Monday, June 1, 2015

Truck June 2015: Essay by Shawn Smucker

One fall night, just as the sun sank into a sea of brown leaves, we heard my 4-year-old son screaming somewhere in the woods. Sam’s cries were urgent and panic-stricken, those of a child in trouble.

First I should tell you that before we moved into the city last year we lived in the middle of a forty-acre wood, in the southernmost tip of Lancaster County. When we drove home and came around the second-to-last hill, the sky was low and the fields split by large rocks. It felt like we were ascending some holy mountain, some distant place few mortals dared to visit. That house was far away from everything. It took us ten minutes just to drive the lane to the house.

Sometimes, in early spring or late fall, our two youngest children wandered outside, into the trees. Abra was five and Sam was four, and my wife and I kept track of them from the kitchen window as they stumbled through the undergrowth, swinging sticks like swords. We only asked that they wear bright clothing and keep the house in sight. They moved through the drab trees like two bright kites on a day when the wind comes in close dashes, then stops, then flares up again.

We had been having a dinner party on the deck when we first heard Sam scream, and those of us close to the edge raced into the woods, crashing through the underbrush. The other kids shouted for us to come, but when we got to where they were playing, he wasn’t there. His voice was still some ways off.

I ran down a small path, the tiny branches cutting at my face. You think of the worst possible scenario in those moments. You wonder if this will be one of those days that completely change the trajectory of your life.

There he was, barefoot, sitting on a rock, screaming, tears lining his face.

“Sam?” I asked, out of breath. “What’s wrong?”

He pointed at his feet and screamed again. He had wandered into a small patch of stinging nettles, and he didn’t have any shoes on. Of course he didn’t. He rarely did. Small red blotches started to emerge on his feet and ankles and the backs of his legs. I picked him up, cradled him against me, and carried him back through the forest, back through the undergrowth, trying not to stumble.

Back at the house we put cold cloths on his feet and held his hand. We told him it would be okay and we soaked up the huge tears. He looked uncertain. He looked betrayed. It was the first time in his life he had been so hurt by a plant, and I think the realization that tender green things can cause so much pain confused him. Before it had been only dinosaurs or mean-looking insects. If this, then what? Could clouds injure him? Could the very air he breathed turn on him?

What is this world, so full of unexpected pain?


We live in the city now. We walk to St. James Episcopal Church on Sundays, and sometimes my older son and I walk to the park in the morning when the sun is just coming up over the buildings, casting fresh shadows down the alleys.

There are no stinging nettles growing up through the cracked sidewalks.

Our backyard is small and fenced in and inhabited by semi-wild cats that roam the neighborhood. Beyond our yard is a narrow alley where they live their life, yowling and fighting and moving here and there like shadows. Beyond that, a broken building rises up over an empty lot. It smiles down on us through shattered teeth.

On a whim, I bought seeds and turned the backyard over by hand, with only a shovel. The kids helped me rake it smooth, and then my oldest son, the one who goes to the park with me in the early mornings, took a small spade and made lines, shallow furrows. He counted out the seeds, one at a time, while his sisters cleaned a different bed, while his brothers clowned around on the back patio.

Leo was not alive when we lived on the forty acres. He is only nine months old, and if we do not move, he will know nothing besides this busy street in front of our house, this broken building, this stinging nettle-less landscape. We protected his older siblings from bees and falling-down trees – we protect him from broken glass and the screaming of sirens.

“Dad, what’s this?”

My daughter found a crack pipe there in the dirt while we prepared the garden. The stem was shattered, the bulb round and full of mud. It was as unexpected as Sam’s stinging nettles. We talked about it with the kids, what it was for, what it meant (as much as any of can explain the meaning of these things, this life, this pain).

There are unexpected things everywhere, I suppose, pain and hurt and other things the children will stumble upon at some point. But we go on planting, we go on letting them search, watching them find. It’s the only way to live a life. The pain is there, and the things that hint at pain, but there are also seeds, just below the surface, dying a death that brings unexpected life.


Shawn Smucker is the author of numerous nonfiction books, including Building a Life Out of Words, How to Use a Runaway Truck Ramp, and Refuse to Drown. His first novel, The Day the Angels Fell, was published in late 2014. He lives with his wife and five children in the city of Lancaster, Pennsylvania. You can find him online at

Truck June 2015: Poem by Andrew Demcak, "Ornithological"


Altruistic light falls everywhere now.
Glassy-eyed before the dusty cases,

our historian indexes his finch,
his altricial crow.  Syntax of labor,

sifting all, the small auditor tagging
the endless shapes of feathers.  Loosening

ideas of flight, like the cloth tails of kites.

