All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.
From the ashes a fire shall be woken,
A light from the shadows shall spring,
Renewed shall be blade that was broken,
the crownless again shall be king.
–J.R.R. Tolkien

Everyone has that one story or scene that they connected with as children and it stuck with them as they grew up. For me, it was the scene from Star Wars: A New Hope, where Luke Skywalker is staring longingly at the setting twin suns of Tatooine, dreaming wistfully of his own adventure. I related to that moment, to that feeling. For as long as I’d remembered, I wanted to go off on my own adventure. Travel to another world and be the hero of my own story. I’d traveled to many places with my partner and best friend, Aaron, with my family, and with my friends. Yet it wasn’t what I secretly yearned for. I wanted a solo journey. An adventure with just myself and the road ahead. A journey of my own making. I could never explain this thirst, and most people never truly understood it. This type of quest of was something I’d kept in the back of my mind for many years.

For a while, I planned to do a road trip on my own, but every route I outlined, every state or city I looked into, every road I mapped out…none really stuck. Then a funny little thing happened: the place found me.

Last year, I was reading a book called Finding Arthur by Adam Ardrey, where the man revealed his own evidence and theories that the legendary king was actually a Scot prince and warrior. I’d never paid much attention to the Arthurian legends growing up. However, when this author mentioned Dunadd Hillfort in Scotland, where the legend of the Sword in Stone derived from, and how he had his own son “draw” the sword from stone, it was like the place called out to me. Suddenly, I had this weird, insane feeling to do that. The more I looked into Scotland, the more the place called out to me, and thus this journey was inspired. A journey to find myself, a journey into the wilderness of Scotland, and a place of adventure of my own making as I drove and traveled the low and high lands of Scotland.

I spent most of my life pretending I was off somewhere else … but my own adventure turned out to be quite different.
–Frodo Baggins

It wasn’t until I got off the plane in Edinburgh that it finally hit me. This journey was actually happening. My lifelong dream was now coming true. I arrived in Stirling near sun-fall. By then, I think I figured out the roundabouts, well, kind of, just follow the car in front of you and hope he’s going where you’re heading to. Had to turn around a couple times…whoops. During the drive, I was so ecstatic seeing the rolling hills with sheep and horses. Thankfully, the sun stayed out late in Scotland. I was able to head down to King’s Knot (where the legendary round table supposedly originated from) and sat on the main mound and watched the sun set beyond the horizon.

Ravens and crows circled above me. I took a stroll around the castle area, through the trails and woods. I didn’t know where I was going. I just went where my gut took me. Ended up on a path that led me into the path of a stag. He stood maybe twenty feet before me and we stared at each other. The stag was so majestic. In legends, they were often symbols of nobility, and stories called them of having good perception and knowing where the best trails are. I took it as a sign of good faith.

The next day, I drove out to Ballachulish and visited the grand Glen Coe. Here were the things I learned:

  • Driving a Prius like an SUV is not a good idea. It’s terrible off-road and I almost scraped the underneath of my car off. Good pictures though.
  • Having a mantra of “I can do this” helps build confidence, especially driving on the other side of the road or struggling to drive your car up a hill when you stupidly decided to pull off the road into a dip.
  • Playing the Lord of the Rings soundtrack really enhances the beauty of the valleys, the mountains, the hills, and the lakes! 🙂
  • People are so nice here!
  • When the fuck did horseradish get so spicy?
  • I laugh at myself a lot.
  • Sometimes, I get lonely, but you really learn about yourself when it’s just you!

Loch Leven Hotel was so beautiful. It was situated right next to Loch Leven. I took a hike out by the water and sat at the edge of a rock cliff, bathing in the sun with the wind in my hair. It was so liberating. Escaping into nature, away from the stress of people, the need to impress, the feeling to wear a mask, it’s all gone. It’s just you and the world. It’s the most freeing thing you’d ever do. It’s like every burden has been lifted and you begin to think: hey, maybe I’m good enough.

The water, the birds, the sun, the rocks, the grass, the breeze…they don’t judge you. They are themselves, free to be them. Why among humans do people feel the need to put chains upon others, upon themselves? Why do we judge? Why can’t we let others and ourselves just merely be?

Out here, none of my stresses or burdens matter. My vanity, my job, my need to be somebody, my low self-esteem, the need to always wear a smile, to pretend…out here in the wilderness, all that shit don’t matter. Not what I wear, what I eat, if my hair looks good, did I hide my pimples, did I do this right, am I good enough, am I a good wife, sister, daughter, friend, person. None of that matters. I’m here. I’m a small speck in this huge world. Do the clouds matter? The sun, sky, tree, leaves, blade of grass, flowers, birds, insects, etc… Do they matter? Yes. They all matter. They all have a role and part to play in nature. If they matter, then the formula and solution is simple: I matter.
How do we matter? Just like everything else does, just by simply being you.
What I learned: be your unique, true self. Everything else falls into place.

All journeys have a secret destination of which the traveler is completely unaware
–Martin Buebel

I woke up at two in the morning and laid in bed unable to fall back asleep. At four, I went out the loch to watch the sun rise over the water. I’d read about and written stories of the stillness and silence of the morning. I’d witnessed many sunrises, but never experienced any stillness. Sitting at the edge of the small cliff, with my feet dangling above the shore, I saw it. Just as the sun stretched its arms across the sky, for a single moment: the water stilled, the bugs stopped biting, and the herons were silent. It was like everything around me held its breath. Then it exhaled and the wind rippled across the surface of the water, the herons squawked and flapped their winds in eagerness of the new day. For a single moment, Mother Nature was quiet. In my society, everything is always go-go-go. Get up, go to work, perform at work, do every task well, quick, fast, always thinking ahead: what’s for dinner, why am I stuck in this bloody traffic when I just want to get home, what must I do for work tomorrow, what errands must I get done? It’s so mundane. I hate that life-style. You get so trapped in it, you don’t even remember how to be still. Because to be still means being 100% present with yourself, with who you are. Many people, myself included, cannot handle that. The go-go-go lifestyle is a distraction. When I’m still, I tend to look inward. As I stared into the rising sun, I reflected on why I decided to take this trip. I thought it was about proving something to others, but truly, it was about proving something to myself. When I look into the mirror, I see someone weak, timid, ugly, pathetic, unworthy, and incapable of anything. Everything I had set out to accomplish in my life, I failed. I failed at being a police officer, a detective, a sports writer, an environmentalist, and being a published writer. I’d been rejected and turned down from so many things in my life. I’d grown to accept that I’m just not meant for great things. Rejection and failure came hand in hand for me.

