We’re exploring our catalogue of great travel writing and digging deep into the stories of journeys big and small.

This piece from Fran Palumbo tells the story of how a detour in Scotland put her on the right track once more. It was originally published in The Kindness of Strangers.

The scenery mirrors my own interior landscape: grey, drizzly, melancholy. Even though it’s rained every day since I arrived a week ago, I find it difficult to dislike this place.

The mountainous region of Glen Croe near Ardgartan.
The Highlands were the perfect place to escape ©Richard P Long/Shutterstock

Light mist coats the austere, rolling terrain, giving it the soft, delicate appearance of a giant pastel. Throughout the day the sun pokes through occasionally and an ivory northern light illuminates a distant hill or a crumbling stone wall as if the entrance to Camelot lies ahead. Zooming northeast on Route A9 from Inverness to Wick, I shift the gears of the red subcompact rental car, left-handed, as if I’ve been driving on the other side of the road my entire bloody life. What better place to hide away from the world than the Scottish Highlands?

Following three turbulent months in India, I decided to make an impromptu detour to Scotland on the way back to San Francisco. My mind was still whirling from the too recent past of sweltering heat, abject poverty, utter chaos and claustrophobic hordes of people. My stomach was still churning from the parasite that had maliciously hitched a ride in my bowels. A perhaps irreconcilable rift with my best friend, who accused me of not being grateful enough for her hospitality in India, had rendered me bereft. Plus, I was still suffering from a painful failed romance that ended badly prior to my departure for Asia. It seemed as though everybody within the small solar system of my life wanted something from me. I had exceeded my tolerance level for fellow human beings. My entire body and soul reverberated with a Garboesque ‘I vont to be alone!’

Now, cruising through the coastal towns of Dornoch, Brora and Dunbeath, I stop methodically to quickly snap photos or visit castle ruins noted by a miniature red star on my map. There are dozens of these freckly red stars and I am determined to see the site representing each one. This preoccupies me and helps to quiet the demon voices chattering in my head. The voices in my abdomen, however, are not so easily subdued. They let out a grotesque whine. I need to eat.

It’s been a long day of driving and I plan on stopping in Wick, a town that looks like the largest one around judging from the bold typeface on the map. Upon arriving, though, I find it a dreary place except for a few historic stone buildings and a couple of geriatric-looking three-star hotels. I motor straight through, even though it’s early evening and I just want to settle down with a hearty meal and comfy room.

Continuing north, the route becomes less travelled and eventually ends at Duncansby Head, the northeasternmost corner of the Scottish mainland where the harbour village of John o’Groats squats humbly in its midst. This windswept piece of Scotland is empty and flat, nothing but land, sky and water punctuated by a stiff seaborne breeze. From here you can catch a ferry in the summer to the Orkney Islands, but other than that, it barely deserves a dot on the map. There’s no homey brick B&Bs, no discernable centre of town. Across the road from each other are two rectangular fifties-style motels, about half a kilometre from the water where only a few boats are docked. A caravan park sits oddly off to the right with several large vehicles parked randomly like perverse modern-day monoliths. Worse yet, there isn’t a restaurant in sight. This feels like the loneliest place on earth.

Duncansby Head, top right corner of the United Kingdom
Duncansby Head beside John o'Groats in Scotland. Getty Images/iStockphoto

I look at the map, and the next town appears to be far away. The type is too small. It might not even have a place to stay. I reluctantly check into the Seaview Motel and drop my suitcase in the room. One tiny window looks out onto the deserted road, and a lumpy double bed covered by a chenille bedspread patterned in pink, green and white sits against the wall in the middle of the room. Hanging over the bed there’s a tacky, faded print of a cherub holding a fishing pole. John o’Groats is not the charming place I’d hoped to hunker down in for a good dinner and a night’s rest.

Directed by the motel desk clerk to a place a kilometre back that might still be serving dinner, I wearily head off in the car again. At least it hasn’t rained in a few hours. Peeking through dark, pregnant clouds the summer sun glows stubbornly, descending toward the ground in a slow, languid motion. I am so far north it won’t get dark until around 11 p.m.

