My first solo driving adventure took me through Thurso, the usual terminus for my driving adventures and the extreme end of my knowledge of local geography, all the way to Lybster. Yesterday I made it there only half an hour late with one and a half wrong turns. Getting there was one of the achievements of the day.
Another achievement was actually getting the car up to 60 miles an hour--the speed limit. Ever since I started driving in this looking-glass world, staying on the road and fighting the internal vertigo that comes from mirror image driving occupied all my attention. Driving used to mean occasionally doing up to 80 miles an hour on the interstate around Indianapolis to get to work on time or trying to keep pace with even faster moving cars on the Dan Ryan expressway to get to my daughter in Chicago.
Because I made it to Lybster and back home again, I decided to go back again today for another day of a workshop on felting. With my new found confidence I had the opportunity to reflect that the route from the farm to the North Lands Creative Glass works in Lybster describes much of the countryside, so I'll take you through the trip with me.
I notice the fields as I drive out the farm road. The barley that was sown about a week ago is through the ground and giving the brown fields a sheen of green something like a verdant hopeful first growth of a teen ager's beard. I also notice the rooks in the chimneys of the abandoned farm cottage in the turn of the road, the gulls in the fields, and the swallows. I am too late for the magpies song and dance routine above the fields or the rabbits on the edges of the field. The cattle are settled into the business of grazing and I slip by them without causing them even to look up.
I turn on to the main road, which looks like a county or state road in Indiana. One other car joins me within the next few 5 miles as well as a tractor pulling a load who turns into a nearby farm. I do not remember his name, but I smile and wave as I go by. Nearly everyone here knows who I am, so I smile and wave even if I am not sure that I know them. With each day, it gets more likely that I do know them.
This route into Thurso takes me along the coast. The road has a number and perhaps a name, too, but I have always heard it described simply as the coast road. When I first tried finding my way all the way into Thurso, Morris said simply, "The ocean on your left into town; on your right back home." I am aware of the water but can't take the time to notice the colors or the mood of the water. White caps mean a wind of at least 50 miles an hour; active waves that break on the shore mean rougher weather coming in a day or so.
Atop the crest of the hill that begins the descent into town is a sight that always amazes me. The water spreads in front of me from one horizon to the next. Out of the corner of my eye I see a large ship. Not the Hamnavoe ferry, something a bit out of the ordinary. I'll hear about it either from the newspaper or from our butcher or one of our neighbors. People notice and talk about the world around them and use the letters to the editor column of The Caithness Courier
and The John o Groat Journal
for lively conversations.
Thurso is a big enough town to be more than a dot on the map. Although not the biggest town in Caithness, it has a three-plex cinema, library, fitness center, two large grocery stores, a recognizable downtown, and a pedestrian mall with shops, including our butcher, as well as schools and churches, including the remains of a 12th century church, St. Peters, and a bowling club.
I turn onto the A9, which someday when I am even braver, I will take all the way to Inverness. The 110 miles to Inverness includes three roundabouts and more traffic than all of Caithness combined, so that will be a super size adventure. Today I pass the Georgemas train station and then road signs pointing to the villages of Watten and to Halkirk. After a scatter of houses and sheep and cattle grazing in the field, I come to Spittal, the only town on the route large enough to have a name on the side of the road and a reduced speed limit. I go the prescribed 50 miles an hour through the town. It takes exactly one minute to go through Spittal.
The farming landscape gives way to hilll country--peat and heather and boggy ground. Patches of evergreen trees planted as shelter belts offer dark green spots on an amber and tawny beige landscape. The dancing ladies of Causeway Mire--two dozen wind turbines-come into view and dominate the landscape. Today they wave their blades gently in the breeze in a lyrical reverie. Caithness has great potential to harvest the wind, but as with so many things up here, it is controversial and opinion is polarized. Those of us in the middle ground mostly stay quiet.
Next to the dancing ladies is an active peat harvesting area. This, too, is controversial. Some think that digging peat is a useful industry and part of long standing traditions; others think that the peat is a resource to be preserved.
Shortly after the peat and the dancing ladies, I turn left at a small sign that says simply, "Lybster 6 miles", but that in itself speaks volumes. Lybster is one of the many place names that testifies to the Viking presence in Caithness. Variations on the "-bster"suffix derive from the old Norse word for farm settlement.
And the road itself is another Scottish phenomenon--a single track road. The name suggests what it is, but just to make it clear, I'll tell you a joke that I have heard often. "Why is it that Americans are so fond of our single-track roads?" "It's the only time they don't have to worry about which side of the road to be on!" That's only half true. The single track is narrow enough that you have to worry about staying on the road. Either side is likely to be unfriendly to cars--wet or high or a drainage ditch or containing a lamb that just might decide to run across the road in front of you.
As if that weren't enough to think about, there is the challenge of what happens if a car comes the other way. Notice I say if
. I have been on single track roads where this was a non-issue, but this road runs through Rumster Forest and Outdoor Recreation area and there are also farms and houses along the 6 mile stretch. I meet another car, and so I look for the nearest layby-- a small half-lane vaguely like an aneurysm on an artery that provides a holding pen for one of the vehicles. The rules of engagement are that whoever is nearest a layby pulls in to let the other car go by unless the lay by is on the other side of the road. It is an offence to cross the road, so to speak, to pull into a layby. On the way to Lybster, I successfully pull into a layby for a car and then two cars pull into laybys and let me pass. Very civilized. A little wave is usually part of the exchange.
On the way home from Lybster, I encounter an oncoming car, and the nearest layby is behind me. With my heart in my throat I make an attempt to do the right thing by reversing into the layby. I do it so badly that the oncoming driver offers me hand gestures to tell me which way to move my car and then glides past. I offer a sheepish grin and a shoulder shrug instead of the usual wave.