Category Archives: Travel

Scotland 2014: Gylen Castle

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The Scottish Isle of Kerrera is just a few hundred yards off the mainland west coast, near the town of Oban in the southern part of the Inner Hebrides.  A few dozen people (one of whom tends to 100 or so pet parrots) live there.  The sightseeing highlight is Gylen Castle, built on the south end of the island in about 1582.

To get to Gylen, you take a short ferry from Oban, then walk about three miles.  The ferry is a small one-car ferry, so you just stand where the one car would normally be.   When you get out near the castle, there’s no visitor center, no admission charge, no security guards or park rangers.  It’s just out there by itself like it has been for the last 500 years.

The castle was built by the MacDougall Clan and used in support of James I – then the king of a united England, Ireland and Scotland.   In the mid 1600s, he was at war with the “Covenanters” (crazy Presbyterians, apparently).  They laid siege to the MacDougall Clan soldiers at Gylen.  Apparently the castle’s defense systems had one big flaw – access to fresh water.  The very thirsty soldiers holed up inside were eventually coaxed into coming out voluntarily, only to be promptly killed by their surrounding attackers.

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Gylen wasn’t a true “castle,” but was more of a small watchtower or fort.  Its perch above the waters  was a perfect vantage point to watch for threatening ships entering the Firth of Lorn near Oban.  Now that same perch makes modest Gylen one of Scotland’s most picturesque spots.

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Scotland 2014 Independence Referendum: God Save the King(dom)?

One thing at stake in the Scottish Independence referendum is the iconic flag of Great Britain – the Union Jack.  They call it the Union Jack because it was the combination — “union” – of the old English and Irish red crosses, and the old Scottish blue flag with a white diagonal cross.  No more union could mean no more Union Jack!

I ran across these three Scottish Independence supporters on the hike up to Ben A'an in Scotland's Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park, just days before the Indpendence Referendum

I ran across these three Scottish Independence supporters on a weekend hike up to the tiny peak of Ben A’an in Scotland’s Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park, just days before the Independence Referendum.   That’s Loch Katrine in the background.

Since at least the 13th Century times of the real Braveheart, William Wallace, the Scots have variously, vigorously, and repeatedly fought for, gained, and relinquished their independence from England.  In 1707, the Scottish parliament ended (mostly) the centuries of bloody battles, and voluntarily entered an economic union with England, making Scotland officially part of Great Britain, and giving up its separate currency, parliament, and military.

In recent decades, a new movement for Scottish independence has taken root.  The Scots re-formed their own parliament in 1999.  This week, the Scots take to the polls for a referendum on independence from England.

The “Yes” Independence movement has lots of momentum and its rallying cries sound sympathetic – perhaps especially to Americans (and Australians and Canadians and half the planet) who now love the Brits as dear allies, but appreciate having gained our own independence from them all the same.  Beyond the need for new flags, a “Yes” vote (for independence) would surely raise lots of complications.  Would Scotland join NATO (and how would its army be formed)?  The E.U.?  Would it have to start its own currency?  Who can tax the oil revenues from the North Sea?  Who’ll get custody of Queen Elizabeth?  There are lots of predictions of economic and political chaos.

The independence movement makes lots of semi-socialist-sounding promises of government care-taking.  The Economist magazine mocks it gently as offering a “dreamier” vision of Scotland’s future, “promising Scandinavian-style public services supported by taxation closer to American levels,” and concludes that the plan being pitched by the “Yes” men is “fantasy.”   Still, I guess the Economist would have scoffed at Washington and Jefferson if that magazine had been invented 250 years back.

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Either way, it’s an interesting time to be visiting Scotland.  While hiking up Ben A’an (Gaelic for “small pointed peak”) just four days before the independence referendum election, I ran across the three ladies you see in the picture above.  They carried their blue “Yes” For Independence balloon all the way to the top, and were intent on somehow planting that yellow Scottish flag (actually a bath towel, but whatever) at the top.  They were glad to pose and share a few thoughts about their plans for the future in an old, old country that might be born anew in the days or years to come.