After chasing a baby doe and going back to bed for a quick nap, I woke up feeling like crap. Jet lag symptoms were no fun: constant diarrhea, dehydration, and exhaustion. I was planning to spend all day in my hotel room. Baby steps, I told myself. Let’s just go down and get some breakfast. Yet fear overtook me. I didn’t want to go out and eat in public alone. Courage found me and I ventured down, sitting at a table with a fabulous view of Loch Leven. The waitress beamed when I asked her what her favorite breakfast dish was: black pudding and poached eggs. I ordered that, with a side of haggis. I was terrified to try black pudding, mainly because I hate most sausages. Man, breakfast is a feast over here. They give you so much! Toast, tea, cheese, fruit, beans, and juice! Everything. And the black pudding was mind-blowing delicious. After a while, eating alone wasn’t so bad. Yeah, people stare, but there’s no need for small talk. I actually focused on enjoying the taste of all these food. I got to embrace the beauty of the view through the wide windows in front of me. I started to delight in my own company. Screw jet lag symptoms.

I ventured out into the wilderness of Glen Coe and the highlands. Oh, and I mastered the art of driving on the left side of the road. Who knew!? 🙂

I climbed up to Signal Rock, or as its better name: Tom a’ Ghriahain: Hill of the Sun. Great magnificent views of the mountain peaks all around you! The woodlands made me think of the Shire: the moss on the trunks of trees and on the boulders, covering the roots. The deep green grass. I took a couple detours to explore the green wilderness. It made me wonder of the ancient times. You could tell there was so much memory and history in these woods.After that, I decided I wanted to try something more daring and traveled into the valleys of Glen Coe. I grabbed my pamphlet from the hotel and found that there was a hike around there called Lost Valley. Heh, interesting enough. I drove far enough out and assumed the first main parking lot was the starting point. Tourists were getting out of their tour buses and vans, snapping photos. They stared at me in confusion and bewilderment as I got out with my camelbak and cut through their photo opportunities. Maybe it was because I was wearing a freaking tank top. Dude, I’m from Michigan. Cold and wind doesn’t bother me. Besides, the sun helped. I ventured up and up on rocky terrains and trails, slipping and skidding with various thoughts rushing through my head:

  • “This was a stupid idea”
  • “I can do this”
  • “What the hell am I doing?”
  • “Oh, the view is so pretty!”

It didn’t take long for me to realize: I’m on the wrong trail. I got lost seeking out the Lost Valley. Well, it was most definitely living up to its name. One thing I realized, you tend to make dumb mistakes when you’re alone and are more aware of it. Hey…we’re all human, right? I decided to stick to this trail. It was an adventure! So, up and up I went. I continued on, maneuvering around rocks and strange trails, at the edge of steep cliffs and valleys, between spaces of rivers, before I reached the top. Later, research showed that I climbed up Stob Coire nan Lochan, the trail on the opposite side of Gearr Aonach (the short ridge of the Three Sisters of Glen Coe). I gave myself a self-five and embraced the view. Man, I love the wind in Scotland. There’s a scent in the air that you don’t get elsewhere. I can’t pinpoint what it was, but I loved breathing in that crisp breeze. The way back was a bit tricky. There was this one part where the trail went to the edge of a steep cliff. It wasn’t entirely stable. One wrong slip and it was at least twenty feet to the bottom, which meant serious injury or death depending on how you want to look at it.

Naturally, my foot slipped. I grabbed a main rock and the tiny pebbles are raining down the edge. My feet dangled in the air. My heart was racing. I glanced down and fear of heights paralyzed me. For a second, I was frozen. I was certain I was going to fall to my immediate death and was figuring out how to brace myself for the impact. There was no way to move without tumbling over.

I took a breath, grabbed the rock next to the one I was holding. It fell out and rolled down to the bottom. Well, that was reassuring. Suddenly, something in me shifted. You’re not going to fall, I told myself. I inhaled a breath of the wind to calm me, my stomach in knots. You can do this. You will do this. You will not fall. I raised one of my feet to push myself back up onto the trail. It slipped. You will not fall. I repeated the action. I had one foot up on the edge and one foot hanging. Somehow, I scrambled over, carefully grabbing onto some good solid rocks. Almost there. Keep foot steady. Slow. Easy. You will do this. I got to the other side. I lifted my other foot free to find solid ground.

I cleared the cliff! I survived falling off a fucking cliff! I conquered my worst fears! I faced serious injury and/or death and I prevailed! If that doesn’t boost confidence in you, I don’t know what would. I was alone, had no one to rely on but myself. By whatever gods out there, I conquered the mountain.

