Category Archives: Rants and More

Superheroes Run #4 for Child Advocates of Houston

Child Advocates Superheroes Run 2016

“MRE Consulting presents the Child Advocates Superheroes Run, Powered by Direct Energy!”

(As always, I need to make very clear that the kids in these pictures are NOT the kids who are the beneficiaries of Child Advocates’ programs. These are some of the our young race participants who came out to support other kids not quite so lucky.)

CLICK HERE to see LOTS more pictures

The start line of the 1K portion of Child Advocates Superheroes Run 2016

The 4th Child Advocates Superheroes Run is in the record books. I’m proud to say it was bigger and better than ever! We had nearly 1,000 “runners” (using the term loosely in many cases) and raised over $120,000 for Child Advocates.

The costumes get better (and more plentiful) every year. Every superhero you’ve ever heard of and lots that you probably haven’t. And for reasons I can’t fully explain at a “Superheroes” event, there were cows and alligators and goldfish and beauty queens, too! That big orange Child Advocates arch was new this year. (It was donated, so the cost doesn’t come out of CAI operating or sponsor funds.)
Child Advocates Superheroes Run 2016

 

Child Advocates Superheroes Run 2016

 

Child Advocates Superheroes Run 2016

I’m proud to have been the Chairman of the event since its inception four years ago.  As I’ve said before, that means mostly that my generous friends get their arms twisted to donate.  A huge, special thanks to all the friends who let that happen.  I don’t actually get to run in the race, but this year I wore a GPS tracking watch, which told me I’d run/jog/walked 7.5 just running around and organizing all the activities!

Each year (2013, 2014, 2015), I’ve made a short pitch in this blog to explain why I think CAI is an especially worthwhile charity. Forgive me if you’ve heard some of this before:

    • CAI helps kids in our own hometown who are in desperate situations through no conceivable fault of their own.
    • CAI’s one-time intervention seeks to permanently and efficiently solve problems and affect the kids’ entire lives, without creating dependency or requiring permanent or ongoing assistance.
    • CAI’s cause is financially undersupported, largely because few potential large donors have close personal experience with, or risks of, this kind of extreme child neglect or abuse. There’s nothing wrong with donating to your own alma mater or church, or to charities addressing diseases that affect you or your family, but that can leave a huge gap for charities like Child Advocates. I think this is true philanthropy.

If you or anyone you know is willing to volunteer, donate, or become an advocate, let me know at jeff@jeffcotner.com.

Child Advocates Superheroes Run 2016

Child Advocates Superheroes Run 2016

Shane Merz, partner in the Race’s founding and “Presenting” sponsor MRE Consulting, grabbed the megaphone and welcomed racers across the finish line.

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The first 3 pics on the second row were our fastest man, fastest woman, and fastest “kid” in the 5k.

CLICK HERE to see LOTS more pictures

Child Advocates Superheroes Run 2016

CLICK HERE to see LOTS more pictures

 

South Dakota’s Spring Cattle Branding

NOTE to South Dakota Folks: CLICK HERE for full set of pics.

Late spring is “branding” season in South Dakota. A local rancher who caught a ride with us to one of the calf branding events called them “celebrations.” The cold winter is over and the year’s crop of calves are a couple of months old and in need of vaccines, brands, and more. The whole community works together almost daily, with all the local ranch families taking turns helping one another. It’s both hard, serious work and social event. Notice in the pictures how often people are smiling.

The fire, ropes, needles and knives look harsh to the uninitiated – and I surely wouldn’t want to be one of the calves. But the health of the cattle is a major purpose of the process. A veterinarian was on site at all times. Every one of the hundreds of calves I saw hopped up and scurried spryly back to its mom as soon as its short ordeal was done.

 

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South Dakota rancher, Tom Trask

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Emily Linn (right) takes a turn wrestling the front end of a calf during a branding on the Trask’s Spanish Five Ranch.

 

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Justin Namken, the sole non-family-member “hired hand” on the Spanish Five Ranch.

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            Here’s how the branding process works: The cattle – usually a few hundred pairs (mother and calf) at a time – have been gathered in advance into a single section of pasture. On the morning of the branding, the first hour or two is spent herding them all into a set of pens. Next, the cows are separated from the calves, generally by horsemen urging the adult cows one by one through a gate while a handful of sorters (on foot) push the calves in a different direction. Most of the attention will be on the calves, but the cows may also be sent through separate chutes to get vaccines or other treatments. Batches of 150 or so calves go into a medium sized roping pen adjacent to the branding area – which is set up at the edge of the big pasture.

