Following on from Going With Fergus, Z. P. Heller searches for the serendipitous moment in Scotland.
There were no otters in Otter Haven that afternoon, at least none we could see. Anna and I sat in a wooden bird hide for half an hour, holding hands as we searched the rocky coves and inlets of Skye’s southeastern coast through two pairs of binoculars.
A crisp wind blew through the hide’s narrow shutters, driving out the musty smell and making us shudder even though it was early August. The only other sound came from a distant ferry, which whooshed its way across Glenelg Bay to the Scottish mainland. The sky was clear for the first time that day, and the sun revealed the vibrant hues of the sea and the verdant hills beyond – perfect weather, we thought, for otter spotting.
The guestbook near the hide’s entrance only heightened our expectations. Nearly every entry listed otter sightings punctuated by excessive exclamation marks and furry little otters doodled in the margins. (One family from England even spotted a pod of seals!!!) And yet the only creatures we saw stirring along the shore were black and white birds looking for food in a creek delta, which we identified as oystercatchers from the posters of local animals along the hide’s walls.
“That was otterly ridiculous,” Anna joked, pulling her hood over her chestnut curls as I started our rental hatchback along the snaky road toward our bed and breakfast.
This was the halfway point of our honeymoon: ten days touring Scotland by car, stopping for ruins and castles and walks through the Highlands, with side trips to gourmet restaurants we’d read about in an old issue of Bon Appétit. I’d spent the last six months poring over guidebooks and maps, arranging B&B and castle stays, along with tickets for Highland games, Edinburgh Festival Fringe plays, and even a bagpipe marching band processional. Otter Haven had been a last-minute addition to the itinerary. When we arrived on the Isle of Skye too early to check into our B&B, I didn’t push on into the countryside, as I would have on any other trip. Instead we tried – and failed – to find otters.
“I’m sorry,” I said, squeezing Anna’s hand gently.
“Why?” she squeezed back. “It wasn’t your fault Otter Haven was such a misnomer.”
I wasn’t sure why I apologised. Since we’d made the decision to head for Otter Haven together, no one was to blame when the six-mile road proved to be the most treacherous route we’d taken since embarking from the Glasgow airport. What did I care if we saw otters or not? It wasn’t as though we were otter mavens, if such mavens existed. So if no one was to blame, why did I feel guilty?
Perhaps because it took an hour to reach Otter Haven from the main road. The whole way there we had to hug the ridge of a coarsely sloping mountain – what the locals called a ‘Munro’. The only thing worse than driving the incessant switchbacks of this shoulderless, one-lane road was braking sharply when approaching vehicles rounded a bend, forcing us to reverse to the nearest lay-by. Now, as we headed around a Munro toward the main road, we came face to face with the grill of a lorry, bearing down on us like an avalanche.
“Jesus!” I yelled, hitting the breaks so hard that Anna’s tresses tumbled out of her hood. We couldn’t even see the truck’s driver as we reversed to a precariously positioned turnout, about a hundred feet away. As the lorry pulled within inches of our car and the dust cleared, we both let out a sigh of relief.
White sheep dotted the valley below, moving up and down the craggy slopes. Anna tapped on her window.
“How do those sheep manage to climb down to that creek?”
As we started out again on the road back from Otter Haven, I realised that the reason I apologised to Anna wasn’t so much the dangerous terrain or the failed otter hunt, but because I wanted a serendipitous moment on our honeymoon – like the ones we’d shared on previous vacations.
Anna and I have shared a love of travelling from the start. During our junior year at Brandeis University in Massachusetts, we studied abroad together in Ireland for a semester. After college, we made it our mission to travel at least once a year, even when one of us was unemployed or in grad school and the money was tight. For Anna, travelling is about the newness of sights, smells, and customs: the chance to soak up culture and savour cuisine. For me, each trip also takes on the surreal thrill of watching months of planning come to fruition – and surprising me with moments of perfect serendipity.
When Anna and I went to Costa Rica with her family on an ecotour a couple years before, we went for a horseback ride through the rainforest up to a cascading waterfall. We rode out of our ranch-like hotel and down dirt paths for the better part of an hour. As we reached the water, we were all perspiring so much from the sticky air that we couldn’t shed our clothes fast enough, stripping down to the bathing suits beneath.
I plunged into a coppery green pool. The cool waterfall pushed me down with such bubbling force that I could touch the smooth stones along the bottom. Feeling my way back to the surface, I opened me eyes to see the water become a clearer shade of turquoise. The pool palliated the mosquito bites and saddle sores and general weariness of travel, leaving me instantly rejuvenated. Then, as I resurfaced, Anna appeared. The pattern of her bathing suit resembled the algae covering the pool’s stony edge. Her dark hair, curly on the donkey ride, was now wet against her tan cheeks, sparkling in the sun.
That was the moment I realised I wanted to marry Anna – a moment only reconfirmed in Paris the following spring. We were caught in a heavy downpour walking across the Seine. Soaked in seconds, we waited out the rain in the cozy second floor of Shakespeare & Company, nestled among wall-to-wall books with a curled black cat. The storm subsided as quickly as it began. As others ventured back downstairs, Anna and I pushed open a narrow window in time to catch a rainbow spanning the Seine. Notre-Dame and its surroundings were bathed in soft orange light. Anna and I held each other, alone among the books.
