Sometimes it’s best to just hand the reins over to someone else and go along for the ride. Can you believe I just said that? I feel like I should get a “recovering control freak” gold star sticker for that one. This week a tour worked out great since I didn’t have to worry about scheduling ferries or buses or lodging. Instead, I just had a whole lot of enjoying the views along the way and taking time to figure out my next stop. (Still undecided as I write this).
I guess you could say it’s a mini-version of this entire year and my Grand Tour of Europe. Where to go? What to do? Who do I want to be? When your only plan is not to have a plan, it leaves the door wide open for adventure.
I was blessed to be able to cross another item off my bucket list: to visit the fairy tale Isle of Skye. It’s the first time since Dan died that I’ve crossed one off the list that was just mine, not ours…kind of like this whole adventure. And you know what? It felt amazing!
I’ve had so many people comment that they wish they could be brave and do something like this. Here’s the deal. I don’t feel brave. I do, however, believe that choosing to Live Now takes courage. Part of me misses the easy routine of my comfort zone. The other part of me is in a near constant state of bliss to be in a completely new environment. Living now is the only option that makes sense, especially to those of us that have lost so much. We know too damned well that tomorrow is promised to no one.
Live Now doesn’t mean selling everything you own to go on adventures, although that’s what I’m enjoying. It means squeezing every last drop of life out of the minutes we have. It means to be present in everything we do. And I wish for all of us to have a life full of Live Now minutes.
The Wandering Widow
Live Now. Dream Big. Love Fierce.
The Isle of Skye
Visiting the Isle of Skye has been on my list for close to two decades. It didn’t disappoint. One of the bazillion things I love about Scotland is how the clouds and the light are constantly changing. It changes the colors of the landscape from minute to minute and, if you can stay put for a bit, you get a whole new perspective without even moving your feet.
Every time I rounded the corner, I’d think to myself that there couldn’t possibly be a more beautiful vista in the world. And then I’d go to the next place and think the same thing. Maybe it’s all the fairy magic, but it’s definitely beautiful.
The Orkney Isles
It’s a trek to get here, but it’s like being in a whole new country. Colder and windier, the Orkneys gave me my first beaches in Scotland. You know this island girl and beaches; when I see them, they make my heart sing. I don’t care if they are sunny and tropical or cold and windy. It was a bit too cold to put my toes in the sand and water, but I could have stayed and walked for hours if I wasn’t worried about being left behind.
The Orkneys are also home to Neolithic stone circles and Pictish archeological sites.
The ghosts of my Highlander ancestors must know when I’m back because it always works out that I have perfect weather. There aren’t enough words to describe the breathtaking vistas, so photos will have to do.
I didn’t realize we were going to stop at the Cairns of Loch Loyne. The first cairn was put there to honor Hugh Mackay. I left a few stones in memory of Dan. It was fitting since the Bains are part of Clan Mackay. There were so many stone piles, some with names and dates. To think that all these people had traveled here to honor their dead was overwhelming. It was moving and emotional and I bawled my eyes out for the first time since I left home. Actually, it was the first time in a long time so I guess I was due.
Since I had trouble narrowing down which photos to include, here are a few extras.
Is it possible to fall in love with a place a little more each day? At the rate I’m going, I’ll never be able to leave Scotland. After Edinburgh, I arrived in Stirling, a sleepy university town, and felt every cell in my body give up a big happy sigh. With a whole week to explore, I had the opportunity to slow things down and enjoy every minute of this town. How often do you go on holiday and get to spend a rainy day in a coffee shop or pub people watching for hours without feeling like you’re wasting time?
Just like everywhere else I’ve visited in Scotland, the people are friendly and welcoming. Out of everything Scotland has to offer, the people are what I love best. I’ve said more than once that with its rugged beauty and relaxed lifestyle Scotland reminds me of Idaho before the hipsters moved in, only with more rain.
September is a perfect time to visit. You can feel a hint of the crisp fall air in the mornings, and the leaves on the trees are just starting to turn even though summer flowers are still in bloom. A poet friend recently told me that all poets love the autumn. And while I’m no poet, the overwhelming desire to capture the beauty of this season is contagious.