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A minor glitch in the process of sorting moms from babies.

            Three or four mounted ropers go in and out of the calf pen, roping calves by their hind legs and then dragging them out one at a time. Pairs of “wrestlers” (mostly teenagers and younger men) take each calf. One grabs the roped rear legs; the other grabs the tail and shifts quickly to the head. With a swift and skillful yank, they flip the calf onto its side, hold it down legs splayed, and release the rope so the roper can go get another.

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            Now things really start to happen: people converge on the calf like a pit crew on an Indy car. Two give shots containing multiple vaccines. Others apply treatments for worms, flies and ticks. Another person walks up to crop an ear. If the calf is male, someone with a sharp knife deftly castrates it – an operation that takes about 20 seconds and produces surprisingly little blood. Preschool-aged kids follow the castrators, carrying the self-explanatory “nut buckets.” An antiseptic foam is sprayed on the incision site. Depending on the breed, the calf may be de-horned (by burning the budding nubs of horn using small irons similar to the branding irons). And of course, there’s the brand itself: just an old-fashioned piece of red-hot metal that burns the hair and scars the skin. Between calves, most of the crowd have a beer or two from the cooler – which is usually in a pickup bed next to the laden nut buckets.

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A “nut bucket.”

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Tom Trask owns around 20,000 acres next to the Cheyenne River east of Rapid City. He and his sons lease several thousand more, for a total of nearly 50 square miles of land. His brother Pat’s ranch is just to the north; his cousin Todd’s place is just to the south. Tom got much of his land from his dad, whose U.S. Army uniform is hung proudly in Tom’s home.

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Mark Trask (My apologies to his brother, Mick, and sister Tomilyn, for whom I failed to get good portraits).

 

If you imagine life on a rural ranch as serene or simple, you should spend a few days with the Trasks. The most striking aspect of my visit was the remarkable array of skills and knowledge required to run a huge ranch like this. They can do an emergency bovine C-section, battle weevils on their hay crop, raise bees to pollenate their alfalfa, train horses for roping, milk cows, build their own houses, weld broken tractor parts back together, recommend the perfect ammo for prairie dog eradication, and drive a pickup through a muddy field without getting stuck. It should tell you something that the one “hired hand” on Tom Trask’s cattle ranch has two college degrees: one in animal (livestock) science; the other in “range” (grazing land) science. They dig 75 million year-old fossils from the creek for extra money. They host paid deer hunts in the fall, and can butcher the venison onsite and do the taxidermy work to mount the trophy.

 

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Todd Trask

 

South Dakota winters are biting cold, the summers are scorching, and blistering spring winds don’t allow much relief in between. The work is hard and the hours are long. Around huge animals and farm machinery, the risks of accidents and injuries are a routine part of life. I overheard one conversation about which kind of tractor would be most easily operated by a young woman with a devastating farm injury that left her with very limited use of her legs. These folks are tough and resilient.

 

The county sheriff’s office is about an hour and a half away in Sturgis. As in other areas of their lives, the folks here view it as their responsibility to take care of themselves and of their own families, and they’re ready to do so. There are a lot of guns, and people know how to handle them. They say they have very little crime out here. {Note: They’re right.  South Dakota’s homicide rate ranks #44 among states; its gun ownership rate ranks #4.}

 

The folks here are hardworking, loyal, patriotic, and proud – and I think they’d consider those descriptions to be the highest of compliments. In the last few years, I’ve been on six continents and met fascinating people in exotic cultures, but the lives and lifestyles in a down-home and close-to-home place like South Dakota are every bit as interesting and in many ways probably far more relevant for other Americans to appreciate and understand. These folks will vote in the same elections and will have to live by most of the same laws as people from New York City and Washington D.C., and yet each group often has only a faint caricatured picture of one another’s worlds.

 

My dad and I were in South Dakota in late May and early June. The weather cycled between rainy, chilly, windy, and hot. We stayed in a modest small-town Best Western, and the local Subway and Dairy Queen were the best restaurants in town. Yet it was one of my favorite trips ever. Getting to know the Trasks was a real treat.

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A multigenerational “pit crew” descends on a calf (under there somewhere) as Rob Powell pulls the Spanish Five branding iron from the fire. That’s Mick Trask in the camo cap, holding down the head.

 

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Tyler Trask with an “it’ll do” roping result: this time catching just one leg.

 

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Calf roping is an equal-opportunity and co-ed endeavor. Kelly Anders seemed to be one of the best ropers in the county.

 

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Mick’s daughter, Annie.

