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Borders and Pennines–time to relax

29 May

Photo 2023-05-07 21.10.43So, following the intensity of the Aberdeen to Edinburgh Dundee ride, I booked myself into youth hostels to break the journey back down. First stop, Kirk Yetholm, an associate hotel just north of the border and the end of the Pennine Way – and start of the Scottish National Trail. Time to relax.

The mist had followed me down, but I wasn’t planning on cycling anyway – a mooch round Kelso and a cup of coffee back at the hostel were enough. I was somewhat disturbed by the presence in my room of a very lifelike toy otter though.

The following day, I set off on the drive down to Langdon Beck in Teesdale. I rejoined the A68, which is one of my favourite roads in the country.. almost unnaturally straight for the most part, with little hamlets and the most extraordinary hidden crests and dips, like a rollercoaster with added views.

Photo 2023-05-10 12.50.49Langdon Beck is almost unbelievably isolated though – miles from the nearest town and completely invisible to cellphone signals. Time to reflect, to dream, to plan.. and time to get back on the bike. A 12km ride (downhill all the way!) took me to Middleton in Photo 2023-05-10 13.07.24Teesdale for coffee and essential supplies. Rather than ride back up the same road, I crossed the Tees and rode back up through little farming villages  to eventually recross it at Low Force waterfall.

Photo 2023-05-10 13.06.40Photo 2023-05-10 12.54.17

Photo 2023-05-10 12.54.17
The next day I felt sufficiently recovered to set out on a big ride again – but the weather was having none of it. I got about 10k up the valley before deciding it wasn’t worth it.

The next day saw me back in the car and on the way home. Somewhere I had managed to lose the protective packing for my bike rack…so some creative packing was needed to prevent it destroying my paintwork!

Adventures over, and time to regroup for the next one. I wonder what I should do next?


Two men, two bikes, and a small dragon named Trevor

28 May

Or: Aberdeen to Edinburgh – the 2023 bikepacking adventure

So my eldest son Davey is a keen gravel biker – in fact he’s taking part in the Edinburgh to Manchester ride in June this year. I love cycling too, so it made sense that we make a holiday out of it. Last year we bike packed across Norfolk in a loop from Thetford to Gt Yarmouth and back. This time – Scotland and mountains.

Photo 2023-05-05 08.04.43I’d decided to upgrade my riding experience with a new bike so with a little expert advice from Davey I took delivery of a new Sonder gravel bike: the luggage necessary for the trip nearly didn’t make it, but I managed to assemble everything in time, and drove up to Edinburgh to set out Photo 2023-05-07 16.44.52on the train up to Aberdeen. I was accompanied on the journey by a small dragon that I’d been given.. but looking at the weather, I didn’t think the wee guy would survive, so he was left to guard the car.

Photo 2023-05-05 19.31.19We got off to a slow start – a valve failure in Davey’s bike meant that we had to visit a cycle shop before we could stat out – and meant that we had to check in on the way too just to make sure it was OK. But finally we got going, and set off down the Deeside path  A gentle enough start to Photo 2023-05-05 16.53.59the day, although it wasn’t long before we were climbing through pine forests. Logging operations forced us to turn round, and the uneven terrain soon had me adjusting my cycle pack to stop it rubbing on the rear tyre.

We realised we needed a detour to get more water, so having stuffed as many bottles into pockets and bags as we could, and knowing we were running late, we set off on the climb into the Cairngorms. Tarmac and hard packed gravel soon turned into loose scree and a rocky trail that was almost unrideable. We were heading for a valley between two peaks, with a pretty serious climb, Photo 2023-05-05 20.00.53but somewhere we took a wrong turning and instead of heading through the valley, we climbed one of the peaks instead. One in three slopes found us pushing the bikes across mist covered moorland – it wouldn’t have been so bad if we could actually see a view from the peak!

