I can’t breathe out of my nose, and it feels like I swallowed a spoonful of gravel at some point in my sleep. I haven’t been sick in years, and now I’m sick.
As the sun rises late the outline of a castle appears outside my window…A CASTLE. Moreover, the sky is brilliantly clear. It’s as if the gods were rewarding us for the previous day’s painstaking journey. I don’t care if I’m not feeling well, I’m pressing through.
By the time I’m ready everyone’s waiting. And we decide to kick off the day by popping one of the bottles of prosecco we brought to drink on the train. It’s just enough to keep my sore throat at bay.
Even with nary a cloud in the sky Edinburgh is a damp place. It feels mildewed in the way of a deep mystic cave, or a dank basement in an old house. The castle looms over the town as an ancient reminder that, once upon a time, all one needed was elevation and stone to rule a land. We make our way up a series of steps to the esplanade in front of the castle. It commands a 360 degree view of the region. I found it reminiscent of Quebec City, a town with a distinct “upstairs” and “downstairs” surrounded by an intruding body of water. The Firth of Forth in Edinburgh’s case vs. the St. Lawrence in Quebec City’s case.
The castle is appropriately ancient, a chapel on the grounds dates back to the 12th century. There are more stories here than an entire state back home. A cold, raw wind whips up the hillside as we walk around the castle grounds. We work our way inside to see the Scottish crown jewels, including the Stone of Destiny.
How awesome is it to have something called the Stone of Destiny?
It’s a rectangular piece of rock about the size of a microwave. Behind the glass it looks as if it’s been through a millennia of drama. The stone carries with it the symbolism of Scottish independence and resistance. It was taken by the English in the 13th century and embedded in the coronation chair in Westminster Abbey until about 20 years ago. That’s when it was finally returned to Scotland as part of a recognition of a growing Scottish tide. Now it sits behind glass.
Royalty is an odd thing to me, and something I never had much interest in. I saw it as a tabloid phenomenon, incestuous and ancient. I think American history is sometimes so easy to study that the complexities of foreign systems become overwhelming, and in the process we let the surface level arguments excuse us from studying episodes like royal succession. That being said, I’ve turned a corner on this recently. I’ve started studying the English civil wars, which has ignited an interest in the characters that played a role during, and leading up to, that era. Point being, that as you walk in to see the Scottish Honors, you’re also walking through the history of Scotland, and through key moments in the civil wars. It was a crystallizing moment to bring some of my studies into tangible reality. Travel. I’d love to get into it, but I’ve already digressed enough.
Back outside the crisp air hits. Standing atop a castle we map out the day. I want to climb to the top of Arthur’s Seat, Jon and I look at that compared to some of the other landmarks. It looks far away, and high, but doable. Even at 10 a.m. the sun hangs low enough in the sky that it seems it’ll disappear at any moment. We’re still awe-struck at the crystal clear skies.
Our gameplan is to head down the Royal Mile, sneak into some shops, grab lunch and then climb the mountain, cold be damned. And one great way to damn a cold is with some good Scotch whiskey. After a lap up and down the mile we stop for lunch at a place called the Jolly Judge. It’s Sunday so they open late, which means we just stand outside on the steps looking as sad and cold as possible until they open the doors. It works, and we have the bar to ourselves for all of 15 minutes.
I’m not sure which is warmer, the Scotch whiskey or the fireplace. There’s no need for competition, it’s all pleasant. The bartenders are young guys, but full of whiskey knowledge. Somehow the conversation circles to our plan to climb Arthur’s Seat, I mention off-hand that I’m in no shape to climb a mountain.
“A mountain?!? That’s no mountain…that’s just a little hill.”
There’s no comeback. I want to tell them every mountain I ever climbed, but I know that’ll only make things worse. And so I acknowledge my lack of manliness, shoot the rest of the whiskey and walk out the door determined to climb a mountain, that’s not really a mountain.
It really isn’t that big of a climb, it looks much bigger from a distance. The initial path is paved, but as you step up the pavement becomes a well-worn path. For today, though, it’s a creek. All of the rain that’s fallen over the last few days continues to run off the mountain (that’s not really a mountain). Ten minutes in and Lauren is livid. She wasn’t prepared to hike/wade up a mountain (that’s not really a mountain) and so we determine to split off for the remainder of the day. Jon and I continue up, as Emily and Lauren head back into town.