 

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Lunch

 

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That’s my dad below (green hat) with Todd Trask.  He met Todd and Tom 20+ years ago when they were all hanging out together in the mountains of southern Colorado.  That’s me (orange vest) with my calf-wrestling buddy/instructor Matthew, who works up at Pat Trask’s ranch. (I didn’t catch the name of the photo-bomber).  Matthew taught me how NOT to get kicked in the face by a calf as you restrain its rear legs. It’s harder than you might think. Actually — restraining a 150-pound calf while it’s being castrated is probably exactly as difficult and awkward as it sounds.

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CLICK HERE FOR MORE SOUTH DAKOTA 2016 BRANDING WEEK IMAGES 

 

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The big sign in the “middle” of Elm Springs, South Dakota gives directions to all the community’s homes. (For example, 3E 1N means you drive three miles to the east, then 1 mile north).

Colombia 2015: Libertad y Orden

Let’s start with the first thing that comes to every American’s mind when you mention the South American nation of Colombia.

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In the shadow of Colombia’s Catedral Primada, two Policia Nacional patrol Plaza de Bolivar, between the Colombian Congress and Supreme Court buildings in Bogota.

When I told people I was planning to spend a week or two driving around Colombia, virtually everyone expressed concern about my safety (and sanity). A beautiful tropical country, bisected by the northern Andes and boasting both Caribbean and Pacific coastlines, Colombia seems to be better known for drug cartels, guerilla warfare, and kidnappings. Colombia’s bad reputation was well deserved in the 1990s, but a “Colombian Miracle” has transformed it into a great destination – even if you don’t drink coffee.

Fifteen years ago, Colombia was embroiled in a four-way civil war: the players included communist guerilla groups like the “FARC;” right-wing paramilitary groups that sprung up to oppose the guerillas but took on a terrorist-like life of their own; powerful regional drug cartels (especially Cali and Medellin); and the struggling and outnumbered Colombian military itself. Drug trafficking and violence were the norm. Guerilla and paramilitary groups financed themselves with drugs and kidnapping, while the drug cartels amassed military-like troops and weapons to protect their turf. Colombia was the world’s biggest supplier of cocaine, and huge sections of the country’s roads and territory were out of the government’s control. Millions of Colombians were displaced from their homes. In 1999, the situation was so bad the Colombian government formally ceded vast territories to one of the guerilla groups.

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National Police on a motorcycle, zipping down a side street in Cartegena, Colombia.

But Colombia is in the midst of what some have called the Colombia Miracle, and what almost anyone would call an amazing turnaround. Starting in 1999 and accelerating with the 2002 election of a new get-tough president (Uribe), the Colombian government expanded its police and military forces. The U.S.A. provided money, personnel, weapons, and intelligence assistance. Colombia targeted the drug trade and the guerilla and paramilitary forces, assassinated and captured key leaders, and even had successful “peace talks” with some guerilla and paramilitary groups.

It’s working. The drug cartels have mostly fractured or disappeared. Most of the paramilitary groups have disbanded and disarmed, and the communist guerilla groups are greatly diminished and confined to areas near the Ecuador and Venezuelan borders. Even the guerilla FARC has very recently (just this month) reached a peace agreement with Colombia and claimed that it will stop military training and focus on peaceful means. Drug production is down significantly. In the cities, the police are everywhere and are highly visible (literally so, often in fluorescent yellow-green uniforms), and much of life is back to normal.

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Riot police in Cartegena, Colombia. With these guys around, the risk of an actual riot seemed very low.

Meanwhile – and not coincidentally – the Colombian economy has boomed. Poverty and unemployment levels have plunged; GDP and incomes have soared. Colombia’s highways – though often small and very curvy through the mountains – are in amazingly good shape, thanks to a massive road-construction effort. A mixed blessing of that booming economy is that they’re packed with cargo trucks.

There may be lots of lessons – pro and con – in the Colombia story. The successful strategy had great emphasis on obtaining military and police control, modest efforts at negotiation, and little focus on direct assistance to the 6 million displaced refugee-like Colombians. But the plunge in poverty rates and violence, and rise in incomes may have helped more than direct assistance ever could. The government is reported to have used – unapologetically – some tactics that might make many Americans squeamish (though none worse than their foes were regularly employing). The United States’ financial and military involvement in Colombia’s recovery has been perhaps our most extensive and most successful nation-building exercise in recent history. It’s worth noting, though, that the still-problematic leftist FARC organization was in some ways Colombia’s version of Cuba’s Castro regime (with whom the U.S. is now thawing relations). It’s a complicated world.