Covered in gray and brown grime, I ran very soon into four people after my feat. They barely blinked an eye at me. “How much further to the top?” They didn’t see my miraculous clamber to survival? I shook my head and smiled: “You guys got quite a bit left to go. Careful on your way up, it’s a bit slippery.” My smile widened at my own inner joke. When I finally got back to my car, I found that my legs were trembling, I was panting hard, yet I was so high on what I accomplished. I could have given up, but I kept going. I could’ve fallen, but I saved myself. I can do anything! When I returned to my hotel, I headed for the restaurant, still covered in grime. I asked the lady if it was okay to be dressed like the way I was (I wasn’t sure about the dress code…). She only laughed at me and told me: “You’re just fine! You look like you had a busy day!”  I sat at the table outside, among the garden and mountain and lake, basking in the sun and getting more burned. I ordered a champagne to celebrate my victory. Screw it. I could’ve died. I made it two.

I went out to watch the sunset over Loch Leven and ran into an older gentleman. He struck up conversation and asked me what I did today. I told him I hiked around Glen Coe and then I dwelled into how beautiful Scotland was. He smiled at me: “I’ve grown to despise many tourists in my travels. They bustle about, taking pictures, bragging about what they’ve seen, but they never truly take the time to appreciate what Scotland’s lands has to offer. Good on you.” The compliment caught me off guard. He went on, talking about how the English destroyed their lands and that he hopes Scotland can keep preserving theirs. Which is why he buys plots of lands to ensure that. He thought I was Scottish at first, he confessed, because he thought he detected a hint of Gaelic in my accent. 🙂

I watched the sun set below the horizon, pink staining the waters, dark red the mountains. Pink and purple mated with the sky. I’d left my camera back in my room, for once wanting to capture the moment with my own lens.

And all will turn to silver glass. A light on the waters. All souls pass
–Into the West by Annie Lennox

In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery
–Cormac McCarthy

Man, I was so tired when I woke up this morning. I slept like a baby, but my muscles screamed and refused to move. I had missed breakfast, and again I faced the prospect of staying in and relaxing. The adventurer in me would not agree to that. I found myself dressing, readying myself for another hike. I was determined. I wanted to walk the Coire Gabhail trial (Lost Valley). I had an inner urge to do it, some gut instinct telling me I would regret it if I didn’t. With a stomach full of rotten apple and shortbread, I headed out to make the trek. I parked in the same parking lot. This time I went left instead of right. It was cloudy, but the green of the land stood out in contrast. The crooks and creases of the valleys and ravines were visibly noticed. In my mind, I kept replaying what that guy said to me last night, about how no one truly appreciates what the land has to offer. We take it for granted. Hell, Scotland’s government destroyed six million trees for windmills, for the sake of solar electricity. During my time in Colorado, I’ve seen more and more homes and developments being put up instead of rolling grass hills. The land has a lot to offer. Yet we take and take and take… I don’t think most of us truly appreciate it. I mean, I love hiking and nature and being outside, but do I appreciate it? Take in the beauty, I thought. The land can offer teaching, if one knew how to listen. Okay, land, teach me. I only had a vague notion of how to get to my destination: the Lost Valley. I had no maps, no guide, just pure instinct. At first, there was only one clear path. Up a hill, across the bridge over the River Coe, past the deer gate, up the curves of rocky terrain, pebbles, and man-made trails. Then, the path scattered into many different routes. Just like life. All of us have the same destination in life: death. We choose the paths we take: the easy route, the one everyone travels, or the hard and challenging route, the one less traveled. I wondered then: what is happiness? How can we be happy as we travel to our destination? I recalled my near-death experience, how happy and giddy I was afterwards. Was it because I faced fear? Faced death? Or was it relief that I lived to see another day?

The trek up, I faced many obstacles and emotions:

  • Uncertainty: Not knowing where the path was taking me, not knowing what was up ahead, not knowing what was the right path to take.
  • Fear: Will I fall? Will I make it? Will I fail? That doesn’t look safe.
  • Pain: Scraped my hands. Tight and aching muscles. Pounding chest.
  • Sorrow: This reminds me of my childhood in the woods, where my father would create trails for us in the forest for us to take. I miss him. Would he enjoy this?
  • Belief: We all need a little guidance. A husband and I helped cheer a woman to cross the river deep into the valley. She was afraid she couldn’t make the leap between rocks. Sometimes guidance must come within. I had to make my own way across, alone. I had to believe in myself.
  • Sacrifice: Crossed a river. Suffered rest of walk with squishy shoes, soggy socks, and cold feet. The wind didn’t help. Gave up socks. Now suffering blisters.
  • Knowing your limit: Scaling up mossy boulders. Psh. I can jump that far. The logic part of my brain kicks in: You idiot, you can barely jump. Skidded down and climbed up a different boulder.

One thing I liked, every path I took was entirely up to me. I loved how I’m panting, feeling like I didn’t make much progress and I know there’s so much to go and I turn around, standing at the edge of a hill and I see just how far I came. I did all of that? You don’t realize how much you accomplish until you take the time to reflect and look back. It was a long, winding road and journey. I found myself at the Lost Valley. I sat at the edge of a grassy cliff, among ancient rocks and trees, and celebrated with a turkey sandwich and cold feet. I relished in accomplishing my feat (heh, I rhymed).