My heart is well on its way to mending, but there is something about the fall that is cozy and snuggly and warm and nurturing. As my son-in-law likes to say, it’s sweater weather. I can’t think of a better place to enjoy it than Stirling. It became so comfortable, so quickly, I really didn’t want to leave.
The Wandering Widow
Stirling is so much more than a home base for other sites in the area, especially if you like the outdoors. I spent a week here and could have stayed longer.
If you’re not driving, Stirling is super easy to access by train and is only an hour from Edinburgh or Glasgow. Navigating Scotland’s buses and trains are easy, even for someone like me who has “getting lost” as my super power. The town is also easy to navigate, although I confess to getting lost once when relying too heavily on my GPS instead of my eyeballs.
There are a few local historical sites to see, but if you run around screaming “Freedom” at the top of your lungs, you’ll be asked to leave. Kidding. But seriously, please don’t do that.
If you can only pick one thing to see in Stirling, this is it. It’s worth the 246 step climb up a narrow spiral staircase to the top for the breathtaking views. And if your only knowledge of William Wallace was Braveheart, be prepared to have your world rocked with the actual history of the man.
You can access the monument easily by bus from Stirling (about a twenty-minute ride) if you don’t want to drive. If you’re feeling extra Genki, you can also walk from town, but don’t forget you then need to walk (or shuttle) up a hill to get to the base of the monument.
Not my favorite castle in the world, but I’m easily bored with castles, so take my opinion with a grain of salt. My favorite parts were the gardens and the view. Shocker, I know. But it was interesting to learn about the famous unicorn tapestry. In case you didn’t already know, the unicorn is Scotland’s national animal, earning the country serious cool points.
In my humble-non-castle-stalking opinion, this one was a lot more fun than Stirling. Well known for its use as an on-location film site for Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Game of Thrones and Outlander, out of all the castle tours I’ve done, this has my favorite audio tour. Monty Python’s Terry Jones narrates and after each of the historical bits, are optional Monty Python details. There is something special about standing in a ruined castle hearing a Frenchman scream out that your mother was a hamster and your father smells of elder berries. Don’t take my word for it though, check it out yourself.
For you Outlander fans, the audio tour also provides filming updates from that Jamie guy.
The Dupplin Cross:
Venture out to Dunning and St. Serf’s church, and you can see the Dupplin Cross. It’s a Pictish stone carved in the shape of an Irish cross and is over a thousand years old. It’s free to visit, and the lovely docents will give you the history and point out important features, so don’t forget to donate before you leave.
The Bluebell Tearoom serves breakfast all day and has a gluten free menu, for those of you who care about that sort of thing. I loved that the hostess had been through Idaho, and we were able to chat about my home state.
The Friar’s Wynd is clean and bright, has great service, excellent food and is a great choice for a nice dinner.
The Smithy was a surprise. I wasn’t sure about trying it since my local friend hadn’t heard of it, but it got glowing recommendations for the “best food in Stirling” from another member of the Scottish travel group I joined on Facebook. I’m glad I tried it! It’s not far from Stirling Castle and is a light, bright cafe/tea house. The food was, in fact, the best I’ve had in Stirling and a great alternative to pub food. Everything was fresh and light (soups, salads, sandwiches, etc.) and delish.
In Dunning, have lunch or dinner at The Kirkstyle Inn. I had a superb dish of sea scallops, green apples, and black pudding. I can’t explain why that combo worked, but it was so delicious I might have licked the plate had I been by myself.
The Curly Coo is a must visit for whiskey drinkers, for the 130 single malt whiskey options as well as meeting Miss Mandy, the sassy pants proprietor. She recommended Deanston (among others) since it’s local. (I tried to get to Deanston Distillery later in the week for their whiskey and chocolate tour but the day I attempted to go the roads closed to buses, and my ankle wouldn’t agree to the 8-mile walk).
I’ve been chomping at the bit to get hiking since my last visit in April and was fortunate to have a friend here take me out exploring. We managed to get in a hike to Loss Hill before an old ankle injury kicked in and removed hiking (and dancing) off the list for a few weeks, but it was worth it.
