# travel

I call the internet company to get wifi installed. I get a woman in Italian. Posso parlare inglese? I ask in fumbling Italian. Si she answers, indicating that yes I can speak English. Except, no, she doesn’t understand any of it. We arrive at a shared understanding that I want wifi, and she gradually takes my address. Terrified that this is going to be a very long and arduous process with great risk of miscommunication, I ask again if I can speak to someone in English. Si. Due minuti. She disappears.

Two minutes later, a man picks up the phone speaking English with a suave Italian accent. His name is Antonio. He graciously guides me through the questions for an internet installation. When I spell my name, he confirms every letter with an Italian place name. T like Torino? L like Livorno? E like Empoli?

After taking all of my details, Antonio hesitates before explaining the next step. He seems unsure that I’ll understand. I’m going to give you a number, okay? He explains: he will give me a number to write down. I will hang up and call that number. A machine will answer. I will press one. I will be put on hold. Then the phone will disconnect. Okay?

Italy is a country of faith. Faith in god. And faith that if you hang up and call another number and press one and disconnect and then wait, eventually you will get a wifi installation. And so I did — hang up, call, press one, disconnect, and then wait in silence for eight minutes. Until my phone rang. It’s me, said Antonio.

In seven to ten days, I should have my wifi installed. Now I just have to wait for a call from a technician.

Time moves more slowly in an open space like Rannoch Moor. The moor sits in the cradle of Scotland’s Western Highlands. In every direction away from Rannoch Moor, the highland hills roll, tower, and drop. But the moor itself stretches across a vast, flat, boggy expanse, cut off from the rest of the world by the surrounding hills that stand on guard.

Rannoch Moor is known as one of the last great wildernesses of Western Europe, but it doesn’t feel like a wilderness. It feels desolate.

Claire waiting on the train platform
Waiting for the train to take us onto the moor.

Ahead of our Friday departure from Scotland, Claire and I travelled to Rannoch Moor on Wednesday. A train took us across the moor into the empty heart of the highlands. We disembarked the train at Corrour Station, on the northern edge of the moor. Corrour is the highest and most remote train station in the United Kingdom. The station has a platform, a small station house, and nothing else. No roads connect Corrour to the outside world. There are just the train tracks and a single gravel path that heads east toward the hills.

Claire hiking on a gravel path uphill
Starting the hike up the hillside.

The moor’s boggy, sinking terrain can swallow wayward hikers, so all paths trace the hillsides around the edge of the boggy land. The first part of the hike took us upwards into the safety of the hillside above the moor. In the clear summer afternoon, the view stretched for at least 20km across the moor — to the UK’s highest mountain Ben Nevis in the northwest; to the staggering peaks of Glencoe in the southwest; to the lonely hills of Breadalbane in the south; to the “fairy hill” Schiehallion in the east, which scientists used to measure the weight of the earth in the 18th century.

But here laid emptiness — the flat expanse of the bog.

Claire walking on the hillside, with an empty moor and mountains in the background
Walking along the moor.

The greater part of the walk took us along the hillside, curving up and down, side to side, keeping the open moor to our right.

A portrait of Claire
Claire with the moor behind her.

We measure time by change. When change comes quickly or easily, the hours feel short. When change comes slowly, the hours feel long. In a colorful city, a long walk feels short. In an open field, a short walk feels long. Walking along the emptiness of the moor, time stood still.

A photo of Claire walking downhill towards a lush glen
The path curves away from the moor.

Free from time, we floated in the empty space of the highlands. The solstice sunlight stretched out for hours, filtering down through soft clouds, forgetting the time of day.

We reached the car around sunset and started the long drive home, feeling weary and peaceful. The solstice sun kept a warm light in the sky past midnight. As we drove through the interminable dusk, we passed a field of deer. The stags — there must have been ten — saw us before we saw them. With their eyes fixed on us, their antlers formed a row of overlapping inverted triangles on the horizon. “Those look like antlers,” I said. “They are,” said Claire. The herd turned away from the road and poured into the treeline, reminding us that time keeps moving.

There was a football match on. I could tell because the train was packed. When I arrived at Glasgow Central, it was even crazier.

Fans cheered as they poured off of the trains, while wary station attendants shepherded the crowds through makeshift one-way lanes, trying in vain to prevent traffic jams. I pushed my bike through the crowd, moving against the tide.

My train, which was apparently traveling away from the stadium, was quiet. Quieter still as we rolled out of the city and into the pastoral hills south of Glasgow. After 45 minutes, I disembarked at a station called Dalry. I don’t know anything about Dalry, except that it’s the highest town on the Glasgow–Ayr rail line, and it’s also on the National Cycle Route. From there, it’s largely downhill back to Glasgow.

An abandoned building outside Highfield.
Dalry real estate.

It took about a minute to get out of the town of Dalry, before I was on a dirt path riding between an abandoned building and the River Garnock. For the next ten minutes, I had a steep climb up to the highest spot on the route — a point on the map labeled Highfield.

A bicycle leaned against a gate in the countryside
Pausing for lunch in highfield.

There was no town when I got to Highfield, just sweeping views. The trains looked like toys as they rolled through the valley below. I climbed up on a fence and sat down for lunch.

I suppose I’m a little addicted to this feeling. I drive Claire crazy, because every time I see a hill or a staircase I want to climb it. I’m like a dog with a squirrel. I love the view. But, more than that, I love the feeling. I’ve always been chasing that feeling. It’s the feeling like you’re on top of the world; or at the edge of the world. Like you’re at the end of things.

