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West is Best – Four Points Ride Part III

Riding a Harley-Davidson Sport Glide to the most westerly point in mainland Britain

In the weeks leading up to this trip I have become weirdly obsessed with watching videos of a woman from Alabama go hiking. So the thing I’m most looking forward to is camping. Sure, riding a Harley-Davidson Sport Glide through the Scottish Highlands – some of the best scenery Britain has to offer – is swell, but the thing I really care about is getting to sleep in the musty REI tent I bought 16 years ago.

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Back then I was living in St. Paul, Minnesota, daydreaming of thru-hiking the Superior Hiking Trail – a 310-mile route that runs from Duluth, Minnesota, to the Canadian border. With that under my belt, I told myself, I’d one day tackle all 2,650 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail. I haven’t gotten around to doing either of those things but I’m not dead yet, so there’s time. And like a lot of people around the world, 2020 has helped remind me of what’s actually important in life, of the things that matter: kindness, love, family, nature, sleeping in a shelter made of nylon.

I didn’t really need reminding that motorcycles are awesome, but the Four Points Ride – travelling to the furthest points north, south, east and west in mainland Britain – has certainly helped confirm what I already knew. Back in May I rode to the most southerly point, a few weeks later I made a 600-mile round trip to the most easterly point. Now I’m embarking on part three of the adventure, aiming for the most westerly point: Ardnamurchan Lighthouse.

Can’t be bothered to read the article? Fortunately I brought a camera this time

THE NORTH

The lighthouse sits at the end of a craggy, isolated peninsula in the far north of Scotland, dangling into the cold and beautiful Sea of the Hebrides. Getting there starts on a grey late August Saturday morning in Southern England. I’ve spent the weekend visiting family in West Sussex and am feeling proud of myself for not having imbibed too heavily at a barbecue the day before. My wife cannot make the same claim; at a few minutes before 7 she is in the guest bed of her best friend’s house, looking and probably feeling as if she has been thrown to Earth by an angry god. I am outside, making final checks of the bike – panniers stuffed, Kriega bags strapped to the seat. I will be in Northamptonshire by the time she gets out of bed.

I’m going to be on the road for more than a week, taking in Britain’s most northerly point as well, but the plan for today is simply to get to the Scotland-England border, about 400 miles away. It will be a day of motorway riding – the M23, the M25, the M1, the A1(M) and the motorway-like A69 – so I’ve set my expectations low in terms of scenery. Certainly there’s not much about the roads leading to and around London that vindicates the 14 years I’ve spent living in this country, but once I’m north of Luton the traffic dissipates enough that I can settle into an easy 65mph pace.

CATCH UP ON THE FOUR POINTS RIDE
– Part 1: South
– Part 2: East

I’ve removed the Sport Glide’s clever batwing fairing and replaced it with a dry bag strapped to the bars. Truthfully I could have strapped the bag to all the others on the back of the bike but I think it looks cool this way. Nothing says “road trip” like shit strapped to the handlebars of a Harley-Davidson. It’s an iconic look.

A side note about my luggage set-up however: a few weeks from now I will find myself getting a gentle talking-to from Harley’s people because I’ve accidentally secured things in such a way that the buckles of the securing straps for my Kriega US30 bag are banging against the fender, slightly chipping the paint. This was not a problem I had a few years ago when I used a similar set-up on the Street Bob (which, in terms of engine, performance and chassis, is largely the same bike as the Sport Glide), so the advice here is to pay close attention when strapping luggage to a Harley’s fender.

I didn’t really need to remove the Sport Glide’s mini fairing, but I thought it looked cool this way

Anyhoo, by 10 am I’m sipping overpriced hot chocolate at a motorway services and feeling settled into the trip. My helmet is Bluetooth-equipped but I don’t ever listen to music or the like when riding. Long trips are an opportunity to just think, to allow my mental state to re-expand, to not pay attention to my phone.

