Wander no. 10

It astounds me and frustrates me in equal measure how much writing – and I use that term in the widest sense of the word – I can do while I sit astride my bicycle. Cycling has changed for me in recent weeks, rapidly transitioning from something to be done out of necessity to something to be done out of pure and senseless joy. But even more than this, it’s become a meditative action that begins as soon as I step onto the peddles. I no longer listen to music when I ride, ever, and my mind contracts immediately and I think of nothing but the road and the sensation of riding and how the sound of my tyres on the asphalt changes with speed; and what poetic language I am able to craft about it all while racing through the streets! And what a shame it is that I can’t ride and transcribe to paper at the same time. When I step off, the words vanish long before I’ve managed to flex my cramped up hands and locate the pencil in the bottom of my bag. Goddamn.

But whatever. The words that I constructed during my afternoon ride on Tuesday are long gone now, but I feel compelled to talk about it regardless, because it was a damn good ride. As a rule, although I wonder now why such a rule exists at all, I don’t ride very far out on work days, but I’d been gifted that which is as rare for me as the shining blue moon: an early finish. I was out of there before noon. To celebrate, I strolled home under the beating sun and gorged myself on the reduced-price onion bhajis and sausage rolls that I’d picked up from Tesco. I lounged around the house listening to LBC’s rolling commentary on Theresa May’s surprise announcement for a snap election. I read a little bit. I polished off the dishes in the sink. Hours seemed to have passed since I was set free from work and I was certain that the sun was plunging towards the horizon, but when I checked the time, it read 14.33, and I’d run out of things to do.

So! A ride to Dunblane, perhaps? It isn’t so far out – in fact, I’d ridden there and back three days after moving to Stirling, and surely I’d progressed so far in my cycling that it ought to be a breeze now. A nice afternoon stroll there and back, right? Sounds good, so I hit the road.

But in all fairness, I’ve only recently moved to Stirling proper; I’d been living in Bridge of Allan previously (known elsewhere here as the burbs), so the first few miles of this jaunt ran over the route that once carried me home from work in the depths of winter. I was surprised to find that I missed this ride – the path that sweeps around the Forth, the bizarre gated pedestrian level crossing at Cornton, the vast playing fields that I used to traverse by foot in down-time such as this.

But soon, all of this was behind me and I found myself climbing up the 765 on Glen Road, past the hillside mansions of the upper class. I struggled up this incline, my state of mind jumping at once from whimsical to resentful, wondering why I’d even left my house in the first place and forgetting entirely that I’d walked this hill last time. Soon though, the ground levelled out, and with it, my angst. I was now surrounded by the woods, last seen back in November, ablaze with orange. Now, on a nondescript overcast afternoon in spring, not far enough into the year for the trees to have been re-sheathed in green, they stood bare and grey and altogether lifeless. I pedalled on, wondering if I’d have to get the train back from Dunblane when I got there.

So up and up I went, winding along the 765. As it takes you deeper into Kippenrait Glen, the road through becomes restricted to vehicular traffic as it turns up around a tiny waterfall. I stopped on a bridge to stare at the water and ponder why rushing water makes the sound that it does. Some ways up the road, I passed a turning that I’d ambitiously taken on my way back to Bridge of Allan in November, up towards Sheriffmuir, where I’d learned the hard way how to read elevation on a map. And suddenly, much sooner that I remembered, I found myself coming down into Dunblane, racing over a road so smooth, so devoid of all traffic, that I was reminded instantly of those California longboarders, drifting effortlessly down the wide residential streets of the American West. This was perhaps the first place that I’d seen in the British Isles where such a thing might have ever been a possibility, had the road not dumped me out onto a busy roundabout at the bottom.

And there I was, all too suddenly: Dunblane. An insidiously dull town. Home to the Murray brothers and the only school shooting in British history, I came here in November to eat a steak pie by the river and take a leak in the community loo, only to get back on my bike fifteen minutes later and head back home with lack of all else to do. This time, disappointed now at how quickly I’d arrived here and eager – after my mild torment on the way up – to keep going, I swung my bike around the Cathedral and carried on along the 765. It took me up through the houses, again on an incline, past the high school, and out onto a rural path that was so long and unwaveringly straight, lined on both sides with tall trees, that I began to wonder if I was riding through Scotland’s answer to the Tunnel of Love. I turned off and the 765 came to an end, spitting me out in the middle of Doune.