Andrew Demcak is an award-winning poet and novelist whose work has been widely published and anthologized both in print and online, and whose books have been featured by the American Library Association, Verse Daily, The Lambda Literary Foundation, the Best American Poetry blog, The Nervous Breakdown, and Poets/Artists. His forthcoming teen GLTBQ science-fiction coming-out novel, A Little Bit Langston, will be published by Harmony Ink Press in 2015. 

Truck June 2015: Three Poems by Gwyn McVay

The Grey-Streaked Hare

thumping hard against my fingers
your furry heart beats with my need
you sense it — do you not —

perhaps you are frightened
I hold the beastie to my breast
O, know you are safe —

you and your fast heart — within mine
such body heat — salty and constant


All You Have To Do

You can pose but you don't have to pose
You can play your instrument or just sit
by the river with me and listen to that
You can toast me with your fizzing soda
or sip it quietly and just smile
You can tell me a story or just lie
next to me, I'll guard your dreams
You can do cartwheels, you can just be
the musclebound pony I saw striding
smooth as beach rock under a load
of all you possess and all you need own

If I have an orange you have half an orange
If I draw breath you have all my heart


The Butterfly Effect

the roughest bastard,
born in a bear's den, will let
a butterfly sit

in the crook of his elbow,
watching its slightest beat


Gwyn McVay is the author of two chapbooks of poems and one full-length collection, Ordinary Beans (Pecan Grove Press). She has published poems and reviews in more than sixty periodicals and in three anthologies, most recently Letters to the World (Red Hen Press). She lives in southeastern Pennsylvania, where she teaches writing at Millersville University; three of her poems are in this year's volume of the university's literary magazine, George Street Carnival

Truck June 2015: Eight Tanka by Maxianne Berger

summer string

broken sign

amid the garden debris
as if I’d become
some wizened elder

under the sunhat

unruly silver curls 
remarry! I’d 
want some old man
farting in my bed?


simply friends

walking through the woods
in this green canopy
filtered light is intimate


passed back and forth
observation hut
watching gannets court 
amidst lovers' graffiti

jut of rocks

overlooking the river
we feel it
the thrill of that
very first whale

too hot

to climb a mountain
slippery moss
along the scenic trail
the back of his shoes


is this enough?

I watch him stand
in a tidepool
watching a heron
watching for fish

vows exchanged

under a tall spruce
so many years
in the boreal forest
a private altar


Maxianne Berger, poet and literary translator, is active in both the French and the English haiku and tanka communities in Montreal and beyond.  Her writing meanders between the minimalism of Japanese forms and the unpremeditated outcomes of OuLiPo-style constraints. She is among those featured in Language Matters: Interviews with 22 Quebec Poets (Souaid & Farkas, eds; Signature, 2013). She has co-edited three anthologies -- one of haiku, in English, and two of tanka, in French, and now co-edits Cirrus: tankas de nos jours. After two books of lyric poetry, her most recent book is a dual-language tanka collection, un renard roux / a red fox (petits nuages, 2014). 

Truck 2015: Essay by James Johnston, "A West Coast Triumph in Scotland"

A West Coast Tri­­umph in Scotland: One man’s journey round Scotland on his Triumph motorbike

I guess you could say my fascination with motorbikes or old motorbikes, to be more precise, started when I was a young lad growing up outside of Glasgow. There were a bunch of older lads who had embraced the rocker lifestyle, and I would stare at them in wonder as they lurked around in their battered leather jackets, oil-stained jeans, long unkempt hair and beards that just looked, well, to a young pre-pubescent boy, godlike!

I remember plucking up the courage one day to spit out some words as one of these leather-clad layabouts walked past me: “Hey! You ride a motorbike, don’t you?”

He turned to me and in a lazy but cool manner said, “Triumph, wee man, only the best.”

I was starstruck. Triumph, what a name! I mean, it sounded so cool, so victorious and so final. It’s safe to say from that moment on I was bitten by the motorcycle bug, the Triumph motorcycle bug.

Years would roll on past before I finally got my bike license and became a proud biker myself. But I had never forgotten about these glorious machines. In fact I had been reading about them, studying them and hanging out with crazy old bikers who would routinely top up my fantasies with stories of the good old days where there were very few traffic lights to slow you down, when chasing the “ton” was the weekend excitement and camping out with your trusty steed was why summers were created. It was these stories that fueled my imagination and my desire to get my ticket and one day become a biker.

That day came while on the road touring with my band in America. I bought my first bike, a 1979 Triumph Bonneville. 750 ccs of pure fun. I still have her and she is still my number one love, but I needed a bike for Scotland, my home.