We reached the peak in daylight, giving thanks for the longer hours of summer daylight in Northern Scotland, but the surface was so poor we had to walk down the other side until we rejoined the original trail.. and even then it was tough going. Rather than risk falling off in the middle of a ford we carried the bikes round that as well – it felt like we’d walked more than cycled. And then night fell. The birds continued their fascinating chiroing and calling, adding texture and interest to the evening. Eventually, we cycled into the camp site and pitched tents. after 11 hours on the road. only then did I realise that the camping mat hadn’t made it into my bags. It was going to be an uncomfortable few nights…

Photo 2023-05-05 19.31.24The mist hadn’t cleared the next day, but at least the ride was a merciful downhill towards Arbroath. I rapidly became an expert on Scottish dry stone walling, as it was pretty much all we could see. Occasionally a herd of sheep or a cow or two would relieve the monotonous view.. although we were grateful it wasn’t actually raining. Some of the downhill runs were fabulous, Photo 2023-05-07 12.11.15and a gloriously flat seaside trail from Arbroath to Carnoustie had our spirits soaring – even if the overall effect was of cycling through a horror film set. Vacant playgrounds rose up from the mists, and ancient castles loomed large and menacing from the murk. Even the sea views were hidden by the haar (see mist).

Photo 2023-05-06 19.02.27Eventually we turned inland to the camp site, although a promised steep climb failed to materialise.. a blessing for tired legs  This was a more civilised camp site – with entertainment in the form of a guitar and bongos duo and running water on tap.

Rising the next day we decided it was time to call it a day. The mist and rain was making it hard work, and the lack of views to lift our spirits and create interest was just making the ride boring and dull. We resolved to ride to Dundee and catch the train. Disappointment heaped on disappointment when we found the doughnut shop was closed.

So, we failed to make it to our destination, but we had done a god bit of riding, tested our kit out, and spent some time together. To my mind that counts as a win.

So, two men, two bikes, two tents, one sleeping , mat, no tiny dragon named Trevor, and a ride from Aberdeen to Edinburgh Dundee. Time for a few days to rest my legs…but that’s another story.

So. Many. Hills.

26 Oct

Portree Loop Ride (21)Today was the big one. The day to really push the envelope, and hopefully not push the bike. I’ve been in South Skye so far, but I really wanted to push up to the north, and set my sights on Portree. But just cycling up there would be too easy, wouldn’t it?

So as well as cycling up the coast to Portree on the east coast, I added in an extra loop to the west coast as well. Crazy, I know. Portree is the main town and port on Skye, so it made sense to get up there.. but I was pretty certain there was lots to see and experience on the way!

Portree Loop Ride (13)Portree Loop Ride (6)

The nagging puncture seemed to have calmed down, so I set off north with a spring in my step. When you’re cycling out and back you tend to take note of the hills… ‘that’ll be nice to come back down’ and ‘not looking forward to that on the way back’. You’d think that a coastal path would make life easy, but the geography of Skye had other plans! Northern Skye is volcano territory, long extinct, but the towering caldera pepper the skyline, the clouds sometimes forming a teddy boy’s quiff over the edge, at other times a badly fitting toupee.

Portree Loop Ride (15)I made my way over the first hill, past the desolate island of Scalpay, and over the headland to a welcome descent into Sligachan and the old bridge. Which is where I turned inland, headed for the west coast. Autumn seems a superb time to visit – the summer crowds have disappeared, as have the midges, and the roads are quiet. Autumn colours are vivid browns, with heather holding on to its colour while bracken and fern – and trees – create a stunning palette of browns and oranges. I cross miles of peat, the hedgerows of broom and gorse.

Portree Loop Ride (7)A slow climb leads to a drop into Struan harbour – I am briefly tempted by a trip to the Talisker distillery. Wiay island sits out in the bay but I turn inland, headed for Portree at last. These are narrow lanes, impassable in winter. I find a new hazard – cowpats. Although the cows are relaxed and calm as I pass, the sheep are skittish and can’t be trusted not to run in front of me.

Portree Loop Ride (9)Finally, I drop into Portree. Nothing much to write home about, but time for coffee and a sandwich. I have ridden 60km. A trip to the isle of Raasay (more distilleries) tempts me but it is a bit late now.. and as I ascend the long steep climb out, the nagging puncture finally makes itself known in no uncertain terms. I stop by the side of the road and attempt a repair, but the patches aren’t sticking. I replace the tube, and cycle on.

The hills are calmer now, and I realise that my hostel isn’t quite as far as the route tells me. I cycle gratefully up… my legs ache and I wish I had remembered the padded shorts. I make this 105km. Which I think is my longest single day ride ever.