I was happy while I ate my lunch, sitting on top of a fencepost on top of a hill. Then I got back on my bike. The next section of the ride was mostly downhill on one-track roads. It reminded me of dreamy catalogues my sister used to order for expensive European cycling tours when we were kids. I felt like I was pedaling through the pages of one of those catalogues all on my own.

The cycling route

After about a half-hour, I got off of the country road and onto a paved cycling path through Clyde Muirshiel Park. At this point, the route leveled off as I rode along an old rail bed that passed a series of lochs.

This is where the ride started to get hard. Riding on level ground for hours is more challenging that I expected. I didn’t get sore, but I started to feel the tedium.

A lake

A swan flapping its wings

A country highway

A leaky aquaduct

I stopped regularly to take in the scenery. But rainclouds gathered as I rode. My weather app constantly reported rain starting in the next 30 minutes or so, and I was harried by patches of drizzle. I had brought gloves with me, but at some point I had dropped them, so now I pressed on with bare hands. At about two-thirds of the way through the ride, I passed through a small village. On the map, I saw a tea room and bakeshop, and I considered stopping to rest and recover. But the rain clouds warned me that if I delayed I would ride home in a downpour. If I pushed forward, I might stay ahead of the rain. So I kept going.

After winding through the the final traces of forest, the path disgorged me onto a city street in Paisley, next to Glasgow. Leaving the path onto the gravelly roadway, I took a wide turn to avoid a jogger. Oh fuck I said as I felt my wheels slip on the gravel and slide out from under me.

I hit the ground, landing on my hands first. I laid on the ground like it was on purpose. I knew I was okay, but I wanted to rest here for a minute. You okay? the jogger called as he bound over. Yeah I’m fine. I said. He reached out his hand and I accepted it, a little resentful that I had to get up. As I reached out, we both looked at my palms, caked with blood and gravel. You gonna be alright? he asked. Yeah, I’m just gonna find somewhere to get myself cleaned up.

My hands looked bad, but my mind felt fine. I locked my bike up outside a steakhouse, where the hostess let me use the bathroom. I scrubbed my hands for about ten minutes to get as much of the gravel out of my scrapes as possible. The bathroom only had an air dryer, so I had no paper towel or plasters to stop the bleeding.

Paisley has a train station, so I had reached a juncture. I could keep pedaling for the remaining hour of the ride, or I could just hop on a train back to Glasgow Central and then transfer to the train home, which would also take an hour. I wanted to keep going.

I gripped my handlebars with my thumb and fingers to protect my abraded palms, and I proceeded through Paisley. To my surprise, the path road right through the train station. As I crossed the platform on my bike, I looked at the departure board. The next train to Glasgow Central left in five minutes. No, I thought. I’m going to finish this ride.

After the train station, the path rode up a steep hill through a park, and then down into the leafy suburbs between Glasgow and Paisley. I was only a few minutes past the train station when my legs started complaining. All of a sudden, I couldn’t ride uphill. Every time the path inclined, I had to get off my bike and walk. A little later, flat ground became almost impossible. My legs hurt when they weren’t even moving. I had to keep them slowly rotating on the pedals.

Signposts guided me toward Pollok Park, which is next to my house — only, instead of helping, they taunted me with nonsensical milestones. Pollok Park 3 miles, a sign would say. Two minutes later, Pollok Park 2 miles, and I would grin with relief. Ten minute later, Pollok Park 1.5 miles, and I would moan with despair. Pollok Park 1 mile, a sign would say, beckoning me forward. Pollok Park 2 miles, the next one proclaimed, gaslighting me.

This was a terrible idea I thought to myself. I’m never going to want to get on my bike again.

At Pollok Park, I gave up on cycling. I took my time walking through the park, and then through the residential streets back to my apartment, occasionally getting back on my bike to pedal for a moment before surrendering again.

I hoisted my bike up the stairs to my apartment and dropped my backpack and jacket on the floor. I ran the bath. I boiled the kettle. I ate a whole packet of crackers with store-bought hummus. My faithful legs carried me through these motions, trembling and groaning. This is it. I thought. This is the end of the world.

I went into the bathroom, where the steaming bathtub was now half-full. I stepped in, gripped the edges, and lowered myself in. The bubble bath baptized me, and I was born again. The pain in my legs disappeared. My exhaustion evaporated. I laid my head against the rim of the tub and laughed out loud to myself. That was amazing I thought, getting high on a flood of endorphins. I can’t wait to do it again.

Last weekend, Claire and I went up to the Cairngorms for the express purpose of spending a weekend in a remote cottage curled up next to the fireplace. We played board games, ate pancakes, and drank tea and whisky.

Highland cottage
Our cozy cottage in the Cairngorms.

The cottage was down a one-kilometer driveway, hidden behind expansive sheep pastures and tucked into the edge of an oak forest.

The castle on Loch an Eilein
The castle on Loch an Eilein.

The drives up and back were stunning. On the way home, we stopped at Loch an Eilein, a loch with a sunken castle in the middle.

The main North-South highway in Scotland is a stunning and surprisingly quiet two-lane road that curves through the heart of the highlands. Coming from the busy freeways of North America, this feels like a slow scenic route. Nonetheless, on our way back we cut off the highway to take an even more scenic route, following winding one-track roads over hills and valleys.

The view down Glen Lyon
The view up Glen Lyon.

That took us through the idyllic Glen Lyon, which the poet Walter Scott described as the “longest, loneliest and loveliest glen in Scotland.” We stopped for tea and cake in the Glen before turning up the mountainside for one of my favorite drives in Scotland, through a pass between Ben Lawers and Meall nan Tarmachan, on a route that Google simply describes as “unnamed road.”