Scotland is the place of grand mountains, sweeping loch-side roads and winding passes that guide you through ancient glens. Scotland is a country with over 6000 miles of coastline to explore. I needed to go on this journey that had been simmering in my head since those days of my childhood. I could still hear the words “Triumph, wee man, only the best” calling to me.

It so happened on my return home from touring that Mick, my producer and friend, was settling down with another child. He decided that roaring around on his bike was better left alone now. He had in his possession a beautiful three-cylinder Triumph Adventurer 900 cc with burnt orange paint work that just spoke to me. It reminded me of the setting sun. “Jamesie, you still interested in this Triumph?  She’s having troubles firing up, but yours if you want her.”

The same day I was up in his barn, the two of us trying to figure out what was wrong with his beast. She still wouldn’t start, but I didn’t care that she wouldn’t roar for me. I knew that she was coming home with me and that together she and I would sort out her problems and it would be the start of something special.

I did my homework and found out what was wrong. I tinkered and tinkered, then called in some help, and with minimal cash spent “Rosie” was alive and purring. Mick had removed the stock mufflers and replaced them with stubby chrome straight-throughs. Let me tell you, when I thundered out of my Mum’s driveway to give her a proper test run, I thought I was riding at the front of a fleet of B-52 bombers!

What a noise! What a grumble, a rumble and a roar! I felt ten feet tall as I sped through the neighborhood streets. I could feel the eyes of the neighbors on me as they tried to figure out what was causing their windows to vibrate.

My best mate Dave “Freddie” Fraser, a lifelong biker himself, was excited at the thought of the adventures that lay before us. Road trips, Saturday blasts, and those long-dreamt-of camping trips up the north of Scotland were finally going to happen.

After a few weekend rides had passed, we decided it was time to go on a week-long camping trip round the motherland. This would start from Glasgow, take in the west-coast highlands, and then move across the wild northern coastline before dropping down the east coast and slicing into the heartlands and back to Glasgow. The route had been planned, campsites had been booked, and now all we had to do was saddle up and hope the weather was going to be kind to us. Right! It is Scotland, remember?

We took off on a Saturday morning in typical miserable weekend weather, smirry[1] rain. When you’re riding into it you don’t have a chance of staying remotely dry. Determined not to be put off, we charged up the west side of Loch Lomond. Even though we were not able to see the sights through the gloomy grey, we were still excited at the road ahead.

Our first stop was at the small highland town of Inveraray, home of the Duke of Argyll himself. On this day, I reckoned the duke would have been snuggled up next to his log fire with his trusty deerhounds at his feet, with no need to survey his lands in the dreary weather.

Despite the rain and cold the town was still busy. Weekenders out for a run in the car were now trying to find an empty seat in one of the few cafes: a place to shrug off their damp coats and enjoy a brew, maybe a cake and a chin wag, or sit in that familiar couples’ silence and listen to the hearty din of others hard at the yacking.
We too looked for those elusive spare seats and came up short. Instead we had to stand outside and cup our warm teas in our cold hands, staring grimly at the dull waves of sheet rain coming steadily in from Loch Fyne. It was decided then that we would cut our day short and head straight for the youth hostel at Glencoe.  Camping didn’t cut it now as we were soaking wet. A warm shower and hot food were all that we wanted.

Our arrival was greeted with sympathy from an English lady who ran the place. Oddly you’ll find that most hostels in Scotland are run by English people, a strange fact discovered when you tour this land. We unrolled our sleeping bags and took a hot shower. It’s amazing the wonders of a warm shower. Indeed, things did not seem as bad.

After a good munch and a few cold beers we decided that we would crack on tomorrow up to Applecross and begin our journey into the more remote parts of northwest Scotland, a biker’s paradise.

Sunday I woke to Freddie’s snoring and a deserted dorm, I suspect due to his snoring. I crawled out of my warm cocoon and dared to look out of the window. Grey! Grey sheets of rain lashing everything in sight with no mercy; my heart sank. I awoke Sleeping Beauty and bummed some coffee from a happy-go-lucky mountain climber who was up celebrating his birthday weekend by himself, seemingly undaunted by the horrid conditions outside.

Grateful for the brew, we stood at the door in silence, looking across at our bikes, both thinking the same thing but not wanting to say it. The trip was over. Neither of us had the want nor drive to carry on up the coast, for the weather was not to change. The eternal grey gloom and lashing rain was to reign supreme in the highlands this Sunday. At last I spoke up: “Home, Freddie, screw this!”
We fueled the bikes up and headed south for home. Rosie had handled the ride in the rain beautifully, gliding through the waterlogged roads without a problem. She had been a joy to ride and it irked me that I had to cut short this adventure.