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A “Yes” vote is a vote for independence; “No” is a vote to keep the Union together.  At least in Edinburgh and the Highlands, there are a lot more “Yes” signs visible on the streets.  It may be telling that the biggest anti-independence sign I saw was the one one strapped to the iron fence of a very nice, aristocratic-looking home.  The word “bairns” (on the “Yes” sticker) means baby in Scottish and Northern English. 

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Leadville 100 Trail Run – A View from the Sidelines

As a spectator watching the 30-hour Leadville Trail 100 Run last weekend, I watched the 4 a.m. pre-dawn start on Saturday, put in a very long day along the course, got a nice dinner and a full night’s sleep, then woke up , had breakfast, and headed down to watch most of the runners cross the finish line mid-morning on Sunday.

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The Leadville Trail 100 Run starts in the dark, at 4 a.m. in downtown Leadville

About half of the 700 or so amazingly fit and marginally insane runners who crossed the start line at 4am last Saturday made it back to finish in downtown Leadville — after an almost unbelievable 100-mile trail run — before the 30-hour time cutoff.  One hundred miles.  On foot.  All of it between 9200 and 12,600 feet elevation, and doing more climbing than an ascent of Kilimanjaro.

Even for someone who’s done several “ultra” endurance events (on foot, bike, and otherwise, and including some in Leadville‘s thin air), the 100 mile mountain trail run is hard to get your head around.  Of the lucky half that do finish, the vast majority take over 24 hours — most watching two days’ sunrises during the same race.  They don’t sleep — they barely even stop moving.  I was eager to get some pictures of the event, but a major motive for my spontaneous trip to Colorado was to see if the Run was something I might conceivably do someday.  The verdict?  I’m not so sure.

A few miles into the race, before sunrise on the first morning, the racers start a trail that skirts the edge of Turquoise Lake, west of Leadville.  You can see the runners spread out for miles along the lakeshore, their headlamps and flashlights twinkling through the trees and outlining the edge of the lake with bluish light.

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A three-mile-long string of runners makes its way along the trail at the edge of Turquoise Lake during the first hours of the LT100 Trail Run.

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The signature features of the Leadville course are its two separate ascents of  12,600-foot-high Hope Pass — once in each direction at mile 45 and mile 55 of the run.  The aid station near the top was a great place to watch a few hours of the race mid-afternoon on Saturday.  It took well over two hours to hike up to the top, so there were hardly any other spectators and only a small squad of volunteers up there handing out water and food.  There were 20 llamas hanging out — they’d carried all the supplies up there because the trails up are too high, steep, narrow and rocky for any vehicles.  We watched the leaders coming back over the pass on the inbound leg, and watched most of the more mortal racers hiking up the mountain — still less than halfway through the race after nearly 12 hours.

The guy in the yellow shorts is Robert Krar — flying down the mountain after his second ascent of Hope Pass.  He went on to win the race that night with a time of just 16 hours and 9 minutes.

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We cheered for and chatted with dozens of runners, often the same faces several times in different locations.  Dramas unfolded, and faces became familiar.  Inevitably, we remembered them with descriptive nicknames.  There was British Guy.  Sandals.  Bathroom Guy.  Peeing Girl.  Elmo.  Duck Dynasty.  As we descended from Hope Pass, we found Air Force Dave still only halfway up on his first ascent at 4:15pm — the deadline to get over the pass.  We offered him some food and water and tried to buoy his spirits as he turned around and walked back downhill with us.    I saw him quietly remove his race number in a symbolic personal ceremony recognizing that his race had ended early with a “DNF” (Did Not Finish).   “Puker Guy” had a happier ending:  we first saw him in trouble at mile 43,  doubled over, nauseous and struggling, but happily we saw him crossing the finish line 57 miles (and about 17 hours) later, flanked by his celebrating friends and family.