Ben Lawers Dam
Ben Lawers Dam surrounded by the Trossach Mountains.

That road winds up through into the misty and desolate mountain pass, where there is a feeling of complete solitude, like you’ve arrived at the end of the world.

We did parts of this drive once before, on our first trip to Scotland in 2018. It was so beautiful, it helped convince us to move to Scotland. That time, we stayed in a small cabin near Ben Lawers, and one night we went for dinner in the closest town, Killin.

Killin is at the end of a loch, and a river runs through the town. An old, narrow stone bridge crosses the river at a wide set of rapids, called the Falls of Falloch. When you get across the bridge, there’s a small inn, which has an unassuming pub. Inside the pub, there are a few wooden tables, and a large fireplace. In 2018, Claire and I had dinner in that pub, next to the fire. Claire had haggis, and I had fish and chips.

As we drove home last week, we talked about getting dinner at the pub again. We were tired and we wanted to get home, but we wanted to relive the happy memory. We decided that we would stop at the pub and — if they had a table — stop for a drink.

Killin was just as charming as I remembered, with the inn next to the bridge over the rapids. When we went into the pub, the server told us there were no tables available. After a long day of driving, I think Claire and I were actually a little relieved to know we would just keep driving and get home at a reasonable hour. But I looked around the pub, at the fire and the families having Sunday dinner, and I felt very happy to see it again. Most of the time I feel possessive of my happy memories — like I want to collect all of these experiences and keep them in my closet. But then, every once in a while, I’m just happy to remember that this charming thing exists. As I left the pub, I felt reassured. It’s still there. Something is right in the world.

Two guys playing backgammon in the tropics
Liam and Oli playing backgammon on Banda Island.

In this essay, Aeon gives a nice overview of the concept of coincidence in 20th-century Western thought in this article. I was happy to read this piece, because I’ve been thinking a lot about coincidence in the past year.

The word apophenia describes the condition where one makes connections between unrelated things. Usually, the word describes conspiracy theorists. But, in a more mundane sense, I think there’s something special about how we make connections between ideas. Even very tenuous ones.

I spent some time thinking about this last year when my friend Liam came to visit. I met Liam in East Africa, and we went through one of the most extraordinary experiences of our lives together, traveling across Lake Victoria to find a mysterious castle on an island called Banda. The underlying purpose of our trip was to deposit a blessed Buddhist relic in the Lake (on behalf of a respected Buddhist teacher), which we did.

In the Aeon article, the author explores the interpretations of coincidence, from Jung’s pseudoscientific theory of synchronicity to statistician’s rationalizing. The author says he tends toward a rational view, but retains a sense of awe about some of the stranger experiences of the improbable.

My experience traveling to Banda Island with Liam abounded with improbability, from mild serendipity to shocking happenstance. Here’s a survey:

  • Liam and I shared a dorm in Nairobi, but didn’t get to know each other. We then met again weeks later at a hostel in Kampala, when we became friends and decided to travel to Banda Island together.
  • On our way to Banda Island, we almost got stranded on a deserted island but were saved when a friend called to warn us just as we were preparing to disembark our boat onto the island.
  • After several days of failed attempts to get passage across the Lake to Banda Island, as we sat stranded on a remote road, two motorcycle taxis suddenly appeared. They drove us to a nearby port town, where a man spontaneously approached, unprompted, us and offered us a boat to take us to the island.
  • On Banda Island, we made friends with a woman from Vancouver, named Allison. More than a decade later, Allison moved to a small town in Nova Scotia, where her downstairs neighbor was the mother of my childhood best friend. Looking through Allison’s phone, my friend’s mother was shocked to find a photo Allison had taken of me in Africa, which she immediately forwarded to my dad.
  • Months after I left Banda, I went to visit Liam at his home in England and stayed with him for two nights before flying home to Canada from Heathrow. On the final day, between leaving Liam’s house and going to Heathrow, I went to meet up with a friend, Claire, who happened to be in London that day. Eight years later I married Claire.
  • A year after Claire and I met in London, we went back to London as a new couple. For our first date, we went to Stonehenge on the equinox, where we slept among the stones and then watched the sunrise over them in the morning. We left Stonehenge and went to London, where we met Liam, who arranged for us to stay for free in a friend’s dorm. That friend was Ellie, who Liam would date for many years and bring on a trip back to Banda Island.
  • After Liam and Ellie broke up, Liam was doing humanitarian work in South Sudan, where he met and fell in love with a Canadian woman named Laura. It turned out that Laura went to the same small university as me Claire. We had mutual friends and the same professors, and she and Claire graduated together.
  • Last year, Liam and Laura came to visit me and Claire in Glasgow. It wasn’t until Liam arrived that he told me he had actually also lived in Glasgow. Doing desk work for the government here made him realize he wanted to work in the field, so he got a job in South Sudan.
  • In the course of catching up for the first time in many years, I mentioned that I had worked at a Buddhist magazine called Shambhala Sun, and Liam interrupted me. “Is that ‘Shambhala’ like the book?” he asked. “Which book?” I said. “This book.” He pulled up the sleeve of his shirt to reveal a tattoo of a symbol from Shambhala: Sacred Path of the Warrior, a book written by the founder of the magazine I had worked for. Shocked, I pulled up my sleeve to reveal my own tattoo of another symbol from the book. It turned out that Liam’s uncle was a garbage man in New York City who collected books out of the trash and gave them to Liam. Before leaving on a humanitarian trip, Liam picked up Shambhala out of a pile of books from his uncle. He read it one strange day when he was stranded in a burnt-out gas station in the middle of the Sudanese desert while he oversaw a peace deal that hinged on repairing a Land Rover.
  • Talking to Laura about South Sudan, I suddenly asked Laura “Do you know Kalina?”, based on an odd feeling that they would know each other, only informed by the fact that Kalina was another Canadian who had done development work in East Africa. “Yeah, I do,” said Laura. She explained that she and Kalina had become friends when they were both working in Juba.