The hike isn’t especially difficult, and as such it is crowded. Especially on an off-chance day of sunshine. Speaking of the sun, its low station in the sky casts a constant golden glow on the landscape. There’s something called the “golden hour” in photography, in Scotland in the winter the golden hour lasts all day. So, for every step I take, I snap another photo. As we push past the switchbacks and up to the first false summit the wind is pushing back with enough force that hang-gliding using only my coat seems a realistic possibility.
This sub-summit is covered in a bed of stubble-length grass. It’s the image of Scotland that I’ve always conjured up, the moment when stereotype meets reality. We press on up a rocky crag too narrow for most Americans, and then we’re at the top. The wind speed picks up by a factor of ten. Jon and I don’t say a word, we split up and immediately start taking pictures.
To the east is the sea, to the south is another range of mountains pushing back against the low-hanging sun, to the west is a castle atop a mountain and the rest of Edinburgh. This is a magical, surreal location. In places like Sedona, Arizona they talk about vortices of energy atop rocky formations. There is a feeling like that here, but instead of a spiritual portal this is a door to an ancient world when iron and bronze were first forged and blocks of sandstone determined kingdoms. Arthur’s Seat itself is a geologic remnant of another epoch, an extinct, plugged volcano. In another age Scotland was soaked not in rain, but in molten earth.
Everything we dealt with the day before…the trains, the buses, the cabs, the hassle…I’d do it all again in a heartbeat for this precise moment. This is one of those rare moments that combine place with circumstance to create perfection.
We take our time at the top, and we take our time heading back down using the low winter sun as a backdrop for the hero shot.
Back down the mountain we walk through the campus of the University of Edinburgh on our way to meet up with Lauren and Emily. Edinburgh is strangely layered upon itself, streets crisscross streets at different levels. This makes it confusing when you’re trying to find something on GPS. The dot shows us at the bar where we’re supposed to meet up, but there’s no bar here. A few minutes of investigation reveal that there’s a street below us.
That street is predictably dark and damp. It’s lined by hostels and backpacker joints and, logically, an Aussie bar. We’re not going there. The bar we’re heading to feels subterranean. It’s Sunday, so soccer (football) is on every television. It feels late in the evening, but it’s barely 4 p.m. Meeting Emily and Lauren we’re sure that they’re going to be envious of the adventure that took us atop Arthur’s Seat. But, alas, they are not. You see, it seems that as we went high, they went low.
When they went back into town they stopped inside a church that had been converted into a market of sorts. While shopping they started talking to one of the employees, who was apparently the son of the guy who runs the place. The kid took our wives on a tour beneath Edinburgh, deep into the guts of the city and 500 years into the past. This city, like most, has progressively built upon itself, burying history in the process so that a few centuries later a pair of American women can stumble upon this anachronistic landscape. I’ll let Lauren tell the full story…I’ve already butchered it enough.
After a drink we make the call to head toward the Christmas markets along the Princess Street Gardens. The markets are terraced into the landscape along three levels bottoming out with a festival of rides. I don’t ride rides at county fairs, and I don’t ride rides at Christmas markets. It’s one of my guiding rules never to be violated.
Nevertheless, my cold is back (or rather the whiskey’s worn off) and with a vengeance. I do my best to press on as we weave along the hundreds of booths hawking many of the same wares that you’ll see at just about every market. Not to diminish the phenomenon, it’s quite the holiday spectacle…and Lauren is in heaven.
We walk up to another market in St. Andrew’s Square. It’s, thankfully, far less crowded. At the center of the market is a bar encircled by a moat of frozen ice. It’s an ice-skating rink race track that you have to walk over using elevated stairways. This’ll be another idea I’ll be stealing.
After a bit more shopping and some delicious hot chocolate we’re back on the Royal Mile for dinner. The plan was a place called the Devil’s Advocate. The name comes from the street it’s on: Advocates Close. Think of a close the same way you’d think about an alley, except narrower, older and with stairs and archways. The restaurant looks amazing, but I can’t say anything about the taste…they’re booked out for the evening.
Plan B. We ended up at another restaurant that filled our bellies, but not especially memorably. So it goes. After dinner we ended up back at the Bow Bar where I fell into the trap of drinking beers with locals.
It was quite accidental, a compliment about the beer I ordered turned into a conversation about beer and that became a conversation about the “troubles in Northern Ireland” and that turned into a conversation about food and that turned into a conversation about Washington, D.C. and that turned into a phone conversation with their friend who lives in Arlington, Virginia and that turned into a conversation about American politics and that turned into last call.
