Trip Report – Scotland 2022

I’ve been thinking a lot of the concept of “Clock Time,” a term coined by Joe Zadeh in his excellent essay “The Tyranny of Time.” (It’s great, read it.) It was partly invented by John Flamsteed’s founding of the Greenwich Observatory, which birthed “Mean Time,” a concept that was eventually spread worldwide by the British Empire and its citizens. Everywhere the British went, they brought clocks, centering their colonies around them, and adhering schedules to the rotations of those pernicious little hands. So, it’s fitting I found myself musing over Clock Time as we spent much of this past April in Scotland, the northernmost country in Great Britain—the birthplace of Clock Time.

If you’ve been reading my blog and trip reports for a while, you’ll know this was a second visit for us. Our first was in 2017. The trip was initially supposed to happen last year as a gift from Kari-Lise to celebrate my 40th birthday. But COVID, which doesn’t adhere to Clock Time, had other plans, and the trip was delayed several times. As we were to learn, this was for the best. So, when the time finally came, on the heels of yet another COVID spike in the Pacific Northwest, we packed our bags, donned our masks, climbed into and out of several airplanes, and made the trip. I’m thrilled we did. It was long overdue. If revenge travel is a thing, our trip was a dish best served cold in two graves. This time, we returned to some favorites, allowed ourselves time to explore, and visited some new locals covering much of Scotland.


Edinburgh

Our return visit began in the Scottish capital of Edinburgh—It’s a stunningly beautiful city, modern and convenient, but still jam-packed with history in every nook and cranny. We had visited before but felt we barely scratched the surface, so we dedicated a bit more time this go-around to seeing more of the city, choosing to walk, and allowing ourselves more time to soak up the town. Unlike home, spring had been delayed in Scotland, so while the days were warm, the flora was more in its late winter/early spring transition. By the end of the trip, that would have changed, but for much of our visit, as we moved further north we chased the tail end of winter.

With an apartment in Haymarket serving as a base, we had plenty of access to museums, gardens, parks, food, pubs, galleries, and more. Edinburgh is a modern city built on the bones of an old city, and I find the layers of elevation and the interplay of the present intermixed with antiquity inspiring. It’s a recurring theme in my work.

Bopping around Edinburgh and exploring its nooks and crannies was a relaxing way to begin a long trip, even if we walked over twenty-five miles before grabbing a rental car and heading out of the city and into Scotland’s vast reaches.


Islay

1665 Map of Islay by Joan Bleau

I am drawn to the smoke and brine. I want complexity in a dram I sip. So it makes sense that much of my interest in scotch whisky indubitably settles on the malts of Islay, with occasional forays into Island and Campbeltown whiskies. Perhaps this was where my musings on Clock Time first started to percolate. After all, whisky isn’t a process that can be rushed; it’s ready when it’s ready, and that could take decades, according to our measurements. In some ways, the more complex the dram, the more we are tasting time itself.

This wasn’t our first time here. We had been to Islay once before but left with plenty of unfinished business. On our last visit, our days were limited. So our second trip to Scotland again brought us on a return pilgrimage. This go around, we had four full days and took the opportunity to visit every one of the open distilleries on the island and sample a swath of expressions.

Our base on Islay was Port Charlotte, a lovely little seaside village with a fantastic central location allowing quick access all over the island. (And an easy 1-mile walk to Bruichladdich.) Islay is divided into two sections among the locals, the “light” northwestern side and the “dark” southeastern side—separated by the River Laggan. Depending on where you’re at and who you are talking to at the time, those nicknames can flip, but the teasing is all in good fun as the community on Islay is tight-knit and friendly.

There weren’t many places on the island we didn’t visit, but much of our time was focused on its whisky. Most of the distilleries had only just reopened to the public. So that eight-month delay in our trip erred for our benefit. We did tours. We did tastings. We explored warehouses. We sampled the weird, the rare, and the unattainable. (If you can get your hands on an Ardbeg Dark Cove, treat that beauty as a precious gem.) We made friends with the staff and got to know Islay through its chief export. After nearly a week on Islay, we came away with an ever-deepening knowledge about whisky and the island.

Of course, we expanded our collection, and this time we went big, returning with ten bottles that are difficult to find in the PNW. (We also picked up three more when we got home to round out the collection.)