This doesn’t all describe coincidence, but it does feel like it describes something quite exceptional.

I have a similar, those less incredible, connection to a place, which I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. Weinbergspark is a wonderful park in central Berlin. It’s out of the way, bounded on two sides by buildings, so it’s easy to miss. It sits on a slope, with a playground at the top, a pond at the bottom, and a garden along one side. In the middle is a grassy area that fills with sunshine and picnickers in the evening.

  • On one side of Weinbergspark is the hostel where I stayed when I visited Berlin for the first time in 2009. I was there with my brother and sister, and we spent lots of time sitting on the swings in the playground. After moving to Berlin in 2018, Claire and I were searching hard for an apartment. We applied and got rejected for one — which was normal in a city where apartment viewings regularly had a line out of the door — but the rental company invited us to view another available apartment in another neighborhood. That viewing only had three interested parties, including ourselves, and we were shocked when the company quickly accepted our application and gave us the apartment. It just so happened that it was around the corner from Weinbergspark.
  • Before moving to the new apartment, we had drinks with neighbors from our previous apartment. One of them mentioned that he had a close friend from Canada. “What’s his name?” I asked, obligatorily. I was shocked when it was the only other Canadian I knew in Berlin — a friend from adolescence named Matt. After moving, Claire and I were walking past Weinbergspark when I heard my name on the wind. I turned around to see Matt. We chatted happily for five minutes and learned that he lived in another part of the city, but was in the neighborhood to meet a friend. That was our only encounter while I lived there.
  • A former coworker from Canada, named Lauria, moved to Berlin while I was there, and we became friends. Lauria lived in another part of the city, but she was excited when she got a job at a printing studio, which happened to be across the street from Weinbergspark. We would picnic in the park with Lauria and her boyfriend after work.
  • One day in the spring, while walking through the Weinbergspark, Claire and I saw a grey heron standing in the path. Claire approached it with her camera, and it calmly let her take photos.
  • While it’s not a coincidence, Weinbergspark had chess boards where I played many games with friends and an ice cream shop where Claire and I often went for excellent ice cream. These experiences cemented the park as a very special place to me.

Mine and Claire’s apartment on Rue Oberkampf in Paris was also infused with serendipity.

  • When we set a date for our move to Paris, we posted on Facebook looking for an apartment, and something extremely improbable happened: a friend responded that he had an apartment in our price range that was available the very day we needed it.
  • After moving to Paris, I changed careers and I was looking for a new job. I would settle for anything, but I happened to find an old Facebook post soliciting applications to work at a company. That lead yielded my dream job, working on technical content at a CMS. (It may sound obscure and boring, but I had actually already applied to one such position years prior before I had the relevant qualifications.) It turned out that the company (of which type there are only a handful in the world) was three blocks from our apartment.
  • Our apartment building had a cozy bar on the ground floor. While working in Paris, I helped produce a video interview with a famous French web developer. We filmed at his three favorite spots in Paris, which included the bar in my building.
  • When we left, we had a mutual friend with the person who moved into our apartment.

Banda Island, Weinbergspark, and Rue Oberkampf are all places that I will always regard as special and somewhat magical. As the author of the Aeon article writes, it’s completely feasible that all of these coincidences are random. It’s true that “extremely improbable events are commonplace.”

But maybe there’s just something special — maybe even supernatural — about the meaning that we derive from the improbable. Magic that we perceive is still magic. In travel, I’ve discovered these sorts of connections everywhere I go. We’re all searching for meaningful connection, and it feels like real magic when you discover a connection where you previously thought there was none.

Claire and I took our friend Leilani into the highlands on Saturday. Leilani said she wanted to see some dramatic Scottish landscapes, so we brought her to Glencoe.

Claire and Leilani stand on the mountainside

Glencoe is one of Scotland’s most famous landscapes. Paintings and photographs of this dramatic valley evoke a sense of desolate wildness. In truth, Glencoe is very accessible. One of Scotland’s main highways runs through the glen. The drive from Edinburgh to most of the West Coast takes you through Glencoe.

A path winds through Glencoe

But Scottish highways aren’t like Canadian highways. Most of them are two-land roads that meander through mountains and valleys. As soon as we exited the roadway toward the gorge that cuts through Glencoe, we lost sight of the road, and the sound of passing cars and trucks faded under the sound of rushing rapids.

Two of the mountain peak of Glencoe

Three imposing peaks, called the “Three Sisters,” form Glasgow’s most famous landmark. Our hike took us up between two of the three sisters, leading to a beautiful hidden valley.

Claire and Leilani on the path

We made a long, steady climb over rocky ground, following a rushing stream. Scotland offered trademark dreary weather, with low-lying clouds raveling and unraveling around the mountains and a steady drizzle dampening the ground under our feet.

Claire standing in the Hidden Valley

At the top of the path, a completely secluded valley opened ahead of us, cradled between the dramatic mountain cliffs. We stopped to drink from a mountain stream that fed cloud water directly into our hands.

Claire and Leilani heading back to the car

On the walk back down, we sat on the slope of the mountain for a picnic, taking in the full vista of Glencoe.