Christmas morning in our household is nothing short of chaos. It’s been that way as long as I can remember. The chaos comes with the numbers. At my grandparent’s house in St. Louis we’d cram 30 people into a single-level ranch-style three bedroom house for the days leading up to the gifting on Christmas morning. And then a flurry of wrapping paper being tossed into low orbit met with a chorus of oohs and ahhs and cheers and thank you’s would occupy the living room for more than two hours.
My dad’s family is big.
Our family isn’t quite so big, but it is still larger than the average American family. Add up my parents, my two brothers and their partners along with my sister and Lauren…and things get crowded in a hurry. But, that’s what makes the day so fun.
So in this adventure in time lapse, I give you the chaos of Christmas morning at my parent’s house in North Carolina.
Some of the highlights here: I like to watch as people get wearable gifts. You’ll see my brother in the foreground change his shirt twice as he’s gifted a t-shirt and then a hockey jersey.
Also watch out for Lauren to start the festivities as the gift elf. She got bored with it pretty quickly, I took over…and let’s just say the rest of the gift exchange took on a more authoritarian bent.
Just to give you an idea of how long this stretched, I set the GoPro to take photos every 5 seconds. The “clean-up” is actually cut off because the SD card filled.
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!
Passing by Big Ben the crowds thicken. It is Friday, and a gorgeous one at that. We opt out of a walk through Westminster Abbey, I’ve been in there before and Lauren isn’t £20 interested. A long walk later puts us in front of Buckingham Palace where the crowds actually aren’t that bad. Sometimes it’s fun to return to a landmark, it’s another case where your attention works differently. The little details matter more, you’re less awestruck. For me, this is a good spot to play around with the camera and then watch people as they watch a palace presumably full of royal people. At least according to the flag.
You’re in a crowded bar packed shoulder to shoulder such that extending your arm for a proper sip is an impossibility, thus the only way to bring rim of glass to lip is by pretending that your arms are little-T-Rex arms that you have to meet halfway. Jurassic Park. It’s a thing.
A missed turn or two later and we are at Fortnum & Mason, a department store just bursting with four stories of Christmas.
We fast track to the Egyptian room. Surrounded by mummies and mummies and more mummies you get around to understanding that the British Museum barely has anything to do with the British. There’s also something really freaky about these mummies when you stop to think about it. Behind the glass in an atmosphere-controlled chamber, wrapped in linens, there are bodies…aged for three millennia. They died in the Egyptian desert and now here they are in damp London as millions of people gawk at them day in and day out.
We are set to meet our friends at a Christmas market in Hyde Park (again this is the mission for Lauren). This means a healthy walk from the British Museum down Oxford Street. The sun sets early here, about 3:30, so we’re in full-on night mode. Light is a commodity in this part of the world. And to make up for a lack of natural light the English have gone full-out in decking the streets with every kind of Christmas light that exists.
There are orbs and strings and stars and peacock-looking things. And suddenly it’s snowing! So magical…except, it shouldn’t be snowing. It’s like 45 degrees. High above one of the department stores snow guns are spewing out the artificial flakes. The crowd spills off of the sidewalk all along Oxford Street almost falling into traffic. A million carols and jingles drift in the air from competing storefronts, it’s holiday anarchy.
I have a left shoe and sock soaked in human piss…and it’s not mine. Well actually one-sixth of it is mine. There’s also some poop on it, but it’s not human.
That’s just the way the weekend had to end.
Don’t get me wrong, it was an excellent weekend (aside from the loss). A weekend so good, it can only be told in pictures (the poop story comes at the end):
It starts with the loneliest croissant. It looks so sad and lonely…and plain.
Another perspective of the greatest tailgate photo ever taken… (oh, you don’t know about that photo?? Well, here you go!)
The long shadows cast early in the morning late in the autumn. Officially known as Tailgate Shadow:
The aerial footage of our tailgate as shot from that missing Aberdeen blimp:
It’s a rooftop conference and clearly a highly engaging story:
Truly nothing else needs to be said about this:
We are 107,000 strong…and about to lose. At this point Lauren was just yelling “khakis!” over and over and over:
I suppose it’s how you look at things…at least Lauren was happy with the outcome of the game:
I took a picture from this same spot of this same tree when it was full of orange and red autumn glory…now it’s full-on winter time.
Central PA was full of beautiful skies this weekend. If only I had something more than my iPhone:
Had to give it a try…not too bad. I think the 409 is for the calorie count:
This Uber had purple running lights. It was amazing. By the way, taking an Uber in State College is way different than in D.C.
