I arrived back on Iona this past Monday. It feels so good to be here. It is almost like coming home. Of course some of the staff in the hostel are different and it is October and not February, but the blues of the ocean and the greens of the grass covering the island are just as beautiful as I remember. Perhaps more so because Iona feels like an old friend, welcoming me back. On that first evening, I climbed to the top of Dun I, the highest point on the island and just let the moment soak into my bones. It feels so luxurious to know I get to spend the entire month of November here.
I have spent most of this week in my wee shepherd’s bothy. I think the past few busy months of travel and walking have caught up with me and I can’t seem to get enough sleep. I will move into a private room in the hostel at the end of next week as the bothy was previously booked for the rest of my stay here. As much as I love the bothy, it will be nice to be in the same building as the kitchen, and especially the toilets. (If you are wondering about that side of things, the bothy has a bucket. The only thing you really need to be aware of is which way the wind is blowing when you want to empty it.) I think I am also tired because I am starting to process what re-entering my life in Portland will be like. I am making some decisions, both little and BIG, about the future. I knew that when I arrived here, my mind would naturally turn towards home.
Home. As I mentioned in prior posts, I am definitely ready. I described myself the other day as a saturated sponge, so full of experiences that I was having a hard time soaking in one more drop. I met an American girl in a hostel in Cardiff who had been traveling for 6 years. 6 years! I couldn’t fathom living out of my backpack for 6 years. (She did have quite a large suitcase, but you get the idea.) She returns to the states occasionally to get temporary work and earn a bit of money, but her initial travel had been funded by working hard and saving every penny. I was very impressed. She had been in Wales for 6 weeks and had also hiked part of the coastal path in that time. I asked her what her impressions were and she shrugged and said that it was ‘all right,’ but she had seen better. As I questioned her more about her extensive travels, she would start each sentence with the disclaimer ‘I know this sounds obnoxious, but…’ and would continue on to compare the present experience with something that was much more spectacular that she had seen in the past. As we talked a bit more, it became obvious to me that over time she had become numb. The ennui she exuded was palpable. All I could feel was a deep sadness for her. I asked why she continued if it wasn’t exciting anymore. She responded, almost with a sense of resignation, that she didn’t have anything else that she really wanted to do, so she would continue to travel.
In that moment I decided that I NEVER want to be that way. So numb to the beauty around me that everything becomes just ‘all right.’ Of course, it is normal to compare, I realise this – we all do it. I, however, made a fresh resolve to appreciate the present moment. This also assured me that I had made the right decision to return to the states in December. On my journey through England up to Scotland, I had begun to feel a bit of this numbness. I just couldn’t take any more in. As my friend Tom once stated to me after his experiences traveling in Spain, ‘my cup is full.’ Don’t mistake what I am saying. I LOVE traveling. Some of the BIG decisions I am making right now are things I am setting in motion so that I can continue to travel in the future. I really hope to create a life where I can travel for a few months every year. Crazy? Maybe. But that is what I am working toward. I am aware, however, that for me personally, I cannot travel indefinitely. I don’t want to lose the wonder and delight of seeing something new and unexpected.
When I arrived last Monday, it was a day full of vivid shades of blue woven through ocean and sky. When I was on Iona last February I hadn’t even thought about trying to visit the Isle of Staffa as there are no boat tours in the middle of winter. On Monday, however, I was in luck! The day was perfect and calm and it was the last week of tours before the boat is housed for the winter. I dropped my bag off at the hostel and arrived at the pier just in time. A group of 12 of us headed off to Staffa, in the back of an open tour boat, our eyes blinded by the bright autumn sunshine.
It’s almost impossible for me to describe this wonderful and fanciful freak of nature. Many people have heard of Giant’s Causeway in Ireland, and Staffa is composed of the same kind of stone; columnar basalt. Wikipedia states that the name Staffa is from the Old Norse for ‘Pillar Island’ as the rock formations reminded them of their houses which were made from vertically placed tree logs. It’s hard to believe the layers upon layers of pillars are real, and even harder to believe they are made of stone. As I drew a small section of them I could have been creating an architectural drawing of a cutting edge modern building. The island itself feels like a strange abstract stage set that somehow was accidentally discarded. The set designer went crazy constructing his masterpiece and then, at the eleventh hour, the producer decided he wanted something classic and the whole thing was tossed… in the sea. Paint was spilled and thousands of carefully assembled cubes and columns all tipped and broke and scattered. We used the handrail attached to the side of the cliffs and carefully wound our way around the outside of the sheer rock walls so that we could enter into the main cave on the island, called Fingal’s cave. As I sat inside the opening, I felt a bit stunned and awestruck. The cave itself is a marvellous eccentric futuristic cathedral that Mondrian or Gaudi would have felt at home in and each secretly wished he designed.
These are the moments when traveling feeds the soul; when wonder and delight rush and tumble over and through you and all you can do is bask in the magnificence of what you are seeing or experiencing. It can be an island, or a mountain, or a temple, or a plate of food, or even a new friendship. I know that this time away has sharpened and refined my ability to experience beauty, but it will be infinitely harder to carry this ability back to a place I have lived in for almost thirty years. But, as I said, I have soaked so much in. My cup is full. After this last month on Iona, I am ready to give it a try.