Our Trip to Scotland, Part Two

The national capital region has pretty much shut down due to the extremely high winds we’re experiencing from the nor’easter that’s hammering the East Coast. School and other plans have been cancelled so we’re staying put and declaring today Family Game Day – which sounds like the perfect way to kick-off a three-day weekend. This post is the second recap of our amazing trip to Scotland from June 2016. See Part One here…

Within the blindingly green and blue landscape the comprises Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park is Ben Lomond, a 3,196 foot mountain on the eastern shore of Loch Lomond. One of the most popular hikes in the Highlands, the main path for ascent is scattered with tourists, all eager to see the famed Highland views for themselves.

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We chose to hike Ben Lomond on the lone Saturday of our week-long vacation because the skies were blue and the temperature a perfect 70 degrees. We ate a traditional Scottish breakfast at the restaurant attached to our inn and made the 90 minute drive to Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park. The trail entrance is near the Rowardennan Hotel on the shores of Loch Lomond and we were able to park our car in the car park for a minimal fee.

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This hike was my first and only time wearing shorts on our trip to Scotland. Because it was a Saturday, the trail was busy but not overwhelmingly so. Our first hour was spent hiking through wooded areas and gradually making our way up the base of the mountain.

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The trail became a bit more rigorous but totally manageable as we began the steep portion of the hike.

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Water breaks were the perfect excuse to just sit and soak in the view along the way.

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Seriously, the views were so stereotypical Scotland that we couldn’t stop exclaiming, “Wow!” Not surprisingly, as we climbed the temperature dropped and the air became thick with fog.

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And midges began to attack my legs and face. About halfway up the mountain, I realized my mistake in wearing shorts. Not only was it freezing at the summit, these little buggers hurt and left welts. It was worth it, though.

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We’d together for almost 15 years on that trip. Over the years, we have experienced a lot of wonderful places together. I love our everyday life and I love our adventures. Hiking Ben Lommond together and sitting side-by-side in silence at the top – gazing at the seemingly never-ending Highlands is definitely deserving of our highlight reel.

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We chose to go down the mountain on the much less-traveled back-end trail.

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We treated ourselves to well-deserved pints and food at the beer garden located at the base of the trail. My face may have been covered in welts and my feet a bloody mess but I couldn’t have been happier. This hike was our favorite of the trip and I will recommend it to anyone traveling to Scotland until my dying day. It had all the elements for a perfect Clay & Karen Vacation Day – rigorous hiking, spectacular views, beer, and food. And what’s not to love about that?

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The following day we went into Edinburgh and spend the day eating and drinking our way around the medieval city in the drizzling rain. So it was pretty much a quintessential Scottish day.

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The Royal Mile was touristy and awesome all wrapped up in a tchotsky package. I wouldn’t have wanted to spend anymore time there than we did but it is worth a visit, if anything to go to one of the many kilt and tartan suppliers located along the famed mile. And since I am from McIntyre blood, I was sure to purchase my family’s tartan in a variety of mediums.

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We had a blast wandering around the city and seeing where all the courts, tunnels, and walkways took us. My favorite experience of the day was attending an evening service at St. Giles Cathedral, which dates back to the 14th century. I grew up in the Episcopal Church and we’ve been attending Episcopal services for awhile now so being able to experience an Anglican service in Scotland was quite special.

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For our last full day in Scotland we did something a little different because we were absolutely worn-out from all our days of hiking (and drinking!) so we booked a last minute tour through the Highlands out of Glascow. We don’t consider ourselves tour-bus people and after experiencing our first one in Scotland, I doubt we will ever go on one again. But it was a welcome treat to just be able to sit and have someone else drive the mountain roads.

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There were a lot of stops along the way to Loch Ness. I’m pretty sure every person who has taken a Highland tour has a picture of this guy.

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I didn’t accidentally eat reindeer in Scotland like I did during our Alaska vacation.

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The infamous Skyfall mountain. Sadly, no Daniel Craig.

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When planning this trip, we originally decided not to incorporate Loch Ness into our travel. But since it was part of the tour package we booked for the day, we didn’t really have a choice. Yes, it is very hokey. But the lake itself is quite spooky with deep and dark water – Loch Ness is the largest lake of the British Isles by volume.

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We took a cruise around Loch Ness, which included fantastic views of Urquhart Castle. We chose not to tour the castle and instead extended our time on the water.

