Return to Life: A Scottish Misadventure
Amid some personal turmoil, Neža Peterca headed into Scotland’s Cairngorms National Park to clear her head and seek answers. And in classic Highlands fashion, she got more than she bargained for. Find her story of picking herself up from crashes and confronting hard truths here…
It’s June 2020 and I’m sitting on an almost empty plane from my home in Slovenia en route to Edinburgh, Scotland. I’m travelling to see my now ex-boyfriend for the first time since the pandemic started. We haven’t seen each other for three months and I’m excited to see him. I’m looking forward to adventures with him and seeing more of a country that has captured my heart and imagination. I’d traveled to Scotland last November, but I don’t really know what to expect from the Scottish summer. I pack everything and come prepared for rain, ferocious wind, and low temperatures. As we prepare for landing I try to suppress the butterflies in my stomach.
Two weeks of quarantine and the tension is rising. I can’t put my finger on exactly what is wrong, but something has changed. The situation makes me anxious and uneasy. We tread on eggshells and wonder, am I really so difficult to spend time with?
Eventually, I realise that I need to leave to give us the space that we clearly need. Maybe I’m just delaying the inevitable, but I can’t comprehend an end just yet. I have my trusty escape tool with me–my bike. Cycling has always been my go-to when I need some clarity and time to think.
Even though cycling feels like the natural thing to do, I feel uneasy about going to the Scottish wilderness alone, so I get in touch with a fellow bikepacker, Annie. We haven’t met each other offline before, but our community is a small one. And in my experience, it is usually safe to rely on the rule that a friend of a friend will be good company. After a short get-to-know-each-other “date” we make plans to go on an adventure for a few days. I already feel a little more like myself again. I place my trust in Annie’s knowledge and she plans a route in the Cairngorms National Park.
Drizzle and Mind Games
My ex drives me from Edinburgh to Aviemore while on his way to the north of the country. I feel unprepared and anxious. Our failing relationship plays on my mind, as does an awareness that I know nothing about what the following days will bring.
When I meet Annie in Aviemore she breezily explains that she’s planned a surprise re-route on day one. Apparently our new plan will be more interesting and she assumed I might be the type of person who would enjoy a bit more adventure. A twinge of anxiousness hits me and I have to fight the urge to panic. I fear that Annie believes I’m stronger than I am. I worry I’ll hold her back. I try to rationalise the situation. I’ve got myself into all kinds of situations in the past, how bad can this get? I repeat a simple mantra in my head: Stop worrying and try to enjoy it.
Once we start riding my mind eases a bit, as it always does. Deep breaths in and the tight ball in my stomach unravels a bit. I observe the flowers and trees; the entire flora is vastly different from what I’m used to on my side of the world. Questions keep on popping up in my mind and I’m impressed by how Annie has an answer to them all. I wish I had the kind of memory that could recall everything she told me, but my short attention span has already forgotten most of the details. It was interesting at the time and the perfect distraction. I feel immersed in my new environment and begin to settle into the challenge ahead.
After a few miles of riding through the forest we start gaining elevation. Shortly thereafter, Annie finally reveals the plan: we are going to ride the second highest mountain in Scotland, Ben Macdui. I’m actually relieved. I literally ran up Ben Nevis in November and I don’t expect Macdui to be any more challenging. No problem, I reassure myself. I’ve got this. Almost immediately after telling myself this, the rideable gravel road becomes a set of stone steps. Well, the Scots call it a “hiking trail.” The agony of a five-hour push begins. My half-ton bike is acting unwillingly, and I need to put the entire force of my body into every push. Once on the summit, a dense fog surrounds us with a combination of intense wind and light drizzle. I get what they say about the Scottish weather. Predictably unpredictable.
I’m equal parts relieved and unsurprised when Annie pulls out her compass and directs us to the trail, descending into the heart of the Cairngorms National Park. What is supposed to be and enjoyable descent turns into a very technical trail and from the onset I have a hard time keeping up with Annie. In fact, I have a hard time staying on my bike. My mountain biking skills are not “on point” yet and I repeatedly find myself flying over the handlebars. I know my body is getting a tough treatment, but I feel numb, like I am not really party to the experience. Maybe I just know that I have little choice but to get through it. Slowly but surely I do, and we descend to the valley floor.
In Need of Sleep
Once down, the trail weaves through dense bushes that completely take over the landscape, with a few trees poking through. We were supposed to camp somewhere here tonight, but as we ride I can’t see a single green spot worthy of pitching the tent. Riding that narrow singletrack between thick blueberry bushes and fern grass, my tick paranoia kicks in. Like I am not stressed enough already. I juggle in my head what feels worse at the moment—this type two fun or my broken heart?
Just as we finally find a square metre of flat grass the wind picks up with incredible speed. While I struggle to make camp, the wind that tears at my tent also blows away the clouds from the surrounding peaks. I can finally see the wonderland that surrounds us. The mountain summits of the Cairngorms are not towering spires, but they’re remarkable nonetheless. Their flanks are steep and often covered in scree. Despite only being a day of riding in, we are in the middle of nowhere.