We rode down through Glen Falloch, in what can only be described as Poseidon’s fury, as we got slammed by torrential rain and gusting winds. On passing Loch Lomond for the second time in as many days, I shuddered at the thought of falling into those icy, choppy waters. White horses on the loch’s surface seemed to want to race me, putting me in a trance. The rain soon slapped me out of it. Before long we breached the boundaries of Glasgow and headed home defeated and broken.
I showered and ate a hot meal, bringing me back to life. I sat with my feet up feeling depressed that I was home only a day after leaving for my long-awaited ride round Scotland. What a letdown, I thought, as I gazed numbly at the TV, watching the news.

When the weather report came on, I suddenly snapped out of my gloom and paid attention to the forecaster. He was telling of a break in the weather for the next few days. I came alive as if jolted by electricity. The trip was back on! I grabbed the phone and excitedly called Freddie. “Let’s go!” he shouted.

Monday morning we were back out. We were dry, rejuvenated and cruising up through Glencoe, where the scene of our defeat had taken place just a day prior. The sun was out and the clouds were gathered in massive formations that towered over the Argyll mountain ranges. The tarmac was dry, the wind was blowing and it was an amazing day to be seeing this haunting glen. My mind wandered to thoughts of the infamous massacre and all the suffering. I wondered how such a beautiful place could harbor such sorrow.

The route to Applecross in the remote area of Sutherland, our planned stop for the night, took us up over the third highest road on mainland Britain, Bealach na Bà. Translated this means “the pass of the cattle.” Sitting at 2054 feet, it’s a single-track road that climbs from the loch side and takes you up over the mountain via a series of hairpin bends that conjure up images and thoughts of the Swiss Alps, not Scotland.

Every sense you possess is on full alert as you steer your bike up through this pass taking care not to hit loose gravel or clip the close edge, while all the time trying to take in the grand mountain flanks that enclose either side of you. I kept Rosie in low gear and let her low-end torque bite deep into the road surface; upward she pulled. Freddie and I stopped at the top to take some pictures and commented on each other’s Cheshire-cat-like grins. Both of us were buzzing with the rush of navigating that road. The ride down the other side took just as much concentration as coming up. The camber and tight turns demand your attention, for one slip would have you skidding off the road and getting up close and personal with the heather-covered moorland of the mountain top.

We rumbled into Applecross and found the youth hostel, a converted farm house set by a running river, in green fields, with highland cattle grazing a stone’s throw from the front door. We checked in and found our room. This was perfect. There is only one place to eat at night in Applecross and that’s the Inn. We had come prepared with our own food so we decided on having a wander along the river banks, taking in the peace and quiet of it all, filling our lungs with the smell of the Atlantic being brought to us by a gentle westerly wind. This place really is lost in time, I thought, as the giddy feeling I had inside began to take over. We did it! I was finally out in the wilds on my motorbike doing what I had dreamt of for years! Just me, my best mate and my Triumph surrounded by some of the most awe-inspiring scenery the world has to offer.

We slept well in the still silence that the dark brings in Applecross, and in the morning were advised that a great breakfast was to be had just down the road in a small tearoom surrounded by a Victorian walled garden. Our appetites were stimulated by the fresh country air as we blasted the few miles along the road. Once we arrived we were treated to a scrumptious breakfast indeed, surrounded in what I can only describe as a café-cum-greenhouse. I left there swearing that I would endeavor to visit this place at the height of spring or summer, when the gardens are in full bloom and a real hive of activity.

Tuesday had us ride the coastal road and divert back onto the mainland, all the time being teased with glimpses out to the Atlantic and the Hebridean Isle of Skye. We snaked our way through more mountain passes and single-track roads, passing other bikers, no doubt chasing their own dreams. We decided that our journey today would be to Durness on the very northwestern edge of the mainland. It took us past some of the most breathtaking sights I have ever seen. The road from the Gairloch to Ullapool reminded me of an image you would see painted on a shortbread tin. It looked picture-perfect as we sped past. Caledonian pine forests went by in a blur of reddish brown and green, all the time assaulting my sense of smell. The strong pine scent reminded me of a hospital corridor, like a smell of disinfectant.

We pulled into Ullapool for a well-deserved cup of tea. Our destination of choice, once inside, looked like something from a 1950s TV show.  The room was full of quaint gifts and ships in bottles, typical harbor-town trinkets. The selection of wonderful desserts presented to us on a vintage silver cake stand made them look all the more appealing; I was sold. But then I’m never one to turn down a tasty biscuit. 

