Ride of Passage: A First-Timer’s Trip Across Scotland
For a long time, setting off on a bikepacking trip felt unattainable for Lizz Corrigan. That is, until she decided she was done letting a lack of gear and experience hold her back and traveled to Scotland to ride a 220-mile route with her partner Ben. She shares some reflections on her first trip here, along with some advice on how to get started…
Words and photos by Lizz Corrigan (@lizzcorrigan)
Ben ordered the 18-year-old Scotch. Minutes before, I tucked my last face wipe into the small, ripped hole in the dry bag strapped to the back of my bike. The hole could’ve been from one of the many cattle gates we shimmied through, or maybe the time I accidentally ran my bike off the trail while riding some off-camber singletrack.
We exchanged approving nods as he slid a travel-sized deodorant into his pannier, very well knowing we were a little underdressed and over stinky to be waltzing into the Tomatin distillery. But it was our last day, and our last 15-mile push before arriving in Inverness, our final destination.
Ben is my fiance. He’s a ramblin’ man with big ideas, which is what I originally thought this trip was: just another big idea. I was almost done with grad school, while at the same time we balanced bills and nine-to-fives with our need to be outside and away from our desks, stretching our legs from the mundane routine of adulting.
We’re not professional bikers. We’re just a couple from Salt Lake City who loves to bike, travel in shoulder season, hates staying in hotels, and assumes love is getting our asses kicked together all over the world, namely in places with terrible weather and few people. So naturally, biking 220 miles with 12,000 feet of elevation gain through Scotland seemed fitting.
By the time the idea began to boil, I had only been mountain biking for around two years—the extent of my biking experience. Hell, I even rode my mountain bike in a pair of baggies and my trail running shoes until last season. So, I wasn’t exactly the picture-perfect bikepacker. To be fair, I’m naturally athletic, fairly active, and love a good disastrous sufferfest that we laugh about later. But I wondered what made me qualified to go? My biking resume was somewhat… blank.
I got caught comparing myself to powerhouse female riders like Lael Wilcox. For some reason, the barrier to entry as a female bikepacker felt like you were either all in, or not at all. The voice in my head told me I needed some sort of credentials or invitation to go—would a six pack do the trick? What about a handful of beloved industry sponsors? A famous friend?
Whether or not I was ready, or felt qualified, I wanted to go. I was sick of just being the cheerleader as Ben did things like ride the Kokopelli Trail and embark on overnighters in the Wasatch Mountains with the boys.
Yet, despite living in an outdoor mecca, I didn’t know any females who’d been on a ride like this. Some wished they could come with, while others scoffed at the inevitable lack of hygiene. As a female and first-time bikepacker, I had a lot of questions that I couldn’t find answers to. Like, how many pairs of underwear to bring or what to do on your period? I was more than happy to leave makeup behind, but am I being extra if I bring a brush and a bit of lotion? So I packed, unpacked, and packed again, not really sure how to separate wants, needs, and nice-to-haves.
Luckily, by the end of our trip, I used almost everything I packed, except for the bug net. Midges are supposed to be awful during that time of year in Scotland, but it rained nearly the entire time so we didn’t have a problem. A fair trade, to be honest—there was one afternoon of warm sun, and while racing down hill, I swallowed one. Cue gagging off the side of my bike.
What I’m trying to say is, it doesn’t matter what you put in your bags or even what bags you use. We probably should have used a lighter set up—but panniers were on sale, and I had a rear rack, so that’s what I did. If you’ve taken the steps to bikepack or tour, it beats sitting on the couch or in the office. You’re no less credible or tough because you used a pannier, packed a couple extra pairs of undies, and don’t want dread head for a week.
Imagine descending Cairngorms doubletrack, and a much-anticipated bothy appears in the rugged and rolling desolation. Are you really thinking about the items you did or didn’t pack? No. Instead, you’re overcome with deep inhales of solitude and exhales of bustle and routine—a gentle shedding, leaving behind layers of fear and doubt and shame that held you back for too long.
I didn’t care that my cage rattled, or that it was probably because I hadn’t screwed it on tight enough as we built our bikes in the Glasgow airport. I didn’t care that my water bottle could’ve flown out at any moment, or that it was because I had forgotten mine at home and had to buy one at the airport back in Salt Lake City, so it didn’t fit quite right. In these moments, I was just happy to be there, no matter how scrappy and eclectic I might’ve looked or felt.
The genesis of ethereal memories replaced the questions that circulated before we left:
Is your boyfriend making you do it? Wouldn’t you rather sit on a beach somewhere? I would hate that! Is it going to be warm? Where are you going to shower? Is Ben going to carry most of your stuff? Oh, is it one of those trips where someone carries your gear for you to the next stop?
Look, Ben didn’t make me do it. And I willingly carried my equal share of gear, food, and water. Because more than anything, he is my biggest advocate and equalizer. We’ve built a relationship on tough love and respect in the seven and a half years that we’ve been together. He pushes me to my edge, and this trip was no different.
