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Trip Report - Scotland - Photo by Kelcey Rushing

Trip Report – Scotland

Last week, Kari-Lise and I returned from a two-week trip to Scotland. It had been over a year since our last holiday, and between work, Coal Belly, and multiple gallery openings a vacation was welcome. Once again we ended up taking a long road trip through the country. Starting and finishing in Glasgow and taking us all over Scotland. I’ve driven in Ireland and Australia, so the shift from left to right wasn’t a big deal. After a few weeks, it felt completely normal.


“See the world. It’s more fantastic than any dream made or paid for in factories. Ask for no guarantees, ask for no security.”

Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451


For this post, I’m going to take a little time hitting the significant places we stayed and share a few photos from the trip. One resource I cannot praise enough is Atlas Obscura. Many of the strange places we visited were featured on their site, and I recommend checking them out anytime you travel. Proper research can make any trip significantly more enjoyable.

Okay! To the report! This is going to be a long post, so consider yourself warned.


Loch Lomond & Kintyre Peninsula

I can’t sleep on planes. Not sure why. Probably a combination of being both a big guy and a light sleeper. So we arrived in Scotland exhausted. Thankfully, we were traveling with our friends Kelcey Rushing and Jim Rushing. Since this was a road trip and I just got off from roughly 24-hours of travel, Jim volunteered to take the first shift driving. Thank goodness.

We didn’t have far to go for the first night, so we had a leisurely breakfast then made a pitstop at Buchanan Castle in Stirlingshire, just outside of Glasgow. It’s an incredible manor house that has slowly been overtaken by nature. The resulting ruins are nothing short of spectacular.

Kari-Lise captured this photo of me among the ruins
Kari-Lise captured this photo of me (still awake after twenty-six hours) among the ruins

We stayed overnight and the next morning, hit up Finnich’s Glen (also known as the Devil’s Pulpit) before we headed off to the Isle of Islay. Fans of the Outlander series will recognize this deep sandstone gorge as the Liar’s Spring from Season 1. Since it was an early Monday morning in September, we had the place to ourselves.


Islay

Port Ellen, Islay
Port Ellen, Islay

I love the ritual of scotch. The sound as it hits the bottom of a glass. The scents it carries that evokes the landscape from which its made. The complex layers of flavor inherited from the barrels in which it was aged. Few foods or drinks are as reflective of their history and heritage like scotch. Islay in a way was a pilgrimage and its hills and bogs holy ground for the scotch enthusiast. It’s the home of smokey malts that taste of brine, salt, and peat. It’s my favorite region.

The ferry to Port Ellen was long, a few hours but we arrived and quickly established a home base in an apartment. The following day, thanks to Jim’s planning, we began our scotch experience with a peat cutting for Laphroaig (my favorite Islay malt) which we followed with a tour of their facility. I have been a Friend of Laphroaig for nine years, and I collected the rent on my 1’x1′ piece of sod, and promptly set out to plant my flag in the bog north of the distillery.

My piece of Laphroaig was past a hillock and just beyond a depression, and while much of the field was solid, hidden springs lay everywhere sometimes many feet deep. I found my ground and turned to call to Kari-Lise stepped back and sank into what looked like a bunch of grass. It wasn’t grass. The grass had abandoned me, and I tumbled backward into a deep pool of cold, muddy water—it was a memorable cap on our visit to the distillery.

Thankfully, it was only a mile walk back to our apartment, and I changed into drier clothes, and we continued on, visiting Lagavulin (my 2nd favorite distillery) and Ardbeg before the day was over and wrapping up our visit to Islay. (I could have spent a few more days there. But there was more of Scotland to see.)

Since I know people will ask here are the scotches I added to my collection:

  • Clynelish 14 yr. (Highland)
  • Dalmore 15 yr. (Highland)
  • Ardbeg Uigeadail (Islay)
  • Ledaig 10 yr. (Island – New favorite)
  • Edradour 2002 (Highland – 14 yr. Sherry Cask)
  • Lagavulin Fèis Ìle 2017 (Islay – My ultra-special bottle)

Skye

The Stoor, Isle of Skye
On the northeastern side of Skye is The Storr

The trip to Skye was beautiful taking us through Glencoe and Glenfinnan. (Both would deserve their own section had we spent more time there.) But Skye itself was a wonder. Our cabin was off the beaten path far in the north, and it was here we spent time in the mountains and glens of the countryside. It also poured rain. Which was fitting for Scotland.

The Fairy Glen was stunning. The Storr was amazing. The Fairy Pools had become Fairy Torrents after all the rain. But the countryside was vast and open and made one feel small and insignificant. Skye is a draw for many reasons, and all of them are good.