The road from Ullapool to Durness is such an amazing experience. The landscape changes and becomes more like the surface of the moon as you tour though glacial retreats, vast swathes of land carved out by the dying ice giants. In some parts it’s hard to think that anyone lives up there; maybe they don’t. Rosie took on a whole new life up in those lonely glens. The straight-through pipes I spoke of earlier echoed off the mountain walls, terrifying all within earshot. It was music to my ears. Her throaty growl was the perfect soundtrack to this desolate wilderness once inhabited by warring clans and governed by mighty clan chiefs. That day the land lay still and otherwise silent, like some eerie testament to the wild old days.

We came upon the small highland village of Durness just before dusk. Finding our B&B took some doing. I had, in my typical forgetful fashion, left the address behind in Applecross. We sailed through the streets looking at every house, trying to jog my memory for a name.

At last we found it perched up top of a hill and at the end of the road. It was a beautiful place with stunning views all around. Our landlady advised us that the only restaurant left open was about to stop taking food orders in ten minutes, so we dumped our road-stained bags and roared off down the farm tracks to the main village. She was not kidding; we just squeaked in. Barely making last orders for grub made us laugh, although missing this meal would have been no laughing matter. Both of us were famished; the night could have been a long and grumpy one.

After some fine fish and chips, we ventured outside into the gloomy semi-darkness that haunts the northern parts of Scotland at this time of the year, never really getting too dark from late spring to early summer. We found a bench overlooking a windswept beach and sat in silence absorbing the majesty of it all. Gulls hung in the air, huge waves crashed onto the sands and all around us the world was peaceful. I almost felt a twinge of guilt at the thought of firing Rosie up again and shattering this serene atmosphere.

The morning had us seated at the landlady’s large farmhouse-style breakfast table where she heaped loads of freshly-made scrambled eggs onto our plates. This made me happy as I love a good breakie, but Freddie, being a lightweight in the eating department, looked terrified. The thought of having to devour the lot as not to offend our host had Freddie’s face plastered with fear.

The chat was merry at the table as our landlady asked us about our journey so far and where we still had to go. Her husband would stick his head round the door every now and then and chime in with some words of wisdom of the road. Seems he knew these parts rather well.  I finished my eggs and Freddie’s leftovers, then washed it all down with tea.  It was time to leave and time to hit the open road again, for John o’ Groats, the official end of Scotland, was on the cards today.

We packed our gear, said our goodbyes and headed outside. The dreaded grey had returned. Long, cold, shimmering curtains of rain swept the landscape, making sure that nothing escaped the rain’s miserable watery touch. We throttled out of Durness and headed east along the coastal road, not really seeing through the gloom. We were fighting the rain, trying to stay focused on our surroundings. The hardy sheep that live up in these parts tend to have a suicidal want to wander along the middle of the roads. Not even the rumble of the bikes seemed to deter them. It’s almost as if they are saying, “This is our land, and we’re prepared to battle to the death!”

One of the highlights of this trip was to visit John o’ Groats, the very tip of northern Scotland, where for a small sum you can get your picture taken at the official signpost, and if you’re lucky, get to put your own name in letters under the village name. I had dreamed of this picture the whole way up the western coast, but in my heart I was starting to realize that today was not going to be that day. The rain had grown stronger; as we headed east, the puddles on the single-track roads now resembled small lochans[2] that almost swallowed up the wheels of our bikes.

I pulled in and a dejected Freddie ground to a halt beside me. He flipped his visor up and I shouted over the din, “Bugger this, Freddie, John o’ Groats can wait.” With that, we spun around on the shortcut to our much-anticipated accommodations for the night.  We raced across the open moorlands with no shelter from the elements. We could actually see the next wave of rain looming like a specter in the distance waiting to engulf us in its misery. More than once we had to pull the bikes to a standstill to wipe off our visors and take stock of our surroundings. Finally, after what seemed an endless ride across the vast nothingness, we burst into a lush wooded glen. That’s the amazing thing about motorbiking: in Scotland you just never know what’s waiting round the bend or up the street. All sorts of beautiful sights await the adventurer.

As we entered the glen I rolled off Rosie’s throttle and slowed her down, mesmerized by the raging river Helmsdale. Helmsdale, famous for its salmon fishing, was on my left and the earthy-smelling woodlands were on my right. Just as I was absorbing the landscape, a large stag bounded onto the road and into the woods right in front of me. This stag was a huge beast with an impressive rack of antlers adorning his head like a mighty crown, a crown that only the king of the forest would wear. Once in the woods, he turned to watch us ride past. He held his head high, pride radiating from him. What a noble creature, surely a member of the royal court, if not the king of the forest himself!

Because we had cut our day short due to the weather, we had arrived early into our digs for the night. We had arranged to stay at the Helmsdale youth hostel, but on arrival found the place locked up. We parked the bikes and sat on the doorstep, looking rather pathetic, I feared, soaked to the bone, with our rolled-up bags at our feet. We only broke our silence when a merry border collie, whom we later learned was named Molly, came bounding round the corner and right up to the doorway in which we sat.