As proof, somewhere between Killin and Kenmore, I hit rock bottom on the side of the road. Paved roads should’ve been easy after a day and a half of steep doubletrack, right? Yet, my blood sugar plummeted as the elevation rose. I buried my head in my gloved hands, sheep passing on either side. Exhausted. Ben unrolled the cold, leftover sausage rolls we picked up in Callander earlier that day, along with a true bikepacking treasure he’d been saving since our night in Glasgow: a mini kitkat—easy to split, easier to inhale.
As much as a partner or friend can boost your spirits, I can assure you that you must learn to be your own advocate. You will doubt yourself the most. But you pedal the bike. You carry your gear. You move the needle, and you put the miles behind you. You can sit on the side of the road, eating sausage rolls for a week, or you can saddle up and get back on the horse that bucked you. Believe it or not, it’ll likely be because you want to, and partially because you have to.
We didn’t have any short cuts or escape plans. We were going from point A to B, with a hard deadline and a flight to catch. It was intentional, and I wouldn’t have done it any other way. As we planned the trip, we pored over maps, free downloadable PDFs, and every website that talked about biking (and thru-hiking) in Scotland. Eventually we figured, why follow a route when we could build our own? Why stick to just roads when we have the right to roam? Just because it was our first trip of its kind, didn’t mean we had to follow any rules or tread perfectly charted territory.
We combined multiple routes, which we eventually started calling “roughly route 7,” when asked. We combined parts of the Cairngorms Loop, Route 7, John Muir Way, then let serendipity guide us through some other national parks and highland passes that didn’t seem to belong to any route, anything, or anyone. We had a general plan, but nothing that was set in stone.
Keep in mind, I’m not saying go with no plan and hope you wind up where you’re supposed to. What I’m saying is that you shouldn’t let the fear of planning prevent you from going. You don’t have to know every right and left turn, you don’t have to be afraid of the U-turn, and more than anything, you don’t have to do it perfectly.
Instead, the element of the unknown and finding peace in discomfort is part of the growth and reward that comes with self-supported journeys. So, while you may experience mishaps and waves of exhaustion, you slowly begin to reassess what is actually annoying, frustrating, and painful. That’s the point.
For example, we hadn’t planned on taking Gaick pass, but we did. The week-long rain sent us squishing and pushing through miles of bog, often losing sight of where the singletrack should be. What should’ve been a scenic shortcut to a bothy actually left us muddied to mid-calf, behind schedule, and realizing the trail we should’ve taken hours ago to the next canyon over must’ve been concealed in the valley flooding. Yet, despite the challenges and frustrations, this day produced many of my fondest memories.
Around the same time my whiskey hangover began to lift, so did the laden fog. Looking up, there was Ben, waiting far in front, an emblem of our solitude. I realized, no matter your experience level, the sun may choose to hide, no matter the seeker. Storm clouds may crawl over mountaintops toward you without warning. And whether it’s your first or fiftieth bikepack, the wilderness grants no special circumstances or IOUs. Mother nature simply whispers (or shouts) Is this what you came for? Your answer should always be yes.
I’m sure with each trip, you’ll become more efficient, learn to pack lighter, and travel smarter. You’ll probably buy new pieces of gear, take more risks, or embark on a new route. But little else compares to the first time you ride, carrying only what you need to survive on two wheels. Seeing a landscape change slowly over hundreds of miles for the first time, well, it changes your perception of the world and where you fit into it. It’s a “ride of passage,” if you will—significant, transformative, and worth celebrating.
As you embark on a first-time experience in a new country, or state, or trail, remember: it’s an incredible privilege to turn daydreams into reality, to safely leave home and venture into the unknown. To be honest, we’re lucky to simply step on a bike and pedal. I feel like I didn’t recognize these privileges until now. It was easy to get swept up in excuses, fear, statuses, and should-dos or should-bes. But there are far more reasons to go than not to. We didn’t go into debt, or quit our jobs. We just went with what we had and could afford. The payoff isn’t the photos, or the story—it’s a feeling that swells and never subsides.
I suppose it’s the warmth of cold memories. Or perhaps a newfound appreciation for simple living. It could be gratitude, achievement, or perseverance. But what I’ve found is, you don’t go with plans to change, you unintentionally change as you go—as steadily as the rise and fall of the landscape, and at times as babbling as the brook. It’s as if your body and soul stretch toward growth, like goosebumps rising at will toward the sun on a cold day.
So, really, all you must want and all you must do? Go. I’m really glad that I did. It wasn’t easy, or warm, or dry. It was baptism by torrential Scottish rains. It was a test in adversity, in faith, in myself. But as Ben and I sat, sipping Scotch on our final day, we happily clinked our glasses together—a toast to firsts and to newly opened doors. A toast to simultaneously arriving and departing with parts of ourselves, lost and found along the way.
About Lizz Corrigan
Lizz Corrigan is a writer and amateur photographer based in Salt Lake City, Utah. She uses storytelling to forge connections between people, places, and shared values. She started mountain biking after realizing it’s more fun than running. When she’s not pouring yet another cup of coffee, she’s likely pursuing the most underrated corners of the American West with her partner, Ben, and their blue heeler mix, Waylon. Follow along on Instagram @lizzcorrigan.