In 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 with the following plan: get up each morning and start hiking north; when hungry, unpack the food stash or find a town; when thirsty, see plan for hunger; when tired, find a good spot to pitch my tent. The tent I brought was a tiny, rinky-dink little affair that I bought through a discount catalog because it was cheap and weighed almost nothing. I had only used it a couple times previously, 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 my house on my back and no fixed goal or location for ending each day - and was really excited to try it.
The second night of the trip would be the first night in my tent. I had met a Czech man on the trail that day and we decided to pull off the road early and relax by the river Ba. It was an idyllic looking spot and as evening came on the numbers of walkers on the trail reduced to almost nothing. The area was covered with thick, wet moss, and we pitched our tents on the one piece of solid, grass covered ground. The sun 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. My waterproofing treatment worked well, 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. It was hard to arrange myself and my gear so that nothing touched the walls. The cornerstone of my trip worked, but it sure left a lot to be desired.
The next night at a campsite in Kinlochleven 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 from all over Scotland came to sit in their tents on the lawn to listen to concerts. The rules of the festival say that you have to take down your tent before you go, and for some reason many attendees do that by jumping on the tents to flatten them, and then leave them behind - an odd tradition that Jim & Liz took advantage of. They went to the festival grounds the day after it ended and walked around picking up tents that were still in reasonable condition. They found 6 good tents, then went home to drop off five of them, put some gear and their two dogs in the car and drove to the Blackwater Campsite in Kinlochleven. ...enter David, newly aware of the shortcomings of his one tent.
Jim and company were pitched two spaces 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 one so much as paused 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 blue collar manner 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 passers by 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's canine teeth are more prominent other people's, some more pointed. Jim's were both, to the extent that the teeth below his canines had been removed, presumably to make space. He never bared those teeth or showed territoriality the way his dogs did, but my eyes did come back to this feature as I listened to his stories. That is, until he began telling me about how they had 6 tents! They said 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 so I headed into town to get a hot meal. Jim said to stop by for a beer on my way back to my tent, mentioning that Iíd 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 I said was an entirely rhetorical question about why there was no loud singing as he had promised. His entirely rhetorical answer was to 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 ballad 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 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 he liked singing old ballads whether he had an audience or not. We all talked a bit more and then he suddenly launched into another Scottish song. I joined him in singing this one too, adding a little harmony here and there. He was a little surprised that I knew all these songs, and said, "So you know our old songs, well hereís a new one for you", and he started singing Flower of Scotland.
Flower of Scotland is a sort of unofficial Scottish national anthem 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 that and two verses back to him. All the Scots there were stunned!
It was pretty clear 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 because it's hard to come within ten feet of Jim and not have a beer put into your hand, our numbers slowly increased. Jim in particular got quite drunk (which took a lot) and at one point when he stood up he tripped over a guy line and fell on a corner of the tent. I was feeling pretty happy myself, and called out, "Hey! What are you doing to my tent?!" Happily, he didnít 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 one new one and strapped it to my pack. That evening, after a long hike to Fort William, 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) I had it fixed and set up in under an hour. It was a breezy evening, and it was about two hours later that the faintly lingering scent of Amber and Larsen faded.
With the practice of the next few days, I could set it up alone and without rushing, in ten minutes. It had enough room inside to sit upright, and it easily held all my gear. Its vestibule was the perfect place for my boots and food, and I would sit 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 a triangle of level ground defined by the small, straight drainage ruts that merged in front of a hospitable young pine tree, and I was completely protected from wind and rain. My new tent could comfortably sleep one or two, 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 donít 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 southward 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 ever fully wash away. 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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