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Have wheelchair, have tent: a very Scottish road trip

I hadn’t had a break from home for a while and wanted to do something different. Getting away isn’t so easy for a visually impaired man with Cerebral Palsy and I usually have to rely on my parents taking me on holiday. It just so happened, however, that my younger brother, Michael, was getting ready to take a cycling trip in the Glentress Hills near Peebles. He planned to go mountain biking for an hour or two before heading to Fort William to camp for a couple of nights.

When we left my house in Anstruther at eleven o’clock, my brother’s Honda Accord resembled Santa’s sled on Christmas Eve. The back seats had been folded down to accommodate all our equipment: our bags, a tent, a bike, a camping stove, Michael’s guitar, my wheelchair and anything else we could cram into his little car – two brothers on a whirlwind road trip.

We arrived at Glentress Forest around one o’clock. Michael quickly changed into his cycling clothes and got his mountain bike ready. He knew he couldn’t just leave me there while he went cycling in the peaceful Tweed Valley so he made sure I could find my way around first. He walked me to the café and back until I felt comfortable with my surroundings. Once I had my bearings Mike got on his bike and cycled off up the track. I could hear his wheels on the forest path and wished I could have joined him. As we had been walking he had described the beautiful scenery around us. I could smell the pine trees that covered the hillside and loved the sound of the river that ran near to the car park.

210514Ring of FireWith Michael gone I became aware that my stomach was rumbling and realised I needed something to eat. The café provided a traditional menu of soup, sandwiches and burgers so I had a toastie and a glass of coke. I felt relaxed sitting outside on the decking area. Food always seems more inviting ‘al fresco’ and I was contented sitting there having lunch whilst listening to the birds singing in the trees, their song accompanied by the chatter and laughter of my fellow diners.

After about an hour I headed back but unfortunately strayed off course and couldn’t find the car. Thankfully I remembered the river and used this to my advantage. I followed the sound of the gentle running water to aid me back safely. Mike told me that he would be about three hours, but I didn’t mind, after all, he did decide to take me along. It was overcast but muggy so I had to open the door a few times to keep cool until I started to feel refreshing drops of rain kissing my cheeks. The rain increased steadily, peppering the windscreen. As I waited for Mike to return I opened the window a little so I could enjoy the fresh smell summer rain makes on a dusty forest track.

The open window also allowed me to hear the familiar sounds of bicycle wheels on gravel, which signalled Mike’s return. The rain had stopped by the time he got back and he was surprised to find the ground wet.

‘I must have been in the forest when it was raining, I never felt a thing,’ he said.

‘It was just a shower, but it was quite heavy for a wee while though,’ I replied as he began cleaning his bike with the towel he kept in the boot. Once he had washed his bike and changed out of his cycling gear he had a quick bite to eat before we continued on our journey.

I knew we were heading to Fort William but I decided to leave the navigating up to Mike, confident he knew where he was going. ‘Back seat drivers’ are never appreciated at the best of times but when the passenger is partially sighted it is perhaps best to stay quiet.

We were heading towards Loch Lomond, listening to Volbeat, a Danish heavy metal band – our heads bobbing up and down like the Churchill Dog. After a while though I began to sense Mike becoming a little stressed. He was muttering about not being able to see any signs for Fort William so I asked where we were.

‘Strathaven, why?’ he said.

I asked him where it was that we were going and he said that he wanted to go where we went years ago with Mum and Dad.

‘You mean Tummell Valley!’ I said trying hard to hide my concerns.

‘Aye” he replied.

‘Well, Mike, I’m no expert on directions but I think you might be going the wrong way, pal!’

‘I think I might be,’ he replied, thumping the steering wheel.

‘When you get a chance, stop and buy a map or else we could be out here all night,’ I said as firmly as I dared.

210514Ring of FireThankfully he agreed and did what he should have done before we left, and as I suggested – bought a map from a nearby petrol station. He sat for a while consulting the map, which was now spread across the dashboard while he looked for Tummell Valley.

‘Damn!’ he yelled.

‘What is it now!’ I answered, almost jumping out my skin.

‘We’re about a hundred and fifty miles off course,’ he replied, his voice sounding resigned to the prospect of a long drive.

Having worked out our new route we set off again. It was after eight by now and, being the end of August, it was starting to get dark. Despite this Michael was feeling more optimistic as we were going in the right direction. We were able to see the funny side of our experience and spent the rest of the journey laughing at everything. Michael’s favourite phrase was, “well, it is a road trip after all.”

