On the Isle of Mull

We had an early start the following morning. Before we had left town yesterday, we had popped into the registrar’s office in hopes of finding some more helpful information in Mom’s quest. They told us to come back tomorrow morning just after they opened, which was at 9:30. In the end we actually left earlier than needed. The other day we had been stuck waiting because of some construction on the road, and we didn’t want this to make us late. But as we drove down the winding road, expecting to be stopped, we eventually decided they had finished and we had nothing to worry about.

I think, even without the construction to slow us down, we were somehow still rushing to get parked and up to the High Street on time. Either way, Mom made it just in the nick of time, and I made my way back to Hot Roast Company for second breakfast and some wifi. I feel I should mention at this point in my notes I wrote, ‘All hail wifi,’ to remind myself what I got up to. No joke.

I spent a good hour catching up with people back home, answering emails and just generally wasting time on Facebook or Tumblr. There wasn’t much else for me to do in town during the short wait for Mom. Our big plans for the day were a drive down to Oban, a ferry ride to the Isle of Mull, and a bit of hiking around Tobermory. I spent some time preparing directions to Oban since we would be without internet on the drive down. But there are only so many major roads in the Highlands, and signs were helpful as long as you knew where you were headed.

My butt started to go numb as 10:30 rolled around. I ended my conversations and double-checked my directions one more time before gathering up my things and leaving the café. The day was overcast again, the sun no more than a dull orange smudge on a gray canvas. The High Street seemed less crowded than the day before. I weaved in and out of a few people as I walked back to the office.

Once inside, I looked around a dividing wall next to the door for mom but didn’t see her. The woman behind the desk was in the middle of a phone call, so I took a seat and waited for her to finish before asking where Mom would’ve gotten off to. She turned out to be right next to me, just inside an office. The woman let me in, and I took a seat while Mom finished her meeting with the registrar. From the sounds of it, they had had good success tracking people down. We were running a bit behind schedule, but I didn’t want to interrupt when they were making such good progress.

With the last few sheets printed, Mom said thank you and we left the office. We climbed back into the car and began the hour-long drive south to Oban. Overall it wasn’t a bad trip. The road was a bit windy but nothing that caused too many scares. The roundabouts were small and the signs were easy to read. Anxiety levels went up a bit once we got into Oban. The main road was a bit busy, and knowing which direction to go became more of a gut-feeling reaction. We found the ferry parking lot with no problems though.

We walked back toward the entrance to a sort of shed that looked like someone who didn’t often use a hammer had hastily thrown it together. There was also a sign that said “Parking,” and by “sign” I mean it was a piece of plywood that someone had spray-painted. I was beginning to have my doubts about the lot’s legitimacy. It didn’t help that the pricing was handwritten on a piece of dirty paper and that you stuck your money into an old metal box. We didn’t have any other options though, so we went for it.

The way to the dock took us back up the road we’d turned on for the parking lot, down a bit of a hill, and around a corner. When we came to the outer perimeter of the building, it felt like we were walking in the middle of the street even though there were designated pedestrian walkways. Several cars were already parked in front of the gate leading to the ferry. Inside we bought tickets for the next ferry out, which left in an hour. With tickets in hand we walked back to the main road to find a place to get something to eat.

There wasn’t much in the way of quick bites to eat, but we eventually came to a little coffee place and bought a scone to split and two cups of tea. From there it was back to the car to put our hiking boots on, then back to the dock to eat and wait. Man, we do a lot of waiting on these trips. Oh well, at least it’s always worth it!

Eating our scone and sipping tea only occupied us for so long. Soon I was drifting off, looking over the large waiting area, watching people as bored as I was. A while later a large group of people started coming up the steps, and I noticed they were all speaking French. I myself took a year of French way back in junior high but had swiftly forgotten most of it. I eventually turned to Mom and said, “I find it funny that the only two things I can say in French are, ‘My name is Renée’ and ‘I don’t speak French.’”

After that we spent the rest of our wait dredging up all the French we could remember and it turned out to be a surprisingly large amount, you know, for someone who only took one year of it 10 years ago. The loudspeakers came to life and announced the ferry to Craignure was now boarding. Nearly the whole waiting room stood as one and slowly shuffled through the guide rails to the door.

After what seemed like an overly drawn-out gangplank walk, we reached the ferry. Mom doesn’t have the best relationship with ferries or watercraft of any kind­—though really, it’s not the boat: it’s how rough the water is. Anyway, we moved to find a spot outside just to be safe. We ended up at the stern of the boat. Not many other people were keen on a windswept crossing, so there were plenty of seats to choose from.

Mom went into the concession stand just inside the door to buy two bottles of ginger beer and a couple bags of crisps for the ride. This might have been the first time I started to feel a little tired of crisps. But I still ate them happily. Soon we heard the engines rumble to life. They began playing what I assumed was a safety announcement inside the cabin, but I couldn’t make out much of what was said. The ferry began to move away from the dock while the announcement was still playing. I didn’t look behind us until Oban was far away. We had zoomed out on the city, and I could see the full expanse of buildings across the banks of the bay and houses hidden amongst the tree-covered hills.

