Friends on the Road

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May 27th 2013
Published: May 27th 2013
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"How 'bout them Seahawks?"

We could tell as soon as we were greeted by Norman McDonald that he was a character. He was a Lewis lad - the Isle of Lewis being the northern most of the Outer Hebrides. He was a font of valuable information. We had already been told that the black pudding from Stornoway was the best, but only Norman could tell us why. Ox blood instead of pig's blood. That's the secret.

He also knew exactly where to send us for dinner and where to go afterwards to meet the local, or possibly national, expert on Scotch whiskey. Not only was his friend Mike probably the most knowledgable man in the world about Scotch - he was also a former kicking coach for the Seattle Seahawks. This was an opportunity not to be missed.

Shortly after diving into fabulous dinners of cajun-blackened salmon for Kathy and me, poached salmon for Kit and steak and ale pie for Jim, Norman shows up at the restaurant to remind us how to find Mike. He sorrowfully shakes us head when learning Kathy and I have ordered shandies (a drink made of half hard cider and half lemonade). "Sad", he says.

Norman leaves, we lick our plates clean and head over to Mike's bar. There are four or five locals sitting on stools drinking and chatting with Mike. Jim tips his Mariners' ball cap in greeting. "Wrong sport," says Mike. For those who really care about the Seahawks it turns out Mike was brought over to Seattle by former head coach Dennis Erickson, an old Washington State Cougar. After Jim and Mike talk about Cougars, coaches and Seahawks we get down to the business at hand, whisky.

Mike is going to teach us how to drink a shot of whiskey. Kit, the closest thing our group has to a whiskey expert tells the global expert which whiskey we will try. It is a ten year-old smokey Scotch. Mike carefully measures out a shot into a large straight-sided glass. He asks Kit if we like water in our whiskey. Kit says we do. Mike takes a straw and places it into a glass of water and, using the straw like a pipette, places two drops of water into the whiskey. Then our lesson begins.

"Most people think whisky burns the throat and stomach," he says. "but that's because they don't know how to drink it. Drinking whisky is like going on a blind date. The first thing you want to do is check out her legs. So. . . swirl the glass around, watch the liquid cling to the side. These are the whiskey's legs. Admire them. See how stocky and sort of oily they are." We all obediently admired the oily stocky legs of our blind date.

"Now smell her perfume," Mike instructs. "Swirl and sniff. Okay, now you are ready for the first kiss. This requires great care, as with any first date. Never, never, never take a sip and swallow it. You must hold the sip in your mouth and swirl it around one full second for every year the whiskey has aged. A full ten secons for this Scotch. The flavors will expand and change as they fully evolve. And when you swallow it will never burn."

We sniff. We sip. We swirl. The flavor of peat used to prepare the malt emerges in a complexity of flavor and aroma. We swallow. Nothing burns. We smile. We are proud. We are on our way to becoming whisky connoseurs.

Mike looks over at the locals seated at the bar. He winks. "This story gets better everytime I tell it," he says.

"I've got the hobnobs love, if you've got the time"

After spending a day marooned in Kingussie with snow flurries outside our windows and snow visibly accumulating on all the nearby hills, we get up to a slightly warmer day and pedal our way to Slochd Summit some 30 miles to the north. We climb steadily to within a half mile of the summit when an astonishing sign appears at the side of the road: "Cycle hire and repairs". Kathy doesn't hesitate. Her brakes are shot and she is less than a mile from a 22-mile downhill ride. It is Providence pure and simple that places a bike mechanic in the middle of nowhere at the exact spot where your repair is needed.

Of course it can't be that simple. And it isn't. The problem, it seems is that Ian is eating a sandwich. And he clearly can't change and adjust Kathy's brakes while he is eating a sandwich. "No problem," we say. "We're hungry too. Can we sit at your picnic table and eat our lunch?" He's happy to let us use his picnic table, but still not too keen on the bike repair. As we make our pb&j sandwiches and cut up our cheese, he walks over to the table chewing his sandwich. He appears to have very little interest in getting his hands greasy. "Would you like a chocolate HobNob?" I ask, trying to be friendly.

Bingo. I have won the lottery. He smiles. His eyes light up. "I love chocolate HobNobs," he says, "They are really addicitve."

"Here you go," I say, and, just like that we have a fully engaged and motivated bike mechanic. He finishes his sandwich and HobNob and gets to work. He is a real mechanic. We know because he grumbles and fusses at everything the Bike Friday mechanics have done. The brakes are all designed wrong. Kathy needs to personally deliver this message to Bike Friday. The chain oil she is using is too light. Does she want a bike that folds or one that can be ridden?

We are not fooled a bit. We have been well trained by Paul and Chuck. We know that two bike builders/mechanics will never ever agree on anything. Ian does a beautiful job on the new brakes. Kathy climbs the remaining half mile to the summit and then joyfully uses her new brakes on the 22-mile downhill ride to Inverness.

Lamb Of God

Jim tells us that Agnes Dei means "lamb of God". We certainly don't want to sacrifice Agnes, our B&B host in Tain, but we know she is heaven sent when we settle in to our rooms and find homemade chocolate cherry walnut brownies to have with afternoon tea. We didn't arrive in Tain until nearly five and it is really time to think of dinner, but we know life is short so we dive in and eat the dessert first. Agnes has become our grandma in Tain. She sends us to a wonderful restaurant for dinner, makes us a huge breakfast and then, as we are leaving brings in a foil-wrapped package filled with chocolate frosted carmel bars. She tells us these are for "elevenses". This sounds just like something Winnie the Pooh would have thought of and we have grins a mile wide. She tells us she just can't understand running a B&B and giving out packaged biscuits or jam in little packets made only of flavored gelatin. Her berry jam and marmalade are all homemade, she says proudly. We could tell. I know I had seconds on toast just to savor the jam.

Later this morning we sit down next to the foot bridge over the Kyle River. We open the chocolate carmel bars. They are everything a hungry biker could dream about. I must confess, however, that it was only 10:30. We just couldn't wait until eleven.



30th May 2013

A friend in need is a friend in deed...
Karen...Mr. Mike spoke the words of magic...his instructions are words of poetry...thank you for sharing the wisdom...I think I will check out his blind date information...wonderful trip & am looking forward to further discussions of the road upon your safe

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