The next part of our journey was like a scene from a John Carpenter movie. We were high in the hills near Aberfeldy and a thick fog had descended. Mike was sitting forward in his seat peering through the eerie mist that had engulfed us. Eventually he had to stop, as visibility was less than fifty metres. Mike took the opportunity to check the map again. I desperately needed the toilet but was too scared to venture outside. I expected someone to knock four times on the window at any moment.

When we finally got to Tummell Valley it was well after ten o’clock. We drove several times around the caravan site looking for the camping area, only to discover that there wasn’t one. Mike went into the office to ask about camping and the lady behind the desk said that there was one about a mile along the road. Off we went again. I was jolted forward in my seat as he zoomed along the road, suddenly slammed on the breaks and started to reverse. He had spotted a sign with tents displayed, so turned off to follow that. We finally found somewhere to sleep for the night – a camping site in the middle of a forest in Kinloch Rannoch. Mike wasn’t sure as we were following this road and we were getting deeper and deeper into the forest. Then all of a sudden, success, there was a clearing with a couple of tents already up.

Mike set up his four-man tent with help from his car headlights. He was worn out from all the driving and it was cold and dark now so he only erected the main section and one of the sleeping pods. It was after eleven by the time he finished getting it up. I was tired waiting in the car, so I got out. My feet squelched on the damp grass as I approached the tent.

We sat up for a short while with a lager each, listening to Everlast before settling down for the night. I heard someone in a tent across from us snoring. It was so loud it could have wakened anyone or anything in the vicinity. It sounded like a pig in heat. Mike was trying not to laugh as I was imitating the snoring. Being brothers we just snuggled up in the single sleeping pod together and eventually fell asleep.

We were rudely awakened by the sound of a lady’s voice.

‘Hello, is anybody in there?’ her shrill tones pierced the still, morning air.

We were both shattered and didn’t reply.

‘Wakey, wakey. How many are in there?’

‘Just two,’ Michael croaked.

‘That will be six pounds each then,’ she insisted.

Mike opened the flap and paid her. He wondered where all the other tents had gone. He must have dreamed the whole site was full of campers and was surprised to only see a couple.

I sat on a deck chair as he cooked our breakfast on the camping stove. The tantalising smell was mouth watering as the sausages sizzled in the warm, open air. Unfortunately I was being eaten alive by midges, but they left Mike alone. I once heard that when you are attacked by midges you think you are going to die and when they’ve left you wish you had. I knew what they meant now. Michael had little sympathy and kept laughing at my attempts to fight off the little bloodsuckers. In order to get some respite I went for a wash while he packed away all our stuff. Once cleaned up, we set off again.

210514Ring of FireMike had decided to drive the short journey to Faskally, as he knew they had better camping facilities. We weren’t having much luck at all though as the owners weren’t going to let us stay, as they didn’t allow two young men to share a tent in case they had a wild party. Mike, however, argued our case by telling them that he was camping with his partially sighted, disabled brother. They said that was different and they would put us in Site 54, next to the toilet and shower blocks for ease.

This was ideal for us – we couldn’t get any closer if we tried. Once the tent was up again, we sat on deck chairs drinking most of the day enjoying the gorgeous sunny weather. Michael tried to serenade me with his newly developed guitar playing skills but Bob Dylan’s Lay Lady Lay didn’t do it for me. We both freshened up by going for showers before we went for our tea. I could tell that Mike was still shattered but he wanted to get more alcohol for when we got back. I agreed with him and we went ‘halfers’ on a carryout. The campsite had a bar and restaurant so we both had a burger and a few games of pool. He was really surprised with how well I played despite my failing eyesight. After that we headed back to the tent with our carryout. Mike wasn’t in the mood for drinking when we got back, so it turned out to be a waste of money, for him at least. I stayed up and managed to polish off most of the lager.

Mike had to get home fairly early the next day so he only fired up the stove in the morning to make coffee – that’s all the gas he had left anyway. We just had something from the local bakers before we left, and off we went again. We were back in just over an hour, as luckily he knew his way home.

I don’t get to spend time with him very often but I would do it all again and so would he. We both thoroughly enjoyed ourselves from the start of our journey to the finish, despite getting lost on the first day. We’ve always been very close, supporting each other through thick and thin. He has been especially supportive since my sight began to deteriorate. I believe that’s what brothers do though – they support each other.

More by this author in his autobiography or go check out his facebook page.

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