  1. Glen Scotia Double Cask (Campbeltown)
  2. Glen Scotia Victoriana (Campbeltown)
  3. Springbank 10 (Campbeltown)
  4. Kilchoman 100% Islay (Islay)
  5. Bruichladdich The Biodynamic Project (Islay)
  6. Bruichladdich Octomore 11.2 (Islay)
  7. Bunnahabhain Feis Ile 2021 (Islay)
  8. Bunnahabhain 12 Year (Islay)
  9. Caol Ila Moch (Islay)
  10. Scarabus (Islay) – The distillery on this expression is kept secret, and it’s also pretty common and affordable, but we didn’t know it at the time. Ah well. Decent malt, regardless.

And the three “local” additions:

  1. Springbank 15 (Campbeltown) – Funny enough, we couldn’t get this at the distillery, so imagine my delight in finding a bottle available in Seattle.
  2. Bruichladdich Port Charlotte Heavily Peated 10 (Islay)
  3. Ardbeg Uigeadail (Islay) – My favorite scotch.

Orkney

History is everywhere in Scotland. Ruins four or five hundred years old are common. You find them on farmland, in the middle of a city, or next to the village pub. They constantly serve as a fixed reminder of impermanence. But on the Orkney Islands, there is a shift. Ruins there extend far deeper into human history. In the presence of deep time, something as pedantic as modern Clock Time appears trite, maybe even a little gratuitous. Perhaps that’s why there’s such a relaxed approach to schedules and the clock as one moves away from population centers.

Sites representing thousands of years of history are scattered among the sheep pastures, cattle farms, and rolling hills of King Lot’s old stomping ground. Ruins like the village of Skara Brae (older than both Stonehenge and the Pyramids) sit only a few miles from the Ring of Brodgar, the Standing Stones of Stenness, and several chambered cairns. One can start five thousand years in the past and move slowly through eras visiting sites from the Stone Age, the Picts, the Vikings, the Renaissance, and eventually into our present day. And it was moving among sites and seeing the remnants of the ancient past that roused my reflection on our harried modern life and worshipful adherence to the clock. Perhaps this confrontation with deep time constantly returned my focus on how we spend our moments, what we let bother us, and how much time we give to unimportant things.


Hills Between

In college, road trips were grueling marathons, with drives between fourteen to seventeen hours a day. For some reason, I did this for fun and was even proud of it. I’m older now, and I refuse to do that anymore. It’s not how I want to spend my life. So, between our major destination stops (Edinburgh, Islay, and the Orkneys), we gave ourselves loads of time to explore Scotland, stopping whenever we were inspired and seeing what was to see—and there is a lot to see.

As you would expect, much of that was history, and much of that history was ruins, but there were also moments of intense natural beauty. Scotland is an ancient and rugged landscape, and it’s impossible to ignore. Coming around a corner or emerging from a forest can introduce vistas that will take your breath away, and often some of the most stunning pieces of natural beauty are tucked away in hidden corners. Like any country, you’ll often find the more fulfilling places off the beaten path. The reality is, I have never regretted stopping and exploring vs. spending more time on the road, and that goes doubly in Scotland.


Advice and Tips

  • If you’re going to be in Scotland for some time and, like us, you’re into castles, gardens, and ruins, I recommend getting a National Trust membership. None of the sights are expensive, but they add up, and going this route will save you some bucks.
  • Deep-fried pizza is terrible. While it might sound intriguing, it’s not. It’s a grody soggy mess. Skip it. Now haggis, on the other hand…
  • Since COVID, most distilleries are moving to reservation systems, so be sure to book early if you want special tastings or tours.

Clock Time might have been a British invention, but American capitalism distilled it and turned it into a rigid hustle-culture grind that seems to haunt our society. While there are obvious benefits, it took me stepping away from US soil and facing the presence of deep time that tuned me into our strict adherence to clocks and schedules. I’m sure the reflection on time also came from this trip being a celebration of a milestone birthday. It’s easy to reflect on our past and our future in moments like this, and I clearly welcomed it as we journeyed around Scotland. It’s part of what makes travel appealing to me. Lessons like these, even ones without actionable takeaways, excite me for travel. After several years of the pandemic, travel is what helped me reexamine the portions of my life that leaned too far into Clock Time and look for places for improvement.

It took me longer than I expected to assemble this Trip Report. Life has been chaotic in both good ways and bad, and sometimes that can step in the way of our own goals. But, after being back for a few months, I am starting to feel like I’m re-establishing myself into a routine.

I didn’t write as much as I hoped on my trip, but I thought about it and worked through some complex knots that I hadn’t known existed. As with all travel, I came back feeling both refreshed and inspired in ways I hadn’t expected, and that’s enough for me to call this trip an astounding success. Couldn’t think of a better way to celebrate turning 40. Thank you, Kari-Lise.


