It’s a Vacation. Not a Work Trip.

My first vacation in a donkey’s years started with a van ride to Denver International Airport, with the obligatory drop-off two hours early. We finally boarded and had a two-and-a-half-hour wait on the runway. All that parking meant we were hours late to Chicago. I ran and barely made the London flight, but only because it was also late. By the time we landed in London, I’d already missed my flight to Glasgow, but I was able to have a delightful cheese and pickle sandwich. Small blessings.

After 38 hours of waiting, being strapped in seat belts, knees pressed into the seat in front of me, or sprinting through terminals while pondering what might be going on with my right leg, I was finally in Glasgow. I just had one more transfer. It was a bus to my hotel. Knowing my limits, I took a taxi. The other word for that is Towanda!

After two naps and a shower, I made it downstairs for dinner in the hotel bar. I’ll get to the horse part soon because there’s always a horse part.

People here are friendly and eager to talk. They speak a language I don’t understand, although it’s my birth tongue.

After dinner, I was on the elevator back up with two women roughly my age. One said something to me that I couldn’t sound out. I’ve always been hard of hearing and taught myself to replay the sounds in my head until I can make them into a sentence. No luck. Why don’t my hearing aids come with translation?

I apologized for not speaking English. For not the first time. She spoke slowly and told me she lived in North Carolina and had come to see where her parents grew up. Her accent is as strong as the locals. And of course, my grandparents were immigrants.

When they asked what I was doing I blurted out that my 70th birthday was coming up and I noticed I had a bit of an attitude about it. The elevator door opened at my floor and they both chimed in a merry unplanned cheer, “Here’s to having an attitude!” And now we’re all related.

I know some of you readers are past 70. Forgive me if I’m more interested in how I feel about it.

In the morning, I went downstairs for breakfast, determined to call this the first day of vacation. I ate like a bird, meaning only a fraction of the things in the full English breakfast. I’m not afraid of a rank stallion, but this breakfast is terrifying.

Then off on foot to the train station. GPS talked me there, just off George Square where there is a statue of Queen Victoria (above). I have to love Scotland. A place where women ride sidesaddle on what looks suspiciously like an Arabian horse. It’s a strong bit, but the reins are broken. Is that a neck ring I see? And just like that, I’m fine. Because I happen to be a queen of a vast kingdom (in my own mind.) I even had a side saddle because I thought it was fun to ride like a girl.

Once I have my bearings in the train station, I head to the basement for the bathroom because my bladder isn’t the woman she used to be. Pay turnstiles? So, I went back to the lost and found desk to ask for change, but the man wouldn’t break my bill. Instead, he lets me in for free, walking me over and telling me I’ll love the train to Mallaig. He can’t help but try to teach me how to pronounce it. I swear, Scottish (which I obviously refer to as another language) is the most musical yet unintelligible language ever. No silly I-before-E rules. No rules at all.

This would have been enough of a welcome, but a fewf hours later on the train, I got the bladder call again. The bathroom was at the front of the car. It’s like a little spaceship, round with a pocket door that slides shut with the push of a button. I had already pulled down my pants and sat down when I noticed the lighted sign telling me the door was not locked. A tough call, but it’s pretty hard to embarrass me. I finished as quickly as I could, washed my hands, and opened the door. A man was standing outside, who immediately explained how to lock the door, which he’d apparently been guarding for me.

The kindness of the Scottish people was almost disorienting after my recent cruel trip to Texas, but what kind of country has men who are so weirdly helpful with bathrooms? Surely it doesn’t say anything about me.

The West Highland Train runs between Glasgow and Mallaig. The route is 146 miles and takes just under five and a half hours, which is not nearly long enough. I don’t even want to read. I’m besotted. This legendary landscape looks just like you’d expect. No grouping of letters on paper will do it justice but if I squint my eyes, I think I see ancestors behind the rocks.

It’s full Scotch broom season, the yellow flowers at odds with the sky. The Highland cattle look right at home. A few draft horses stand in fields but the country belongs to its sheep. Sheep everywhere, the ewes all dowdy gray and the lambies brilliant white, ricocheting off rocks. I still remember the names of the breeds from our farm when I was little, in that way that worlds collide as the idea of time falls away.

Hours pass. The last leg of the trip had the most beautiful scenery, and I was busy videoing out the window like any self-respecting tourist when a man sat down next to me. He introduced himself as Ian and immediately told me I was on the side of the train with the best view. We were backing out of the station so I asked, “Backward the whole way?” He nods yes.

