Sam Cook column: Wandering the countryside in John Muir's homeland
EAST LINTON, SCOTLAND — Evening settles over this small village on the River Tyne in Scotland. The four of us walk single-file along a narrow stone sidewalk, headed for dinner at the Crown and Kitchen Pub.
We have worked up hearty appetites hiking seven miles through the Scottish countryside to reach East Linton, a handsome hamlet of 1,700. In the morning, we'll do another seven miles on our way to Dunbar on the North Sea. We're walking only a small portion of the 134-mile John Muir Way, a trail that bisects central Scotland.
The pub is already lively with conversation at this early hour. And quintessentially Scottish. A group of men stands at the bar, watching second-day competition at golf's Masters Tournament in America.
One of the men at the bar is tethered to his black Lab, which alternately stands or sits at his side. Dogs are welcome at many pubs across the country. Through the course of the evening, the Crown and Kitchen will be populated with two Labs, a standard poodle and two Schnauzers. When it's time for the Schnauzers to leave, one will strain his leash trying to inhale a wayward green olive beneath our table.
That made me miss the yellow dog we left at home.
The idea to walk a bit of the Muir Way was Emily and Jeff's, our daughter and son-in-law, who live in Edinburgh. Unlike many American trails, which wind their way over mountains and through deep wilderness, European trails tend to meander through villages and farms, often passing country homes. A Scottish act passed in 2003 — the so-called "right to roam" law — gives the public the right to access most public or privately owned land for recreation and exercise, provided travelers behave responsibly.
We had traveled by train to the seacoast village of North Berwick to begin our hike. Off we went, following the well-marked trail on gravel or dirt paths, down farm lanes past yellow-blossomed canola fields, through woodland glades. Rooster pheasants cackled from fields and tree rows. Daffodils in profusion nodded at our passing. At a rural homestead, a black horse approached the fence to receive some serious muzzle stroking.
Muir, a native of Scotland and our trail's namesake, didn't spend a lot of his youth roaming this idyllic countryside. His father was demanding and strict, working his children long hours, six days a week. The family emigrated from Scotland to Wisconsin in 1849 when Muir was 11. Studying at the University of Wisconsin unleashed his passion for the natural world and conservation. A champion of protecting wild places, he eventually would become known as the "Father of the National Parks."
That first afternoon, as we followed a single-track path past a field of cattle, one of Muir's most quoted passages came to mind.
"Of all the paths you take in life, make sure a few of them are dirt," he wrote.
We spent the night sleeping over the pub. The next morning, we walked along the River Tyne, where the breeze carried the aroma of wild onions. We met a few runners and hikers and dog walkers. A single fly-fisher worked a stretch of the river.
Nearing Dunbar, we skirted the fairways of a golf course and chatted with a foursome waiting to tee off. Finally, we emerged atop cliffs overlooking the North Sea. I thought for a moment I might have been atop Palisade Head on Minnesota's North Shore overlooking Lake Superior's blue, but a massive rock island down the coast, white with nesting gannets, reminded me I was far from home.
Sam Cook is a freelance columnist for the Duluth News Tribune. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or find his Facebook page at facebook.com/SamCook.