Last week, I skied in the mountains for the first time in my life. My dad taught me to ski when I was five years old, and I went skiing a few times each year through my childhood and into adolescence.

The Prismic skiers at the top of the mountain.

I was thrilled to go on a ski trip in the alps for my company work retreat. We spent a Wednesday skiing down the side of a mountain opposite Mont Blanc. Maybe it was the views and the fresh air, or maybe it was the fear of death, but I thought about life all through the day.

Skiing in the mountains is intense — especially when you haven’t skied in five years. I learned five lessons about how to deal with high-pressure challenges.

Erik gathering speed.

1. Commit

I was convinced I was going to break a bone.

As an adult who used to know how to ski, it seemed inevitable. On my first run, I felt shaky. After one or two more runs, I remembered how to point my skis and tilt my weight correctly.

I shrugged, unsure, when the ski instructor asked me if I wanted more instruction. “I don’t think you need it,” he volunteered. “You’re a good skier.”

My confidence rose, which helped my technique. The ski instructor told me and my coworkers Levi and Erik to go off on our own. “Take the six-person chairlift,” he said.

Without knowing where we were going, we followed his advice. Ten minutes later, we found ourselves at the top of the mountain. The trail difficulties are green, blue, red, black. But our instructor had told us that on this hill the reds are more like blacks and the blacks are more like double blacks. We stared at signs pointing to red (black) and black (certain death).

With only one way down, we took the red trail that looked the friendliest. It was amazing. Winding down the mountain, we had panoramic views of the surrounding peaks. Towards the bottom, we got to a final slope that was wide, steep, and icy. We all looked over the edge with apprehension. Levi dropped down and skillfully skied down. A moment later, Erik went.

Skiing offers an amazing feeling: there is only one way forward. The path is dangerous, but it’s also exciting and beautiful. If you choose your runs wisely, you will have the skill to handle everything you encounter. So it was as I stood alone at the top of this drop. I dropped in.

I felt myself struggle to slow down, grating my skis along the icy slope, trying to generate friction. I wobbled as I carved back and forth. My legs shook. I slipped around as I tried to turn. I felt unsteady and unsure.

Commit, I thought.

There’s only one way forward, and I can do it.

I pointed my skis downhill and leaned into the speed. As I let go of my fears, the hill glided past. My skis sliced through the powdery snow, sending plumes of powder to my sides. This is how to ski, I thought.

Commit, I reminded myself throughout the day. When life gets scary, remember what you’re doing and keep going.

Simon and Côme at lunch on the hill.

2. When you lose control, let go

The rest of the day was smooth. I felt confident. We paused for a Savoyard lunch on the mountainside and then kept skiing through the afternoon.

Toward the end of the day, with an hour left on the hill, we asked the instructor what trail to take. He pointed us to another advanced run at the top of the mountain. We rode up the chairlift, and then skied cross-country style for a while along the mountainside to find another lift, which took us up higher.

We found ourselves at the top of a beautiful, isolated, meandering run that wove along the mountainside, out of sight of the rest of the hill. It was our favorite run of the day. About a third of the way down, we got to the first tricky part — another steep and icy slope.

I went first.

About halfway down, I hit ice. I tried to slow down by turning uphill, but I couldn’t. My skies scraped onwards down the hill, while my body pulled backwards. I fell over, landing safely on my side — my first wipeout of the day.

I signaled to the group that I was fine and waved them onwards. One by one, they skied past me. I regained my confidence as I watched them safely navigate the slope. Then, with great care, I stood up and inched myself backwards to a spot where I had space to maneuver.

Okay, I thought. This is ice. I can’t stop myself. Maybe I can’t control exactly where I’m going. But I can get down this hill.

I pointed my skis downhill and shot downwards. I can slow down when I get to the bottom. For now, I just have to let go.

When you have no control, it’s futile to try. You’ll only lose balance. As I shot down the ice, I knew I had enough control to get safely down the slope. I knew that when I got to the end of the section I could slow down. That’s the key: loosen the grip, then tighten it again.

Levi on top of the mountain.

3. Persevere

Towards the end of the same run, we reached the final boss battle. It was a long, steep, narrow stretch. We were all nervous. Levi went first and wiped out halfway down. He landed like a pro, catching a stray ski. He gathered himself, got his ski back on, and got to the bottom.

Leo (who had joined us after lunch) and Erik followed, and all three of them gathered at the bottom, waiting for me.

I felt my heart race while I summoned all of my lessons from the day. Pay attention to your weight and your feet. Relax. Know you have the skill for this. Commit.

I dropped over the edge.

As the steep slope came into view in front of me, I saw a patch of dirt directly in my path. I panicked and pulled back, but it was too late. I already had speed. I lost control, my skis came out from under me, and I fell onto my side.

In retrospect, I know that if I had persevered through the brown patch, I would have been fine. When obstacles arise and you can’t stop, you have no choice but to forge onward.

But, that’s not what I did. And so I learned my next lesson.

4. When you fumble, regain control

It’s fine, I thought. I can just get up and keep going.

But I couldn’t. The slope was too steep and icy. I slid. I grabbed at the snow, but there was nothing to hold onto. I accelerated down the slope like a human toboggan.

I hoped to slow down, but I felt myself gaining speed. I rotated one way and then the other. I watched the blur of my coworkers zoom past me.

For a moment, I was at peace. This is fine, I thought. It’s easier than skiing down. But as the seconds ticked past and I keep sliding, I realized I was in trouble. I had no idea what direction I was going. I could go off a cliff or into a post. My ski could catch on something, breaking my leg.