I took my time, exploring the valley, embracing the beauty, and reflecting on my hike. The truth: nature brings out your true character if you let it. Nature draws it out, builds on it, and strengthens it. Physically. Mentally. Spiritually. No wonder ancient Celts and druids held high regards for it. There is magic and wonder out in these woods. The way back was my favorite part. Mainly because you know what to expect, you don’t have to go back the same route, and even then the path looks different, because you’re viewing it from a different perspective. On the way up, I learned I hated tiny pebbles and sloped rocks at the edge of cliffs. So, on the way down, I challenged myself. I went down the bumpy moss and grassy slopes, leaping and jumping from boulder to boulder. I skidded down on my butts at some point, got scrapes and bruises, yet the whole time I’m flying, I’m laughing, I’m smiling. I have terrible balance, I’m afraid of falling and here I am scrambling and flying down the slopes and valleys and rivers. I pushed myself and got such a high out of it. Note that by this point, my thigh muscles are tight, my knees are trembling from overexertion, and my body ached from the bruises and scrapes. I took pride in all that pain. I continued down the unmarked paths, well, until I couldn’t anymore. When I reached the bridge, I noticed these folks coming up with their fancy dress pants and hiking sticks. I’m not usually a big fan of hiking sticks. I feel like they make the trek easier and that one truly does not need it, unless suffering some ailment in the leg or back. These people were afraid to accept the challenge nature had to offer, refused to believe in their own abilities. In that moment, I saw the part of me that I disliked: fearful, always playing it safe Katie. I looked inward to what I was feeling after that challenging journey: free and happy. Get down and dirty. Scrape yourself. Earn bruises. Take and make the leaps. Embrace the challenges with your heart. Trust yourself. Get wet. Get hurt. Feel the aches and pains and push through. Enjoy the leaps and falls. Life is messy, dirty, and full of ups and downs. When we come out battered and bruised, we’re happy. That’s happiness. It’s not a goal. It’s experiencing and feeling all these at once: uncertainty, fear, pain, sacrifice, sorrow, defying death, challenges, hell, bloody endorphins. It’s grinding through and accepting all of that. Appreciate what the land has to offer…appreciate what life has to offer. Don’t take and hoard. Take leaps. Challenge yourself. Reveal your inner character. Welcome it. Feel it. Reflect. It’s a rough, bumpy, slippery path, but it can be fun if you let it.

I sat in front of my car when I returned, staring at the beautiful Glen Coe and sipping from my water bottle. I tried to see what the land revealed of my inner character: endurance, strength, courage, determination, love of rising to the challenge, enjoyment in the leaping and flying, in midst of battle, I guess you would say. I always thought of myself as having a bit of a warrior spirit, but I never truly believed it until now. I never believed in my own strength. I guess a part of me was afraid that it wasn’t actually true. I see it now and I acknowledge it. Maybe I should learn to appreciate what I have to offer. My true inner character is that of a warrior. Makes sense. I love swords, medieval stories, the Celtic tribes, known for their fearsome warriors who held respect for nature, justice, and peace. Their stories were about quests, finding their inner character and finding their own truth. Appreciate the land. I tipped my water bottle and thanked it. I liked to believe the wind rustled through my hair as a “you’re welcome”.

Appreciate what the land has to offer.
Appreciate what life has to offer.
Appreciate what you have to offer.

History cannot give us a program for the future, but it can give us a fuller understanding of ourselves, and of our common humanity, so that we can better face the future
–Robert Penn Warren

It was bittersweet leaving Loch Leven Hotel. The place was so beautiful and I wasn’t ready to leave it. Yet, it was time for the next stage of my adventure. Driving through the towns was a bit of a challenge I wasn’t used to. At one point I’d thought I had knocked my side-view mirror off. Thankfully it only snapped inward and I fixed it. Best part about making wrong turns is that you can turn right back around at the roundabouts. I was starting to appreciate them more. I decided to check out a local ancient history museum because–duh–it’s local ancient history! I visited the Scottish Crannog (it’s Gaelic for round timber structure, or something like that) Center. I loved it. I forgot my coat, so I was able to put on a green wool cape throughout my tour (yes, think Frodo Baggins). I was tempted to keep it. The structure was built on a loch, archaeologists found remnants of a crannog under water 14 miles upstream and reconstructed a crannog based upon what they found. I’ve got to say, they did a great job. I think we underestimate how smart and crafty people were back then. We always view them as savages or dumb cavemen with child-like innocence. We often take our history for granted. We mostly keep records and history of those in power that we often forget that the people have a history of their own. It was quite the learning experience. I feel like humanity (or at least my culture) lost a part of something with our advanced technology and industry. I got excited to recreate fire using a hazel stick and pine. Sadly, the wind blew my ember away.

Fonab Castle was settled by Falsaky Loch, surrounded by beautiful trees and hills…and Ben Vrackie. One of the concierge, Alex, was inspired by my enthusiasm to climb Ben Vrackie. He insisted on driving me to the car park at the bottom so that I could save my energy for the climb. On the way over, he kept ensuring that I was able to see his lips (seriously, the people in Scotland are so much more aware of my hearing loss. The second I said ‘what’, they double-checked and ensured proper communication. Wow…) and he talked about the Muros of Scotland (a mountain peak in Scotland over the height of 3,000 feet). He told me he’s only climbed 12 in the two years he’s been back to Scotland…out of 282. Holy shit. He sounded passionate and I wondered if this was a quest that he wanted to do. At first, the Ben Vrackie trail wasn’t so bad. I walked through thick woodlands, babbling creeks, and hills of sheep. It wasn’t long before I got out of it and the trail lead me to a wide moorland, decorated with nothing but a heath landscape. The trail was a steep incline with no change, I felt like I was shoving a rock up a hill and the rock was my body. I merely kept going, mostly out of spite. From what I could see there was only one bloody boring trail to the top.

This is a challenge, I tried to urge myself. I thought about how much I enjoyed my trek to the Lost Valley the day before, how I enjoyed the different routes, leaping from mossy boulder to boulder, scrambling up rocky cliffs and through rivers, different paths up slopes and hills. Not this path. I got to a pond before the final ascent, which was a nice break in scenery, and I was eager for a change in the path. When I looked up, dread settled into the pit of my stomach. Before me the path to the top was placed in with stoned steps. Bloody hell. It reminded me of those thousand steps one usually took to reach ancient temples for enlightenment. As I climbed and climbed and climbed, I came to realized why people stopped to pray during the walk up. I found myself praying for the souls of those who lay down those infernal rock steps because if I made it through, I was going to find the devil and condemn those souls to a damnation of walking upstairs for eternity.

