+b.
I didn't ride to the finishing post, so I guess i'm still not a 'proper' end-to-ender.
And then, something very unusual happened, something that just about sums up my relationship with Scotland...
One of the locals who had also been hiding from the weather inside the post office, under the pretence of a conversation with her friend about their children, wound down the car window and offered me a lift to wherever I was going.
Well, not so much offered as insisted, and after hearing my protestations that I wasn't really going far, would have the wind behind me, and had lots of luggage, far too much to fit into her car... Gor out, flipped the seats down and more-or-less insisted that I let her drive me to my b+b.
Wilma, as it turned out, was some type of nuclear technician and had trained at Dounereay before moving to England to work at Harwell, near Oxford... Yes, at the very tip of Scotland I was discussing my home town with a local and having an impromptu free taxi ride. Wilma had only popped out for soup and bread for lunch for her and the kids, but now it seemed she was willing to share even that with me.
I was touched. Really. Ok, I know that not everyone in Scotland is that kind, hospiable or generous, but I can't help thinking that it would never happen in the south of England.
After all my cursing and seething against the featureless and weather-washed bleakness of Caithness, I could begin to see at least a little of why foreigners - mainly the English - moved here. If - when - the sun came out, the views of Orkney were also stunning, I was told.
Well, I didn't have to wait too long to find out...
The ride may have been over, but I felt that my journey was just beginning.