A woman carrying shopping bags was next round the corner, and she too came to the door. “Can I help you?” she said in a very commanding fashion. We told her that we had booked there for the night and had not anticipated being there until later, but our plans had been derailed by the weather. The woman stared at us for a few seconds then said, “Right, you’re too early but I’ll let you in anyhow. Once I show you around you’re on your own,” and with that she whistled at Molly and vanished off through the large wooden doors into the hostel.

We looked at each other, shrugged and ventured in after Molly and her owner. Once inside it looked to me that the hostel had once been a church or a Boy Scouts hall. Wood paneling lined the walls; both Fred’s and my eyes fixed firmly on the wood-burning stove. Irene, the owner, must have seen us staring at it. “I’ll light that stove later, have this place roasting,” she said. And with that thought, the Cheshire-cat grins returned to our weatherbeaten faces.

We dumped our road bags and stumbled out the door and down to the village to buy some supplies and have a look around. I hadn’t really looked into Helmsdale and other than the fact it sits conveniently on the east coast, not far south of John o’ Groats, I didn’t know much about it at all. Once we had grabbed some munchies and a few beers for the room later, we took a wander through the streets that were vacant, except for a few locals.

At first appearance, I perceived the place to be just a sleepy little town perched on a hill side looking out to the cold and rough North Sea. No real story to be told here, I thought. However, this sleepy little town held a much more interesting past. After further exploration I learned it had played a part in a dark chapter of my homeland’s history, the Highland clearances.  In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, this town had seen thousands of natives come to its shore. Some people chose to stay and tough it out, but many with no other choice had to board the emigrant ships and leave for the new world.

We stood in the rain underneath a huge bronze statue of a highlander and his family, his sculpted face commemorating clear distress. The agony of fear and the unknown were etched perfectly on the family’s faces as they stared out at the very same menacing sea that we now did, some 300 years later.  As we thought about what it must have felt like to know full well that you’d never set foot on your homestead again, it was a somber moment for both of us.

Once back at Irene and Molly’s hostel, an enjoyable night was had in the company of them both. A backpacking fella from Holland and a brave young English lad had also checked into the hostel. The English lad, having recently lost his mum to cancer, was walking from Land’s End, at the very southern tip of England, to John o’ Groats to raise money for charity. I listened to the tales of his wander so far, blistered feet and twisted ankles, hungover mornings after beer-fueled nights in long-forgotten towns. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that once my mate Fred started to snore in the dorm he was sharing with us, he’d be in for some more misery tonight!

Thursday morn we awoke to overcast skies as we prepared for our day’s ride south into the whisky heartlands of Speyside, Granton-on-Spey to be precise. We said our goodbyes to Irene and Molly and headed off down the A9 coastal road. With farmlands on one side of us and the rugged crags and ruined castle skyline on the other, even with the dark thunder-like clouds above us, I was content riding this morning. Rosie purred and seemed to be happy too. Every now and then, in a cat-and-mouse fashion, I’d pass Fred at high speed and he too looked happy. It wasn’t some age-old Celtic magic happening to us, but simply the joy of the open road. We were far away from day-to-day worries, just two bikers out chasing a storm on two steel steeds, tasting the elements, feeling the earth beneath us as we raced on south.

We pulled off the A9 and stopped at a junction that I’d been at a few time before. Blink an eye and you’ll miss it, the town of Carrbridge. There happens to be a bridge there, not a normal bridge -- this one dates back to 1717 and is visually prominent due to its almost humpback structure. We got off the bikes and took some pictures, each wondering how this bridge would have been used back in its day before the modern bypass. I couldn’t help but think that it looked like the perfect place for jumping off into the cooling waters of the river Dulnain on a hot summer’s day. On this dreary and chilly day it was a comforting daydream.
Back on the bikes we passed through enchanting Caledonian pine forests, the very image of Scotland themselves. We could have been riding through Middle-earth straight from the pages of a Tolkien book for all we knew. These were old and wise woods with the Cairngorm Mountains reaching from their depths, stubborn snow caps still adorning these rock lords of the east, brown with a flash of white, like the mighty sea eagle who soars overhead. I was grinning again; I was aware of it. I shouted out to the woodlands, this was why I had come! I was living my dream!