What was wrong? Yesterday, I found excitement, adventure and happiness. Here I was, hating this challenge. I don’t like taking paths where there were no change in scenery, where I was going the same pace, and not facing many obstacles. The only joy was the view at the top. The only thing keeping me going was spite, because I didn’t want this mountain to beat me. I found a cliff to sit down and I watched the setting sun to my right. The view of the town of Pitcholry was aweing. I made it this far. I had probably nine more flights of stairs left before I reached the top of Ben Vrackie. I was so close. However, I wasn’t feeling any sense of oncoming accomplishment. I was feeling a sense of relief that it was almost over. Sometimes in life, you’ll find there’s a single path to a destination. At the start, you have to wonder: is this the path for me? I was in aching pain yet I wasn’t taking any pride in it. It felt more like torture wounds than anything. My heart wasn’t in this hike. My spirit wasn’t burning alive. Sure, the view was gorgeous, but the climb itself wasn’t so demanding. I glanced up at how little I had left. I turned back to the setting sun and smiled. This is as far as I go. I did not want to take the stupid path back, but this time I didn’t feel so burdened. I was going to get off this path!

Sometimes the path everyone else takes isn’t meant for you, and most often, the destination isn’t where you need or want to be. The best and wisest thing to do is to realize that and get off the path. Because somewhere, there’s another path waiting for you to venture upon, a destiny waiting to be fulfilled, ones that light up your spirit and spark your heart. Don’t settle for the path, don’t settle for a life, just because it’s safer, because it’s what everyone else does, because you can see the trail easily in front of you. I saw that just because I’m a badass warrior doesn’t mean I must conquer and complete every challenge that is presented to me, doesn’t mean I must win every fight. It means knowing when to walk away from a fight or challenge that doesn’t serve you.

How is it that nature once again smacks the lesson home to me? I returned to my hotel with bloody socks and blisters. Besides that, my heart was content. A hard lesson I learned, but one that made me wonder: what were the paths I was currently taking in my life that I needed to get off, and what were the ones I needed to travel?

Strength doesn’t come from what you can do. It comes from overcoming the things you once thought you couldn’t
–Rikki Rogers

My mantra for this day was: I can do it.

I traveled to Blair Castle Trekking Centre and tackled horse hacking (taking a horse out for light exercise). I rode on a cream highland pony. I think they may be my favorite type of horses. Wide bodies, thick muscles, and great balance. I may have embellished my experience to the ladies in charge, but I wanted to do something other than a casual stroll. Would’ve been a bad idea if I ever once lost my composure. This ride was a hell of a lot different than the casual Western American style I was used to riding. This was hard-core, hands-on, British riding. Helmets, gloves, and everything. I was given a stubborn and hard-head pony: Champ. A rather fitting name since he was both an impatient pony and eager to eat everything in sight. In all of my experience with horse riding, I’ve always had a lazy hold on the reins. This was the first time I had both hands on, and boy, did I have to be in control of Champ. They warned me right away: make sure Champ doesn’t eat the grass or you’ll never have control of him. Bastard was bloody strong. Near yanked me out of my saddle when I forced him away from the grass.

Courtesy of Google. I didn’t bring my camera with me for the ride.

This was extremely hard for me to do. Mainly because I don’t like having any type of control over people or animals, and because I believe way too much in the value of free will. It was a bit rough going in the start, but eventually, Champ and I worked as a team. Toward the end of the two hour ride, we galloped up rolling hills among sheep. I felt so free, one with the horse, and it was so exhilarating. I realized it’s not about having control over your horse, it’s about leadership. You influence and guide them, but you don’t exert control. Champ kept going for the grass and trees, even in the end, yet just slight tug and he would return to the trail, and I kept promising he would eat afterwards. Having complete control meant Champ would never even think about going for the grass or that leaf. I was a leader out there in the field. Leadership isn’t about control, it’s about respect and letting them show their true beauty and potential. That respect you have to earn, and usually you must be the one to give it first. It’s about trust. As an inexperienced rider, not only did I need to place trust in Champ, but in myself as well. If I allowed my fear to overwhelm me, if I didn’t believe in myself, that I could do it, I would’ve fallen. With my courage brimming over the edge, I returned to the hotel and booked something I never would have done…a massage.

I’m afraid of them, mostly because I hate people touching me. I like initiating hugs, but I hate being touched, especially by a stranger. Having a massage is also placing trust in the other person. It’s very hard for me to trust people. Before my appointment, I spent a good solid ten minutes, staring at myself in the mirror, saying: “I can do this”.

Because I like being unique and doing different things, I received the hot stone massage. I was tensed at first, I kept flinching every time she touched me. Eventually, I relaxed and enjoyed it. Man, did she work out a lot of knotted muscles.

Afterwards, she thanked me for trusting her and to have lovely day. That obvious, huh? I appreciated that she recognized it. The growing confidence and courage continued.

Maybe it’s time to change my mantra to: “What else can I do?”

Animals are not only beholders of great beauty, but they are also beholders of ancient wisdom
–Molly Friedenfeld

Meeting the birds of prey was a great learning experience and they all lit me up. The guy in charge, Stewart, truly loves and cares about these birds. He was knowledgeable and very informative about each species and each individual bird. His viewpoints echoed my own about humanity, animals and nature. It’s mind-boggling the misconceptions many people have (myself included) about these birds of prey. He corrected me on all the myths on these birds and opened my eyes to many things. I volunteered in a police station and my studies with the media have already taught me how much we all take things at face-value now. Nobody does their research. It’s okay to be ignorant and not know things, we’re humans, but it’s not okay to never listen and not do your research. Don’t be a mindless horde, many things, these birds included, will be destroyed because we don’t do our research.