I have managed so far without incident.. until today. I cycled up on to a pavement in search of dinner, but forgot (come on, I have just cycled 60+ miles) the requisite bunnyhop to hop onto the kerb. Net result, the bike stopped dead, and I toppled gently into the gutter. #novideoeveidence

This is the last day on Skye – tomorrow I must cycle across the bridge… and away.


Skye’s the limit . .

25 Oct

To Broadford (2)I’d suffered from deflating tyres on the way over to Broadford, so I resigned myself to having to fix that.. but in turns out that the Slime in the tyres had done its job so I set off on the first of my little rides out – a straightforward 50km out and back to Elgol. My ride the previous day hadn’t really prepared me for what was in store. Absolutely unbelievably Elgol Ride (12)stunning scenery that kept me on the edge of tears all day. The first 15km was fairly straightforward in the shadow of the Cuillin hills, and it descended gently into Loch Eishort and Loch Slapin, both estuaries into the Atlantic and with the island of Rùm glinting across the water. A food van was plying its trade on the banks of the water and it would seem rude to cycle past without a breakfast roll and a cup of tea.

Elgol Ride (7)Thus fortified, I began the climb up towards Elgol. Alternating between wild downhills and tough climbs, I finally made it past the sheep and cattle that littered the road and into Elgol (more properly Ealaghol – it does seem rude that we have anglicised the original Gaelic place names). The village proper is at the top of a hill (the word ‘hill’ does not really do justice to the brake-shredding descent to the harbour below). But down the hill I went, recognising that the brake-shredding on the way down was going to do serious damage to my legs on the way back up.

The harbour was offering trips across the water to Loch Curuisk and to the Small Isles, but I was content to just gaze out across Loch Scavaig and to the Black Cuillin over the water, just in awe of how beautifully tranquil this spot was.

Elgol Ride (3)Eventually the ride back had to be faced. I made it half way up before I had to surrender.. I think the locals were watching to see how far I made it. Apparently ‘to the cattle grid’ is good performance. The return trip seemed gentler than outbound, although as my tour had made special note of the Blue Shed café (now, bizarrely, purple) it was essential that I stopped off for coffee and cake before gently finishing my trip off and coasting into Broadford (apparently ‘Broadford’ is a more original transliteration of the original Norse ‘Breiðafjorðr’ than the Gaelic An t-Àth Leathann).

Soup and a roll finished my day off.. tired and happy again. This trip is turning out to more than exceed my expectations. I wonder what tomorrow will bring.

All points west!

21 Oct

Arrochar & Loch Lomond (56)Up early the next day for a morning ride round the other side of the loch. The part of me that needs to ride a different way back was going to be frustrated – this is a sea loch, and there’s no way to go all the way round it without a boat. But I did manage to find a nice bit of Arrochar & Loch Lomond (54)mountain biking trail on the way back, which I took with some alacrity as I realised I may not have left enough time to get to the train.

I needn’t have worried. Plenty of time to get to the station and then off on another adventure into mountains moors and lochs, This is scenery so stunning that you can’t afford to miss a moment. I was only a little distracted by the family with a slightly nervous huskie who needed a little bit of fuss so she felt better about being on a train.. To Mallaig & Ferry (28)This is a world of single track railways and tiny stations, of deep, dark forests falling away from railway lines that cling to hillsides in defiance of gravity. This is a world of railway viaducts that the Hogwarts Express would have thundered over, of grass only just hanging on the rock and stone. This is a world of towering hills, of peaty rivers and mossy banks.  A world where buzzards soar above it all, and red deer explode from the brush to hurtle across the moorland. This is a world that defies description, but can only be truly understood in person.

To Mallaig & Ferry (22)And that brought me to Mallaig. I could have rushed straight onto the ferry, but instead I opted for a little jaunt round the village, whose only real existence, beyond some fishing boats, is as the ferry terminus for Skye.

And forty-five minutes after leaving Mallaig I was in Armadale on the Isle of Skye.. and another dream was To Broadford (2)coming true. Just another 25km and a couple of steep climbs later, and I was in a youth hostel in Broadford, my home for three nights. Where, much to my surprise, and, it has to be said, the embarrassment of the proprietor, the fish and chip shop (in a fishing village) had run out of haddock.

Retracing my steps.. and beyond..

