Part One of A Bothy with a View: The Journey
In March last year, I spent a week alone in a bothy in the woods
I have always loved forests. I grew up in a valley city, Caracas, and the forested mountains of El Ávila National Park, which feature on a special place in the heart of any caraqueño, accompanied 22 years of my life. I used to daydream about those mountains as we drove around Caracas or off to the coast, wondering who lived there, how far into the range you could go, what waterfalls and lakes remain mostly hidden to us in the folds of the mountains as we managed the daily chaos down in the city. These mountains cover the length of Caracas and are the frontier between us and the Caribbean Sea. I have always wanted to get to know them more.
This love of landscape followed me to Europe, where I spent time alone in the woods of Scotland and Finland. I researched which kind of stories these places inspire and wrote a novel which takes place exclusively in a forest. But these were day trips, returning me back to Glasgow or Helsinki at the end of the day, to the creature comforts of modern living. They whet my appetite for the forest, but I wanted to be longer in it.
This piece is the first part of my account of my week alone in a bothy. It is also a trial of long-form content in Falwriting. Let’s see how it goes, shall we?
The Bothy Project
Bothies are huts used for farm work or as mountain refuges and the Scottish highlands are peppered with them. The Bothy Project has taken them as inspiration and created artist residency spaces in different parts of Scotland. These beautiful bothies offer a shelter from which to study, research, explore, practice and write.
I miss Scotland, having spent 3 years in Glasgow doing my PhD, and I longed to spend more time tucked away in a forest, so when the opportunity to apply for a week-long residency with The Bothy Project came up, I could not resist. I sent in my 200-words proposal, accompanied with a photo of my great grandfather, whose autobiography I would be studying whilst there, and my CV.
The email came. My application was accepted. I would spend a whole week at Inshriach Bothy in the beginning of March 2018. Does this date sound familiar?
Overcoming the Beast of the East
We had heard that it would snow. That it would be heavy. That there might be travel disruptions. The UK is notorious for not knowing what to do with the snow. I had booked my travel long ago. I had bought my supplies, packed my backpack.
It will be fine, I repeated to myself. There’s no way I won’t get to go. You see, I am perseverant to a fault. One of my lecturers called me ‘self-propelled’ once. Could I self-propelled myself all the way up to the Cairngorms? The time came to test this.
I saw the storm come in. I was teaching a workshop and the room windows faced the sea. From a gray blur to rolling storm clouds tinged with lavender and moving ever closer, sliding up the hill from Falmouth Bay to Penryn. The Beast of the East. It shut everything down – but as of yet, I didn’t know it. By the time I was out of the classroom, Penryn Campus looked more like Siberia than Cornwall.
The next day I was due to start my trip to Aviemore.
An unforgettable journey or how stubbornness and luck can be your best allies
My train was scheduled at 5:34 am from Truro to London, where I would take the sleeper all the way to Aviemore arriving at 7:30 am on the next day – perfect time to go hide away in a valley in the Cairngorms.
After the workshop I had managed to walk with a colleague, the wonderful Meredith Miller who was as excited as me about my residency, to the last train from Penryn Campus to Truro. Good, done. It took forever but we made it to Cornwall’s proud and only city. I walked home from the station with great care – I am as clumsy as I am stubborn, so falling and breaking something wouldn’t do. I got home and put BBC Cornwall on, and began to hear how much the weather was affecting the county. Would I be able to travel tomorrow? It looked touch and go all evening.
Friends wrote about their trips home. Everyone was alright but had a difficult time of it. Some advised me to cancel my trip. I almost broke down, but in the end I decided that as long as my trains weren’t cancelled – they weren’t by then – I would find a way to make it to the station in the morning and get on that first train. I managed to book a taxi for 5 am and settled for the night.
I woke up at 4 am, too nervous to sleep any longer, and checked the trains again. Yup, still on time. I got ready, donned my backpack and headed up the hill to meet my taxi. My lane was covered in snow and not a light was on in any of the houses. But the taxi was waiting for me and we headed carefully to the station.
There were a few of us waiting for the train and it still featured on time on the screens. Half an hour later, and with a thank you to all of my ancestors, I sat on the quiet coach by the window of a table seat, relaxing on my way to London. First step of the trip done. To celebrate, I decided to get myself breakfast from the train shop. Made my way down and order a black Earl Grey and porridge in honour of Scotland.
The man tending the shop went efficiently about my breakfast. When it came time for me to pay, I brought out my contactless confidently and that’s when I learnt that the machine wasn’t working and he could only take cash. I had packed more than one book to read, enough batteries to power the little radio that waited for me in the bothy for an entire month, the Latin American comforts of an avocado… but I had not brought a single bank note with me. Nor a coin. Nada.
Absolutely embarrassed, I apologised profusely and headed back to hide in the quiet coach. I was lucky enough to be headed to London, it was fine. People make mistakes. Just try to catch some sleep and you’ll get something to eat in London. Audiobook whispering away, I sank on my seat and watched my face reflected back at me, the Cornish country side whooshed by draped in black.
