Friday, May 19, 2006

The Train to Inverness

I wake early. I cannot tell time by the sun here and now. It is the season of near constant light. At 5am the sun is up but low on the horizon and the sky is full of flat grey clouds. If the sky lifts, it will be a lovely day, but the clouds can linger for days and occasionally deposit a cold rain. Even though it is May and the temperature is moderate, the damp cold bites through clothes and sometimes drains my spirit away along with the warmth. I wear tights beneath my jeans and layer a camisole with a thin lambswool sweater and then a favorite purple shirt. My clothes are now a mixture of American and Scottish. On top of the basic layers I add a wool jacket in purple, black and gray checkerboard squares. I bought it in an organic, whole foods store in Indianapolis from a couple who brought them back from some part of the world that needed support. A friend had the same jacket that she bought in a sidewalk stall in New York. Comfort clothes, good memories and the reason for my early rising make the morning easier. Today I am taking the train by myself from Thurso to Inverness and the only train south leaves at 6:51.

Before Thomas the Tank Engine and his friends there was the Little Engine that Could. Childhood memories of books and a well-worn record led to a fascination with trains that I have not outgrown despite many disappointments trying to travel by train in the United States. Scotrail runs reliably if not grandly in the highlands. By virtue of its location it offers some of the most wondrous viewing in the world, but the beautiful scenery contrasts sharply with the dilapidated condition of the stations. The station in Thurso is closed. Most of the other stations along the way seem closed or, at best, down at the heels and offer only minimal services.

I find a seat with a table in front. It is all plastic so it is a bit like sitting in someone's kitchen. From my window seat, I look out as the arable fields give way to moor and heather with gentle waves of soft colors of taupe and beige and golden brown and purple grey stretching along a wide horizon. The gentle swaying of the train eases me into dozing. I open my eyes near Kildonan, the site of the historical center of clan Gunn territory--my reputed clan. The name probably refers to a church purported to have been built by Saint Donan back when Picts were bringing Christianity to the region around a thousand years ago.

As the train rolls into Helmsdale and Brora, we ride along the coast. I have been on the motorway looking over at the rail line and at the ocean. When I was a child in Indiana, I often heard a train whistle in the night and resolved that someday I would ride that train. Even in my childhood, the train was relegated to carrying only freight, but I have been trying to ride trains wherever I could as if this would satisfy that childhood promise to myself or just to see what it is like to look at the same place from two very different perspectives: like diving a particular coral reef in the early morning and then again at twilight.

The clouds have lifted and the sunlight off the water as we head towards Brora has the lambent silver quality of a quiet sea at twilight. The tide is out, the water is calm. I have seen those colors before; I have walked on that beach. Brora to me means ice cream because almost every time Morris and I pass here we stop at the little ice cream shop. I once had lavender ice cream, but the flavors are usually more conventional. Place memories help connect me to this new life.

The next station, Golspie, is the site of a rock shop and exhibit area that is a treat for rock hounds but not exactly a mainstream tourist attraction. Golspie is also where Morris goes to the dentist. It is a long drive for a dentist, but the scarcity of dentists is one of the challenges of living in a remote rural area with a declining population. Perhaps also there are failures of policy oir mis-administration of the NHS but I cannot follow all those arguments and perhaps I never willl.

The train moves inland again. I close my eyes and the sun warms my face. When I open my eyes, I see the branches of birch trees with their green leaves unfolding. The sight makes me smile. Back home the trees are only beginning to leaf out and there are few trees. Back home in Thurso, that is. In Indiana the trees are well leafed out, the corn is in the ground and poking through the dark soil like soldiers on parade. I shake my head to shuffle those memories. At first it was too painful to think about it at all; now I can indulge an occasional memory of my first home without a twinge but I do not linger there for long because there are still sudden tender spots in the remembering.

The last few stations are more urban. The train makes a polite, electronic whistle: tootle oo that would be lost on the more remote stations. We roll into Inverness, the capital of the highlands, a big town, a regional shopping center, and I step off the train for an urban adventure. I am alone in a city in Scotland on my own for the first time. The quickest way to dispel the myth that everyone else knows better than I do how to get around this strange town is to ask directions.

I ask directions first from a couple who sit down next to me at a cafe immediately adjacent to the train station. It turns out that they are on a bus tour of the highlands and are even less local than I am. I buy their coffee and hot chocolate and relish the opportunity to say to someone else the words I have heard so often: "Enjoy the rest of your holiday." In the cafe, a local directs me in the general area of the driving office and then someone else volunteers to give me detailed directions.

Unfortunately, life in a state carved out on careful grids and living in a city with straight streets and names and numbers on the streets has not prepared me for Inverness. Nothing is straight and phrases like "second right" lose their meaning when streets and alleys look alike and nothing is named. I find out later that I have wandered too far afield, but it is a pleasant day for a walk.

When I lose faith that I am going in the right direction, I stop two young men. They are, like me, semi local. They live here but they speak mostly Polish. I point to the map and explain what I want and they talk to each other in Polish and then each points in a different direction.

I do eventually find where I need to go and discover how far afield I was and go back an easier route. I feel at home when I see a sign for Capaldi's ice cream. I find a used book store and browse among the knitting books. Then I find a shop that sells good walking boots and chat with a young man. I come out with boots and insoles and a new pack and a big grin on my face. I am one step closer to my new persona of hillwalker.

I find my way to the train station. I am ready to head for home, but the train won't leave for another hour. I go next door to a hotel where I have been before. I have been here at least 4 times but I have clear memories only of the last time. My first year in Scotland has some vague spots. I settle into the bar with a glass of red wine and looking over my purchases. Nina Simone is playing in the background.

I go back to the train station early. I am ready to be home now. I join a few others making a queue and head tothe train as soon as it opens as if this will hurry it on its way. I call Morris and he says that he can meet me at Forsinard, a station about 30 minutes from home. I say yes despite a bit of worry about finding one more new place today because I am ready to be home and I have for some time wanted to see the station at Forsinard because guided walks through the Flow Country begin here and I want to take part. Like the boots and the interval training, at least touching down at the station is in my mind another step toward being a hillwalker.

The young man who brings me a sandwich and cup of tea comes back with a brochure and map of the route--not a detailed topographic map but a representation of the route that describes the wildlife and a bit of the history. I lay it out on the table in front of me and follow the train's route. In part I am anxious about finding the right station, but mostly I am ready to be home and somehow checking off the stations seems to make this faster. The young man lives in Thurso, he tells me. He tells me which street and I am able to see it in my mind's eye. I am one step closer to home.

The cityscape and the coast give way to the moors and I see two deer by the side of the train and then I see a handful of them and then as the train moves along, the moors come alive with deer. They are so close in color with the land that it seems as if they spring up from the ground itself. At last the train slows down to pull into Forsinard. I see Morris on the platform trying to look unconcerned but I can tell he is glad to see me. The conductor has said to leave by way of the back door of the leading car. I have no idea which car is leading and, hence, which door is the back door. I find my own way to the nearest door, push the yelllow button, and hop down the two feet to the platform. At once I see Morris smiling and a confused conductor picking up the little step stool from what must have been the back door of the leading car. Next time I'll know better, but now I am home and thoughts of the train are already fading as it pulls out of the station with the few remaining passengers.


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