Ken Chlouber, the founder of the Leadville Race Series, famously tells every 100-mile racer, You are better than you think you are; you can do more than you think you can!  I don’t think that’s true for everyone — certainly some folks aren’t even as good as they think they are or can’t actually do what they think they can.  Most people are afraid to ever find out; Leadville is one of the places you go to do that.  Somehow, every racer can and should be both proud and humbled, no matter how their race ends.  Win or lose, finish or fail, these were the folks who weren’t afraid learn whether Ken was right — about them.

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#674 Trevor Teeselink (center) was the “Last Ass Over the Pass” — the last finisher to reach the finish — just four minutes ahead of the 30 hour deadline.

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Two new friends I met and ran with some this summer in Leadville were among the 100-mile finishers.  Somehow I saw Stephanie Lefferts (in green and white) over and over during the race — both directions at Turquoise Lake, at Hope Pass and at the finish.  Her boyfriend Mike Ambrose was so fast (he finished in the top 20 despite a nasty fall that almost ended his race) I barely saw him during the race and missed his midnight finish.  After a nap and shower, he was back at the finish line to celebrate with Stephanie and her dad at 9:25 a.m. Sunday morning.  Congrats to them both.

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A Hawaiian Connection: Mahalo, United Airlines

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The view of Honolulu and Waikiki from atop Diamond Head Crater.

On my way home from Australia, my connecting flight was cancelled, leaving me stranded in the middle of the Pacific and halfway home.  Happily, that was Honolulu.  My 2-hour layover became a 26-hour layover, leaving me time for dinner on the beach, a morning run to and up Diamond Head Crater, and an afternoon on Waikiki before heading back to the airport and resuming the trip.  I got just a handful of pictures.  It worked out well, so I’ve decided to wholly forgive (and maybe even THANK?) United Airlines for the screw-up.

At least the botched connection had a huge silver lining.   The airline debacle on the front end of that trip was all downside.  I arrived in Cairns, Australia on a Sunday, and my bicycle (needed for the triathlon I was there to do) arrived four days late, after an unintended (and unattended) tour of Tokyo and Sydney (neither of which were on my travel itinerary).  At least it got there in plenty of time for the race.

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Waikiki Beach, at the Moana Surfrider Hotel

 

 

 

 

SCUBA Dive the Great Barrier Reef: Check!

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Scott Humphries Down Under

Even though I spent almost two weeks on the banks of the Coral Sea in Cairns, Australia — the primary port for access to the Great Barrier Reef —  crappy weather and busy schedules (for other priorities) meant I did just one day of SCUBA diving.  I’d spent much more time than that getting READY (and learning how) to SCUBA dive in preparation of the trip.  At least I got to dive with a couple of good buddies (Shane Merz and Scott Humphries).  SCUBA diving the Great Barrier Reef seems to be on almost everyone’s “bucket list,” so I couldn’t leave Cairns without doing it.

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Sub-sea Shane Merz

I actually don’t like or use the term “bucket list,” as the rather morbid perspective is about kicking the bucket and racing the clock before you croak.  I’ve got more lists than you can imagine of things I’m hoping to see and do in my life, but the focus isn’t on my impending demise.  They’re just a lifetime “to-do” list.

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As they’re quick to tell you down here, the Great Barrier Reef is one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World (I’ve only seen three!).  It’s a World Heritage Site (I’ve seen maybe 30 of the 1,ooo or so sites!), and allegedly it’s visible from space.  As for checking it off a bucket list, it’s hard to know when you can really do that:  It’s 1500 miles long (and is actually a network of hundreds of smaller reefs), so I figure I’ve seen about .0001% of it.  I think that counts; I’m checking it off the list.

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As I described recently in my post about SCUBA School in Belize, I have an underwater housing for my tiny Canon S100 pocket camera.  It’s not a big, professional underwater setup, but it works okay in shallow water with decent light.  The cloudy skies here made it marginal.  I noticed there were several shops in Cairns where you could easily rent an underwater digital camera as good or better than what I brought, so if you SCUBA, there’s no excuse for not bringing a camera.