She kissed me and laughed.
“Don’t you think God’s making a strong case for us to convert?”
Odd as it seemed, I’d almost come to expect one or two moments like those would creep into my thorough plans, and yet we were already halfway through our honeymoon. We continued winding our way back up the valley. Glenelg Bay and its elusive otters slowly receded behind us, and I began wondering whether I’d planned this trip too perfectly. Couldn’t I have left room on the itinerary for serendipity to strike? And where would I have left it? Somewhere between our tour of Stirling Castle and our walk through the Trossachs, where Anna was my Lady of the Lake?
At the top of the next summit, we saw a woman lying along the grassy embankment. She was on her back, knees bent in the air, mirroring her overturned mountain bike a few feet away with one wheel still spinning. A man wearing his bike helmet was running toward us from the opposite direction.
“Stop the car!” Anna said. I hit the breaks as she rolled down the window and shouted, “Are you ok?”
The woman on the ground didn’t lift her head, but yelled into the sky in her dainty British accent, “Um, I’m fine, but I think I’ve dislocated my shoulder.”
“Oh my God,” Anna said. We both got out of the car as the man with the helmet reached the woman and gasped, “Oh my, are you hurt?” His round glasses were foggy and he had the cheeks and mouth of a chipmunk.
“I’m afraid so,” the woman on the ground replied. “I can’t feel my shoulder, actually. It’s quite numb.” She didn’t seem to be bleeding, but her bare arms were all scraped up. She’d managed to free herself of her backpack, which was lying a few feet away.
“Is there anything we can do?” Anna asked.
“Can we drive you to the hospital?” I followed.
Anna narrowed her green eyes at me and shrugged. It wasn’t a look that chastised me for offering complete strangers a ride in the middle of a foreign countryside; rather, she was acknowledging what I already knew: I didn’t have the foggiest idea where the nearest hospital was.
Fortunately for us, the woman on the ground said, “I don’t think it would be good to move just now.”
Two other cars stopped behind us, unable to pass. A homely woman with a blue handkerchief wrapped around her head got out of the first car and attempted to use her cell phone, but was out of service. Then, a man stuck his head out of the rear car and called to us in a gruff voice.
“If you’ll just move your vehicle out of the way, we’ll drive into Broadford and fetch an ambulance.”
I resented the haughtiness of the driver’s command, but Anna and I jumped back into our car nonetheless. We pulled forward another fifty feet or so to the next layby. Both cars behind us sped off down the road.
“What else can we do for her?” I asked, watching the two cars disappear around the bend.
“Maybe you should go back and offer them some food,” Anna said, rooting around in the back seat. All that we had to offer though was an orange, a couple of power bars, and some Cadbury chocolate.
“Here,” I shouted, running back up to the couple. “We brought you some food.”
“Thanks,” said the man, still wearing his helmet as he covered the woman on the ground in brown towels to keep her warm. “Mind if I run down and grab my bike?”
As I stood alone with the woman on the ground, I got a clear view of the valley for the first time, now that I wasn’t distracted by the threat of oncoming lorries. The stream at the bottom meandered past an entire forest I hadn’t noticed before, blanketing our side of the valley in an even deeper shade of green than the grass. The woman on the ground was looking at all of this upside down.
“My name’s Sarah,” she said suddenly.
“Well, it’s nice to meet you,” she said. “I’m terribly sorry that I can’t make eye contact while speaking to you.”
“That’s okay,” I said. I fought back a smile at her sense of propriety, until I remembered she couldn’t see me and I nearly started to laugh.
“We’re up here on holiday,” she continued. “Our first one away from our children. Beautiful country, don’t you think?”
“Sure is,” I said, beginning to feel like I was talking to the entire valley: the sheep, Glenelg Bay, the mysterious otters, and the Highlands beyond. “We’re on our honeymoon, my wife and I.”
“Oh dear,” Sarah said, as her husband returned to us on bike. “I hope I haven’t ruined it for you.”
Anna and I spent the rest of the ride amazed by Sarah’s strength and amused by her stereotypical British decorum. When we finally arrived at the B&B, we told our proprietor about the incident, and she phoned the ambulance driver, who, as it turned out, lived next door. We heard that help was en route, but nothing more.
A few weeks later, after we returned from our honeymoon, I received an email with a subject line that read: “Sarah White Says Thanks”. While I hadn’t forgotten the incident, I certainly didn’t recognise the name immediately. Sarah had written to reiterate her gratitude. Apparently, she put an “advert” in the Highland Free Press in order to track us down and thank us for helping her. Our B&B proprietor answered her ad.
Although the rest of our honeymoon exceeded our expectations, it was the story of stopping to help Sarah White that we told and retold to friends and family members. While a bicyclist with a dislocated shoulder didn’t hold the same lustre as a Costa Rican waterfall or a rainbow over the Seine, it was the first unanticipated challenge Anna and I faced as a married couple.
Z. P. Heller is a writer, editor and professor. A portion of his début novel, In Your Head, won the 2012 Katherine Paterson Prize for YA Literature and was published in Hunger Mountain. His writing has also appeared in UPI, The Huffington Post, The Nation, The American Prospect, AlterNet, The Philadelphia Inquirer and Columbia, among other publications. Currently, he lives in Philadelphia with his wife, daughter and dog.
Photo by the author