20 Oct

Arrochar & Loch Lomond (4)Once upon a time, long long ago, I used to work on a salmon farm on the west coast of Scotland. I had developed a computer system that the fishermen could use to weigh their salmon so they could decide which to keep back and which to move on. (Fun fact – did you know that they brand salmon, like they do cattle, using a nitrogen cold brand to identify them?). Anyway, that’s not really the point… but I did regularly get the overnight sleeper from Rugby to Glasgow, and then the train out past Fort William to Lochailort on the banks of (oddly enough) Loch Ailort. The hotel was the one featured in the movie ‘Local Hero’ – the host had a video recorder and one video: ‘Local Hero’.

That wasn’t the point either. But I did fall in love with the train journey – it was just mile after mile of astonishing beauty heaped on glorious wonder. And I always promised myself that I would go back one day.

Arrochar & Loch Lomond (56)So on a glorious October morning I pitched out of bed and cycled down to the station to hop a train to Glasgow and points west. It was raining by the time we left Glasgow but the scenery was unbelievable as we travelled up the side of the Clyde estuary and into the Trossachs. That took the best part of the day, so I stopped for a couple of nights in Arrochar on the banks of Loch Long (a sea loch) and a hop, skip and a jump from Loch Lomond.

Arrochar & Loch Lomond (33)And that meant I could do a bit of a bike tour while I was there. I checked trusty Komoot for local tours, and found a six hour tour that I could manage. Setting off up the banks of Loch Lomond, I was still in a state of complete awe at just how incredibly lovely it all was. The rain overnight had left rivulets of water pouring onto the road, while waterfalls had been filled and were cascading over rocky slopes. The heather and moss seemed newly fresh and vibrant, and the fact that I was cycling alongside the loch made for easy and rapid progress.

Until I hit the first hurdle. The ferry that I planned on taking across the loch to continue the journey wasn’t running. No problem, I thought. I’ll just cycle on and cross the loch higher up – when it’s just the Falloch River. It took me a good while to find that crossing, although I did manage to stop off at the falls of Falloch for a photo opportunity.

It was at this point that I realised WHY nothing crossed the river. Although I had read the map and was convinced that cycle route 7 lay on the other side of the river, it turns out that I cannot read maps properly. The other side of the river lay the mountains, Ben Lomond included, and the gravel path I found soon petered out in the West Highland trail.. rocks, peat and tiny burns running down the side of the mountain. The few hikers I met were rather surprised to see a man carrying a bicycle across a hillside, but nodded a cheery ‘hello’ – not once did I hear someone mutter ‘idiot Sassenach’ but I suspect they thought it.

I gave it my best shot, I really did – but eventually I had to surrender to the inevitable. I retraced my steps and fled across a camp site back to the west shore of the loch.

Arrochar & Loch Lomond (49)But that meant I had time to do another route that I had planned for a breakfast ride. This loop went according to plan the old road by the loch has been left for walkers and cyclists, keeping me away from the A82 and into lochside tranquillity. A tough climb into the hills led to me a gradual descent into Loch Long and back to the hotel – fighting hard to keep up with another cyclist who had rocketed past me.

Not bad for the day – 80km of riding in some of the most beautiful scenery ever. And some work on the upper body carrying the bike. I retired to the bar with a pint of Caffreys.. and slept soundly. Not in the bar, of course.

An Edinburgh Adventure

7 Aug

It’s been a long time since I went to Edinburgh to see Davey. So I was very excited to get on a train this week to head over there. Fought to get my bike in the bike racks – this is not one of the best parts of the Azuma train design: we need more space for cycles that’s easy to use. And heaven help you if you have a mountain bike.. It was hard enough getting my 34c tyres through the loops, so completely impossible if you’re running fatties.

Photo 2021-08-04 13.31.46Caught up with Davey for lunch, with coffee overlooking Arthur’s Seat and the Crags. Holyrood Park is practically Davey and Hannah’s front garden., and it’s a fabulous sight. I did a bike ride round the city in the afternoon, through the Innocent Railway tunnel, down Burnside and even got to the seaside! One thing that Davey and I share is a love for cycling. You can get Photo 2021-08-04 15.07.48out of the city really quickly, so in the evening we headed off down by the canal, carefully avoiding everyone out walking their pupper, and over to Balermo, which apparently isn’t in Italy. Then we cycled back down the Water of Leith for one hell of an evening trip. I was very ready for my Hawai’ian poké bowl for supper though! Fantastic food.Photo 2021-08-04 18.58.24

The following day disaster struck. Fortunately, I didn’t strike anything. Suffered a totally calamitous brake failure, which, at the high road round Arthur’s Seat, is not a good thing, since the only way is down. Skidded and scooted my way back to more level ground and went in search of brake pads. ‘Sintered, unsintered, organic, resin: what sort of braking experience would sir like?’ Finally managed to find somewhere that had the right ones, a quick roadside repair and I am back on the road and able to stop again. There were some interestingly scary moments there…..