The U.S. State Department still has an ominous-sounding travel advisory about Columbia, and did not seem to sanction my chosen itinerary.  But I had a great trip through Colombia – even taking a rental car (with a fellow American buddy) through long sections of remote countryside (from Bogota to Pereira to Medellin and on some tiny side roads through the mountains) that were dangerous FARC and cartel territory not very long ago.  The national tourism board uses a clever slogan that gives a nod to Colombia’s awkward history: “The only risk is wanting to stay.”

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“Libertad y Orden” on the Colombia Coat of Arms. That’s an Andean condor (not an eagle) up on top.

“Libertad y Orden” is Colombia’s official motto; it means “Freedom and Order” (that’s “order” as in “law and order,” presumably). A few years back, Colombians surrounded by a siege of civil and guerilla war had little of either. But in a country now seemingly blanketed with an intimidating but hopefully-benevolent police presence, there is surely much more “order,” and – judging from the bustling streets and highways and from the faces of the people we encountered – there’s apparently much more “libertad,” too.

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Buddha on the Chindwin

One of a series of posts from the Chindwin River in Burma (Myanmar).

Those statues of a fat, laughing Chinese Buddha are no part of Theravada Buddhism in Burma.

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This tattooed monk lived at a hilltop monastery by the River in the Burmese (tribe) village of Ye Khar Tun.

 

Summarizing Buddhist beliefs and practices is like trying to summarize Christianity – recognizing that Christianity includes Mormons, Catholics, Amish, Presbyterians and Pentecostals.  You can’t assume that any specific beliefs and practices are widely or universally shared.   So the stories I got from our Yangon-based guide often differed from what we saw in the rural towns, and from what I learned as I tried to bone up on it.

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My favorite monk of the trip. He used pink smartphone to take pictures of us Americans.

Burmese people generally follow Theravada Buddhistm – as distinct from the various branches of Mahayana Buddhism that dominate in China, Korea, Tibet and Japan.  Theravada Buddhists emphasize the older, original teachings of the original Buddha, Siddhartha Gotama, an actual human person who lived in India and died 2500 years ago. At least in theory, true Theravada Buddhists don’t think Buddha is (or was) a god; they don’t think he’s alive or that he (or anyone else) is immortal; they don’t think he (or anybody else) is up there answering prayers. They don’t believe in the Dalai Lama (that’s peculiar to Tibet, mostly); they don’t believe in that fat, laughing Buddha (that’s a more-recent Chinese invention). They believe in being good, doing good, and thinking good thoughts.  Nirvana isn’t a heaven; it’s a state of mind without suffering.*  In theory, they meditate over the philosophical teachings of the human they call Buddha, but in practice it sure looks like they’re praying to something that’s at least partly supernatural.

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This lady is a yogi. It’s a little bit like a nun or monk, but as she explained it to us, yogis are more focused on helping people (especially the sick) and less involved in philosphical meditations.

Though the Theravadas reject deities and supernatural aspects of Buddhism, most Burmese people believe — to some extent — in an elaborate mix of “spirits” or “nats.”  These nats can be like demons or trolls, like guardian angels, or like patron saints. The nat concept seems to be partly a separate animist religion, partly an element of Burmese Buddhism, and partly a very powerful set of superstitions. Most towns had some sort of shrines to a various nats – often right next to (or even on the grounds of) a Buddhist temple or pagoda.

 

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This shrine — on the site of a Buddhist stupa — is actually devoted to one of the spirits (“nats”) the Burmese people believe in: that statue is NOT Buddha.  The nats are sometimes akin to patron saints (of a town, for example); others are like little ‘gods’ of the seas or mountains.

Some of the nats are river spirits. Our boat (like most of the similar boats we saw on the river) had a couple of big bowls on top of the captain’s wheelhouse, each containing offerings (bananas, coconuts, flowers and water) to the river spirits, and a handful of flowers right on the bow. Despite the prevalence of domesticated pigs in the region, we never ate pork on the boat – because apparently the river spirits don’t allow it. The river spirits kept us from sinking, I guess. But they failed to keep us from getting stuck three times on sandbars.

 

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Stupas like this are all over the place, and in virtually every village — large or small.

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Whatever the specifics of the beliefs, Buddhist buildings, statues, monks, and customs are an enormous part of life in most Burmese towns. It seems there are stupas everywhere. When we arrived in a town, we would almost always be quickly shown (with pride) the local monks or monastery. Multiple villages we visited encouraged us to stay for ceremonies at their temples. We ran across events going on at the monasteries. Even though the monks were always quiet and understated, they were clearly respected leaders in the communities.