Arriving at a modest building that looks like it might have been a small church in a previous incarnation, I walk in and head to the counter to order some food. In thick chalk letters, a blackboard menu overhead offers burgers, sandwiches and soup. The room is spartan and honest like a Quaker meeting room; the odour and hiss of fried food from the kitchen hangs in the air. I order the fish and chips, make a mental note to eat healthy tomorrow, and take a seat where the cheerful husband-and-wife owners direct me among the few tables scattered on the hardwood floor. The only other customer – an elfish, white-haired man in dark, baggy trousers and a windbreaker, who looks to be in his seventies – smiles shyly at me from the next table.

"Aye." He nods in my direction. I nod back.

"You’re not from around here, are ye?"

"No," I confess. "From California. Just here travelling." Damn. I was hoping to blend in with the locals so no one would bother me. 

"So, are ye plannin’ to take the ferry to the Orkneys?"

"Well, no, I hadn’t really thought about it. I’m just driving. Didn’t think there was much to see there."

"Well, y’ought to consider it. Last year I was here and took the ferry on o’r and spent the day. It was lovely."

He launches into a guidebook-like monologue about the birdwatching and ancient sites – something called the Ring of Brodgar. I am given directions and details on the ferry schedule and how to get to the attractions. Even though I know I won’t go, I feign interest and make conversation as though I really want all this information. In fact, I don’t even want to talk to him. I want to eat in silence, want to listen to all the activity going on in my head. This friendly chitchat is wearing me out, but he’s such a nice, pleasant man that I talk to him anyway. He’s alone. He’s probably lonely.

Close-Up Of Fried Fish With French Fries And Peas Served In Plate
Kindness comes in the form of fish and chips ©Fabian Krause/Eyeem/Getty Images

A huge platter of fish and chips is placed in front of me and I can’t shove the crispy brown chunks into my mouth fast enough. After a few minutes, as if not wanting to interrupt my eating, the old man rises from his table and, with a slight bow and twinkle in his eye, shakes my hand and tells me he enjoyed talking with me.

It’s getting late and I want to get back to the motel, take a walk down to the water and catch the sunset, so I devour the rest of the meal and head up to the counter to pay. The owner waves away the bills I hold out.

"It’s paid for," he tells me. I am confused.

"The ol’ man paid for you when he left."

Amazed that a stranger would pay for my dinner then leave without any acknowledgement of his kindness, I smile and think, ‘How sweet.’ No one has ever done this before in any of my travels, and I am incredibly touched. All of these months, after feeling as though every single person I encountered was a living, breathing ‘give-me’ machine, I meet one person in a remote corner of the world who gives just for the sake of giving, wanting nothing in return, not even a ‘thank you’. This small gesture is, ironically, larger than he will ever know. I have an inexplicable urge to find the old man, a desperate need to thank him. I don’t even know his name.

Sure enough, way up ahead on the side of the road, I spot his dark silhouette shuffling along, hands in his pockets. "Would you like a ride?" I ask, pulling up beside him. His face lights up in a broad smile and he eagerly accepts the offer. He is short and agile and has a perky, turned-up nose. For a moment I think that maybe I’ve encountered a leprechaun, but then realise I’m in the wrong country for such occurrences, even if they were possible. I drive back to my motel, park the car and we stroll side by side toward the water, to the coastline of Pentland Firth, which separates the mainland from the Orkneys.

His name is Walter. He’s from Newcastle, a city below the Scottish border, and is staying at the caravan park. As if reading my mind, he comments matter-of-factly, "My wife, she died a few years back," and his face becomes as wistful and lonely as the Highland landscape itself. For a moment, I have another silly thought: I wish I was seventy so that Walter and I could tour around Scotland in his mobile home for the rest of our lives. He touches my arm and points to something a few hundred metres away.

An old Victorian hotel I hadn’t noticed before sits way off in the shadows looking haunted near the shoreline. ‘It’s been closed for many years,’ Walter tells me. He travels often to John o’Groats, and as I look around I begin to understand why. The sun dangles low in the sky as if trying to prolong its inevitable kiss with the horizon. Wide, dramatic stalks of light radiate through billowy clouds, providing an ethereal backdrop for a distant house sitting squarely on a desolate plain. The house looks how I feel: forlorn and alone, but illuminated. Standing there together we are an unlikely pair, yet are kindred spirits, drawn to the healing power that blows in from the frigid, ancient waters.

Mesmerised, we watch the sun as it gradually extinguishes itself into the edge of the world. Sometimes the best conversations occur with strangers, without words. Here, with Walter, my faith in humanity might just be restored.

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