Evening ride out this time was up to Blackford Hill and the Hermitage… another lovely burn side trip without too many hills, but enough exercise to work up an appetite for a vegan haggis burrito! (Vegan haggis in a burrito is one of the most wonderful Scots/world cuisine mashups ever – and it really does work!)

Photo 2021-08-04 18.28.34Photo 2021-08-04 18.05.38

A quick pootle around town the next day (with time to get a cinnamon bun from 101 Bakery which was almost ridiculously excellent), a wander round bits of the Fringe festival, and back on the train. It’s been so good to be back in a city I love with a son that I just don’t see often enough.

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Aviemore Alliteration

7 Jun

(My apologies for the delay in posting this.. it got buried after my visit in May. And my apologies for the poor pictures – I managed to forget to charge my camera before leaving)

   I have two sons. One of them lives across town from me. Close enough that I can walk his lurcher, Ripley.. of which more another day, perhaps. The other one… he lives in Edinburgh. Which is MILES away. Which means I have a perfect excuse to go up to Scotland four or five times a year. Hop on a train in Peterborough… hop off at Waverley station. Piece of cake.

And one of my goals for 2018 is to have more adventures. So rather than just visiting Davey and his girlfriend, wandering the streets of Edinburgh, drinking lots of coffee and coming home again, which is all very nice.. it was time for an adventure. And time for some thoughtful space. And to have a little fun. And perhaps do a little alliteration on the way. Because alliteration actually aids amusing anecdotes….God forgive me….

Moggies, Meandering and the Macabre

Edinburgh May (9)So first off, having walked to work with D, I had the morning to myself. I had wanted to visit the Cat Café in Edinburgh for a while. So I spent an hour in the company of a dozen assorted ragdolls, Norwegian forest cats, Siamese and more ( all with their own fabulous space, lots of toys and lots of space to hide. Being around animals has the not unsurprising effect of making me deeply deeply happy, and this bunch of somewhat dismissive felines with their ‘another day, another human’ approach to their day had me very much comfortable with my life.


Edinburgh Feb (20)I spent the rest of the afternoon following the footsteps of grave robbers Burke and Hare round Edinburgh city centre – there is a wonderful trail at which is well researched and brilliantly written, if slightly disturbing. OK, very disturbing.. especially when you get to the end. Apparently Burke’s skeleton is on display at Edinburgh Anatomy museum. Who knew?

Magic, Musing and Merlin

Day 2 had me climbing Arthur’s Seat. It’s one of my favourite spaces in Edinburgh, and although my preferred access route is a steep and rocky climb, the views of the city are exceptional, and the sky was clear, even if I did get the sense that I might get blown off the side of the hill if I wasn’t careful. I took a little side trip to Merlin’s Chair, the second summit, a space I have always loved, and often spend time just sitting here… and found myself getting insight and understanding as to what was coming up next for me.. as the wind blew all the dust and cobwebs out of my head. Good job I have no hair…

Edinburgh May (7)Edinburgh May (8)

And then, after helping polish off a 20" pizza (something which requires extra care when manoeuvring it through doorways) I bid adieu to the Edinburgh clan and headed off on the train to Aviemore, deep in the heart of the Scottish highlands. Train travel is a wonderful way to get around, and I watched rapt as mountains and lochs, burns and seaviews unfolded in front of me. There’s still snow on the top of the Cairngorms, but the spring foliage makes everywhere look truly fabulous, deep greens contrasting with the lighter and brighter colours to create a canopy of colour, while here and there blossom dotted the valleys.Aviemore (8)Aviemore (11)

Falcons, Forests and Futures

And so into Aviemore. Having made my bed up in the hostel, it was time for a wander. I discovered that I was about 300m from the Craigellachie Nature Reserve – a haven of tranquillity and beauty a few yards from the busy A9. And then a wander round the woods and trails that orbit Aviemore itself, finding myself drawn into a deeper and deeper sense of peace and calm – a tranquil sense that not only was everything all right with my world, but that changes coming up in my life, while not yet fully clear, would add even more to that complete certainty of the perfection of everything. A few minutes conversation with the cows, and then I found myself being entertained by the swoops and and cries of a family of peregrine falcons, fuelling delight and happiness at a perfect evening.