Edinburgh

From Skye, we drove down to Edinburgh, pausing for castles and stopping at the Edradour Distillery. It was here we eventually split from Jim and Kelcey but not before we spent some time exploring the city. Many people often say Edinburgh ranks as a favorite and I can understand why. The mixture of medieval and modern creates a fascinating place of winding alleys and layered roads. Space is at a premium and nothing goes to waste. We were there only two days and just saw a fraction of the place. We climbed the Scott Monument, visited the National Gallery, toured Edinburgh Castle, explored Old Town, played in the Camera Obscura, had tea near the University, poked around Dean Village, and late at night we located the oldest Masonic Lodge in the world. All that and I feel like we barely scratched the surface. The city is impossible to grasp in a single visit. I have unfinished business in Edinburgh.


Northern Highlands

As the city faded behind us, we hoped we’d find something special in the far reaches of the Northern Highlands, and we were not disappointed. There is a vast wildness along the North Coast: tall mountains, twisting rivers, and expansive vistas that are difficult to capture on camera. Ancient castles perch above lochs that stretch to the horizon. Peaks and valleys fold into one another, and the roads that cross these spaces are windings and narrow. (See the video above.) We spent several days in the Northern Highlands exploring the coast, visiting castles, checking in on a few distilleries, eating cheese, seeing wonders, and experiencing much of the North Coast 500. In the end, we returned to Glasgow tired but fulfilled.


I cannot recommend Scotland enough, it was easily one of my favorite trips. A huge thank you to Kelcey and Jim joining us for the first week. We had an absolute blast, and it was an honor to experience Scotland alongside two of the best people I know. (Don’t be surprised if they don’t show up in photos on future trips.)

One other unexpected takeaway: outside of uploading a few pictures to Instagram I stayed off the internet for the most part, and it was grand. It really allowed me to absorb the experience and thoroughly lose myself in the rich history of the land. Standing in castles a thousand years old and seeing landscape and towns that are older than most cultures in the western hemisphere put a lot of things into perspective. It made a lot of the news happening in America (the reaction to NFL players protest in particular) look incredibly petty. I recommend taking an internet diet. The echo chamber is dumb, and the internet is not as important as we all like to pretend. Go out. Travel. Meet people. Listen to them. Get uncomfortable. (This is where I quote Mark Twain again.)


“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

Mark Twain


I’m a firm believer in travel and allowing yourself to get lost in someone else’s culture. (Important aspect there, as G. K. Chesterton once said, “The traveler sees what he sees, the tourist sees what he has come to see.”) I think travel is important for the writer as well. As I said in the trip report from California: a cleft of rock can inspire a thousand tales, a family of marmot running across a subalpine meadow can spark ideas for plots, and meeting interesting people along the way can usher forth a whole civilization of rich characters.

So that’s our trip! Coming back to work Monday was tough, but I was excited to reestablish a routine. By now, I feel like I have conquered my jet lag and its time to dive back into work. I finished a manuscript before this trip, and I have pages to edit. Also, it’s nearly time to start writing the fourth book in the Bell Forging Cycle.


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Otter Falls

Glimpse of Otter Falls

Over the weekend, Kari-Lise and I took some friends out to Otter Falls. It’s a stunning waterfall about an hour drive from Seattle plus an easy five-mile hike along the Taylor River.

The culmination of the journey results in a stunning view of a beautiful 1600′ waterfall that streams down a steep granite face. I didn’t take too many pics, but I managed to get a decent one of the falls and figured readers of my blog would appreciate seeing it.

Otter Falls, Washington

If you’re looking to go yourself, you can find the trailhead here. Make sure to check the WTA for recent trip reports.

2016 in Ten Awesome Photos

2016 in Ten Awesome Photos

For the past few years, I’ve assembled a post looking back via photos and reflecting on my experiences over the course of a year. The rule is to do it in ten photos, no more, no less, no excuses. (Check out 2015 in Ten Awesome Photos or 2014 in Ten Awesome Photos if you’re so inclined.) It’s a good way to reestablish what actually happened compared to my own perception. It also slows time down. A lot happens in a year.

After you do something long enough, it becomes a tradition. 2016 has been a tough year for me both creatively, and personally. But for every failure, there has been a success. Moments of dispair have been countered by moments of peace. Sometimes it’s hard to recognize those. Going back through these photos always grounds me and forces me to reflect.

So, with all that said, let’s take a look at my 2016.