The National Cycle Network is a thing of beauty, but as soon as it ends – or, more often, as soon as I take a wrong turn and fall off of it – I’m entirely useless at finding my way. Doune is a village (read: not a town) that boasts a famous castle. I’d been meaning to ride up here for some time now to check it out, but even though the route ended in the middle of Main Street, I still lost my way. I found myself heading down an A-road back towards Stirling, legs in need of a break now, and got stuck going the wrong way up a one-way street, but soon, finally, I’d managed to locate the castle, shrouded by trees some hundred metres off the main stretch.

I hung out here for some time, surprised to find that Winterfell (as it was before Northern Ireland’s Castle Ward had taken over the role) was surrounded by a river. I live a stone’s throw now from the Forth and waterways have become a casual feature in my life, but I found myself altogether disinterested in the castle, drawn instead to the banks of the Teith, where I crashed down onto the grass and sat a while, crunching on shortbread (also reduced from Tesco) and gazing at a fisherman on the other side until I began to feel the chill.

I stood. There was still the minor issue of getting back. Doune is too far removed and far too small to be serviced by a train station, so perhaps the most direct route back home would be to head back through the Tunnel of Love and jump on the train in Dunblane. And yet, my mind wandered to the wider Stirling cycle map tacked to my bedroom wall. I’d stared at it so often in the months past that its routes had been burned onto the backs of my eyes, and I knew that there was a path nearby that would take me back down into Bridge of Allan, dropping me off down by the abattoir on the short circular route that I used to ride on my days off before I realised that my legs had the ability to go much further.

And so I went. I wrote a post once about being unable to reach the top of a hill, and now, after climbing many more, I found myself coming down it. I flew past a bank of trees that I’d once photographed as the autumn sun set it alight from its perch on top of the horizon. The Trossachs rose in the distance behind me as I raced home, back down through the old burbs, now invigorated by how far I’d come and how close I was to the finish line.

I stumbled inside. I stood in the kitchen, alive to the tips of every nerve ending. For the pure, senseless joy of it all.

White smoke rising up off the coast

I stumbled into Bakarameistarinn before the sun had really even moved above the horizon, bleary-eyed and starving. I don’t know what I’d been expecting, but I was aiming for the Bonus in Kringlan, crossing the huge dual carriageway – heavy now with rush-hour traffic – that separated it from the residential block where I was staying. Once across, I’d trekked almost the entire perimeter of the shopping centre in search of a pedestrian entrance, only to discover that it didn’t open for another two and a half hours. My stomach, last satiated eleven hours ago with a Cup Noodle and snack-sized pot of Skyr, contracted sharply. I’d spent so long kicking around the city the day before that by the time I’d arrived at the Bonus on Laugavegur, it was too late. I’d already eaten all of my provisions – Scottish Tablet and a grab bag of salt & vinegar Kettle Chips that I’d picked up for the plane from the Sainbury’s outside Queen Street Station – so I’d taken refuge in the nearest corner convenience store, but that was too far away from me now. The bakery, immediately off the dual carriageway, reminded me of the sort back in the United States that serviced white collar commuters from the distant suburbs, but it’d have to do for now. And thus, I spent my first morning in Reykjavik, sitting at a bar at the window with a freshly baked cinnamon roll (which always taste much better straight out of a Scandi bakery) and a much-too-frothy flat white, watching the late-rising sun come up over the morning traffic. I was overjoyed.

I’ve been back in Scotland for over a month now and I have written nothing, but nothing is the same as it was then, when I sat in that bakery waiting for Bonus to open. Everything has changed, and Reykjavik is the tangible barrier between how things were before and how they are now, or perhaps it was the catalyst? I don’t know if the timing of that trip had turned out to be coincidental, or if the stark contrast of the landscape up north that I’d first seen from the plane as we glided over Reykjanes, the Southern Peninsula that houses Iceland’s only international airport, had jarred something in my head. But the last time that I did write here, a tiny entry executed on my phone as I sat alone on that empty flight, there was a sense of disbelief at the easy nature of what I’d done. Staring down at the black Atlantic as it lapped up against the snowy shoreside was absolutely no different to me than staring out at the Southern Uplands on the cross-country service back to England, and how important that sensation turned out to be. I’d longed for years to see Iceland, and it struck me as profound – beautifully so – to find that there was nothing extraordinary about it all. After all, there is little that I love more than spending a few hours on a train, rolling through the hills and heading to nowhere in particular.