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2016 Califorina National Parks Roadtrip

Trip Report – California’s National Parks

On Saturday, Kari-Lise and I  returned from a ten-day road trip through California. 2016 is the 100th anniversary of the National Parks in America, so we planned on hitting as many Parks as we could. We don’t vacation like normals; laying on the beach isn’t for us. We tend to focus on adventure while on our travels. It’s a big world, and there’s a lot out there to see. As I joked on Twitter: relaxing is boring.

Since sunsetting the Friday Link Pack, I decided to try and make this blog a bit more personal. So, I figured it’d be fun to do a quick post compiling a trip report, share some of our experiences and a few photos. If you want you can click to view them larger, all photos were taken with my iPhone 6s. Since this trip was themed around National Parks, I’ll break it down by Park in the order of visitation. First up…

1. Yosemite

Yosemite Valley floor
From the Yosemite Valley floor looking South

We started with America’s third National Park, established in 1890. Strangely, until last week I’d never been here. Despite having family living in California and making multiple trips to the state as a kid, Yosemite was never a destination. It’s a remarkable place and both Kari-Lise, and I left stunned by its majestic beauty. I could see why John Muir (one of my personal heroes) fell in love with the place. It leaves you feeling small and insignificant. It makes you appreciate the world on a more primal level.

“Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul alike.”

—John Muir, The Yosemite

Wildlife was out in full, we met a momma black bear and her cub, they were far away and while she was keeping an eye on us, we didn’t approach. We also saw mule deer and a lone coyote. We hiked the east side of the valley floor along the base of Half Dome and away from the campgrounds and parking lots. While it was an enjoyable hike, we didn’t discover until too late that there was a shuttle to take you to Glacier Point, and we could have hiked from there down to the valley along the Panorama Trail. Next time.

Yosemite Valley from Glacier Point
Yosemite Valley from Glacier Point

There is still so much that we left unseen. We didn’t even get to Tioga Pass, Tuolumne Meadows, and missed Hetch Hetchy completely. We’ve read nothing but good things about all those areas. Yosemite is big and a day and a half wasn’t enough time. There have already been several discussions in the Alexander household about a return visit so we can spend a bit more time spent among the spires of Yosemite.


2. Kings Canyon

Driving Highway 180 towards Kings Canyon
Driving Highway 180 towards Kings Canyon

Second Park on our trip was America’s 26th National Park, established in 1940. This park was significantly more remote than the others, but the drive out there was incredible and worth the time. To get to the park you have to pass through Sequoia National Forest on Highway 180—the only way in and out.

Last year, a fire tore through the central portion of the valley, which left bare mountains dotted with blackened ghost trees and slopes covered in wildflowers. A thunderstorm was rolling down the canyon as we passed through and the rumbles could be heard echoing for miles. It’s way out there, and since we weren’t staying nearby, we didn’t get a chance to hike any portion of the park. We just passed through, poked around for a few hours and then headed off to the next park on our list.


3. Sequoia

Hiking through Mineral King Valley
Hiking through Mineral King Valley

America’s second National Park, established in 1890, was third on our list. If I had to pick a favorite park from this trip, Sequoia wins. It was stunning. It was everything I love in National Parks. Huge sweeping vistas, massive trees thousands of years old, and cold alpine valleys dominated our days.

We hiked up in Mineral King—an incredible subalpine valley—on our first day. When we got there, we noticed quite a few of the backpacker’s cars were wrapped in tarps. Which we found strange. It wasn’t until later that we discovered that the yellow-bellied marmots of Mineral King are addicted to antifreeze and will chew through anything to get at it. While usually dangerous to animals, for whatever reason these marmots don’t die from ingesting the coolant. The Rangers have taken to calling them super marmots. Thankfully our rental car was unaffected.

Spiderweb gate installed by the Civilian Conservation Corps outside Crystal Cave
Spiderweb gate installed by the CCC outside Crystal Cave

On our second day, we checked out the big trees around General Sherman (the largest tree by volume in the world), but the highlight was Crystal Cave. If you visit, make sure to book your tickets in advance. The tour through the cave was about an hour and well worth it. Happy we spent some time there. It also has a cool spiderweb gate entrance that reminded me of a fantasy novel.


4. The Channel Islands

Island Fox on Santa Cruz island
Island Fox on Santa Cruz Island

The 40th National Park established in 1980 is often referred to as America’s Galapagos! No, for real. The archipelago is home to over two thousand plant and animal species, one hundred and forty-five of which are found nowhere else on the planet. The highlight was, of course, the island fox, who are plentiful (despite being nearly extinct two decades ago) and completely unafraid of people. They were everywhere.