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In the grid above:  The huge group of kids that seem to be dancing is in a pagoda building on a weekend (non-school day).  We were told they were learning citizenship and patriotism and manners.  I swear they stood there chanting and gesturing to the same song for at least 30 minutes, and we were told they were there for four hours every week.  That group of five women had just left some sort of meditation class (led by a monk); they were apparently supposed to maintain their meditative state of mind (and keep their hands like that), so they were surprisingly tolerant of the group of photographers that swarmed them as they dispersed. That blue/yellow/red/white/pink thing is the flag of Theravada Buddhism.  Finally, as I took that last image in the grid, our guide was explaining that local Buddhists had — despite their modest means — generously donated those standing fans to cool the place off.  My joke, “Wow, they must be big ‘fans’ of Buddha!” got zero laughs and just one pair of eyes rolling. 

 

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I wanted my picture with this guy.

 

* For God’s sake (pun-ish literality intended), don’t listen to me on matters of religion.  These are just my impressions from a few weeks in a Buddhist culture and from a  tiny bit of brushing up I did so I could better understand what I saw.

Scotland 2014: Lighthouses, Sheep, and Dead Economists


Yes, I’ve been home from Scotland for a while, but I’ve got a few more batches of pictures to share.

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For 190 years, the Eilan Glas lighthouse has sat on the small peninsula off the Isle of Scalpay (a prior lighthouse was on the same spot in the 18th century).  Scalpay is a tiny island recently connected by bridge to the Scottish Isle(s) of Lewis & Harris.  The peninsula it sits on sticks well out into the Minch – the branch of the Atlantic Ocean that goes between the Inner and Outer Hebrides – which is presumably the reason someone thought a lighthouse was needed there in the first place.  In better light, you can see back to the Isle of Skye.

Honestly, it’s probably hard to be more photographically trite than a bunch of cliched pictures of a lighthouse with a sunrise in the background.  But my pre-dawn hike through the sheepfields of Scalpay was a pretty special experience, and – if I may say so myself – these pictures turned out pretty well.  I only got lost (and wet) a little on my two-hour hike — taking the long way — through coastal sheep fields back to my car.

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Much of the land in Scotland’s outer islands is part of a Common Grazing system. Local committees generally supervise the land and decide how much livestock each farmer is allowed to graze.

This area of Scotland has lots of sheep, and lots of land dedicated to “common grazing.” In a common grazing system, grazing lands are controlled by the town or by some sort of semi-governmental cooperative, and the individual citizens have some ability to put their livestock on the land for grazing. But nobody owns the grazing land (or maybe everybody sort of does). This is especially interesting (to me) because there is a famous principle of Economics called the “Tragedy of the Commons,” which analyzes the ups and downs of common ownership of resources like this (mostly the downs – thus the term “tragedy”).   The grazing tragedy occurs because every farmer with access to the common grazing land has the incentive to graze as many animals as possible on the seemingly free public land, so the land becomes overgrazed and barren and thus no good for anyone. This rarely happens on privately owned grazing land, because a property owner tends not to spoil his own land. The moral of the story is that when nobody owns the land (or other resource), nobody has a great incentive to care for it.

Solving the “tragedy” can take two seemingly opposite courses: heavy governmental regulation (like the Grazing Committee); or private ownership of the lands. Environmentalists analogize to the concept to argue that something must be done (i.e. regulation) to prevent a similar tragedy from occurring in the “common” air we breathe and water supplies from which we drink.  Because nobody owns the skies or rivers, people are unfortunately inclined to abuse them absent some government control.  On the other hand, conservatives (more precisely: capitalists) point to the “tragedy” concept to teach that private ownership of resources (where possible) is the best way to ensure that they will be well cared for and preserved. Both these arguments are mostly correct, and that’s why the Tragedy of the Common idea is such an important, interesting concept.

Somehow it’s also interesting that Scotland was also the home of Adam Smith, the 18th Century economist and author of Wealth of Nations. Smith is the one who taught the modern world that a capitalist system – where people act in their own financial interest – generally creates better outcomes for a society because private ownership and profit interests usually lead people to direct resources to their most productive and valuable uses. It’s a little ironic that the odd pocket of common grazing systems persists in the country that is Smith’s homeland. He may be rolling over in his Edinburgh grave.

So if you ever wonder what I think about on a two-hour solo hike through quiet Scottish sheep fields on the way to and from an isolated lighthouse, now you know.

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Sheep graze near Uig Sands on the Isle of Lewis