We spent the night in the highland town on Granton-on-Spey deep in the heart of whisky country. A mecca for drinkers of Scotland’s finest import, it’s a quaint place with Victorian buildings of grand construction, the likes you’ll not see again unless you have vast amounts of money at your disposal.
We bunked at a local hostel and wandered off into town to treat ourselves to an Indian meal. This we had planned in advance and had been looking forward to since leaving Glasgow. Walking down the high street, I felt as if we should have been wearing wax jackets or Barbour pheasant-hunting attire. The buildings and shop fronts emanated the grace of highland gentry and a time gone by.  It felt good to wander these streets and be a guest in the ancient kingdom of Moray. Our long-awaited Indian meal was superb! With the heady aroma of Asian herbs and the sounds of the sitar filling the air, we feasted on spicy delights, washed down with cold authentic Indian lager, a perfect end to a perfect day’s biking.

Friday morning the sun shone on us as we parted company with Speyside. Our plan was to ride over the high pass of Glen Shee and down to Braemar, famed home of the Royal family when they are visiting Scotland. I had never been there before and had only visited Glen Shee once as a young Scout on a skiing day out. I had heard from other bikers that the road over the pass was one of the best biking roads to be found in all of Europe.

They weren’t lying. The road snaked up over vast green hillsides, sliced open at the summit by ragged black rocks that seemed to burst free from the mountain like some massive dinosaur spine. We crested the pass in glorious sunshine and felt alive as a blast of cold mountain air greeted us with chilly open arms. I felt truly blessed this morning; my country and my bike seemed at one with each other, treating me to an almost heavenly experience.

We followed the river down through the hills and out across open countryside, nothing but farmlands as far as the eye can see. I imagined what life must be like out here in the country, living the life of a farmer. Good old honest hard work was the laird out here. The fresh country air would fill your lungs and help you sleep the sleep of the righteous at night. I must admit the thought appealed to me. Could I live a quiet life at a slow pace, or was I just romanticizing and seeing life up here through the green-tinted spectacles of a part-time outdoorsman?

Braemar was beautiful! All the stories I had heard were true. It’s a magical place wrapped up in castles, woodlands and flowing rivers of unrivaled beauty. The Victorian architecture is something to see on its own, but paired with this scenery it really is surreal.

I hadn’t booked ahead for this night, so on arriving we followed the signs for the Scottish youth hostel building and tried there first. We were politely told there was no room at the inn and that we might have trouble finding a place, due to its being some kind of bank holiday that yours truly hadn’t taken into account.

We slowly rode back through town, eyeing the B&B signs in most windows like a couple of cat burglars, only to see “NO VACANCIES” staring back at us. I couldn’t help but think we must have looked a troublesome sight, slowly cruising back and forth glaring at the houses, when all we wanted was a bed for the night. At last we pulled into a grand-looking hotel and tried our luck -- it seemed that it was in! The landlady told me she had just had a cancellation, and a double room was indeed available for a very reasonable price. Lady Luck was on our side. We plunked our road-weary bodies down on our freshly-made beds and laughed at our good fortune. Fred clicked the kettle on, and after a good brew we took off in search of the local chippy.

There’s a kind of peace to be found wandering the streets of these small highland holiday villages, but it’s also mixed with a feeling that you’re almost trespassing on some hallowed ground. Taking in the village sounds I could hear the sound of the blackbird, while the song thrush thrills the early evening atmosphere. Its songful punctuations burst in atop the ambient humming of a lawnmower being pushed along by an elderly gent working off his supper. All the while a prop engine plane flew overhead and the sounds of the river rushing, on its way to wherever rivers seem to rush to, culminated, in what seemed to me, to be the soundtrack for a more simple way of life.
All of these things added to the warm and safe feeling that seeps over you as you sit on a bench and pick at your chips -- chips served in a brown paper bag stained from the vital ingredient of dripping oil that makes the chips so darn tasty. We headed back to the hotel for a nightcap in the lobby bar, and were happily surprised to find the log fire had been lit and some of the locals were in having a chinwag about life in the village. We nursed our pints, entranced by the chat of the locals and their lyrical Highland accents, every now and then nudging each other if we found a comment interesting or funny. We drained our pints and skulked off to our room. Sleep came easy that night: dreams of pipers and castles, lochs and ladies. We drifted deep into the highland mist.

Saturday morning and again the sun favored us!  We were both in good spirits as we scooped up our hearty highland breakfasts and chatted.  We should have been sad at that thought of the trip coming to its end, but we weren’t. More than 100 epic miles lay between us and our hometown of Glasgow today. The open road fever had us in its grip! After a fuel stop on the outskirts of town, we roared off west across the open moors towards the town of Pitlochry; from there we planned to ride down past beautiful Loch Tay, through Rob Roy MacGregor country and back towards the industrial heartlands of Glasgow.