These birds were majestic and regal creatures. The golden eagle, Orla…man, words can’t describe her. The color of her feathers glowed when the sun rays hit it, I swear, the sun probably created her. I reveled in how protective she was of Stewart, how her feathers ruffled up and her wings expanded when anyone got close to him. She has so much trust held for Stewart, and the sad thing is there’s only 400 pairs of Golden Eagles left in Scotland, and they still suffer persecution from humans.

Stewart told me that ever since they introduced the North American Bald Eagle into the United Kingdom, many people believe that’s their national bird, and usually that’s what many people think of when they hear eagle. I was shocked, many Celtic and ancient legends of Scotland always have depicted a golden eagle. Do they not know their own history? He told me of a place that opened up with an eagle in their names, and as their “mascot” they have a Bald Eagle. He continued with how many birds of prey centres only are about money, or getting their photos with birds or people only care about owning birds or wanting one just simply to say they have one. “It’s all about money or ego trips these days. No one wants to learn about the birds,” he said. “The birds have their own value, they aren’t pets,” I told him in agreement. Steward continued by telling me he turned away a paying customer once because it was too cold and chilly out for his buzzards. His response when the customer complained: “I care about my birds more than your money. Bye-bye.” 🙂

We need more people like Stewart in this world, who see the value of life in all living things, and not the value of money or ego. The world would be a better place with more humans following his example. I thanked him for his teaching and educating my world. I gave the guy a hug because, hey, it’s nice to meet a kindred spirit.

“If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.”
–Thorin Oakenshield

Scotland is Middle-Earth. It holds so much beauty and so many memories. It makes you wonder if the trees could talk, what would their stories be? After the Bird of Prey Centre, I arrived into my last town of my trip, Arrochar (derived from Ard tir for highland or Land of East or Arachor for 104 acres). In the spur of the moment, in my late afternoon wandering, I decided to climb Ben Arthur, or better known as the Cobbler. The trek was so breathtaking. This was my path! 🙂 The woodlands, the creeks, rolling hills, lichen and mossy rocks and boulders. This walk was definitely one for the adventurous heart! I found two red deer on my way up, grazing the foothills. The final ascent was the most difficult. I had to scramble up polished slabs of rocks and soggy mountain grass. Halfway up, to my left, a scottish blackface and baby skittered at the edge of a rock to stare at me. To my right, another scottish blackface and two babies peered down at me. And they watched me the entire way. It was a bit creepy and a little unnerving. I’d like to think that maybe they were cheering me on. When I reached the summit, I felt like I was standing at the top of the world. The skyline and view all around me was breathtaking. You could see for miles and miles around, the summits of so many glens with the sun making it glow with their own life.

The pictures don’t do it justice. Funny, how the whole walk up, it was mostly cloudy, the sun only beamed down on the hills and mountains behind me. When I reached the summit, it broke through the clouds and shined upon me and Ben Arthur. Talk about great timing. I cheered at the top (I climbed the highest point on the right of the Cobbler) and my cry echoed in the wind. I had the entire mountain to myself. I found an orange/white rock on my way up and added it to the top of the rock pile to mark my achievement. It wasn’t until I got home that I found out it was called a Sunstone. Badass.

Deeds will not be less valiant because they are unpraised.
–Aragorn

Adventure is what livens up the spirit. Adventure sets me free! It’s the journey, the uncertainty, the challenges that makes you grow, and all of that makes you realize you are capable of anything you put your mind into. When you’re alone, it’s just you and the world, there’s nobody else to distract you from that and you see so much more, of the world and of yourself. There’s some kind of power in being alone, from seeking solitude. I feel like I’m so influenced by everyone around me and by society that I often wonder: what are my true feelings and what is being adapted from someone or something else? Out here, just me and the world, it’s the most freeing thing I’ve ever done.

There’s so much more, you can reclaim your crown. You’re in control, rid of the monsters inside of your head. Put all your thoughts to bed, you can be King again.
–Lauren Aquilina

If there was a soundtrack for this day, or heck the entire trip, it would be King by Lauren Aquilina. It was a cloudy day, the smell of rain in the air. I decided that today would be the day I would head up to Dunadd Hillfort, a beautiful hillfort that used to be the royal center of the kingdom of Dal Riata, where kings were inaugurated. You could see the remains of the ancient fort that used to be here two thousand years ago. This hillfort was the reason I felt compelled to come to Scotland, this hillfort was the origin of where, supposedly, the legendary sword in the stone story was born. The single outcrop sat in the center of a flat farm area all around. At the heart of the summit were rock marks. One was of a footprint where the kings of old would place their feet in during inauguration to symbolically marry themselves to the land they would rule. During my visit, I asked this couple from England to take a photo of me with the footprint. A simple request. But I was nervous, I wanted to do it with my sword. I had brought my short sword with me all the way to Scotland and carried it up the summit in my camelbak. I thought if I could climb mountains and beat death, I could put aside my stupid ego that was afraid of judgement. The couple took it good-naturedly and dubbed me: the crazy woman with the sword. Fair enough.

So I took my sword with my feet in the stone (my foot fit into the footprint perfectly, like it was made for me!), and when I stepped back, I quite literally drew my sword from stone 🙂

Afterwards, I visited a museum, gazing at artifacts and letting my history buff side out to play. However, something didn’t sit right with me. I came all this way to Scotland to visit Dunadd Hillfort and all I got was a picture? That wasn’t what I came here for. I wanted to do something more profound. I wanted to do something that fitted my heart and spirit. I knew what I was really terrified to do. I didn’t want to look like an idiot doing. I thought of my new mantra: What else can I do?

With newfound courage, I found myself heading back to the Dunadd Hillfort. I climbed the summit to the stoned footprint. Rain was pouring down, chilling me to my bones, and the wind whipped at me, causing my eyes to sting with tears. I placed my foot in the stone, drew my sword out, and pointed it at the four compass points to symbolize my union with the land. A sword is often used to be proof of an oath, and so I declared one.