This is another thing 2020 has taught me: I need to disconnect more. I sit in front of a computer all day for work, in my free time I blog, everywhere I go I have a phone on my person. Constant, neverending, instant access to email and text and Twitter and Facebook and Instagram and WhatsApp and Snapchat and Facebook Messenger and Instagram Messenger, etc., breeds in me a kind of ADHD neediness. I want to be entertained or paid attention to or both, and it slowly – so slowly I don’t really notice – causes my mind and soul to contract. I grow dumb, at least from an emotional point of view, wandering around needing input. The mindfulness of riding – along with the simple physical fact of being unable to access my phone while on a bike – helps put me right, helps me see and feel more.

As I push north there is a sense of moving uphill and gradually the landscape stretches out. The East Midlands is not the most exciting part of the world but the region has a certain charm, if not simply that it feels less claustrophobic than the Southeast. I roll on through Yorkshire and eventually reach the Angel of the North, a 66-feet-tall steel statue in Gateshead. You’ve probably seen it on TV shows or films; it’s one of those visual cues telling you where you are, like when a story set in France shows the Eiffel Tower. The Angel of the North means yer in the bloody North, son, and for some reason that I don’t really understand that feels important. It feels as if now the trip has really begun.

Angel of the Bloody North, son

Soon I’m on smaller, quieter roads. I find a farm shop and load up on food to make for dinner and breakfast: eggs, sausages, potatoes, mushrooms, green onions and two bottles of local ale. Then I’m running beside Hadrian’s Wall before turning and weaving along undulating roads through Kielder Forest. This area (Kielder and Northumberland National Park) is one of the UK’s two International Dark Sky Parks; unsurprisingly, then, it possesses a certain sparseness and emptiness that is hard to find in Western Europe. A lot of people would describe it as the middle of nowhere but it isn’t really. You’re never so far from a house or structure that you could have sex in the open without being watched, but things are spread out enough you might not hear someone yelling at you to stop doing the No Pants Dance in their field.

I’ve booked a campsite a mile or two south of the border. Campsites in the UK, and Western Europe in general, are a disappointment to anyone who’s ever been to a state or national park in the United States. There are no designated pitch areas, set far away from each other, separated by foliage. Campsites here are generally just open fields, manicured lawns, on which you are left to pitch your tent in whatever spot you can find – more often than not with the high risk of having some group of Londoners or Brummies who have never before been outdoors pitch up three feet from you and stay up until 4 am drinking, complaining about midges and saying factually incorrect shit about America or motorcycles or Elton John or some other thing about which you are relatively knowledgeable, but since you know that engaging them in conversation would inevitably lead down a dead-end road you have neither the energy nor patience to travel you just sit there listening to them, your soul burning with anger toward every life decision that has led you to that moment. This site, though, is quite nice. Still a big field, but a nice field, with a river running alongside it.

It is small and quiet, bordered by trees, and Covid-19 restrictions mean there are fewer people than normal. I find a spot near the river and set up my tent. It is dark by the time I finish making dinner but it tastes delicious and the ale goes down well. I sit out for a bit but the sky is too cloudy to enjoy its internationally acclaimed darkness so I retire to my tent. Based on advice from the Alabama hiking lady I have brought specific sleeping clothes. They are cosy and warm, and as I zip myself into my sleeping bag I feel such a strong level of happiness I’m almost embarrassed; I’m a grown-ass man, I shouldn’t be so childishly happy. But I am. And it’s great. I fall asleep listening to the sound of wind rustling through trees and the current of the river. 

I found a picnic table in the field and dragged it over to my tent

IT EATS RAIN

At some indeterminable point in the night I hear raindrops on the tent’s rainfly. This strikes me as pleasant and I make little happy noises to myself before falling back asleep. In the early grey of morning, however, the sound causes concern. The rain is heavier now and it occurs to me that at some point today I’m going to have to strike my tent and get on the road. I don’t have any phone signal but according to when I checked the forecast yesterday, things are only supposed to get worse as today wears on. The heavy drumbeat of precipitation against my tent suggests that prediction hasn’t changed.