The ride to Pitlochry took us through many remote glens of stunning beauty. Once again, we had to be vigilant due to the defiant and almost suicidal sheep who call these parts home. One thing that I love about biking is the smell in the air. Everything seems to be multiplied ten times when you’re on a bike. Be it a farmer mucking his fields or the road workers laying new tar on a broken pothole section of road, these smells seem all the better when you’re riding in the open air. Through the surrounding glens of Pitlochry, I was reminded of the old saying, “Only a biker knows why a dog sticks its head out of a car window.”

Passing the small towns of Aberfeldy and Kenmore, our minds were now fixed on the next section of road, the section that would see us ride alongside Loch Tay. Loch Tay is a vast body of water, sapphire blue in color, immersed in myth and charmed with sunbeams dancing on its surface like mischievous spirits. This part of the day was one that stands out in my memory. The lochside farms that we passed, the mountains rising high above us on either side, old stone walls separating the long standing green fields that give life to so much around them: it was as if the very earth of Scotland was talking to these two bikers as they crossed its skin.

We passed through the small town of Killin, both remembering a past trip here, where we’d fuel up on chips and cups of tea from one of the many cafés that can be found in this gem of a village. We crossed over the famous falls of Dochart, a wondrous sight, and headed for Glen Ogle, opting for a tea break at the little burger van we knew sat at the top of this ancient pass. This little privately-owned burger van is a favorite with the two-wheeled tourist, and we were not surprised to find other bikers already there, enjoying the goods that could be bought there. We furnished ourselves with cups of tea, rolls and cheese and watched this busy little highland eatery serve people, all the while basking in the smell of sizzling sausage and salty bacon. The savory smells were making even this vegetarian water at the mouth.

Reluctantly leaving Glen Ogle and the burger van behind, we rode down through the pass and into the Trossachs. This is an area of Scotland known for its rich history and beauty, most famously known for one of its sons, the outlaw Rob Roy Macgregor.

Being a history buff and a fan of this man and his legendary skullduggery, it’s always a blessing to travel these parts. Each time I’m there, my mind begins wandering to the adventures and escapades of this great highland rogue. As we meandered past the lochs and mountains of his domain, I couldn’t help but feel a wee bit jealous that this was where he called home. What a beautiful place to settle, to roam and to conduct business. Yes, I believe he was a lucky man indeed.

As we slowed our pace down to navigate the busy little town of Callander, I think we both now felt sad. We were a mere half hour or so from our homes. The journey was drawing to an end, and the 900 miles had passed in typical Scottish fashion. We’d endured rain, wind, sun and a blur of some of the best landscapes this world has to offer. But of course I am a wee bit biased!

The sun was dropping to the western hills as we passed the Carbeth Inn, a mecca for a biker out on a day run from Glasgow. We nodded in salute to some riders parked up outside enjoying a coffee and a chat. Our bikes were now on autopilot, as they knew each and every turn on this notorious road back to the village of Bearsden.

With the light fading, I pulled in behind Fred, who was waiting for me in a lay-by. I drew up beside his bike with a heavy heart, knowing that this was the end of our adventure. The end of a dream realized. Together we had ridden through storms, watched waves crash down on beaches, sped past countless ruined castles standing silent as a reminder of the days when clansmen ruled the glens. We wandered the streets in sleepy highland towns while peat smoke from quaint little houses rose in the gloaming. We had met people on their own adventures, eaten fine foods and drunk lager from far-off lands together. We had ridden around the coast of Scotland, sharing and making new memories that will stay with both of us forever.

Fred stretched out his gloved hand, flipped up his visor and said his goodbyes, and with that he was gone. I watched him blast off down the road before pulling a U-turn and heading for home myself. I pulled into my driveway and switched Rosie off, sitting in silence for a few minutes listening to the slowing but steady ticking noise she made, like some resting beast after an exhausting hunt.

I stepped back and thanked her for taking care of me, patted her tank, and headed indoors to be greeted by my anxiously awaiting mum. She was looking forward to the details of my monumental adventure. I clicked the kettle on; I needed a brew. Once I began to relive the details of my journey, that Cheshire-cat grin was back.

[1] Smirry rain: a fine spray-mist, a drizzle.
[2] Lochan: from the Scottish Gaelic, a small loch.

As an avid outdoorsman, James Johnston has always been keen on anything that brings him closer to nature, starting with his adventures as a Cub Scout, and progressing to mountain climbing.
Growing up in Glasgow, Scotland brought him to his love of history, wildlife, hillwalking and motorbiking. He is always up for a good hike, in any weather. From the Five Sisters Ridge to Pike’s Peak, he wants to explore them all.
If Johnston is not hiking, or motorbiking around the U.S. or his native Scotland, he's tinkering on one of his classic Triumph motorcycles or playing with his band. -- hiking website and blog -- Johnston's band Albannach (Scottish Gaelic for "Scotsman")