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Down and Out on the Isle of Skye

John Robinson
John Robinson

We leave our bikes, with the constable’s blessing, leaning up against the weathered brick of the tiny, police station. The town of Broadford seems rather colorless as we walk briefly though it on this overcast grey day. Our plan is to execute a cursory tour of the Isle of Skye via a day of hitchhiking. We’ll be able to cover a little more ground this way, assuming we can get rides, and besides, after seven weeks of cycling it’s time for a change of venue. And it’s nice leaving most of our stuff with the bikes today, only taking our valuables and our ever-needed ratty rain jackets.

My friend Ben and I are on an extended low-budget bicycle tour through Great Britain and Ireland, and here on the west coast of Scotland we feel like we’re really in the heart of it. My Scottish heritage nudges me from all sides.

Traffic is light, but we put on our best “harmless American kids” expressions and soon an old Austin Healy jerks to a stop just beyond us. It’s piloted by two zany older women on holiday from Liverpool. It’s nice to be in the cozy little car –the cold mist outside having gained momentum- and we enjoy chatting with the two sisters. They are traveling to Portree, a town in the interior of the island, about 25 miles away, and that suits us perfectly.

This place is dead, or so we think on first glance. Upon further investigation, however, we find some life. As is often the case in these small towns, the pubs and shops are marked with the smallest of signs, if at all. We duck into a pub for tea and scones, a mainstay of our victuals as of late.

A few hours later, the novelty of exploring this part of Skye has worn off and we start hitchhiking back the way we came. Just when our faith in getting a ride is wearing thin an aging dump-bed lorry chugs up and stops next to us. We climb up next to a big bear of a man who smiles benignly but says little. We bounce down the road –and I do mean bounce; the truck seems to have no functioning suspension whatsoever- back towards Broadford and our bikes.

We jump from the high truck to the puddles below and bid our friend adieu. Now several things happen at once.  As the lorry chugs and bounces out of sight, we start walking into Broadford to collect our bikes, and my hand goes instinctively to my pocket for reassurance that my wallet is still there. It is not. Unease pangs in my gut as my hands race over my body searching for other possible wallet resting places. No luck. Deeper despair fogs over me as I realize exactly what happened: My wallet bounced right out of my pocket while we jolted along in the lorry. Furthermore, I feel certain that my little purse fell behind the seat and into the gloom of rust and rubbish underneath. There’s no telling if the wallet will ever be found, certainly not any time soon.

Ben and I trudge forlornly to the Police Station. Our bikes are as we left them, unlocked and unmolested. The station is closed for the day, so we write a note to the constable about losing the wallet, and slide it under the door. We pedal off towards the landing for the ferry to Mallaig, the village on the mainland to which we’ll head in the morning. By the sea next to an ancient stone wall we set up our tarp for the night, and there we discuss our predicament.

The year is 1980, and dealing with a money problem in a foreign country is not as simple as it might be today. No electronic banking, no money machines on every corner. Ben and I had one credit card between us, and now it likely resides in the rubbish under the seat of the truck. Otherwise we have cash in British pounds, and not enough of that on which to finish the trip in spite of our ability to live on the cheap. Ben’s cash supply is meager, and my equally short supply is now lost with the wallet. Furthermore, being what some might refer to as irresponsible free-spirits, we have as yet given little thought to the more subtle aspects of money and banking. We have learned, however, that money is hard to get and easy to spend.

In Mallaig, a classic Scottish seaport with a harbor full of colorful fishing boats and the pungent salt air smell draping everything, we visit the local bank. The manager is an efficient, short and balding man who politely explains that we just can’t get a cash advance on a credit card based on the numbers on a crumpled receipt. He does allow me to cancel the credit card, which apparently is the responsible thing to do in cases like this. One may ask, why not just call home to the USA. Surely that would not have been too difficult?  True perhaps, but we never considered it. The perceived complexity of the logistics of calling the US and somehow getting money that way was inconceivable to us.

We roll on through southern Scotland tending toward our next big destination, York, England. It rains a lot, but we are accustomed to it. “This is the rainiest summer in twenty years!” the locals are always reminding us. We pinch pennies, or in this case, pence. We eat bread and jam for every meal.

“What about the Willsons?”, Ben remarks, cool rain flowing down his cheeks. Hmmmm.., the Willsons, Norman and Eleanor. We met them some weeks before in a small village in Wales, where they run a modest bed and breakfast. They had said, “If you have any trouble at all give us a call”.  “Yeah, yeah, whatever” is probably what we thought at the time, but they were so nice and even after talking to them for only a brief time they felt like family. When we left them Eleanor had urged us to call in an emergency and then pressed a slip of paper with a their address and phone number into my hand.

They handled all the details. We merely had to get to York and the branch of the Royal Westbrook Bank. Sixty pounds in cash –more than enough to finish the trip- was waiting there, wired to us from the Willsons in Gwynelln.

Six months later I’m at school again and a parcel awaits me at home. It contains my ragged wallet and all its contents. As my fingers press the worn leather, memories flood back to me. I think of past adventures and adventures to come. But most of all I think of the people I’ve met and the love and generosity of the human spirit.

I tend to forget about all that rain in my face.

By John Robinson
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