Twenty minutes must have gone by, maybe less. The man from the shop, that kind soul I wish I had the name of, walked into the carriage, paper bag in hand and handed me my breakfast. He said something about the bag, I think, but I don’t remember. I thanked him repeatedly and sat with both my arms hugging the warm paper bag, too overwhelmed by his kindness to do much about it. I felt it as a sign. I had wavered the day before, but now I had what I needed for whatever would face me next. A nice, warm healthy breakfast. One part of the journey at the time.
Let’s get over the Tamar, shall we?
The train was slow, but it went on. I managed a couple of quick naps here and there, but I was too excited for deep sleep. But, and in a familiar setting for anyone travelling out of Cornwall, by the time we made it to Plymouth, that was it. Snow had gotten over the tracks, staff couldn’t make it down to the station and there were orders to send us back to Cornwall. Repeatedly. I waddled with Goliath to a platform shelter, plugged my mobile in and decided to wait to make a decision. My siblings were up by then, getting ready for their days and they all encouraged me to wait it out.
I could always stay in Plymouth for the night and look for ways to resume my trip in the morning. Worst case scenario: I would head back down to Cornwall at some point later in the day, all hopes of going to Scotland dashed. I was cold and expectant, but somehow at peace and relaxed. If I have ever had a mindful day, it was this one. I sat reading my book and negotiating with myself. I will wait till 8 am, 8:15, 8:30. I have time. Back to Jenny Erpenbeck.
I received a phone call, unexpected and ever lovely. My sister and my months-old nice calling to encourage me and push me along on my journey. Marina was having her breakfast and Shena, my eldest sister, had a rare moment to catch up with me. Marina Aurora, a digital native, is completely comfortable with FaceTime. She’s over a year old now, still sporting those wonderful cheeks, thriving at nursery and greatly missed by her aunt. It was an absolute joy to see my niece and talk to my sister. That’s what feeds my perseverance, my family and what we’ve been able to do. We’re a bunch of self-propelled wee panas from Venezuela.
My UofG tote, another Earl Gray and the wait at Plymouth. Marinitia and her gushing aunt. Exeter station somewhere beneath all that snow.
A BBC producer, a minister, a council worker, a nurse and a writer get into a cab
As the morning went on, it became clear there would be no trains going North from Plymouth. We could head back down, find a place to stay or source an alternative to get us further along our journeys to somewhere else. I had been chatting to a minister who saw my UofG bag and started up conversation. He too was headed to Scotland and looking to get to Heathrow. It was comforting to know I wasn’t the only one trying to get to London through the snow.
A woman and a young man approached us. They had learnt that trains were leaving Exeter for London and had sourced a cab that was willing to brave the snow and get us there on time for the 12:15. If we split the cost, it would come up to £15 each. Am I lucky, or what? I shimmied Goliath on my back, grabbed the tote and headed up to the black van. A nurse joined us, hoping too to get home to her family in London. And up we went, through the ever white landscape which seemed straight out of a Russian novel, at speeds that surely weren’t safe.
The conversation was something stranger than Fiction. Some people were off to a ball, some were off to ski, some back to their family, whilst I was off to play at hermit. I couldn’t have planned a more wonderful journey had I wanted to. Every inch of it seemed tinged with circus-like magic. We made it to Exeter in one piece. The train was still scheduled. We even had time for snacks and more tea. The 12:15 was absolutely packed, but we dispersed and managed all to get a seat. The train crawled away from the station and we settled to silently praying it would get us to London and if possible, on time.
Halfway up to London, I learnt my sleeper to Aviemore was cancelled. I wouldn’t be getting to Scotland on time, but I would have half of my trip done, so I took heart. I stayed that night with my younger sister and enjoyed the variety of food in London – i.e. things not available in Cornwall, such as Wagamama’s vegetarian katsu curry, yum. Nothing could be done until the next day.
In the morning I woke up to check again. Trains were cancelled, so were planes, but coaches… those were braving it all the way to Aviemore. I booked my seat in the 9:10 from Victoria. And I decided to sneak up to Cambridge for the day and get a cuddle from Marinita. That was probably mad, as I almost missed my train down to London again, but hey, family is worth the risk.
In this trip I learnt that sometimes adversity is far funner than plans. That if I let myself be present, my day will absolutely be worth it. That good stories often write themselves and that there’s kindness available at every corner. By the time I waddled with Goliath to Victoria, the promise of the bothy resumed bright at the forefront of my mind. This was it. An 11-hour coach ride through the snow all the way up to Aviemore…
Did I make it?
Watch out for Part Two of A Bothy with a View: The Residency to find out. In the meantime, keep warm and do someone a small kindness today. How wonderful it is to have a positive impact, isn’t it?
Thanks for reading!
by Sherezade Garcia Rangel