2016_10photos_01The start of 2016 was cold and foggy. I took this picture on a long walk near my house early in the year. The themes of this image inadvertently became my themes for this year. If you read The State of the Cycle last December you know that in 2016 I was breaking from The Bell Forging Cycle for a bit and was planning to focus on some new projects. Solitude, contemplation, and a refocusing on my work and my writing were central for me throughout the year.


2016_10photos_02New year, new projects; I dove right in. For those who have followed this blog from the beginning, you’ll recognize the title Coal Belly. It was the first manuscript I tried to shop (and ultimately failed at selling) but the world and the characters never left me. This year I began it anew, refreshed and stripped down and I’m really excited where it’s going.


2016_10photos_03In the spring I returned to Norwescon for my second year. As before, It was a blast. This year I was busy. I spent my time running my table, sat on a few panels, and even managed to do a reading from Red Litten World. You can read a full breakdown in my Norwescon 39 Debriefing post. I will be returning in 2017, I can’t miss the 40th Anniversary.


2016_10photos_04Throughout the year, Kari-Lise and I would occasionally spend a few hours exploring antique stores and junk shops. These forays into the past inspired me to start collecting historical objects from American fraternal organizations and secret societies. It hits a sweet spot for me a blend of Americana, fading history, folk art and the fact some of the objects are just bizarre. I’m sure I’ll gather together a post soon.


My friend Steve Toutonghi launched his debut novel Join! He spent some time with me at Norwescon sharing his book, and I was able to go to a reading and signing of his at a local bookstore. It’s been great to watch him meet readers and share his work with the world. If you haven’t read his novel Join, you need to rectify that now. Check out my review on Goodreads and use the links on his site to pick it up for yourself. (It makes a great Christmas gift.)


2016_10photos_06I was lucky enough to meet Magnus Nilsson, the head chef at the remote two Michelin star restaurant Fäviken in Sweden. It’s no secret Kari-Lise, and I love to cook and were those people who consider ourselves foodies. I really respect Nilsson’s approach to cooking, his focus on simplicity, local ingredients, and the return to basics. He was super gracious. Now we need to plan a trip to actually visit Fäviken.


2016_10photos_07Lilac City Comicon was a smashing success and a bit of a whirlwind. It’s a fun romp full of wonderful people and cosplayers. The community in Spokane is really warm and welcoming. It was great hanging out with my fellow creators, meeting new people, and talking with readers. I’m planning a return this year. Make sure to read the Lilac City Comicon debriefing. I’m happy that it’ll be two days this year.


2016_10photos_08This summer Kari-Lise and I took two weeks to explore the National Parks of California. When I returned, I put together a little trip report detailing the journey. It was a fantastic excursion, full of hiking, marmots, and incredible vista and views. Traveling in the US, and especially in our National Parks, always reminds me that we live in a pretty great place.


2016_10photos_09As with every year, mountains were a reoccurring theme. I find them invigorating creatively and forever humbling. They’re a good place to reset and realize how small and petty my problems tend to be. With the help of some friends, Kari-Lise and I found our favorite trail on Mount Rainier. We liked it so much we returned to it again a month later with some family.


2016_10photos_10My Seattle Sounders won the MLS Cup! It was an incredible comeback season that began abysmally but ended with a run that took them to the playoff and eventually allowed them to win it all on penalty kicks! Also, my favorite player did this. Sounders ’til I die. I can’t wait for the 2017 season.


So, there was my 2016. Narrowing it down to ten photos was difficult, it’s always difficult. There are always things I left out: sporting events, craft fairs, new books, art openings, other hikes, time spent in the mountains, time spent in the desert, time spent on the coast (we went to nine National Parks this year). I took pictures of my food, my research work, my dogs, my rabbits, and so much more. Most of these images came from my Instagram account, if you’re not following me, please do! It’s usually a running record of my weekly activities and pictures of my adorable dogs.

Join me! Why not look back through your own year and narrow it down to ten awesome photos? Post those on your blog and leave me a link here in the comments. I’d love to see what happened in your year as well.

Where in the World is K. M. Alexander

Exploring Tahoma & Sun-a-do

This past weekend the United States celebrated the 100th birthday of the National Parks Service, one of our greatest inventions. (Ken Burns agrees.) To commemorate the occasion Kari-Lise, myself, some friends and family explored trails in Mt. Rainier and Olympic National Park. As before, I figured I’d share a few pics. Click to view them larger.

Everything here was shot with my iPhone 6S and processed with VSCO.

Where in the World was K. M. Alexander?

Trails of the Broken Road

Kari-Lise and I spent some time wandering the trails of the Broken Road (yep, it’s based on a real place) over the long holiday weekend. I shared a little collage on Instagram, but I wanted to post the larger pics here. Enjoy.

Everything here was shot with my iPhone 6S and processed with VSCO.