I never left the city while I was there. My dorm-mates seemed to have dropped tens of thousands of krona on every over-priced excursion that was on offer, and my excuses to them about my decision to stay in Reykjavik became less defensive and more half-hearted the more I recited them. But I didn’t want to go to the Blue Lagoon or to Gullfoss or Seljalandsfoss or the Black Beach. I did want to go to Vik and I kept an eye on the auroral forecast, but all the same, I felt so soon after landing at Keflavik that this would not be the last time that I would be here. I wasn’t so much disinterested in the Icelandic wilderness as I was straight-up interested in Reykjavik, so instead, declaring my hostel as the true centre of the city, I took all roads that led out from it and I walked for miles in every direction. The woods, the financial district, the impossibly quiet residential areas, across the frozen lake that separates city hall from Háskóli Íslands, and always down to the waterside. I stopped and watched tiny planes take off from the domestic airport in the middle of town, headed out to Greenland and Egilsstaðir and Akureyri. I drank a lot of coffee (the best being from Kaffitár on Laugavegur, although I was sad as hell when I realised that I’d forgotten to hit up Reykjavik Roasters before I left) and very little beer. I read through Amy Tan’s Joy Luck Club, Washington Irving’s Sleepy Hollow, and two issues of the Reykjavik Grapevine. I fired through nine rolls of 36-exposure film on my ex-partner’s point-and-shoot camera. And I listened to the Wooden Sky’s Let’s Be Ready on repeat for five days straight as I wound my way through the city, a Canadian rendering of such northern lands. I can hear Gavin Gardiner’s voice ringing out every time I think about it: “White smoke rising up off the coast / heaven surrounds me now.” In the lavatory of the plane on the way back home, I learned some Icelandic. Reyk means smoke; Reykjavik literally translates into “bay of smoke”, named such for the geothermal hot springs nearby. I think I laughed out loud when it dawned on me. Stupidly profound, really.

And all of it so commonplace. As a teenager, I’d created an image of this place that was shrouded in mysticism, taken primarily from my love of Sigur Rós and my lesser interest in the ancient Icelandic sagas. I can hardly remember now what I imagined it to be back then, because instead, I can see perfectly the view of Faxa Bay from the corner of Snorrabraut and Eriksgata. Iceland is invariably white, you know; the only respite from the monotone snowy ground and the overcast sky comes from the sea and the eccentrically coloured buildings downtown. But in this instant, as I stared down that long street, a busy thoroughfare for traffic, a spot of sunlight, low in the sky and brilliantly golden, broke through the clouds and landed on the lower slopes of Esja on the far side of the bay. It lingered just long enough for me to register that it was there. I turned my head towards Perlan on the hillside for a moment, and when I looked back, it was gone, and I carried on, hands deep in the pockets of my coat.

It was so banal, so goddamn beautiful, and finding myself in that instant was no trouble at all. A train, a bus, a plane, another bus, and miles upon miles of footwork over the ground. All of it so simple and agreeable to me, and isn’t that it? Gavin Gardiner’s voice is ringing out again, singing a much older song now: “You were born a fair-haired child of the valley / and though at times it felt that you were tethered to the ground / you’re not a stone.

Two weeks after I landed back in Scotland, I moved out of the ‘burbs and into a room closer to town. My new housemates, themselves recently moved in, are folks who’ve just decided to take a break of indeterminate (but not indefinite) length from the full nomadic lifestyle. I laughed out loud when it dawned on me. I’ve been so wrapped up in chasing something, in forcing a sense of purpose here, in elevating myself to something that means something to others, but why? If what I find truly satisfying is the sensation of my feet on the ground, running through the streets of a North Atlantic city, moving over the neutral tones of the airport carpet, down the centre aisle of a train racing southwards, or glued to the pedals of my bicycle as it races down the street at 15 kilometres an hour, then why? 

I came home one night a few weeks ago and retracted my enrolment on a postgraduate course at the University of Stirling. I completed the half-finished application for a work visa in New Zealand. It was approved three days later. And isn’t that it?

I don’t know, but I do think so.

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