As a child of the 70’s, I was fascinated by the series “In Search Of.” Leonard Nimoy’s baritone voice provided the soundtrack to many memorable weekends glued to our black and white Zenith TV.
Nothing captured my childhood imagination so thoroughly as the grainy image of a ruined castle shrouded in mist and mystery as Nimoy intoned “…In search of myths and monsters…”
Ever since I first saw that flickering image I’ve wanted to visit the ruins of Urqhuart Castle, standing sentinel over one of the world’s most enduring legends.
In the Summer of 2006, almost thirty years after becoming enraptured with that haunting image, I fulfilled a childhood dream: I was going to visit Loch Ness, Scotland.
The plan was simple: a week cycling the Scottish Highlands with my buddy Cash, and another week taking in the Fringe Festival in Edinburgh. The second part of the plan went off without a hitch. The first part, not so much…
For someone in the nascent stages of his cycling “career” I had chosen a very ambitious itinerary. Fifty to seventy miles a day with an average of 3,000 miles of climbing (not accounting for getting lost — this was well before the advent of GPS) was optimistic, to say the least.
Cash was already an accomplished cyclist, so this type of regimen wasn’t going to affect him. But, for someone whose longest ride was about 40 miles on well-established and well-marked terrain, it represented a serious undertaking.
Before I enumerate some of the trials and tribulations I faced on this trip, it’s worth noting that, if you’re a cyclist with a lousy sense of direction (and that certainly describes me) there are few places on Earth more scenic than the Scottish Highlands.
Miles and miles of lonely country roads, past rustic farmlands and ancient castles, through thick forests and hills of deep, majestic green. Everywhere I looked, I marveled at the pure, unspoiled beauty. It was everything I had dreamed about since I was a kid — and more.
But there were a few impediments. The weather was inclement, and perhaps that was an understatement. Although it never rained for long (or very hard, for that matter) there seemed to be a constant mist that hovered over us. This was less of an issue for me, being from San Francisco, where the Summer fog was bone-chilling. But, for Cash, who long ago abandoned SF for sunny Southern California, it was jarring.
“I need a vacation from my vacation,” he groused.
And then there was the food. In a word: terrible. The Scots were evidently capable of deep-frying everything, including Snickers and Mars Bars. It was so bad that haggis, the Scottish national dish consisting of sheep’s innards mixed with oatmeal and boiled in the animal’s stomach, was something I eagerly anticipated very morning.
(A disclaimer: in retrospect, haggis was pretty tasty. Certainly, any visitor to the Highlands should sample such a culinary treasure. Also, I understand that there’s a Scottish locavore movement that has really improved the state of Scottish cuisine. But, I’m speaking from the vantage point of ten years ago.)
Lastly, there was sleep. Or, or more precisely, very little of it. I couldn’t recalibrate my time clock to adjust to Scottish time. So, for one very long and arduous week, I was cycling 70 miles a day on roughly three hours of sleep. It was brutal.
All these circumstances finally came to a head on the last night of the cycling segment of our trip. Exhausted and famished, teetering on the verge of collapse, I headed back to our hostel in Fort Augustus, and agreed to meet Cash at a local restaurant. After I showered and changed, I saw Cash at a table, looking a little forlorn, eating a bag of peanuts.
“Where’s dinner?” I asked.
“You’re looking at it,” he said.
“That’s a bag of peanuts.”
“Yep,” he replied, and, without looking up, continued eating.
I was livid. Livid and extremely hungry. I told that kitchen staff that I had worked in a restaurant for many years, and knew that, although the restaurant (the only one nearby) was officially closed, we’d be happy to pay for any leftovers.
They wouldn’t budge. The kitchen was closed.
I stormed out of the restaurant with Cash in tow. This was ironic. It was one of the few times that I was actually ahead of Cash during our cycling trip. We went back to the hostel and raided the vending machine. Anything we could get our hands on. Candy bars. Chips. Licorice sticks. Gummy bears.
After fifteen minutes of assaulting the vending machine, we were approached by the managers of the hostel, who had taken a shine to us during our week-long stay. (Most people tried to sneak a peek of Nessie and left the next day. Cash and I stayed long enough to forge some friendships.)
“What are you guys doing?” one of the managers asked, with a hint of concern in her voice. Between mouthfuls of Dorritos and Snickers, I sputtered something about the local restaurant keeping banker’s hours.
“Well, I’m not really supposed to do this, but I’m going to open the kitchen for you boys. Take whatever you want,” she said. “Just don’t mention it to anyone.”
So Cash and I raided the kitchen. Whatever I made had to have two qualities: it had to be recognizable, and it had to be instantly digestible. These were the set of circumstances that gave birth to The Best Damn PB&J I’ve ever had.
That was the first enduring element of that long-ago Summer. The second one had a much greater impact on my life: I shed weight on that trip. A lot of weight. About twelve pounds in fourteen days. And this was in spite of the horrendous food and lack of sleep. My body became a furnace: whatever I ate exited shortly thereafter.
It became so clockwork, that, while we were in Edinburgh, Cash quipped “Before we see the show, have you mapped out where all the bathrooms are?”
My drastic weight loss (which was mostly fat, although there was some muscle loss as well) was a complete mystery to me. Friends were shocked at my appearance when I got back to the Bay Area.
In retrospect, what was happening was clear: my body was staging a revolt. Unused to the level of sheer physical activity, my metabolism started to go in overdrive. Some switch had been flipped. And, to a large extent, that “switch” has remained “flipped.” I firmly believe that my baseline metabolism was irrevocably altered by that trip. My body became much more efficient at processing energy.
And, equally, if not importantly, I’d fallen in love with cycling as a form of expression and as a means of seeing the world. Movement was something that I craved, something that became intrinsic to who I was. And, although, it was tertiary to the euphoria I experienced on a bike, fat loss was a by-product.
Next week: “Is Flipping a Switch Possible?” (Or, PB&J Take Two…)