2016 Califorina National Parks Roadtrip

Trip Report – California’s National Parks

On Saturday, Kari-Lise and I  returned from a ten-day road trip through California. 2016 is the 100th anniversary of the National Parks in America, so we planned on hitting as many Parks as we could. We don’t vacation like normals; laying on the beach isn’t for us. We tend to focus on adventure while on our travels. It’s a big world, and there’s a lot out there to see. As I joked on Twitter: relaxing is boring.

Since sunsetting the Friday Link Pack, I decided to try and make this blog a bit more personal. So, I figured it’d be fun to do a quick post compiling a trip report, share some of our experiences and a few photos. If you want you can click to view them larger, all photos were taken with my iPhone 6s. Since this trip was themed around National Parks, I’ll break it down by Park in the order of visitation. First up…

1. Yosemite

Yosemite Valley floor
From the Yosemite Valley floor looking South

We started with America’s third National Park, established in 1890. Strangely, until last week I’d never been here. Despite having family living in California and making multiple trips to the state as a kid, Yosemite was never a destination. It’s a remarkable place and both Kari-Lise, and I left stunned by its majestic beauty. I could see why John Muir (one of my personal heroes) fell in love with the place. It leaves you feeling small and insignificant. It makes you appreciate the world on a more primal level.

“Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul alike.”

—John Muir, The Yosemite

Wildlife was out in full, we met a momma black bear and her cub, they were far away and while she was keeping an eye on us, we didn’t approach. We also saw mule deer and a lone coyote. We hiked the east side of the valley floor along the base of Half Dome and away from the campgrounds and parking lots. While it was an enjoyable hike, we didn’t discover until too late that there was a shuttle to take you to Glacier Point, and we could have hiked from there down to the valley along the Panorama Trail. Next time.

Yosemite Valley from Glacier Point
Yosemite Valley from Glacier Point

There is still so much that we left unseen. We didn’t even get to Tioga Pass, Tuolumne Meadows, and missed Hetch Hetchy completely. We’ve read nothing but good things about all those areas. Yosemite is big and a day and a half wasn’t enough time. There have already been several discussions in the Alexander household about a return visit so we can spend a bit more time spent among the spires of Yosemite.


2. Kings Canyon

Driving Highway 180 towards Kings Canyon
Driving Highway 180 towards Kings Canyon

Second Park on our trip was America’s 26th National Park, established in 1940. This park was significantly more remote than the others, but the drive out there was incredible and worth the time. To get to the park you have to pass through Sequoia National Forest on Highway 180—the only way in and out.

Last year, a fire tore through the central portion of the valley, which left bare mountains dotted with blackened ghost trees and slopes covered in wildflowers. A thunderstorm was rolling down the canyon as we passed through and the rumbles could be heard echoing for miles. It’s way out there, and since we weren’t staying nearby, we didn’t get a chance to hike any portion of the park. We just passed through, poked around for a few hours and then headed off to the next park on our list.


3. Sequoia

Hiking through Mineral King Valley
Hiking through Mineral King Valley

America’s second National Park, established in 1890, was third on our list. If I had to pick a favorite park from this trip, Sequoia wins. It was stunning. It was everything I love in National Parks. Huge sweeping vistas, massive trees thousands of years old, and cold alpine valleys dominated our days.

We hiked up in Mineral King—an incredible subalpine valley—on our first day. When we got there, we noticed quite a few of the backpacker’s cars were wrapped in tarps. Which we found strange. It wasn’t until later that we discovered that the yellow-bellied marmots of Mineral King are addicted to antifreeze and will chew through anything to get at it. While usually dangerous to animals, for whatever reason these marmots don’t die from ingesting the coolant. The Rangers have taken to calling them super marmots. Thankfully our rental car was unaffected.

Spiderweb gate installed by the Civilian Conservation Corps outside Crystal Cave
Spiderweb gate installed by the CCC outside Crystal Cave

On our second day, we checked out the big trees around General Sherman (the largest tree by volume in the world), but the highlight was Crystal Cave. If you visit, make sure to book your tickets in advance. The tour through the cave was about an hour and well worth it. Happy we spent some time there. It also has a cool spiderweb gate entrance that reminded me of a fantasy novel.


4. The Channel Islands

Island Fox on Santa Cruz island
Island Fox on Santa Cruz Island

The 40th National Park established in 1980 is often referred to as America’s Galapagos! No, for real. The archipelago is home to over two thousand plant and animal species, one hundred and forty-five of which are found nowhere else on the planet. The highlight was, of course, the island fox, who are plentiful (despite being nearly extinct two decades ago) and completely unafraid of people. They were everywhere.

