Bookends

Today we bookended one of the most touristy destinations in all of Scotland with two slices of more local culture. We started our day at the Scottish Highland Games in nearby Newtonmore, followed that with a visit to Loch Ness and Castle Urquhart, and closed things out back in Nethy Bridge at the remains of one of the oldest castles in Scotland, Castle Roy (11th century).

As for local culture, both the Highland Games and Castle Roy certainly fit the bill. We didn’t know the Highland Games were happening nearby until we saw a sign yesterday while driving. The games go on all summer, with the venue moving from town to town, and today was the day for Newtonmore.

The activities are a mix of athletics (hammer throw, high jump, trail runs, shotput, etc.), cultural activities (traditional Scottish dancing, bagpipes, children’s games), music, carnival rides, and the Scottish equivalent of funnel cakes and candy. It’s hard to go wrong with any of that.

As one might expect, the Highland Games are a very big deal to the communities that host them, in particular the athletic events. We were likely the only Americans (or at least among the few) in attendance today, and we appreciated the opportunity to experience something truly local.

The mix of athletics with music (especially bagpipes) and dancing is certainly unique–but we walked away from the Games thinking more about how alike our cultures really are. There were carnival rides, adults enjoying family outings, kids that dropped ice cream cones and burst into tears, kids that were all smiles after getting replacement cones–pretty much what you might see in a lot of places in the US.

Next, we were off to Urquhart Castle and Loch Ness, where we went from being the only Americans to being the only Americans that had attended the Scottish Highland Games that day (?), quite the trade.

As for Loch Ness, it gained its fame in part through the legend of the Loch Ness Monster, which dates to 1933 (at least). Regardless of the veracity of that tail, we’d heard that the Loch was beautiful and that Urquhart Castle was interesting (it was, and it is). And when you combine an historic castle (1200s) with a beautiful Loch and the story of a mysterious sea serpent, you have a recipe for a giant gift shop and an overflowing parking lot.

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The Loch is loved well beyond Scotland. And much of the Loch’s draw has to be that it’s hard to prove to a skeptical public that something doesn’t exist (and how ironic is that?!). Another thing that humans seem to share across cultures is that we thrive on the mystery of the unknown, whether it’s Nessie, Bigfoot, the Abominable Snowman, or Souzz’s personal favorite, Champ, the sea serpent that supposedly prowls Vermont’s Lake Champlain.

Monster or not, the sheer beauty of the Loch and Urquhart Castle are not to be discounted (and yes, I really did just type “monster or not”), And it’s a reminder that touristy things are sometimes touristy for multiple reasons. And we don’t know what’s under the surface, either.

We closed out our day at Castle Roy, an 11th century fortress built by the Clan Comyn in Nethy Bridge, and we were delighted to find that we were the only people there. While Castle Roy is not nearly as dramatic or famous as Urquhart, it is also a special place, and it reinforced to us that Scotland is a land of many different kinds of experiences.

We didn’t expect to see Nessie today, but just yesterday we hadn’t expected to go to the Highland Games or Castle Roy. That’s a pretty good day of discovery.

Looking for Sasquatch

The east coast has some fun destinations, including Great North Mountain, which forms the border between Virginia and West Virginia for about 50 miles. Much of the mountain is above 3000 feet, so the views across neighboring valleys are among the best around. The area also has a well-developed trail system, including a few summits that offer 360-degree views (ok, so I guess you can actually see in multiple directions from any place).

This weekend’s trip was to Sugar Knob Cabin, which was built in 1920 as a shelter for rangers patrolling the George Washington National Forest. Nowadays the cabin is managed by the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club and is rented out to backpackers willing to make the six mile (round trip) trek.

I have backpacked past this modest 10 foot square stone structure many times, dating back to the mid-1980s, and have always been curious about it. I was invited inside once by a few new friends on a rainy day, but I had never stayed there–until this past weekend.

Souzz and I arrived at the trailhead on Forest Service Road 92 on Saturday morning, heavy on food but light on everything else. We carried just a small butane stove, a first aid kit, headtorches, a small lantern, a water filter, a few extra clothes…and the frybake, which I carry with me at all times (in case somebody needs an emergency casserole). As for water, there’s a spring not far from the cabin, and we’d been told that the cabin was stocked with pots, pans, utensils, axes, a wood stove, and pretty much anything else we were likely to need.

The hike in was steady uphill (1500 feet of elevation gain), but not too steep. Little Stony Creek runs right along much of the trail, and there were some nice views as we got closer to the ridge. The hike seemed longer than three miles, suggesting that the map is wrong…or perhaps suggesting that most hikers don’t carry a 6-pack, a bag of charcoal, a mini-cooler, and a four course meal.

The area has a deep history, including a moonshine operation in the 1930s, a tragedy in the 1950s (sadly, a scout leader got lost near here in in a winter storm), a lot of bear sightings, and even a pretty recent Bigfoot sighting.

As for Bigfoot, a hiker wrote that his group was staying in Sugar Knob Cabin and saw “a dark, very hairy large face looking at us about a foot outside the window.” Hmm…that sounds suspiciously like just about everybody I’ve ever hiked with (except Souzz).

With no Bigfoot sightings to amuse us, we were left to enjoy this fabulous spot. Sugar Knob Cabin is cozy and quaint, and one could almost feel the history of the place. Looking around inside at the stonework and the wood stove, I wondered what those walls would say if they could talk (perhaps something like “man, Souzz’s husband is a total blowhard.”)

As for dinner, we started with cheese and salami, then moved on to steamed mussels and fresh-baked bread (from the frybake). The mussels appetizer was pre-cooked with tomato and garlic sauce by a company called Bantry Bay. We highly recommend this dish–but I suppose there is a carbon impact when one eats mussels from Chile sold by an Irish company while hiking in the Blue Ridge. All told, it did feel like a big foot print (so to speak).

We followed the mussels with filet mignon, mashed fingerling potatoes, and green beans with mushrooms. It was great to eat next to the fire, and the weather was perfect.

After dinner, we enjoyed the fire, made “break and bake” cookies in the frybake, and marveled at the beautiful starry night sky.

As we soaked in the sounds of crickets and tree frogs, all was well in our world–until Souzz was startled by a huge, smelly, hairy creature tromping around near the cabin.

I was just getting some more wood.