I feel physically and emotionally exhausted. The past three weeks of distress have taken a gradual toll on my body without me realising it. I’m deeply fatigued. I apologise to Annie for calling an early night and go to hide in my tent. I lie motionless for hours, running stories in my head, unable to calm my mind. The wind is so strong that with each gust the sides of my tent brush against my body. I lose track of what is real and what is a dream.
Tomorrow is Another Day
Morning comes and I feel like I’ve been run over by a truck. Yesterday’s adrenaline has faded and all those falls have left me covered in bruises and cuts. Most concerningly, my arm looks and feels weird. I assume it’s not broken because I can still use it. While I’ve been consumed by my personal dramas, Annie has been busy with more rational stuff. She announces that we’re making more than good time. If we continue at this speed we’ll be back in Aviemore in about three days, so she suggests taking an additional loop to the east, through the Queen’s Balmoral Estate. I’m too tired to argue and have no desire to return to normality yet, so the plan is set.
I’m surprised by how quiet it is as we ride. Throughout the entire day, we only encounter a handful of other people. Most of the riding is less technical than before and I have time for my thoughts to wander. I say to Annie, “If I have one wish for the day, it’s to camp between pine trees.” Annie, who is deeply knowledgeable about the Cairngorms, knows exactly where we’ll spend the night. When we arrive, the wind has calmed down. Anywhere else in the world, this would be celebrated, but what I hadn’t realised is that no wind means getting attacked by swarms of midges. I cover myself with a head net and long johns, but there are still times that I have no choice but to expose my raw flesh. Peeing in the bushes leaves me with an itchy, throbbing backside.
Another Change of Plans
The next day Annie decides to go back to Aviemore; something important has come up. I can’t help but wonder if it’s my terrible company that is driving her away. Or maybe she really does need to get back. We ride together to the crossroads where we say our goodbyes. The moment she rides away I collapse on the ground and burst into tears. I’ve been keeping myself together, not wanting to appear weak and unstable in front of her. Now, I no longer have reason to keep up the facade, or the energy to do so.
I sit still, alone in the enormous emptiness. Sheer beauty surrounds me, but my mind is somewhere else. I don’t notice the light playing on the hillside or the sound of the stream bubbling next to me. I’m consumed by this fucking relationship. I become angry and berate myself for not being able to appreciate the moment. I want to snap out of it, but don’t know how, so I force myself to ride further. I am committed now. The only way ahead is forward. I even allow myself a brief smile at the metaphorical irony. Don’t look back.
The simple act of pushing my pedals becomes excruciating. I find myself having difficulty breathing and for a moment I wonder if I’m having an anxiety attack. I keep burying that thought deeper and push on. Focus.
The trail starts to climb on the side of a steep hill. As the trail gets narrower the drop on the side of the trail gets steeper and steeper. My lack of energy is evidenced in my riding speed. I’m so slow that I bounce off every rock. To no surprise, I lose my balance and fall off the trail. In shock, I try to grab anything I can get my hands on and manage to stop the fall by grabbing onto a bush with one hand and my bike with the other hand. After a few seconds of shock, I realise the seriousness of the situation.
I realize that something really bad could happen here at any moment, riding alone, and with fairly bad bike handling skills, in a remote place where my phone doesn’t work and a seriously distracted mind. And that’s when I consciously decide I need to get my shit together. It feels like a switch flipping in my mind. Self-preservation from something deep inside my consciousness.
I assess the situation and continue walking on the steep part of the trail, pushing the bike next to me. The rest of the day I take it slow and walk any part that feels even slightly intimidating. When I admit to myself that there’s no one I need to prove anything to, the pressure lifts a bit. After what has probably been my slowest riding day in my bikepacking career I find a camp spot next to a wild river. The deafening sound of water fills up my brain with white noise. It took me all this time to find what I was looking for, and even now I can’t quite describe it. Escape? Release? Whatever it is, I can finally fall into the deepest of sleeps.
Return to Life
I wake to find my right arm is hardly usable anymore. The pain is unbearable, and in order to continue I swallow a few painkillers. I end up convincing myself that my arm is broken. It isn’t, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s less than useless at the moment. I have no real choice but to return to Aviemore. This will be my last day and night out before the now-ex-boyfriend picks me up the following day. The pressure of the approaching situation creeps in. Just as I’m beginning to feel at home here, I know I must leave.
The weather is a reflection of my mood. One second the sun is shining and the next one the wind blows over the black clouds and it pours down with rain until I’m soaked to the bone. I don’t meet a single person all day and I don’t mind that at all. It’s my last night out and I feel like I sleep with a rock on my chest.
I make slow progress toward Aviemore. Just before I reach the edge of civilization, I stop. I’m faced with the simple fact that I can’t hide any longer and will have to confront everything I have been running away from for the last few days. I buy myself just a little more time by rolling a cigarette and watching the trees dance in the wind. I whisper myself: be strong, be brave.