He had flaming ginger hair with a formidable matching beard with sunstroke-fair skin, clear as the sky if only it hadn’t been so foggy and rainy. I could tell he was used to talking to strangers on the train because he modulated his voice volume to the rattle of the rails. Meaning, I could hear him even if I didn’t understand him.

I had pages of notes in front of me and he asked if I was a writer. Yes, I said. Pleasure or profit, he asked. Both I answered. He wanted to trade writing tips for history lessons. Deal. How you can tell I’m on vacation is that I agreed.

As we crossed the Glenfinian Viaduct, famous for its twenty-one arches, Ian told me about its history. There’s an ancient monument to the Battle of the Shirts, a clan battle that took place in 1544 when the Clan McDonald fought an epic battle the Clan Frazier. It feels like it happened yesterday.

The viaduct was built in the late 1800s, by Robert McAlpine, nicknamed “Concrete Bob” for his innovative use of mass concrete. There was a story horse who fell inside of a pylon dragging the cart with him. The decision was made to just fill it all in with cement.

Ironically, this is a place mostly known for a movie that I haven’t seen about a magician.

To visit Scotland is to understand that history is always present, so we talked about how horses helped us build the world and civilize our culture, but now there is little need for them. Some are still used hard, sometimes abused, with no traditional jobs to do. They are underappreciated, almost unnecessary. It’s the good news and the bad.

I told him my first trip to Scotland for work was on the solstice and we had vegetarian haggis. Just when I thought I’d never meet someone else who’d had it, he agreed it was the best thing ever. He claimed that some Scots had evolved past eating entrails.

He asked me about writing, apologizing that millennials like him were hooked to technology as if my paper tablet was sacred. As if writing had never evolved since cave paintings. Just to show off, I told him that soon I’d read these pages of notes to a dictation app and then email them to myself where it would be easier to edit them (I have apps) into submission.

Ian plays shinty, an ancient animal-skin ball game where the players are armed with sticks, and he has a damaged knee to prove it. A bit of a local hero, (that movie was shot here, too) but he had to move away and come back again. Don’t we always return home, or a place that feels that way?

Once I was settled into my hotel room, I took a walk in the rain. Maybe it was just fog, it’s hard to tell. Mallaig is a fishing village of 660 souls. At the end of a dock when I met a seagull the size of a capon. Huge and loud and healthy, probably from begging tourists for snacks. Leading from behind is an exercise I do with horses but I have a habit of finding birds to practice with when I travel. Leading from behind is easy. You just say yes and stop being a predator. Let the bird take you for a walk.

Then dinner. Jolene was playing, as I ordered fish and chips which come with peas. Most meals here do, and pickled cauliflower. The fish was so flaky it fell apart before getting to my mouth. Ambrosia fish but no food photos. I’ve never been a fan of delayed gratification. The sun eventually sets on day one.

And so, intrepid readers, this isn’t my usual blog, and it’s not just that I’m in the Scottish Highlands.

Since being hacked and then deleted by Facebook, the number of blog reads has dropped by 96%. Think about it. There was a time I would have killed for that many reads but it feels depressing now. I can see it in my income, trickle-down economics working as well as it ever has. I thought I’d never retire but it seems I don’t have to make that decision. Facebook did it for me and now I’m looking for the high side. It’s like I’ve lost half my body weight and I don’t miss the bickering.

I’m very grateful to you die-hards for sticking with me. I’ll keep writing as long as I continue to think because writing has become how I think. But readers beware, there’s no telling what I’ll stomach for breakfast or what trains I’ll catch. I do promise horses will be part of it because horses are life.

I’ll lob this essay over the ocean now, not that I know what day it is. If you were hoping for training information, go to my blog page where over 1400 essays waiting. Did I mention, I’m on vacation?

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Anna Blake

82 thoughts on “It’s a Vacation. Not a Work Trip.”

  1. Enjoy – I hit the same “magic milestone “ and visited Ireland. Please keep writing – thank you

  2. Really enjoyed this essay, Anna.
    We visited Scotland pre-Covid, and also had a lovely stay.
    Safe travels and have fun.

  3. I have enjoyed your essays ;and books) for years, though my days of intimacy with horses are over. But you write beautifully, and as a retired English teacher I do appreciate your talents and skill! The Scottish article is wonderful! I too have spent time with those nearly untranslatable people and that magnificent landscape. If you can, get to the Isle of Skye! And please, please, keep writing!! ❤️

    • Oh, Judy. Thank you, it’s my dream that an English teacher like my writing. I was one of those troubled girls saved by an English teacher. I didn’t get to thank you, but I can thank you for all you did with your life. You are a hero! And sadly, this is a quick lap, a short trip, and a few stops to make yet. Again, a sincere thank you.