Sitting offshore at Santa Cruz
Sitting offshore at Santa Cruz Island

Halfway into our hike about five miles from everything, we stopped to check out a songbird hanging on a bush. When randomly this older, wrinkled, nearly naked, and quite tan uh… gentlemen, wandered past us. He reminded me of those old white people you see in tropical locations, those who have spent decades in the sun and wear only thongs, the sun-worshipper type. He noticed that we were watching the songbird, smiled at us, and told us that it was a songbird, and then he went along his way. He was quite friendly, but it was strange seeing him so far out. Here we were five miles from anything, and this guy looks like he’s wandering along a resort beach. Now, you have to realize, outside of Park and Nature Conservancy staff the Channel Islands are completely uninhabited. Yet, here was this guy in his thong and flip-flops moseying like a local and heading even deeper into the island. He wasn’t with us on the catamaran on the way in, so maybe he landed on a different beach? Perhaps he works there? It was surreal.

Overlooking sea caves on Santa Cruz island
Overlooking sea caves on Santa Cruz Island

We finished our hike around a small portion of the island, had lunch overlooking some rock formations and watched flights of pelicans fly below us as we took in the incredible views. Both of us wished we had more time; there are many more islands and all are distinct from each other, so there is still so much to see.


5. Pinnacles

Upper portion of Balconies Cave Trail
Upper portion of Balconies Cave Trail in Pinnacles

So, we were supposed to have a down day. But as I mentioned at the start of this report for us down days are tedious. We had wanted to visit America’s newest (#59) National Park, but we were afraid we might have to miss it. Thankfully, we got the itch for a long drive and I’m glad we made the three-hour journey north.

Pinnacles is the sight of an ancient volcano along the San Andreas fault. It’s also the home to California condors, and its trails are lined with amazing talus caves. The caves were impressive and easily the highlight of our visit. Though, I’ll admit that it was a bit creepy to crawl through building-sized boulders along the fault line. After the coolness of the caves, we found the remaining trail sunbaked and exposed. We spent a few hours hiking and emerged tired and sweaty and starving.

Sadly, we didn’t get a chance to see any condors. But in the 100° heat I’m wagering they were spending as much time as they could in the shade.


6. Joshua Tree

Joshua tree at sunset
A Joshua tree at sunset

Joshua Tree might be one of my favorite places on the planet, it’s the 52nd National Park established in 1994, and last on our trip. I’m not normally a “desert” person. I prefer snow-covered mountains, damp temperate forests, and Pacific Northwest islands to vast wastelands of the desert. But there’s something about Joshua Tree that haunts me. The strange vegetation, large piles of boulders, and the silent solitude are captivating. It’s easy to see why I’m not alone in falling in love with the place.

Joshua Tree Homesteader Cabin or Fallout set piece?
Joshua Tree homesteader cabin or Fallout set piece?

We stayed at this incredible little homesteader cabin that we found on AirBnB. It was remote and raw and served perfectly as a basecamp for our explorations into the park. Summer is the slow season at Joshua Tree, and I can see why the temps were crazy high (reaching 110° during the day) which meant we were up very early so we could hike and enjoy the park. The hike we did was incredible. We saw jackrabbits, cottontails, antelope squirrels, and lizards of all shapes and sizes all over the place. This was our second visit to Joshua Tree in a year, and we’ll probably be back again. There’s just something about it. It’s hard to stay away.


While attending Lilac City Comicon, I had someone ask me where I get my ideas. It’s a common question, and one of my answers (among many) was travel. It’s so critical to my process, and I find it stretches me as a person. (Even something as safe as our National Parks here in America.) It forces me to get out of my small box and face things I wouldn’t typically face on a day to day basis. There’s a quote from Mark Twain I’ve posted on here many times before, but it’s one I love:

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

As a writer, I ask readers to go on journeys with me, so it’s on natural that I should take some myself. It’s one thing to write about the heat of the sun beating upon your neck, it’s another to experience it. A cleft of rock can inspire a thousand tales, a family of marmot running across a subalpine meadow can spark ideas for plots, and meeting interesting people along the way can usher forth a whole civilization of rich characters. Tales, plots, and characters that I might never dream up sitting in my home office. Travel isn’t necessary for writing, but I think it can go a long way to making someone a better writer. At least it does for me.

So that’s our trip! The total stat breakdown:

  • 10 Days
  • 6 National Parks
  • 59.2 Miles Hiked
  • 2159 Miles Driven

It was unbelievable, and I’ll be the first to admit it was tough coming back to work on Monday. But such is life; besides I have books to finish, stories to tell, after all, these pages don’t write themselves.