Loss Hill was beautiful, and the irony of the name wasn’t lost on me. It’s just behind Dumyat Hill (where Wallace Monument is) if you’re looking at it from town. The beauty of hiking in Scotland is that you just decide which direction you want to go and start walking. In the states, property laws are pretty strict, and as I’d rather not get shot, I’ve never trespassed over fences before. It’s an entirely different scenario in Scotland, and I climbed over a bunch of fences (including barbed wire) on this hike. I also got to hike in the peat bog, which was new and different (and coincidentally the part my ankle didn’t like). In the two and half hours we were out, we saw sheep, deer and the weather change repeatedly from blue skies to storm clouds and back again. Classic Scotland! The only thing that could have made it better would have been some heilan coos, but I have lots of time left to see those cute furry cows.
The Lodging: Shona’s flat was my first Air B&B in Scotland, and ideally located in the middle of town (a five-minute walk from the train and bus station, and a ten-minute walk to Stirling Castle). While I didn’t need a three bedroom flat all to myself, it was nice to have all the comforts of home, including laundry and wifi. She was a gracious hostess, and I would stay here again.
I did it. I waved goodbye and set sail for a new life of adventure. I can honestly say that this is the first trip I’ve ever taken where I didn’t stress about the last minute details. Calm is a new thing for me. I like it.
The loneliness that I was worried about hasn’t shown up yet. I’ve met amazing people, learned new things, enjoyed fantastic food and whisky, and am sure I look like the village idiot because I can’t get this smile off my face.
I had someone tell me before I left that I was running away. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Those of us on our grief journeys each walk our own paths. Mine just happened to bring me back to my favorite country on the planet. I hope yours takes you someplace that brings you joy and peace.
The Wandering Widow
After a long day of travel, consisting of 20 hours, four airports, and three flights, I finally landed in Edinburgh. I had a stupid grin on my face despite the long line at the border checkpoint and didn’t care how long it took. I was back!
I bit the bullet and took a taxi (they are expensive compared to public transportation), deciding that the time saved was worth it. I was exhausted and didn’t want to deal with taking the tram, even though that would have only been £5. Some things are worth paying for.
I was pleasantly surprised when I got to Brown’s Bed and Breakfast. My hosts, Marion and Norie, were welcoming and I liked them immediately. The cleanliness stood out the most, which is saying something. I don’t think I’ve EVER stayed at a hotel or B&B this clean. Ever. After chatting them up at breakfast each morning, I now want to adopt them as my new Scottish grandparents. If you come to Edinburgh, book early so you don’t miss out on their hospitality.
Norie recommended the Theatre Royal Bar for dinner since it was a short walk away, the food is excellent, and is “woman friendly” for a solo female diner like myself. It’s also incredibly beautiful. If you’ve read my previous Table for One Posts and are looking for a hilarious story, you’ll be disappointed here. The food and service were impeccable. I liked it enough I went back several times during my stay in Edinburgh. (Try the steak and ale pie!)
The next day I headed out to catch up on the things I’d missed on my last trip to Edinburgh.
First stop was the Potter Trail Walking Tour. This free tour lasts about an hour and highlights key spots that influenced the Harry Potter books. Richard showed up in full robes, handed out magic wands, sorted us into houses, and commenced with great story telling. They also offer a longer full magic tour geared for kids, so if you’ve got your little ones make sure to book that one.
The next day I trekked out to Palace of Holyroodhouse. The entire tour of this functioning palace is great and full of history and art, but spend the extra £3 for the garden tour. That was the best part for this garden geek. Learning the history of the garden, the plants, and how involved the Queen and Prince Charles both are in the design was fascinating. Plus, with a guide, you get to walk on the lawn and see things up close and personal, like a rare elm tree that was thought to be extinct.
As you hoof it back up the Royal Mile, be sure to have lunch or dinner at The World’s End Pub. Not gonna lie, this is my favorite pub in Edinburgh. The food is fantastic, and the staff is friendly and funny.