I swore to the land that I would find peace, as well as bring justice and free will to myself and all living things. Those three words peace, justice, and free will always struck a strong chord with me my whole life. Swearing an oath that felt right in my heart on a summit where ancient kings started their rule, where they swore their own oaths to the land, felt so powerful. I stood there in the rain after my oath, lowering the point of my sword and took the time to gaze upon the beautiful land. I wanted to uphold this oath. Even if the world couldn’t bring it to me, I would bring it to myself. My shoulders relaxed and my back straightened. I would find peace and bring it to my heart. I will bring justice, treating everyone with fairness and like an equal. I will give them free will, the freedom to be themselves with me, to be unburdened, and make their own choices. If the world won’t give them these, I promised that I would.

When I walked off and down between the cracks of ancient forts and hills, I felt like I walked down a king. When I got to my car, a raven swooped down and circled above me with a strange kraa noise before settling down on a tree branch, watching me. I chuckled. Ravens are known to be symbols of rebirth. I wondered what part of me I shedded and left back up there at the top of the summit and who was the person walked down here?

We don’t learn by doing. We learn by reflecting on what we’ve done.
–Zenworkz Marketing

It continued to rain after my sword ceremony. Drenched to the bones, I decided to curl up into a coffee shop with some lemon tea and bread. I wrote in my green journal my reflections of my journey.

  • Eating out in public alone can be terrifying, but you grow used to it and you actually end up enjoying it. You get your food faster for one thing. I ate at a pub, everyone glared at me as I received my food before them and they were seated well before I arrived. Booyah. You tend to focus more on your food and the taste of it. There’s no distraction, except maybe the awesome views I always had: trees, lochs, mountains, ravens! Of course, people will judge you or worse, pity you because you’re alone. I realized that’s all they are: judgement. Only you can determine how they’ll affect you. I shrugged them off. I’m dining and treating myself, damn it.

Being alone for a long period of time, you pick up things about yourself:

  • Bought a beer to try, had no bottle opener, saw spoon, used spoon, tasted crappy beer. I actually have common sense! 😉
  • I tell people “you’re awesome” a lot when they help me or simply do their jobs. I love how they glow when I do, because they are!
  • I surprisingly have a lot of patience. I thought I was impatient, but a lot of times I just understood the situation and my surroundings and chose not to get impatient. Like long lines or waiting for food. I feel like you have more power in those moments when you chose patience.
  • I am…a nice person. I always thought it was my mask, not really a part of who I am, but damn, I say hi to everybody, help with directions (I’m a foreigner, I swear!), crack jokes with strangers, and make a fool out of myself to put the other at ease.
  • To which, I made a fool of myself so many times, but really, it was just me being my unique and crazy self. It’s so freeing! I wore a hobbit cape at a museum, failed at making fire, posed with a sword in front of tourists, talked to the birds and dogs like they were humans, get super fucking excited about taking a hike or going for a stroll, moan when I eat my food and dance about it in public. I want to live in a world where being you is celebrated, not judged and knocked down.
  • I love (most) hikes. I need my trees and beautiful forests. I love scaling up boulders, cliffs, hills, and mountains. Trekking up rivers, feeling the wet moss between my fingers, the wind in my hair and the sun beaming on my face (or the rain falling on my face), the blue sky, the rolling clouds and the GREEN!!! 🙂
  • Dogs are attracted to me. One dinner outside among the garden, an orange basset hound came up to me while I was eating. I scratched his ears and underneath his snout. He laid down next to me and it took the owner a while to call the dog back over (during the course of dinner, the dog returned at least three times). The hound kept staring at me like I created the moon or something. Another dog, muddy from a walk, greeted me and just laid his head on my lap. Got mud on my jeans, but the dog’s enthusiasm and kisses more than made up for it.
  • Faith in humanity restored. I’ve been overwhelmed by the kindness of humans. When I was out walking in the downpour rain (because I love getting drenched), a car swerved around a puddle next to the sidewalk to avoid splashing me. People are nice here. They smile. Acknowledge one another. They seem more aware of each other and not in their own little world. I was constantly surprised by how aware of my hearing loss they were. People made sure I was reading their lips and they enunciated their words (and not in that rude condescending way). And all it took was one little ‘what?’ 🙂

The conversations I’d struck with others will always stay with me:

  • The man at Loch Leven who acknowledged me for taking the time to appreciate the land and sparked my interest in my family history. “The ladies are important too, you know,” he told me when all I kept thinking about was my father’s family name.
  • Alex, at Fonab, who drove me to the parking lot of Ben Vrackie to preserve my energy for the climb. He applauded my efforts, talked of his own quest to climb the Munros of Scotland, and how he gave me a book to read on it upon my return from Ben Vrackie. When I told him I didn’t quite make it to the top, he laughed and told me: there’s more mountains to climb and that Ben Vrackie was a killer. To him, the climb was what mattered, the climb itself is the reward, and it’s true. To me the beauty of the climb is what livens my heart.
  • The lady at the front desk cheered when I returned from horse hacking. She was so full of excitement, and we agreed that I walked like John Wayne. She helped me through my insecurities when booking a spa time. She also congratulated me on making the climb up Ben Vrackie. “Did you get to the pond?” she asked. “Because that’s the best part. I hate those steps too.”
  • Another man when I asked if there was any place to hike around Pitlochry got so excited and yanked out a map, showing me all the different trails and what were the best ones. “If you’re feeling extremely energetic, you can always tackle Ben Vrackie, and I think you got plenty of it”. I love how these people light up about hiking and trails and being outside.
  • It’s a small world. A waiter asked where I was from. When I told him of Colorado, he beamed. “Ah, the mountains! I have a friend out in Utah, her pictures are so beautiful. I want to see those mountains.” He remembered my room number (he’d given me room service when I arrived the night before). “203! Ah, who could forget such a pretty face. You’ve got a smile that sparkles and dazzles.” Oh boy. I accepted his compliment though. Sometimes, you got to feed your ego. Oh, and he mentioned Ben Vrackie and how it was such an easy climb, which made me realized why I hated it, because it was easy.
  • At Dunadd, when an older lady asked me if I was traveling alone. When I answered yes, she grabbed my shoulder and exclaimed: “Oh, you’re such a brave person! I’ve traveled all over, but never alone, now that takes a special kind of courage.” “Eh…thank you?” “And you brought your sword with you! I love it!” Well, I’ve been dubbed crazy, so I’ll take that as well.
  • I found an awesome historical fiction book at a food joint. When I asked how much it was, the woman merely inspected it and said two pounds. I gave her three. 🙂