From Oban we went up and around the northeast end of Kerrera and into open water. This leg of the journey could make or break the trip for Mom. The water was calm, however, surrounded by enough land masses to keep things under control on such a nice day. I mean, it was still chilly on the water, and I was wearing my rain jacket just for some extra warmth. But the clouds had broken and let some unfiltered sunlight through. The distant hills were still blurred with a thin layer of fog, enhancing their mystique and allure. The ferry pushed out great swatches of white water foam, and seabirds soared overhead.

An hour later we reached Craignure. The place was comprised of a small visitor center and a short row of shop fronts, all of which were closed. There were a few more buildings down the road, but the overall impression I got was that Craignure was just the name of the street all these buildings were located on and not really a town in the typical sense. Several busses were parked just outside the dock. Mom and I made for the double-decker with Tobermory written on it.

We paid the driver and took two seats up top. It was a partially covered second level, and, contrary to everyone else, Mom and I took seats away from the shelter up front. This resulted in extremely messy and tangled hair, and a tree did try to slap me in the face, but it was more fun than being stuck inside down below. The Isle of Mull is fairly unpopulated; roughly 3,000 people call it home. The only signs of habitation we saw on the drive were pastures for farm animals and other cars on the road.

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We turned into Tobermory 40 minutes later. Tobermory, like Oban, is centered around a harbor. On the far side of the water from the bus stop sat the reason we were there in the first place. Mom had purchased a Scottish calendar earlier in the year, and two months before we left, a picture of Tobermory had appeared on our wall. It featured a row of brightly colored buildings bordering the water. We decided long before leaving that we wanted to see these buildings in person.

But the buildings weren’t the only things we had planned for our afternoon on the isle. We had carried hiking boots all this way, and dammit, we were going to use them! We had no idea where just then, but we figured it out. There was an information caravan across the parking lot that we stopped in. The man there suggested we take the path up to Aros Park. It was close, quick, and not too difficult. But first, I needed to see a man about some whisky.

The Tobermory Distillery was one of the first things we saw when we arrived in town. I’d been in Scotland six days and still hadn’t had a drop of whisky, so now seemed like as good a time as any to fix that. I didn’t walk out with a bottle, however; I walked out with tablets. It was essentially fudge with a slightly different consistency. More crumbly and sugary. There was still whisky in them, so I think it counts.

With that taken care of, Mom and I crossed the parking lot again and began our hike. The path took us up into the hills directly surrounding the town. After the initial climb of about 45 degrees the ground leveled off. The trail hugged the edge of the hill for a while, providing a fantastic view of the water and buildings below. We took our pictures from between the trees, making them feel like secret glimpses into a hidden village. Soon we left any traces of civilization behind and got lost in the foliage.

Every bush, tree, and fern that spread out from the path was lush and green. The forest floor was thick with old, brittle leaves mulched into fine pieces. The air was crisp and tinged with the smell of damp earth and plant matter. I leaned down to look under a large fern leaf reaching out over the trail and saw the neat rows of spores clinging to its underside. I’m always fascinated by this phenomenon. Early on we walked past what looked like a sort of campsite. There was a ripped and dirty hammock strung between two trees and what looked to be some sort of shack. I wondered if it hadn’t been the hideaway for some youngster.

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The land to our right flattened as we came around another turn, and we shortly came across a small waterfall splashing down a jumble of mossy stones. It was so picturesque we had to stop. I gently picked my way around the wispy plants over to the little stream wending away from the rocks. Mom told me to go up and sit near the falls for a picture. The rise wasn’t steep, but the footing was a bit dicey. With minimal slipping I got into position, as did Mom, and we captured the second in our “Renée in a nice forest setting” picture series. (The first is in a forest in NZ.)

We continued on, past drooping fern leaves and towering evergreens with more limbs than a millipede. Fatigue was kicking in as we reached our first segment of stairs. At the top I said to Mom I’d be ready to turn back anytime now. But we kept going until we reached the second segment of stairs and climbed those too. It wasn’t just energy levels influencing our turn-back point. The last bus left around five, and we were either on it or we were spending a night in Tobermory.

We kept going just far enough to pass the Christmas mushrooms, or so Mom called them. They were perfectly shaped domes of red with white speckles all over. I crouched down to get a picture. A few strides after that we came to a stop, took a brief moment to enjoy the complete silence, then turned back toward town.

We passed the last few minutes waiting for the bus by taking even more pictures of the lovely houses. A stop in the bathroom brought to our attention another ‘Yes’ rally. We didn’t stay, but we did go down and grab a couple of flags as both souvenirs and signs of our support. There was a bus that had been sitting at a stand for a few minutes, and at last I realized that must be the bus back to Craignure. I hadn’t thought so at first, since it was in a different spot than where we had been dropped. Luckily we didn’t miss it.