The plan from this point is to ride on to Fort William, in the Scottish Highlands, and camp for two days at the foot of Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in the United Kingdom. There I’ll meet up with my buddy, Cam, who – appropriately – has just recently bought a Sport Glide and will be riding with me for the rest of the week. Still warm and snug in my sleeping bag I spend some time entertaining the idea of just staying put: call Cam and tell him to meet me at Fort William tomorrow, then spend the day in the tent. I have Ron Chernow’s Grant on Kindle and plenty of food; based on how quiet the campsite is I’m pretty sure they’d have no problem with my staying an extra day. But without signal there’s no way to call Cam and let him know about the change of plans. Also, I’ve just discovered a leak in my tent. And who wants to spend all day cramped inside a backpacking tent? Besides, this isn’t how the Alabama hiking lady would handle things.

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I decide there’s nothing to do but to do it, and sooner is better than later. I brew a mug of tea in the tent’s vestibule area but skip the all-out breakfast I’d planned. I change into my rain gear and, after a deep sigh of resignation, step out into the downpour. It takes about an hour to get everything down, packed away and strapped to the bike. By the time I’m ready to go, my gear and I are completely soaked. In behavior that is rare for me, however, I’m in a good mood, laughing at the situation.

“This is what you came for,” I say to myself.

In my tent, not wanting to venture out into the rain

Well, not this specifically but you can’t travel in Britain and not expect to encounter rain. No more than a mile down the road – just before crossing into Scotland – I hit a puddle so deep it washes over the pegs and some of the engine casing, and a small amount of water finds its way into my right boot. Still my spirits are high and I enjoy wandering alone on a single-track road that seems to have been built to follow the escape route of a frightened hare: curving suddenly, running up and down little hills. After a while I find a road sign and decide to point the bike in the direction of Carlisle.

If you know British geography you know I’m going the wrong way. Carlisle is to the south. For some reason my mental map has temporarily placed it near Moffat, about 40 miles north of where Carlisle actually is. I don’t realize my mistake until I see a sign welcoming me back into England. The map in my head updates but I carry on because either way it will lead me to the M74 then Gretna Green Services, where I can grab some hot food and dry out a little. A while later, sopping gear hung out on six chairs and a KFC three-piece meal in front of me, I take a look at the weather forecast and see that things don’t look good up in Fort William. I decide to give Cam a call.

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“Hey, man, have you left for Fort William yet?” I ask.
“Nah, you’re always slow. I figure it’ll be a while ’til you’re anywhere close. Where are you now?”
“Uh, I’m not sure,” I lie, not wanting to have to admit my morning detour. “Listen, would it upset you if we didn’t camp tonight? My gear is soaking and I’m picturing myself getting hypothermia if I sleep in a wet tent. I was hoping I could stay at yours tonight and maybe hang my tent up in your garage or something.”
“Yeah, mate. That’s fine,” Cam says. “It’s awful up here. I was kind of dreading being out in it, to be honest.”

My phone isn’t great but I think he says this in the tone he uses when he’s humoring me. Cam and I have been on a few road trips together and I’ve learned there’s a certain timbre that manifests when he’s putting up with my bullshit rather than actually agreeing with me. I attribute it to his being a father of three; he has experience dealing with people who try his patience. I suspect he would prefer to get his part of the trip properly under way and tough it out at the campsite tonight. But I’m squeezing water from my gloves and can feel in my bones that my jovial attitude toward being wet won’t last, so I persist in inviting myself to stay at his place. Not too long afterward, I’m again speeding north: my heart – if not my hands – warmed by the thought of a nice, dry bed waiting for me in Doune.

The Harley-Davidson Sport Glide travels well

A common aspect of motorcycle travel articles is that part when something goes wrong with the bike: the person is in Örnsköldsvik and needs a new fuel pump, or the engine explodes in Uzgen. You will notice that this sort of thing never happens in my stories about riding Harleys. I don’t mean to sound like a company shill here but the things are damned reliable. So much so that you can just sort of forget about them, and in articles like this I often get accused of not talking about the bike enough.

