A Wee Nip

How does one choose where to go? A world so diverse, each territory a unique jewel, glistening among handfuls and handfuls? Wherever you land, you will find adventure! The trick is to quickly toss down your luggage, pull on clean traveling clothes, load up your light knapsack with provisions for the next five hours or so, and venture out. You are now ready to soak up every moment of our compressed novel of days for all it is worth. Don't bother planning. Just follow your feet. Wonders will appear.

An example. Roaming the streets of old Edinburgh, I paused to rad a poster in a shop window, lured by the alliteration of whiskey and waterfalls. I thought a moment. Why would I not take advantage of learning about scotch whiskeys from master distillers? 

Surely the warm peaty liquid would flow silkily down a parched traveler's throat. And just as surely the cobalt sky would begin to bleed its blue into itself, blending my dreams into the very afternoon. I pushed open the door and spotted the sixty euros for the bus trip.

I heard grumblings over dry waterfalls in the waiting room, but didn't give a wooden nickel. Naturally the tour operator was going to hold onto that name, no matter the drama or dearth of falls on any given day.

Besides, I'd never seen the legendary bonny hills of heather. I'd never seen the damp, grey castles worth their heavy chained drawbridges over moats. Those sights alone would be worth an afternoon traveling through the countryside.

And doubtless, the inevitable quirky narrative of the tour bus driver would yield an inescapable sideshow. In the case of our driver, what began as an animated presentation of mildly amusing facts about castles quickly escalated to an intense diatribe against the government of Great Britain, leaving no doubt that our driver would be voting for secession in the net few days. We all had front seats to the legendary volatile Scotch temper. Judging from the grimaces, a few of my fellow passengers also found it unsettling that his tone revealed little sympathy for the bloodied victims of the gruesome rebellions. He displayed an especially ghoulish relish for the more macabre and diabolical coups. You could see his mind working over the details. By the time we arrived at the first distillery, I was more than ready for a wee dram.

Filled with admirations for the distillers, the process, the craftsmanship of the barrels and staves, we returned to a war, fragrant showroom and sampled whiskeys, listening carefully to the nuances of discerning flavors. The salesmen were generous with samples and we all made it worth their while with our purchases which could be nipped en route to the next distillery.

We stopped at a waterfall which was indeed a mere trickle. But as I mentioned, I had no expectations of rushing or cascading waterfalls. It hardly mattered. I knew myself well enough to know that after a couple of tastings, I would simply laugh if the waterfalls were merely a faltering splash here and there. Haha! Wasn't that life? And that's exactly what happened.

It wasn't like I was going to undress, and flex around like a beautiful goddess, letting the water flow over me... while the group stood there eying me suspiciously lest I failed to return to the bus in our allotted eight minutes.

I seldom choose to go on tours, but I didn't have a car. I do not at all regret taking this tour. I had a darn good time. The only other tour I booked on that four-month excursion was a ride on the Glacier Express, though that may not qualify as a tour as there was no tour guide. Nor when I think back, did anyone announce anything other than railway stops. Or it's possible that I just didn't notice announcements while under the spell of the Alps: the breathtaking splendor of dark green firs, shimmering rivers and crystalline snowy peaks. My train car was mostly glass, its windows arching deep down each side from a glass ceiling. Perhaps it was that the destination was limited, blocked as it was on the south by even more formidable alps or maybe its billing as a scenic route, the architecture of the route transforming a mere excursion into a mystical trip that made it feel like a designed tour. My train wound around steep cliffs, slid into the darkness of mountain tunnels and skimmed the edges of gorges before crossing high above rushing rivers, passing tiny hamlet after hamlet, smoke curling from chimneys of fairy-tale homes, chalet roofs hanging over to almost touch the ground. Springtime flowers bloomed from baskets hung outside Tyrolian-paned windows.

Or maybe I was left with the impression of having been on a tour because I was stuck in a confined space over many hours with the same people. A few of them quite annoying, which is precisely why I avoid tours. Options for escaping are generally limited and in this case would have required trudging up and down steep snowy slopes where homes are scattered kilometers apart to seek shelter in a tiny dorf, where I was likely to find residents wearing Robin Hood hats and suspenders, or dirndls and braids, and speaking in a language only barely resembling German. It never fails to amaze when I travel to find that people truly are as they are in storybooks. Rural Austrians actually do don their finest lederhosen and suspenders for a trip into Vienna!

But back to the bus tour in Scotland.

Large white clouds hung low across the dochs we passed. A periwinkle sky backlit dales of purple heather and violet thistle, and the many deep pools we passed reflected clouds rippling in shimmering pastels. The lochs appeared a perfect home for monsters, with lines of shiny hedges bordering trails from the lakes to nearby moss-blanketed caves.

Was the landscape so pristine because no one dared approach?

Truthfully, the countryside we drove through was unblemished by man's debris, making it most pleasing to the eye. Edinburgh as a city is quite sincere in implementing Scotland's zero waste program, collecting plastics, cans and paper for recycling, food waste for renewable electricity and fertilizer, garden waste for compost, glass for recycling into containers and fiberglass, textiles for reuse in developing nations. Materials are recovered from batteries and small electricals, and non-recyclable waste is processed into electricity rather than being landfilled. They may not show a propensity to respect their leaders, but the citizenry here does embrace stewardship of the earth. And if not provoked, they come off as a pleasant and cheery folk. 

In the few weeks I was there, I heard more superlatives: Quit lovely! Brilliant! Perfect! Cheerio chap! and more Sorrys and Thank Yous than in my life cumulatively. And it welcome contrast to the more stoic German populations, I was met with smiles on the streets more often than not. I went about smiling myself, an especially large grin spreading wide when I tallied a "Viking spotting," my assessment when among the wiry dark crowd of midling stature, rose a much larger fellow with fiery hair.

On my whiskey tour, I learned that the Famous Grouse, Scotland's most popular whiskey for the past thirty years is actually a bend of one hundred whiskeys, a bit about malting barley and distilling whiskey and consequently, a bit about the differences among Scotch whiskeys. I tried Dalwhinnie, Macallan, the Famous Grouse, Naked Grouse, Laphroaig and Highland Park. The barley of the Highland Park, which I continued to alternately sip and swig on the bus ride is dried by smoking peat (versus hot air dryers) and aged in sherry oak casks fro Spain (versus bourbon oak casks from America) for twelve years, differentiating it from the others. The colors of the wildflowers literally waving from the fields, of the ancient lichens stretching across stone walls, and the hues dancing across the glimmering surfaces of the lochs all grew more vibrant on the way home. The glens were sunnier, the billowing white clouds moved closer and more intensely dominated the landscape, and the water that did spill down the falls sparkled with an ethereal beauty. My ability to discriminate among the scotches I had procured however was decidedly less. 

Each was even better than the last.