  4. Enjoy, Anna – for yourself and all of us! Losing Facebook as far as I’m concerned is not a loss!!! Thats something that has never appealed to me. Your blog here? Different story.

  5. Thanks for this one, I’m from the West coast of Scotland and really appreciated it as I live in the Pyrenees now and miss my home land from time to time…. keep writing,it’s great that you do, even on holiday!

  6. “I swear, Scottish (which I obviously refer to as another language) is the most musical yet unintelligible language ever.” Yes, Anna. Our little group was amazed when told that the person in front of us in conversation with the check-in clerk at the hostel was actually speaking English! My question is how is it that they can understand “us,” but we can’t understand “them?”
    Hope you’re having a good time, no matter what!

  7. I have a deal for you. I’ll keep reading as long as you keep writing. Somehow you have happened upon one of the other major loves of my life: horses, books, and Scotland. I’ve had to cancel 3 trips there in the last few years for health reasons (mine and others), and I will still make it there. Just when I don’t know.
    Have a lovely vacation.

  8. Hi Anna. I love your posts, so keep it up. And I’m loving your vacation stories. I was in Scotland in 2014, and I’d love to go back. We couldn’t get tickets for the West Highland train, but did walk a stretch of the West Highland way for five days, which was magic. I also have ancestry in Scotland, and the pull is always with me. I was born and live in South Africa, in the Western Cape, and we do at least have beautiful mountains, some of which remind me of the highlands.

  9. When I hit the Magic Milestone, I had planned a day of zip lining and frivolity with friends and family. My birthday falls in April. In March, 2000 Covid came crashing into our awareness. No party, not nothing. I’m waiting for my 75th to complete my desire to zip line one more time. You have yourself a well deserved, fantastic vacation. I can’t wait to read about it. Much sisterly love, Laurel

  10. Hi Anna “Good on you”-the only phrase I can recollect from those I heard while traveling in the UK & Scotland! Hope you’re having a good vacation.

  11. I look forward to your weekly essays, which I receive by email. I’m sorry/not sorry about Facebook. It is a necessary (?) nightmare, I guess. I just subscribed on your page because I want to support what you do. I have all your books, too. You are a bright light in my day and now I am inspired to take a trip solo because I passed my 70th with no fanfare, just a sudden whooosh of health problems that are now more or less under control. Stay safe and just the way you are. I hope you will keep sharing your wisdom for years to come.

    • Thanks for joining up, Jane. I appreciate it so much. Now get out there and go some place! And let me know how it goes! Thanks, again

  12. Traveling vicariously with your words creating images in my minds eye.
    The Scottish highlands, Acchhhh!!!

  13. Happy Vacay, Anna! I also am experiencing attitude to recently encountered 70, so it’s good to hear how someone else is approaching the wrassling. I miss you on FB, but then again I just miss the old FB, more full of friends than ads and sponsored posts, so maybe you got booted from something that was already heading off track. Best wishes to you for whatever direction you head, and wherever that might be, I will be interested to hear the words you conjure to describe it.

    • Thanks Susan. It’s been hard on business, but a breath of fresh air otherwise. I’ll be curious about what you do, too.

  14. Since I’ve never been a fan of FB and I watch for every new post from blogs I follow, nothing has changed on this end and it is hard to comprehend the massive changes on your end. For those I feel for you. Just know I’m always along for the ride!

  15. Please don’t stop writing!! I hate to travel, (homebody), so I am traveling through Scotland via your blog!! (Bladder and all….I can relate!)

  16. Hello from East coast Scotland. I hope you are enjoying the beautiful weather we have today, the winter has been dragging its heels from leaving, but I feel like it has gone today! Safe travels.

  17. How wonderful!! Enjoy, lass! Of course, since I’m a nerd interested in Arabian horses, I found that Queen Victoria had Arabians. This would have predated the Crabbet stud. But you probably know this already. I am raising a pint to you!

  18. Love your vacation essay!! I just returned from London, and points beyond, not 100% wanting to be done with the trip, and reading this has helped ease me back into my regular life. Thanks!

  19. I read your blogs on my email generally. To keep up revenue, should I be clicking thru to read them elsewhere? Have a fabulous trip. I loved traveling in Scotland.