Most of the time it was like getting picked up by your mom after a prom party. Seriously, I think there’s a racket of mothers who dominate the Uber driver pool in Central PA. This guy…was not a mom, he was the cool uncle jamming out to Macklemore.
The breakfast of restoration: coffee/OJ/Bloody.
By midday the snow squalls were blowing across Old Main lawn…that’s the kind of cold we were dealing with.
Just in case you don’t believe me:
Last RV standing, that’s how we roll…or not roll. Megan’s Marauders made a surprise football appearance on this very field as all the RV’s left town.
One last shot from the top of the tailgate world…the clouds were terrific:
And now the payoff for sticking with this photo essay, the story below the moneyshot:
So, when you rent an RV you also have to take care of all the little things…like dumping the sewage. My friend Mike was oddly excited for this chore. He just kept saying “Hey Clark, the shitter’s full!” over and over.
It took us a bit of research before we found a dump site at a truck stop. Then we had to figure out the engineering. It’s actually pretty simple:
We failed in step 6. While lifting the hose to get all the “waste” out of the RV and into the ground the hose detached from the poop valve. My left foot was conveniently under the valve in the perfect place for an R. Kelly-style shower. Thankfully, there was no poop thanks to some heads up rule making at the beginning of the trip. But my shoe was thoroughly soaked in human pee, and no replacement shoes were in sight.
After step 7 we were back off and running. We had a deadline, my buddy Gabe had a flight to catch. And it came down to a matter of moments…as always. Gabe and I have been in this situation more times than I can count…and I think I’ll dedicate another blog post to some of our greatest hits.
Nonetheless, we got back to the RV yard in Gaithersburg at 7:30, his flight was leaving at 8:58 from DCA. That translates into rushing to transfer everything from RV to car. Somewhere in the process I stepped in a huge, steaming-fresh pile of dog poop.
So, there you have it. My left shoe is covered in human pee and the sole is coated with dog poop. Perfect.
FWIW, Gabe made the flight. We pulled into Terminal B at 8:23. Standard operating procedure.
With a noon kickoff we had to get up and going pretty early. It’s a process made all the easier when you wake up at the tailgate. It was a cold night for everyone…except me. The RV only had a quarter tank of propane for the heat, so we had to ration it out by only using the heater intermittently. I was happily cocooned in my sleeping bag (rated down to zero degrees), but the commotion of everyone stirring woke me up to the cold, cold world. And within about five minutes I went from nested isolation to tailgating with 150,000 people.
Thanks to some Fireball apple cider Jell-O shots we got to know the guys in the RV next to us. And within a few minutes we were all on the rooftops of our respective vehicles. From there it was a pretty short logical leap to playing beer pong across the ten-foot gap between the RV’s. And that’s how this picture came to be. It was taken from the Michigan side. The ball is hurtling through the chilled late-autumn air, a perfect flick of the wrist sending the sphere of white plastic on a trajectory to one of six red solo cups. Beaver Stadium looms in the background as we collectively stand on the balls of our feet ready for whatever carum the ball may take at the mercy of wind and gravity and physics.
It’s the most perfect tailgate photo ever.
Lauren and I have a vision of our future selves, traversing the countryside in a big recreational vehicle on an endless journey. Maybe one day that’ll be a reality, but this weekend we’re taking a test drive.
With some good friends we’ve rented an RV for the full game day experience of Penn State v. Michigan. It’s the annual test of our marriage, except with the upped ante of being confined within an aluminum shell not much bigger than a closet. If you don’t read another post here, at least you’ll know why.
After a crash course in how not to crash an RV we hopped on the road moving at the molasses speed of Washington traffic. Driving an RV is more like driving a boat than a car. You have to be thinking constantly about inertia. Add in some wind and Maryland drivers and it’s a harrowing experience.
But it’s an experience worth having. Especially in the college football tradition. And especially for these two teams, with proud heritages and well-traveled fan bases.
Ultimately though, this isn’t about football. It never is. It’s about friendship and fellowship and adding entries to the index of experience. It’s the creation of new stories, even as we relive and retell the old stories.
And in this case the RV a becomes the connective tissue. So that as we add seven stops and two hours to our trip in a futile search for propane, we were also adding new pages to our friendships. New tales to be told over beers at another adventure a decade down the road.
We never found that propane…so there’s a distinct possibility we may freeze to death in the mountains of central Pennsylvania.
Been nice knowing you!