So, OK, let’s talk about the Harley-Davidson Sport Glide and what it’s like to ride one through a storm producing torrential blinding rain and wind gusts of up to 80 mph. Because as I make my way to Cam’s I find myself being pummeled by Storm Francis, a brutal tempest that will bring flooding, fallen trees, structural damage and power cuts to large swathes of the United Kingdom over a number of days. On this particular day it’s pushing south as I’m pushing north and our meeting involves such a battering that I can do nothing but howl in defiance. In my mind I picture hanging on to an asteroid as it tears through the atmosphere. All around me cars and vans and trucks are being shoved out of their lanes, the rain and wind and hail are hitting me so hard I can feel bruises forming, but the bike is a solid, unstoppable thing.

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Fighting my way north of Glasgow on the M80 I think back to 2016, when the Milwaukee Eight engine platform was first launched (initially available only in the MoCo’s touring line-up). Before Harley let moto-journalists loose on the bikes it spent an entire evening telling us about the Milwaukee Eight V-twin and all the effort that had gone into developing this all-new big twin. Ultimately, the information session ended with our standing around a cutaway model of the engine, with Harley-Davidson Chief Engineer Alex Bozmoski asking if we had any questions. Lemmy asked a series of particularly difficult questions based on his years of tearing apart and rebuilding Harleys, but the rest of us couldn’t really think of anything that hadn’t already been covered extensively. Perhaps feeling that someone other than Lem-Lem should at least ask something, though, one of the mo-jos halfheartedly queried: “How’s it perform in the rain?”

“It eats rain,” Bozmoski said.

“Damn right it does!” I shout into the storm, the Sport Glide’s Milwaukee Eight 107 lump droning beneath me. I’ve ridden a lot of bikes through a lot of bad weather and can’t think of any that have been steadier in inclement conditions than the Sport Glide. There are rumors this model may be dropped from the 2021 Softail line-up. That’s a shame if true but I’d still encourage you to get one; all things considered it’s probably the best bike Harley-Davidson makes*.

I make it to Cam’s just before 4 pm and proceed to take over his house, hanging my wet tent in a bathroom and commandeering the tumble dryer. Cam’s son is booted from his bedroom to make way for the impromptu house guest and I hang wet gear on every available thing: hooks, doorknobs, opened dresser drawers, action figures and so on. Outside, rain continues to fall. Cam and I sit at the kitchen table drinking bottles of beer and talking bikes. Eventually his wife, Tracy, joins us and we all tuck into massive portions of steak and ale pie. As I fall into bed later that evening I’m warmly happy that things have worked out this way, that I’ve gotten a chance to see Cam’s family again, that I’m dry, that I live in a place and time where I get to ride motorcycles and experience all these tiny adventures.

Drying my sopping-wet tent in Cam’s house

SCOTLAND’S FAMOUS BRIDGES

There are lots of pretty places in Britain. Largely – although the landscapes are diverse – they possess the same quality of prettiness. Life being the frustratingly short and finite thing that it is, if you’re keen to experience brilliant sunsets around the world and you manage to hit a good one in, say, Yorkshire, then you don’t really need to travel to Devon to see what’s on offer there. The two places are different, sure, but they share an intangible similarity. It’s like the way all the Marvel movies are different while also, you know, kinda the same.

But then you travel beyond the reach of Scotland’s motorways and things start to change. Head north of Stirling, push west and the scenery quickly goes from pretty to sublime. Some vistas feel unreal, as if you are travelling through a film. And soon you’re taking pictures of everything. Some of this is down to Scotland’s geology, of course, but the country’s infamous weather plays a part, too. Fast moving clouds result in constantly changing light and dramatic backgrounds. Rain-cleaned skies bring crystal-clear views.

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The light mist that has been falling since Cam and I left his house earlier in the morning has turned more substantial by the time we reach The Green Welly Stop, a sort of Scottish version of Wall Drug located on the very northern edge of Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park. We’ve been keeping a relaxed, cruising pace in part because it’s wet and in part because we’ve discovered that the Sena communicator set-ups we both use don’t seem to function well above 60 mph. (Side note: I’ve found this to be a problem even when using Sena headsets with my wife as a passenger, our respective helmets only inches apart.)