Aviemore (2)Aviemore (4)

And so back to the hostel, armed with supplies for breakfast. I wonder what I will do tomorrow!

Munros, Mountains and Memories

It seemed like a jolly good plan to get on the bus for Cairn Gorm mountain centre. This half hour journey has to be the best value on the planet as it winds uphill from the Spey past lochs and pine forests, deeper and deeper into the Cairngorm mountain area. And all for £4.35 return.

On arrival, I only planned to wander a little way up and then take a leisurely saunter back past the loch. I wasn’t actually going to climb the darned thing! But a wander up the mountain side, through the eerily still and silent ski lifts and poma tows seduced me to go that little bit further.. until I found myself climbing the ridge route up to the peak, and trailing past trickling burns, now quieter after the majority of the snow had melted – and tramping across the snow that remained, snow that had drifted deep (followed by an attack of vertiginous panic which led me to take a different route). Then I just wanted to see where the funicular railway went. Then I found a rope climb path to the peak. It would have been rude not to try, especially as the folk who’d taken the easy route up on the funicular weren’t allowed to…

The Aviemore (12)view from the top was spectacular, although I have to confess that heights do make me slightly nervous… a state which was ramped up when, while eating my lunch, the Heriot-Watt automated weather station started its 2pm measurements, the resulting jump in the air causing my day to top out at about 1247m above sea level.

Aviemore (18)Having escaped the visitor centre (I swear, there’s no way out if you’re a walker without going past the ‘Staff Only’ signs) I ambled back down. I swear down is harder. If I had a snowboard, I could have run the remaining snow down in a couple of minutes, but I was forced down the zigzags of the green routes. On the way I was somewhat surprised to make the acquaintance of a couple of ptarmigan, also out for a stroll, who I christened Pterry and Pteresa. (One of my friends has a ptabby cat called Ptolemy, a fact which always makes me happy).

Aviemore (22)Aviemore (20)

Although my delight at the achievement was somewhat reduced by realising that I had only walked 6km according to the satellites…

Trees, train tracks and trekking

So, the next day I havered over the possibility of renting a bike. I havered too much. Having walked across town to discover that the bike rental shop was closed on Sunday operating from their down town location near my hostel, I decided to walk.

I met the local weather forecaster on my way out of town, and he wasn’t wrong.Aviemore (24)

Fortunately, it cheered up.

Scotland has the unique ability of making something which in England would be dull and flat into an exciting trail, so with the Cairngorms to my right and the Highlands to my left, I trAviemore (26)omped through pine forests, only occasionally overtaken by mountain bikers. I realised also that I absolutely love pictures of paths, a fact which is [a] convenient, because I am usually on one and [b] enlightening..everyone’s on a journey…) Every now and again the Aviemore (28)Speyside steam train would puff past, full of jolly tourists.. I can’t help thinking they were missing the real fun of being close to nature.

Having reached Boat of Garten, the only solution was to turn round and walk back.. this time on the wrong side of the tracks. My feet struggled with every step, but the route I had taken led me up and down through woods and moorland. At one point I saw a family of red deer in the distance, out for an evening stroll.

And so back to the bunkhouse… feeling an insane amount of joy as I removed my aching and (it has to be said) somewhat ridiculously soggy boots.

Return, relaxing and rebooting

And so back to Edinburgh – a three hour trip again through gorgeous scenery as mountains seemed to amble past my window, as streams and rivers unfolded beneath viaducts and bridges and sheep played in the sun. And then the luxury of a First Class seat back to Peterborough. Something has shifted inside me… a Rubicon has been crossed and the last couple of days have made more of a difference to me than I know. Exactly how that plays out over the next few weeks, I am yet to learn. But something significant has changed in the depths of my being, and it feels like life is rebooting…

More adventures this year!

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