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After a quick top in Pitlochry for a pint and ice cream we were on our way back to Glasgow.

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Our trip to Scotland was amazing and we can’t wait to go back with the kids someday.  We flew out of Edinburgh, where I had the best breakfast of the trip. Yes, at the airport. So if you find yourself at the Edinburgh airport, get the Asparagus Benedict at Sir Walter Scott and a pint of Tennent’s Lager to either begin or end your trip to Scotland (or both!)…you won’t be disappointed.

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Flight delays at JFK ensured that we didn’t get back to Atlanta until well-after midnight but when our kids came running into our room at 6am, it didn’t matter that we had gotten only three hours of sleep. A wonderful trip ended with the best reunion possible – snuggles and giggles and all.

Camping on the Billy Goat Trail

I’ve been relatively quiet on social media for the past couple of weeks. I even deleted Facebook from my phone because I lacked the self-control to read the racist and bigoted comments below the articles posted by major news outlets. On the flip side, I’ve also had the opportunity to engage in productive conversations that have broadened my perspective and I’ve discovered a lot more voices to hear. We tell our kids often to do what they think is right and not what just happens to be convenient or easy at that moment in time. The oft-quoted words of German Lutheran Pastor Martin Niemoller have been swirling around my head for a handful of years, but even more so as of late. 2020 will be a year to remember and I hope our children are watching us promote change, push against the status quo, and live according to the belief that liberty and justice are truly deserved by all.

But for all of the warranted race and pandemic-related strife occurring in the vast outside world, things are happening within our little sphere that continues to impact our lives. The kids wrapped up the school year last week and we’re less than a month out from our PCS. They’re well-accustomed to moving but we’re currently knee-deep in the uncomfortable feelings and emotions associated with leaving friends and starting over somewhere new, which feel amplified this time around due to pandemic-related restrictions. We all needed a reset so, over the weekend, we took advantage of recently-opened trails and gorgeous weather and camped along the Potomac River on the Billy Goat Trail in Potomac, Maryland.

Known as one of the best hikes in the DC area, Billy Goat Trail comprises three sections of varying difficulty along the Potomac River leading to the famed Great Falls. The National Park Service handles the reservations for campsites along the trail so we staked claim to our desired spot online and set off for an overnight primitive camping adventure. We eventually found a spot to park our car along Macarthur Boulevard and set off to hike to our campsite.

After setting up our tent and storing our belongings, we set out to explore the trail. We absolutely love Great Falls but up until this past weekend, we had only hiked the trails on the Virginia side. Great Falls is popular with hikers and kayakers alike so while we were far from the only people to spend the Saturday exploring the area, we were pleased to discover that we were among very few campers spending the night.

Hiking as a family is one of my favorite ways to spend time with our children – the conversations we have while logging miles are some of our best – and we’re really starting to get into camping as a family too. No electronics, no vehicles, and no bathrooms (ha!) – our time on the Billy Goat Trail provided us the opportunity to unplug and recharge. We talked about what was going on in the world today and what we can do as a family to help. We brainstormed puppy names. We shared what we were most looking forward to and most nervous about in regards to our impending move. We scrambled rocks on the most difficult parts of the trail (Section A) and we were famished by the time we made it back to our campsite.

We collected firewood and did our best to break down the bigger branches. We rolled logs over to the firepit and before long, we were roasting smoked bratwursts and hot dogs and campfire potatoes. We ate smores, the little guy shared some ghost stories, and then we went on a night hike – complete with spooky sounds and the faint roar of the Great Falls rapids.

The next morning was spent cooking breakfast over the fire, drinking coffee under a canopy of trees, and hiking. We veered off the trail and climbed so many rock structures that we lost count. It was an absolute quintessential perfect Sunday morning.

Nature is not a place to visit. It is home.

Gary Snyder

By the afternoon, we packed up our belongings and posed for one last picture to document our first little post-quarantine getaway. We were dirty, a little smelly, and a whole lot happier. We learned some lessons on the Billy Goat Trail this past weekend. Some practical. Some informative. And a few that we can only hope will be life-changing. Our children are learning that a deeper connection to nature will help them feel more grounded. Tough hikes build resilience and grit – two attributes that are essential to survival. And perhaps most important, hiking builds connections. Maybe it’s the fresh air or perhaps it’s the comfort in silence, but not only does spending time outdoors bring us closer as a family, it brings us closer to ourselves.

“I go to nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put in order.”

John Burroughs