It’s a funny thing, coming home. Nothing changes. Everything looks the same, feels the same, even smells the same. You realize what’s changed is you.
–F. Scott Fitzgerald

The last day I woke up feeling bittersweet. I was excited to go home to my family of a loving husband and crazy mutts, but I didn’t want my adventure to come to its end. Mainly because the person I found within me during this trip, I didn’t want to lose her when I came back home. This solo adventure changed my life. It seems so cliché. How can you change in such a short amount of time? How can you become a different person? Then I realized I don’t feel different…I feel whole. I wanted to take one last time to embrace what the land of Scotland had to offer me, to appreciate and revel in the beauty, and to explore more of who I really was.

I took a hike around the Succoth trail of Arrochar, right by my hotel and I may have ventured off the trail. It was a walk of contemplation, of reclaiming and acknowledging the part of me that I had found. The part of me with confidence, with courage, not the timid girl afraid to spread her wings. I want to always be that woman who leaps and soars, who falls and gets back up again. I want to always be the warrior who scaled boulders and mountains, the one who held regards to the trees and birds, the one who saw the value of the land and all its living creatures, the one who found her own value, the one who viewed herself as worthy. I want to remain the king who reclaimed his crown, the one who found divinity within herself and nature. I want to remember what lit me up, what sparked me alive and my passions.
Now that I’ve reclaimed all of who I was…I was afraid of going back home, of falling back into old habits, of slipping back into old roles, that I would lose all that I found…that I would lose courage.

The smell of fresh rain was still in the air during my walk, the water hung onto the leaves of the trees, and the clouds lingered behind. I climbed up a waterfall and sat with the snails on the rocks. I added another addition to the small stack of rocks. I walked without a destination, going wherever my instincts told me. I had an incredible urge to slip into the thick forest next to me, off the trail, to slip down and walk off the path. I took it, and what I found was a place I only dreamed off. My own life I always dreamed of venturing through deep green woods, where the moss clung to every nature thing within, where there was no other color in sight. In my mind, I always called it my place of peace and where I would escape when things got rough.

Under the shelter of ancient trees, I walked across a blanket of moss that clung and covered the light in sight. It cushioned the land, wrapped around tree trunks like a mother’s embrace. There was green everywhere. In every crook, trunk, branch, boulder, grass, and land. Streaks of sunlight stretched through the thickness of branches and leaves, sparking light in this magical place that I have discovered.
My happy place, the one I’d always imagined as a kid…it did exist. I stood within the heart of it, and no map, no iternary, nothing pointed or led me here. Only by heart and simply act of wandering had I found it. I’d thought of Tolkien: “Not all who wander are lost”.

I may have a bad sense of directions. I may make the wrong turn, but my heart always has its path. I can never be lost if I trust in it, and in myself. Here in Scotland, on my adventure, nothing, not even myself, held me back. I discovered the magic of life and the beauty of it. It hit me. You can’t reclaim something you’ve never really lost. You can reclaim what you’ve always refused to acknowledge. In my case, it was acknowledging my own strength and capabilities, my own powers. I don’t have to settle for what society and life offers me. I can chose my own destiny. I belong to no one. I am so much more. I’m an amazing badass warrior. Nothing can take that away.

All I have to do is watch the flight of the raven and remember my oath and my journey. I may leave Scotland, but everything I experienced there: climbing and withstanding Glen Coe, reaching the top of Ben Arthur and cheering out that sense of freedom, driving through the narrow streets and beautiful scenic routes, learning the ancient history from the people and land, being in the presence of majestic powerful birds, man…just finding myself and being me…all that experience, I will carry with me. And I wouldn’t ever trade it for the world. I’m glad my heart led me to wander in Scotland, and thank you Scotland for freeing me.

I won’t be chained. Like the golden eagle, I will know my own worth and fly up into the wonders of my own unknown future. Here’s to many more adventures and experiences yet to come.

How do you pick up the threads of an old life? How do you go on when in your heart you begin to understand…there is no going back.
–Frodo Baggins

Thus, it was a cloudy and rainy morning as I made my way back to Edinburgh airport. For one last time, I took in the rolling hills, views of bens and glens, and sheep. At my journey’s end, I drove past Stirling Castle and King’s Knot, where it all began. I thought it was rather fitting, like a circle completing its end. I had the Lord of the Rings soundtrack blaring in my car, and as I drove by King’s Knot, the lyrics of the song playing sang:

When the cold of winter comes
Starless night will cover day
In the veiling of the sun
We will walk in bitter rain
But in dreams, I can hear your name
And in dreams, we will meet again
When the seas and mountains fall
And we come, to end of days
In the dark I hear a call
Calling me there
I will go there
And back again

I chuckled. Maybe it was fate or perfect timing. I knew this was not the end. The end is only the beginning. What is this the beginning of? Well, I guess only time can tell. But I’d like to think it’s the start of another adventure.