The Green Welly is a popular and natural hangout for motorcyclists but on this particularly miserable and cold Wednesday the only folks riding are the grizzled die-hards: old dudes on old bikes or affordable adventure-style machines. Here an ’05 FJR1300, there a Versys 1000. Riding two Sport Glides loaded with camping gear, Cam and I stand out somewhat. Maybe I’m imagining it but I sense the old boys are unwilling to engage in conversation with us – even though we’re both wearing Schuberth helmets. Over late breakfast we discuss our route to Ardnamurchan and I insist on travelling via Corran so we can take a ferry across Loch Linnhe. Because, dude: you’re riding a motorcycle onto a boat! Cam doesn’t quite share my fascination with this aspect but goes along with it because, hey, we all have our quirks. Cam, for instance, always possesses enthusiasm for bridges. We’ll be riding along and suddenly he’ll say: “Ooh! I know where we are! We’re about to cross the Such-And-Such Bridge!” As if I’m supposed to have heard of this bridge or care.

Both Cam and I were riding Sport Glides. Cam kept his fairing on

Although, maybe it’s just Scottish bridges. Having also ridden with Cam in England and Wales, I don’t remember his effusing about road structures outside of his native land. Maybe he had to learn all the Scottish bridges in school. I can imagine that being a thing, in the same way a number of my Minnesota friends can name all 87 counties of their state. Every Scottish person I know possesses an almost encyclopedic knowledge of the country’s history, culture and geography. When I visit Cam in his homeland we never use sat-navs to get around.

It costs £3.50 to take the Corran ferry, which probably works out to 1 pence per second of travel – the trip across the loch is not very long. I think I’m clever in tricking Cam into paying my fare but it strangely puts a guilt in me that results in my feeling a need to pay for all his drinks for the rest of our trip, so joke’s on me.

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Soon we’re on a twisting single-track road, creeping our way to the end of the Ardnamurchan peninsula. For those of you playing along in the United States, it is hard to convey what this road is like and how seemingly inappropriate it is for vehicle travel. I cannot think of anything equivalent in America; even US bicycle paths are larger and better maintained. What’s fascinating to me is how well-suited the Sport Glide is to this sort of slow-speed bumpy gymkhana: low-center of gravity, smooth throttle, perfectly happy in low revs. I’m happy, too. Taking our time, Cam and I are able to take in the postcard views that present themselves around every corner.

The weather has cleared a bit, with bright sunshine dancing on the water. Grey rocky cliffs fall from verdant, hillocky terrain into an azure sea. If you have spent a lifetime being a cynic you will find Scotland’s beauty unsettling; there actually are places like this. It’s not just stuff you see on TV. It really exists. The weather improves the closer we get to the lighthouse so that by the time we arrive we are both steaming in our gear. As soon as I kill the bike’s engine I peel off my waterproofs, jacket, armored shirt, etc. until I am down to my base layer top. The air is fresh, the sun so bright and warm it stings my face.

Ardnamurchan Lighthouse

As lighthouses go, this 170-year-old structure offers an appropriately dramatic feel for a place so far away from everything. Across the water I can see a number of the Small Isles, reminding me that although I have reached the most westerly point of mainland Britain, the United Kingdom carries on several more miles into the sea. I spot a triple-masted tall ship passing between Ardnamurchan and the Isle of Muck. For a moment I feel transported back more than a century, to a time when such a sight would be common. Then I catch Cam out of the corner of my eye: he is waving his phone around, showing his family the lighthouse via FaceTime.

I sit on the rocks for a while, looking out at the sea. Cam and I will hang out here longer than we should. Although Fort William – where we’re camping tonight – is not so far away as the crow flies, it will take us a long time to get there on these narrow roads. So long, in fact, we won’t arrive until sunset. But that’s all part of another story for another day. 

Looking out toward the Small Isles and the Outer Hebrides

* There are arguably “better” bikes in Harley’s line-up but they cost more; there are more affordable bikes, but they don’t offer as much. The Sport Glide hits the sweet spot between affordability and usability.