I need to get back in control.

I hacked at the slope with my ski poles, which did nothing. I realized the only way to stop myself was with my skis. I clawed at the hill to orient myself so my feet were below me. As I slid, my skis collected snow like a plow, and finally I slowed to a stop.

I looked up and saw that I had slid about 100 meters. My coworkers were now far above me on the slope. I felt a little rattled, but I had no injuries.

I signaled to my coworkers that I was fine, and they took turns skiing down past me. Finally, I stood up, and skied down the rest of the hill. I was shaken and a little trembly, but I mustered the confidence to ski smoothly. It was the last run of the day.

Mabel carving the slope.

5. Check your priorities

I’m not a thrill seeker. But, I like a challenge, and I can be a little impulsive. On the other hand, I’m a little scared of heights and a little clumsy. Altogether, this made for a lot of reflection throughout the day. As I got tired in the afternoon, I asked myself, Is this worth it? How would I feel if I really hurt myself? How would Claire feel if something happened to me?

The experience reminded my that I like my life. I want to keep it safe.

I suspect that half the skill in skiing is knowing your limit. You practice so that you can tackle the routes you take, but you also choose the routes you know you can handle.

When you find yourself preparing for a high pressure situation, it’s worth asking: Is this the right place to be?

My day on the ski hill was perfect. I learned a lot, I challenged myself, and I had fun. But all day I was making choices. Do I have the energy for this? Am I paying attention? Am I ready for this run?

When you do take on the right challenge — when you commit, open up, push through, and get safely to the end of the run — it is wonderful.

Paige jumping off a diving board, surrounded by my siblings

I don’t know where my family got the travel bug. There are six kids. Four of us have lived in France (separately), and all of us love to travel.

I think we were partly inspired by our parents. Both of them had formative experiences traveling in Europe. Mom did an exchange to a small town in Germany. Dad did the grape harvest in the south of France, then bummed around the Netherlands. Our family never had much money, but both of my parents saw value in travel, so they encouraged us on our own adventures.

Our oldest sibling, Paige, was the first to go abroad. She went on a trip to London as a teenager. I was in elementary school, and she brought back British candy that made England seem like a magical place.

When she graduated from high school, Paige went to Paris as an au pair. This time she returned not with candy, but with photos.

Photography was part of my upbringing. My mom was deft with her film camera, and she passed the practice to my sister, who started taking beautiful pictures as a teenager. Mom stuffed the bookshelf with albums of family photos. For a family that went through multiple fractures, those albums were one of the things that maintained our sense of wholeness.

Paige’s photos from Paris pushed the envelope. She took black-and-white pictures of people and places that were both artful and playful. She had an exhibition at the Khyber Art Gallery in Halifax of a series of photos of a clown on stilts. I remember that the photos used dramatic angles to make the clown look larger than life.

My family had a running debate about digital versus film. I used digital cameras as a teenager. But for Christmas when I was eighteen, my mom gave me an old film camera — an Olympus OM-1 with a 35-70mm zoom lens: a great kit for street photography.

A train bed filled with snow

The first photos I took were simple observations of my world: objects, cityscapes, friends.

A piece of plastic wrapped around a highway guardrail

Two months later, I left on my first trip. I’m the second oldest child, and I was the second to leave home. I went to Africa for six months and brought my new film camera.

Traveling alone in Africa was profound and also boring. I had the greatest adventures of my life, made wonderful friends, and discovered amazing places. But I was also a confused, tentative eighteen-year-old, far away from home without much money and with little to do. I would go outside and just walk around the block for fear of getting lost. So I took pictures.

A child running down an alleyway in Zanzibar

In 2008, you could still buy film and get it processed almost anywhere. I took hundreds of photos. I learned to photograph strangers. Five months into my trip, my light meter died, and I learned to guess my exposure.

a man on a boat in lake victoria

a child on a bus

Later that year, my 14-year-old brother, Allister, took his first trip: he came with my sister to meet me in Germany at the end of my Africa trip. We backpacked in Europe for a month. Allister had my digital camera, and my sister and I both had Olympus OMs.

me and Allister

We all traded cameras, taking pictures of each other and of fun things in the street.

Allister and Paige on swings

This photo is from a park in Berlin, near our hostel.

Ten years later, when my wife Claire and I moved to Berlin, we ended up in an apartment around the corner. I walked past this swing set all of the time.

Claire also grew up around photography, and so it has always been something we’ve shared through our whole relationship.

But, for a long time, I largely stopped taking pictures. I got busy with school, and then work. Last year, Claire encouraged me to get back to it. She told her dad to get me some film for Christmas, and I started taking pictures again.

A 'No fouling' street sign with a sticker that says 'Vote Enya' on it

As always, I was drawn to photograph funny things in the street. And sometimes those photos are great. But often they feel a little empty. I realized that a human makes a photo more interesting, so I started thinking about how to take pictures of people. I picked up a book on photography, I joined my local camera club, and I practiced.

In Glasgow, I still feel uncomfortable taking pictures in the street. People seem very suspect of the camera. But in Paris, it’s fine. They ignore the camera. So, each time I go to Paris for work, I go out for photo walks.

My sister has always had an uncanny ability to disappear behind the camera. She makes her subject feel comfortable, and gets spontaneous photos. In contrast, I always feel stiff and awkward, like I stick out. For me, taking pictures of strangers is a practice in balancing humility (be unimposing) and bravery (be bold).