Have you seen the movie Up? Dan and I used to say that it was the most incredible love story we’d ever seen, captured in the first five minutes of a children’s movie. That first five minutes wrecks me EVERY time. If you haven’t seen it, please have tissue handy as it’s a tear jerker. And maybe some Oreos. And if you have Oreos please invite me. The movie picks up after that, but damn those first five minutes! Never in a million years did we dream the movie was about us.
After the brutal reminder that someday is promised to no one, I refused to end up like the Carl you meet where the movie actually starts, miserable and alone and full of regret. I’ve had a lot of amazing people come through my life in the last few months. Each of these people helped me get a step closer to making the decision that brought me to today. They helped me realize that the new me IS Carl, the Carl that lets the balloons fly and heads off into the adventure he and Ellie never got to take together. The Carl that rips his house off the foundation (Holy Moly what a metaphor) in search of happiness. Does he find it? You’ll just have to watch the movie. (Don’t forget the Oreos).
So honoring Dan’s Live Now motto, and adding a new one of my own, I’m letting my balloons fly. Today I retire from a career and a work family I love beyond measure. I’ve ripped my house off its foundation to go in search of beautiful places, interesting people, and adventure. As scary as this is for someone who has played it safe all her life, it’s far more terrifying to imagine a life of regret if I don’t take the chance. I refuse to live a half life. So this widow is going wandering. And I don’t need to search for happiness, I’ll make my own.
Have you ever noticed that you meet people at certain times in your life and it seems like a plant? Like they were specifically put there for you to meet and learn from at that exact moment in your life? I hope so, because it’s freaking awesome. I’ve been blessed more times that I can count with people who have crossed my path that I NEEDED to meet. My recent trip to Europe was no exception, and I believe Dan made sure I’d happen upon these wonderful people so I could learn from them. My guides represented the past, present and future. It was like my own personal A Christmas Carol.
Steve and Linda–Ghosts of Christmas Past:
On their post-retirement world travel adventure, these two represented everything that could have been…the future Dan and I could have had. High school sweethearts, I fell in love with their love. Just being around them made my heart happy. Oh, and ladies if you ever need a good wingwoman at a pub, Linda is your girl.
Chrissy–The Ghost of Christmas Present
A random meeting at the Harry Potter and the Cursed Child play brought me Chrissy. She was sitting in the row in front of me, another single. As we were waiting for the play to start, she turned around and said “Happy Easter”, and we started chatting. I’d already been pretty teary eyed, so my tragic story kinda came pouring out. Instead of turning around and pretending she hadn’t talked to me, she opened up and shared hers. She’d lost her sweet little girl a little over a year ago to cancer, and Harry Potter was a huge part of their time together. (Check out the letter she wrote to JK Rowling, but make sure you have tissue handy).
You know I’m not normally a hugger, but I’ve never wanted to hug a stranger more than when I met Chrissy. We laughed, we cried, we bonded over a shared love of Harry Potter and our losses to that thief cancer. Meeting her on my first full day in London was a gift. I was struggling with being there by myself on our dream vacation, and to meet someone on a parallel grief journey was comforting. Someone else was sitting alone in that dark packed theater and KNEW and UNDERSTOOD what I was feeling. It was so amazing, and it took away the loneliness of being there alone.
Oh, if you ever have the chance to see the play, do it. I’ve seen a lot of plays over the years and this was special. I promised to #keepthesecrets, so you’ll just have to trust me on this one. I’m ecstatic it’s opening on Broadway next year.
Norma–The Ghost of Christmas Future:
If there is anyone I’d like to be when I grow up, it’s Norma. She is brilliant, feisty, brave, kind, and a widow of 14 years. In her 70s, she routinely travels alone and leads a life so active and independent it makes me tired to just think about it. I’m pretty sure I couldn’t keep up with Queen Sassy Pants if I tried! She is my in the flesh reminder that life goes on, and that it’s what I choose to make it. She made me laugh with her dating advice, tales of her adventures, and watching her watch the Kilted Yoga video for the first time. Meeting Norma was inspiring and energizing.
On a side note, when we were first dating Dan put me in his phone as Sassy Pants. It’s not a coincidence that the first thing I thought of when meeting her is, “what a sassy pants!”
