From Fort William to Mallaig on the Hogwarts Express

From my very sporadic reading of travel blogs, there is a lot of discussion about the commodification of travel and bucket lists. To summarize the critique: travel people are very concerned about non-travel people collecting experiences, checking off a box instead of fully appreciating the unique cultural context before them. In Eat, Pray Love terms (Jeff’s all time favorite movie) they want people to really stop and taste their food, and I get it.

But I am a real fan of bucket lists even if they propagate a little instagram tourism. I think anticipation sweetens experience and “bucket list status” pushes us to take advantage of unique opportunities even when they are wildly inconvenient. So when we were sitting in the bus station on our way to Ansturther last Friday and saw the tourist pamphlet for the Jacobite Steam Train (the much more grown up name for the Harry Potter train) I pretty much threw all reason out the window. Our first week of class was a little intense. I literally have more reading than is humanly possible and planning a roadtrip across the country our first weekend probably falls in the irresponsible category. But like a lot of things in Scotland, the Harry Potter train shuts down for winter (yes ,October is considered Winter). September 22 was the very last day before May that the train would run. I grew up with Harry Potter. Briana Pearl, Danielle Katz and I went to every book release and midnight showing. I have wanted to ride in the train used in the movies pretty much since I knew it existed. This was not a time for rationality. In retrospect this really was the best time to go. Our mountains of readings aren’t going away and we have no papers due any time soon, but I felt like a rebel for about 24 hours.

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There may have been very adult jumping up and down when we crossed over the viaduct.

We took a bus from St. Andrews to Dundee. Rented (hired) a car and drove three hours from the east coast to the west coast of Scotland. Our trip actually combined my two favorite things about Scotland: quirky cultural landmarks and incredible natural beauty. The country is rather sparsely populated and so the country side often seems like vast emptiness with just tiny towns dotted along the road.  Pictures just don’t even come close to doing it justice.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Before we made it to Fort William where the train would leave in the morning. We stopped in the village of Dalwhinne for one of Jeff’s favorite Scottish pastimes: Scotch tastings. We did a few of the bigger tours when we were here last September, but we have been searching out smaller brands. It’s now Jeff’s goal to visit the 12 classic malts while we are here. We have a stamp passport and everything.  Distilleries are actually incredibly interesting, even for those who aren’t as enamored with whiskey. Despite almost all being owned by large conglomerates, they each retain a lot of their history and individual character.  Dalwhinne won me over as they pair their whiskey with really wonderful chocolate. It made my usual contorted whiskey face much less prominent.

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The train itself left the next morning. Other than being the Harry Potter train, the trip from Fort William to Malliag is said to be one of the most beautiful in the world. I haven’t been on too many trains, but I can’t disagree. We had a perfect day: incredibly blue sky made for beautifully vibrant colors,

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I regularly made a fool out myself,

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we got to experience a more elegant way of transportation,

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made new friends with our compartment mates,

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Jeff looking fancy in first class.

and hiked through the fields of Mallaig.

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Mallaig’s harbor.

I couldn’t have asked for a better way to check off this particular entry on my bucket list. Driving across the viaduct is a moment I won’t soon forget, but the sweeping views of the Scottish countryside were equally breathtaking.  This whole experience sometimes feels like day after day of can you believe we are here, doing this. In the midst of our intense academic commitments, we also have the privilege of exploring and learning  and taking all that Scotland has to offer. Things we build up over a long period often disappoint us, but sometimes they exceed our expectations.

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So far Scotland has not let us down!

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