A man arranging plants on the sidewalk

Here’s what I’ve tried:

I wear nondescript clothes, including a baseball hat. When I find a scene I like, I stand out of the way and set up my shot. I appear relaxed and stay relatively still, with my camera ready in front of my face. When a person comes into the frame, I casually raise the camera to my eye (if it’s not already there) and take the picture.

Bikes crossing an intersection

At this intersection, I noticed that the bike lane switched sides, so the bikers had to come diagonally across the intersection, creating diagonal movement across the scene. I stood behind a car on the edge of the intersection, positioned my camera, and waited for some cyclists to come through the frame.

A woman walking along the canal

Back in 2008, Paige, Allister, and I stayed in a loft apartment on the Canal St. Martin.

When Claire and I moved to Paris in March 2020, we wound up in an apartment at the other end of the canal. So during lockdown, that’s where we took our walks — up and down the landmark that welcomed me to Paris many years prior.

On one of my photo walks this past September, I walked down the canal. I noticed how nice the pedestrians looked as they walked through the light, next to the calm water. So I stopped with my camera, and waited for a the next approaching pedestrian to come through the patch of light.

I like taking pictures because they freeze these special places in time. But, on reflection, I recognize that it’s not the place that’s special — people make it so. Like in the photo of the swing set, and the canal: they move me because they connect me to people I love.

I think that’s what photography is. Each photograph reminds me of people: mom and her kids on vacation; my sister’s black and white pictures in Paris; my wife giving me tips for shooting portraits; and all of these anonymous passers-by, living their own lives. Each photo tells a story — about the photographer and the photographed. These photos make me feel connected, like those family albums. They foster a sense of wholeness.

Last week, Claire and I took a trip to the Isle of Mull with our friend, Nelly. I met Nelly at my web development bootcamp in France. We both launched our web development careers at the same time in Paris, and Nelly and Claire became good friends while we lived there. Claire and I were thrilled for Nelly to visit Glasgow — and at the perfect time of year.

A cloudy, autumnal tree-covered landscape reflecting in the still waters of Loch Lomond

Mull is an island off the west coast of Scotland. Shortly after leaving Glasgow, we made an impromptu stop on the side of the road to take in the breathtaking site of Loch Lomond, shrowded in mist, covered in fall colors, reflected in the perfectly still water of the loch.

The dramatic landscape of Glencoe

After leaving Loch Lomond, we drove through one of Scotland’s most famous landscapes: Glencoe. We stopped at the lookout at the top of the glen, where I got this photo. The landscape feels sumptuous, with the rich orange heather covering the ground, and the pillowy clouds crowning the hills.

We took the long way around to Mull, around the stunning Morvern Peninsula. Nc’nean Distillery sits at the tip of the peninsula, in a beautiful and very remote woodland — so remote that most of the staff live at the disillery. So remote that when we realized we were down to a quarter tank of gas, we were genuinely unsure we would find a gas station. (We did. It was a small, unstaffed, community-run pump.)

A row of whisky barrels

Nc’nean is a new, sustainable, women-run distillery. Single-malt scotch whisky has three ingredients (water, yeast, and barley) and a very strict recipe that all whisky distilleries must follow. Within that recipe, Nc’nean experiments as much as they can. They use different types of yeast and produce alternative barley spirits. Theirs is a brave strategy in the old boys’ club that is the whisky world. In 2017, they sold their first bottle at auction — a youthful three-year-old scotch, which fetched £42,000.

A photo of the water from aboard a ferry

We ended the day with a sunset ferry to Mull, and then a short drive to the famous seaside town of Tobermory, where we had dinner at the pub.

The next day, we went for a hike on the shore. We were looking for otters, of which we saw none. But We did see many golden eagles.

A rugged road running between the ocean shore and rocky cliffs

After the hike, we followed the one-track road for the breathtaking two-hour drive around the island.

Sheep blocking a one-track road

A ram and two sheep blocking a one-track road

We got caught in many Scottish traffic jams.

The next morning we caught the ferry from Tobermory back to the Ardnamurchan Peninsula on the mainland. From the ferry landing it is a very long and winding but incredibly beautiful drive back to Glasgow. The Ardnamurchan Peninsula is one of the only areas of Scotland that the locals have started repopulating with native oak trees, replacing the conifers that have covered most of Scotland. As a result, Ardnamurchan is uniquely leafy and the fall colors are amazing.

Looking up at the canopy of an oak tree from under neath, with green, yellow, and orange leaves

We stopped for a walk in the oak forest, and I could have stayed forever.

The view through a forest of oak trees, with a moss covered ground

From there, it was a long, peaceful drive home. All three of us had the quiet contentment that comes from spending time in a beautiful place.

Last month, my brothers Allister and Jesse came to visit me in Scotland. They arrived on Friday, and on Sunday me and Claire and Jesse and Allister departed on a highland roadtrip.

We visited Stirling Castle, which is one of my favorite landmarks because it’s the historic seat of the Scottish monarchs. You can stand in the royal bedchambers. It astounds me to imagine what our Scottish ancestors would have thought about their descendents standing in King James’ bedroom.

Allister looking at the ceiling in Stirling Castle

My friend Francois gave me a box of long-expired Kodak Ultra film, which I loaded up for Allister and Jesse’s visit. I pushed the exposure two stops, which still feels a little dim, but the photos have a fun texture. Here’s Allister staring at the ceiling in Stirling Castle.

From there, we drove through beautiful Perthshire to Pitlochry, where we did a distillery tour at Blair Athol distillery.

Allister and Jesse outside the distillery

Here are Jesse and Allister outside of the distillery, which was a beautiful old ivy-covered building.