There were many more people I met on this bucket list trip that influenced my life in a profound way. So much so that it makes me wonder, if everyone we meet teaches us something, what am I teaching to those who meet me?
Do you remember when my grief counselor told me that if I stopped going to our favorite places or doing the things we loved, it would actually make Dan disappear and not help me feel better? Well, Dan and I had been planning this Harry Potter bucket list trip to Europe for years. We never got farther than planning and dreaming, but we knew that SOMEDAY we were going to go. When Dan realized he wasn’t going to be able to make the trip, he made me promise to go anyway. That promise was one of the many gifts he gave me to help me get through my grief journey.
So I booked the trip and headed out solo. I figured if I were having a bad day I wouldn’t have to mess up anyone else’s itinerary. If I were by myself I wouldn’t have to explain why I was crying or laughing as I thought about him and wished he was there with me. And I underestimated the amount of crying I would do: saying goodbye to my dog; in the airport bar; in the boarding area; on the plane…you get the idea. I lost track of how many times I broke down in tears, but crying myself to sleep alone on our dream vacation became the norm. It’s a good thing I got over crying in public a long time ago, because there was plenty of that too.
But I wasn’t really solo. Dan was there with me, watching out for me and pulling strings. I’m sure he intervened when I was able to get tickets for the Harry Potter and the Cursed Child play, despite it being sold out for a year. And I give him full credit for the unseasonable picture perfect weather every single day that made Ireland look like the tropics! And he sent me little messages to remind me he was there and I was going to be okay.
And I met amazing people, did amazing things, saw amazing things, drank (a lot) of amazing whisk(e)y, and the night before I was supposed to go to Scotland I had a full meltdown and started packing to come home. I’m not sure why that was the trigger, other than visiting Scotland was what we’d talked about the most. We both have Scottish ancestry, and there was just something about Scotland that called to us.
So there I was in my hotel room a blubbering mess trying to figure out what to do. My little sister convinced me to stay, and I’m so glad she did. Scotland was magic. Somehow just crossing the border changed everything. I let go. I felt like I’d come home. It was everything I’d expected…windy, rugged, and beautiful. I’d actually dreamed about Loch Lomond a few months before taking the trip. Imagine my surprise when I got there and recognized it as the place I’d been dreaming of. And as I was standing outside in the highlands, cold wind whipping my hair around, I was laughing like a crazy woman. At that moment, I remembered. I remembered what it felt like to feel joy-pure joy! And happy. And at peace. And with hope for the future. It was like those highland winds ripped off all the grief and survivor guilt baggage I’d been carrying around and I was suddenly weightless. Dramatic, I know, but I can’t think of any other way to describe it.
And here’s the big shocker.
I met someone!
Me. I met me without the weight of the world on my shoulders–the me that is going to not only survive but thrive in this new reality. I met the me that can cry and laugh at the same time and still enjoy life–the me that can look fear and loss in the eye and keep going. I met the me that was the wild crazy laughing woman in the highlands. And I think Dan somehow knew that would happen and that’s why he made me promise to go.
Taking this trip was terrifying, but I’m so glad I did it. And I can’t wait to go back.
In my youth I travelled quite a bit, and never minded eating at a restaurant alone. I’m forcing myself to get back in the habit. I’ve had family and friends express shock and horror that I’d eat out alone or go see a movie alone. They are really going to love all my upcoming solo travel. I even had a friend beg me to never drink alone.
NEWS FLASH: I am alone. I am a childless widow. That means lots of alone time. Get over it.
People act like the childless widow should be hidden away at home to eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches until some Good Samaritan invites her out into the real world. I’m sorry, I call bull$hit on that notion. I refuse to put my life on hold until it’s convenient for someone else to join me on an adventure or for the world’s best huckleberry pancakes.
That doesn’t mean it isn’t hard. Sitting down at our family’s favorite breakfast joint I automatically went through Dad’s, Mom’s and Dan’s orders in my head. We had many wonderful meals here. Lots of memories. And it was a bit of a gut punch. But I’m here anyway, doing my best to honor Dan’s LiveNow wishes. Now pass the pancakes.