  20. When I hit the Magic Milestone, I had planned a day of zip lining and frivolity with friends and family. My birthday falls in April. In March, 2000 Covid came crashing into our awareness. No party, not nothing. I’m waiting for my 75th to complete my desire to zip line one more time. You have yourself a well deserved, fantastic vacation. I can’t wait to read about it. Much sisterly love, Laurel

  21. Glad you are having a wonderful time, i’m looking forward to hearing about the rest of your adventures. Safe travels!

  22. Safe travels with loads of friendly people and smiling attitudes! Loved every word of this. Thank you for staying in touch!

  23. At first I didn’t believe my eyes- a holiday? Wow! Very happy for you though Anna.
    Last year when I turned 70 I fulfilled a quest I’d waited a decade to do. Flying in a bi-plane and doing the acrobatics as well- all as a passenger of course! At one point when the pilot was almost stationary and swinging the plane around slowly I thought here I am doing a pirouette in a plane way up in the air !
    Old planes are my thing, not up to airport hassles these days.
    Love the Scottish accent and dry humour , they love to take the Mickey out of tourists 😊

  24. You, retire? Hummm…. not so sure about that one. But a cool vacation in Scotland? Yes! Much needed and batteries must be refreshed. I understand about FB. Can’t you go back under a different name? ‘Anna The Relaxed and Forward Horeswoman’, or something like that. The idiots. Anyway, hope you see a Clydesdale and other equines along the way. ENJOY. You deserve it. Raise a pint to all of us over here, waiting for your ‘return’. However you want that to be.

  25. I too love Scotland. Jon and I made our first trip to Scotland on a Rotary Friendship Exchange. It was magic. We spent ten days with our now friends in Eyemouth in the Scottish Borders on the east coast. Then a bus tour of the Highlands and Orkney.

    We went back to visit again two years ago. More magic.

    We’ve traveled in Europe, Vietnam, and South America. Scotland was the first place that felt as if I had come home. My ancestors arrived in America from all over Northern Europe and the British Isles, some centuries ago. Can’t explain why Scotland felt like home.

    • It’s true, just a comfortable place. I can’t explain it either. I’ve seen more beautiful places but this place hooks me deeply. Thanks, Jan

  26. Thank you for writing. I was so happy to see this in my e-mail. Only checking the e-mail because of a rattlesnake avoidance training that is being planned where I live . The snakes are out and about in record numbers. Yikes. So happy for your trip and will arrange to read more from you if all I can do is order more books. Happy Borthday

  27. I’ve been a bit busy (I made a short movie and it took every bit of my time, but worth it!) so I’m behind on reading the posts, but this one was so wonderful, I’m stopping in mid catch up to tell you so!
    My husband is an immigrant from Scotland (there’s a long story) and I’ve been there with him only once, but it’s never left my memory. Heck, after november we may just move back if I can afford to ship my horse!
    Your writing makes everything so real and present! I’m not a “laugher”, though I will post “LOL” not meaning it literally, but I actually did guffaw a couple of times while reading and will now pester my husband to read it.
    I cannot wait to read more! I’m so glad you are on vacation! (and now I have to read why texas was cruel, though I’ve been there many times for work so I can guess…)

    • It’s my dream as a writer that someone’s coffee comes out their nose. You know… it a kind of compliment. Thanks Dianne. It does stick in the memory, doesn’t it?

  28. “…because there are always horses” and “I have an attitude about it”…
    These could easily be my life mottos! I’m delighted you’re taking a vacation, and loving hearing about it.
    I hope you have a spectacular time.
    (I’m definitely having an attitude about my upcoming significant birthday. Thanks for the permission to find a way to celebrate it!)

  29. Anna, I’m glad you could make a likely long overdue vacation a reality. Scotland sounds both beautiful and comforting.
    On another topic…..
    I totally understand the attitude about your 70th birthday. I turn 69 in June and have been making numerous people miserable with my rotten attitude about it. It’s my last year in my sixties, and frankly I never imagined myself 70 or 70+.
    I’m working hard on having a better looking attitude, than my less than good looking weather beaten old hide…….it’s an up hill battle for my attitude.
    I genuinely wish you the happiest of birthdays and hope you’ll share any newly acquired wisdom related to aging.

    • Thanks, Laurie. My birthday is this fall, but I felt I needed a running leap, so I hear you. I’ll keep you posted…

  30. Lovely, Anna! Reading your weekly emails are always a highlight of my week and I save them for a time I can concentrate and ease into your words. I too, have that attitude about turning 70.


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