Jesse standing in the middle of the road

Allister standing in a red phone booth

We spent the night in Pitlochry at the youth hostel. In the evening, we walked to the neighboring town of Moulin for dinner at the pub. Allister tried haggis, neeps, and tatties, which he said was actually pretty good.

In the morning, we drove across the highlands.

Jesse holding Allister upside down

In the middle of the country, we stopped at a coffee shop. I switched to my digital camera because I knew I’d be taking lots of pictures. We had some pent-up energy from driving all day. So, when I asked the guys to pose for pictures, Jesse immediately picked up Allister and dangled him upside-down.

Allister and Jesse standing on Aonach Mor, with highlands in the background

On the West Coast of Scotland, we took the Nevis Range Mountain Gondola up the side of Aonach Mor, for rainy views over the highlands.

Allister and Jesse standing in front of the William Wallace memorial at the Glasgow Necropolis

Through the week, Claire and I showed the guys around Glasgow. Here’s Allister and Jesse at the Wallace Memorial at the Glasgow Necropolis.

Portrait of Allister

Portrait of Jesse

Here’s Allister, moments later, crossing the bridge from the Glasgow Necropolis to the Glasgow Cathedral — one of the oldest buildings in Glasgow, and the site of the original Christian settlement, and then Jesse outside of the cathedral.

Allister and Jesse climbing stairs

The weather rained for a lot of the week, but one day this beautiful golden light came out and I spent at least half a roll on it.

Jesse out of focus

I missed these guys the minute they were gone.

The ruins of a stone house in the forest.

Arichonan is an abandoned village on the West Coast of Scotland. In the 19th century, the landlord evicted the villagers — farmers — to rear sheep.

When the villagers protested, the police came and carried them away.

An abandoned house on a hillside.

Last month, we visited Arichonan. It was me, Claire, and our friend Erin.

Hidden down a path in the forest, the village overlooks a valley stretching miles out toward the ocean. The village itself sat on the slope, old stone walls criss-crossing the hill. The walls drew the outlines of store rooms, gardens, and cottages. A main house stood at the top of the village.

A fireplace heath in the ruin of an old house

The buildings appeared ancient, but some crisp details remained. A cracked cauldron sat on the ground in one house. An ornate iron hearth leaned against the wall in another.

It was just a few weeks prior when we hosted our friends Liam and Laura. Laura, a Canadian, had ancestors from Scotland. They moved to Canada in the 1800s when they were displaced from their land by sheep.

I thought about my own ancestors, who moved from Aberdeenshire to Canada around the same time. They were poor farmers, too.

According to historians, the farming way of life was difficult and leisurely in turn. Crofters, like my ancestors, rented a small farm from a landlord. Farm work was heavy in the harvest season. For the rest of the year, they had spare time for leisure and craftwork.

During the Industrial Revolution, demand for wool made shepherding more economically valuable than farming. The wealthy landlords who owned most of the countryside evicted their tenant farmers and let the farmland go fallow so they could graze sheep. The farmers were forced to find a new livelihood, farming on poorer land, working for wages in the cities, or making a new life over the ocean. This new flood of cheap labor provided the engine for Britain’s industrialization.

At the same time, in response to Scottish resistance, the British military was stamping out community and heritage in rural Scotland, destroying the traditional way of life.

The combination of military and capitalist subjugation drove Scots out of their traditional homelands, emptying the Scottish highlands. Countryside that was once full of farms and villages became desolate.

During the same period, Romantic painters discovered the dramatic mountains and desolate moors of Scotland. The Romantics popularized a new image of Scotland as a majestic, untamed wilderness — the image that persists today.

Flash-forward to the 1900s. Workers in the cities returned to the Scottish countryside — not to live, but for leisure. Sir Hugh Munro mapped Scotland’s mountains and made hiking the country’s national pastime. Landlords tried to ban hikers from their territory, but Scots fought back. You can’t own the land, they said. The people won, and access to the land became law in 2003.

When you ask a Scot what they do in their spare time, they’ll likely tell you they go hiking. Glasgow itself sits at the foot of the highlands, and you can see the hills from any high point in the city.

When you venture into the hills, it can feel like you’re completely alone.

But you’re not. And sooner or later you’ll walk past a crumbling fieldstone wall or the foundations of a farmhouse — reminders that this place wasn’t always empty.

Our friend Erin relaxing in a tree

After we got home, I Googled Arichonan to find out what happened to the villagers. After their revolt was quashed — like Laura’s ancestors and mine — they moved to Canada.

Cows on a hill by the beach.

In April, Claire and I went to Skye with our friends Liam and Laura.

A white calf grazing on a ridge near the ocean

We camped on a ridge overlooking a white-sand beach. Between the ridge and the beach was a pasture.

A white calf looking around a ridge near the ocean

In the evening, cows came out to graze. I took these photos at magic hour.

A herd of cows grazing along a steep hill over a white-sand beach

I love how the photos came out. They feel slightly psychellic, like nature photos from a 1970s textbook. It feels true to the moment: beautiful and surreal.

A cow striding through a pasture, looking straight at the camera

I took this photo and then my battery died. I climbed back up the ridge to our campsite and we watched the sun set.

We had a small fire, which we used to make a hearty stew and hot chocolate with whisky.

The sunset took forever, and the afterglow lasted until late in the night. When it was finally gone, the sky filled edge to edge with stars. Claire and I laid out for a while, staring up.

Sometimes I get vertigo when I stand close to an edge. Laying on the ground, staring at the celestial fresco on the infinite vaulted sky above, I felt the same feeling — that I might slip off the ground and fall into space.

© Sam Littlefair, 2023