Sitting offshore at Santa Cruz
Sitting offshore at Santa Cruz Island

Halfway into our hike about five miles from everything, we stopped to check out a songbird hanging on a bush. When randomly this older, wrinkled, nearly naked, and quite tan uh… gentlemen, wandered past us. He reminded me of those old white people you see in tropical locations, those who have spent decades in the sun and wear only thongs, the sun-worshipper type. He noticed that we were watching the songbird, smiled at us, and told us that it was a songbird, and then he went along his way. He was quite friendly, but it was strange seeing him so far out. Here we were five miles from anything, and this guy looks like he’s wandering along a resort beach. Now, you have to realize, outside of Park and Nature Conservancy staff the Channel Islands are completely uninhabited. Yet, here was this guy in his thong and flip-flops moseying like a local and heading even deeper into the island. He wasn’t with us on the catamaran on the way in, so maybe he landed on a different beach? Perhaps he works there? It was surreal.

Overlooking sea caves on Santa Cruz island
Overlooking sea caves on Santa Cruz Island

We finished our hike around a small portion of the island, had lunch overlooking some rock formations and watched flights of pelicans fly below us as we took in the incredible views. Both of us wished we had more time; there are many more islands and all are distinct from each other, so there is still so much to see.


5. Pinnacles

Upper portion of Balconies Cave Trail
Upper portion of Balconies Cave Trail in Pinnacles

So, we were supposed to have a down day. But as I mentioned at the start of this report for us down days are tedious. We had wanted to visit America’s newest (#59) National Park, but we were afraid we might have to miss it. Thankfully, we got the itch for a long drive and I’m glad we made the three-hour journey north.

Pinnacles is the sight of an ancient volcano along the San Andreas fault. It’s also the home to California condors, and its trails are lined with amazing talus caves. The caves were impressive and easily the highlight of our visit. Though, I’ll admit that it was a bit creepy to crawl through building-sized boulders along the fault line. After the coolness of the caves, we found the remaining trail sunbaked and exposed. We spent a few hours hiking and emerged tired and sweaty and starving.

Sadly, we didn’t get a chance to see any condors. But in the 100° heat I’m wagering they were spending as much time as they could in the shade.


6. Joshua Tree

Joshua tree at sunset
A Joshua tree at sunset

Joshua Tree might be one of my favorite places on the planet, it’s the 52nd National Park established in 1994, and last on our trip. I’m not normally a “desert” person. I prefer snow-covered mountains, damp temperate forests, and Pacific Northwest islands to vast wastelands of the desert. But there’s something about Joshua Tree that haunts me. The strange vegetation, large piles of boulders, and the silent solitude are captivating. It’s easy to see why I’m not alone in falling in love with the place.

Joshua Tree Homesteader Cabin or Fallout set piece?
Joshua Tree homesteader cabin or Fallout set piece?

We stayed at this incredible little homesteader cabin that we found on AirBnB. It was remote and raw and served perfectly as a basecamp for our explorations into the park. Summer is the slow season at Joshua Tree, and I can see why the temps were crazy high (reaching 110° during the day) which meant we were up very early so we could hike and enjoy the park. The hike we did was incredible. We saw jackrabbits, cottontails, antelope squirrels, and lizards of all shapes and sizes all over the place. This was our second visit to Joshua Tree in a year, and we’ll probably be back again. There’s just something about it. It’s hard to stay away.


While attending Lilac City Comicon, I had someone ask me where I get my ideas. It’s a common question, and one of my answers (among many) was travel. It’s so critical to my process, and I find it stretches me as a person. (Even something as safe as our National Parks here in America.) It forces me to get out of my small box and face things I wouldn’t typically face on a day to day basis. There’s a quote from Mark Twain I’ve posted on here many times before, but it’s one I love:

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

As a writer, I ask readers to go on journeys with me, so it’s on natural that I should take some myself. It’s one thing to write about the heat of the sun beating upon your neck, it’s another to experience it. A cleft of rock can inspire a thousand tales, a family of marmot running across a subalpine meadow can spark ideas for plots, and meeting interesting people along the way can usher forth a whole civilization of rich characters. Tales, plots, and characters that I might never dream up sitting in my home office. Travel isn’t necessary for writing, but I think it can go a long way to making someone a better writer. At least it does for me.

So that’s our trip! The total stat breakdown:

  • 10 Days
  • 6 National Parks
  • 59.2 Miles Hiked
  • 2159 Miles Driven

It was unbelievable, and I’ll be the first to admit it was tough coming back to work on Monday. But such is life; besides I have books to finish, stories to tell, after all, these pages don’t write themselves.