In my fiftieth year to heaven, I cycled from the bottom of England at Land’s End to the most northeastern part of Scotland at John O’ Groats. A friend and I completed a somewhat circuitous 900-mile route in about ten days. My first thought on concluding this adventure was to toss my well-traveled Trek 5500 carbon fiber bike into the nearby Pentland Perth, a suburb of the Atlantic Ocean.
Don’t get me wrong. I love my Trek and have ridden it for tens of thousands of miles. But love, patience and fidelity tend to go out the window when one is stuck in the unforgiving and steep Welsh mountains with a bad case of saddle sores and unable to find the precise words to describe this bare bottom agony. I hope environmentalists in the crowd will forgive me for ordering through UPS another saddle from Bicycling Magazine in Emmaus, Pennsylvania, where I worked. Somewhere outside of Cardiff, Wales, I received my new saddle that had a biometrically exact, triangular hole in its sturdy leather hide, correctly centered on my misery. Thank goodness for technology but, truth be told, I slipped into Scotland on a blessed wave of petroleum jelly.
By chance, a journalist from the British Sunday Telegraph newspaper at John O’Groats was interviewing people who had completed the same trip. Along the way we saw the occasional cyclist but were more preoccupied with the enormous number of sheep once we got into the British Midlands and Scotland. By our wooly-headed estimates we had made the acquaintance, so to speak, of a few hundred thousand sheep. I began to understand why local innkeepers were so preoccupied with mutton chops because that was the only food the pubs seemed to serve and the only acceptable facial hair for men of a certain demeanor both north and south of Hadrian’s Wall.
The Sunday Telegraph journalist took our photos and recorded our short tales. I told him as a boy in London I had looked at the map of Great Britain and decided one day I would cycle from south to north. I didn’t really know why. Perhaps the lines of longitude traveled in that direction or some Viking had put out markers a long time ago. That my father had a three-speed Raleigh bike he left out in the rain probably didn’t serve as inspiration.
My friend and I had thought that there was something unique about our trip, that is, until the writer introduced us to an 11-year-old boy from Kent who had completed the same ride with his father in a leisurely eleven days. I came to understand that this route had been a kind of archetypal journey for more than a century. In modern times, those who had suffered deaths in the family, divorces, or other trauma often took this trip by bike or foot and sometimes assisted as a kind of expiation. The wounded, the desperate, the dispossessed come from all over the world seek healing from this ancient land in journeys that might take them days, weeks, months or even years. Some are sponsored for a cause. For most, the motive seems to remain private.
If I may, I’d like to retire the glossy metaphors for a moment. The trip to John O’Groats was absolutely exhilarating, saddle sores and all. The archetypal journey motif we learned about was the icing on the cake. But I’m sorry to report that we arrived in this place when it was widely considered Scotland’s most dismal town. Later, the Scottish architectural magazine “Urban Realm” gave John 0’Groats the Carbuncle Award for, I assume, puss-filled attractions and amenities. It was a wonder I didn’t jump into the handy Perth with my trusty Trek 5500 chain-locked around my neck given the depressingly few wine choices in a place that had been rotting from the inside since the reign of King James IV in the 15th century.
But take heart cyclists and walkers and all those hungry for mutton chops! The Guardian newspaper has reported that John O’Groats has undergone a facelift and now is a worthy destination for all travelers anxious to touch this northern spit of land as if it’s some kind of talisman.
I’d like to take this trip again before the sun finally sets on the British Empire.