We arrived back at the dock with 30 minutes to kill. The only thing open was the information center, so we began to walk up the road for something to do and to try and keep warm. Suddenly, a bullhorn at the dock blared. A woman’s voice announced that the ferry would be an hour late and that they apologized for any inconvenience. Our walk down the road then became a walk to the pub that was, thankfully, still open.

The first fifteen minutes or so in the pub were interesting. Things got started with us fighting with and nearly breaking the ATM. So, no cash for us. We went next door into the pub and asked if they accepted cards. They did, so that was good. I ordered two Strongbow ciders and an order of chips, which led me to discover the tab had to be over 10 pounds for them to accept cards. The total was only a few pence off, which made it frustrating but easy to correct. I turned, thinking to ask Mom if there was something more she wanted. But Mom wasn’t there. I turned and found myself face to face with a tall, rough-worn Scotsman with a gray beard. Mom had already left to find a table and failed to mention this to me. So I turned back around, feeling silly and said I’d take a Mars Bar as well.

The whole time I was at the bar I felt very out of place. Everyone else in the place seemed to know each other (and they may have in such a tiny place), and I was the obvious outsider. I felt better once I got outside. It was still chilly, but inside had been a bit too cozy for us. I set Mom’s drink in front of her and tore open the Mars Bar. We were both quiet at first. That’s one of the things about long trips together. Conversation can run a bit dry sometimes since you’re spending all your time together doing the exact same things. But three or four swigs of cider and we were starting to liven up. Before we knew it, we were the loudest table of the bunch. I told Mom about the episode at the bar, and if it had been any funnier then I might have pissed myself. We made so many jokes about the ferry arriving that I nearly got a crick in my neck.

Eventually the ferry did show up, maybe even a bit earlier than expected; I’d lost track of time. We tossed back the rest of our cider (yes, we can each nurse a cider for an hour) and walked back down to the dock. The sun was nearly set by the time we got underway. We found a couple of large, cushy seats near a window that was too high up to see out of from the chair. I spent most of the trip messing around with my phone while Mom took a snooze. There was no way to tell how close we were to Oban until the ferry began to slow and they made an announcement.

We were disoriented in the dark. Everything felt backward and looked familiar when it wasn’t. But eventually we found our way out of the lot and back up the hill to the car park. The car was still there in one untouched piece. Now it was time to make the long drive back…in the dark. It was a little nerve-racking, but there hadn’t really been many places to get turned around at, unless you count the roundabouts. Nevertheless, driving in the dark in a rather remote part of a new country on the opposite side of the road is always a bit, well, nerve-racking.

The winding roads and dark corners were no match for us, though. We traversed them without a single wrong turn or major panic moment. We returned home safe and sound, if not a little tired and stiff. It wasn’t a respectable bedtime just yet, so we topped off the night with a bit of wine and some stargazing. After Mt. Cook, Onich was the best stargazing I had ever done. Really, it was the best I’d ever done in terms of actually seeing stars. It had been quite cloudy when we were at Mt. Cook, but the location was certainly more remote than Onich was.

I tend to forget just how full of stars the night sky is, when the area isn’t being flooded with light pollution. There is a whole half of our world that goes unseen, outshined by our own artificial creations, and its beauty is lost. Not in Onich, though. We turned off all the lights and pulled the curtains closed. The neighbors were still out, and all the other surrounding buildings had little to no lights on. The sky was clear and the stars so bright I could see the shimmering white streak of the Milky Way. There it was, a great spinning spiral of stars and planets, and there I was on that deck, just one speck in one cog of the giant mechanism that is our universe.

The cold finally started to seep through my jacket and I went back in. I took my last few sips of wine before Mom and I went upstairs to get ready for bed. After brushing my teeth, I crawled into bed and snuggled down into the covers, ready to drift off into blissful sleep. I had just started to fade when hurried footsteps came down the hall and the door opened, sending a wall of light into the room, right at my open eyes.

“I need you.” These were the first words out of Mom’s mouth. Reluctantly, I threw aside the covers and followed Mom to her room. She pointed to the corner of the room by the bed. There, a large, spindly bug, one that had been around since our arrival, was drunkenly bouncing from wall to ceiling to wall. I glared at Mom, partly out of annoyance but mostly because my eyes were still adjusting to the light. Without a word, I marched downstairs, took a glass from the kitchen and a brochure from the coffee table, then marched back upstairs to capture the bug.

It was no easy task. The damn thing wouldn’t stay still for more than a second or two, and most of the time he was too far out of reach. I made some wild jabs, one time pinning him to the wall by a couple of legs. I’m surprised that didn’t do him in; he was so frail looking. But he kept on flying around until at last I got him between the glass and the brochure, took him to the front door and threw him out into the night. Back upstairs, I grumbled what was meant as a “you’re welcome” to Mom’s “thank you” and got back into bed, hoping for no further disturbances. Tomorrow, I had a very important train to catch.

~Ren

 

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