I made it. In a car, driving on the opposite side of the road, over two and a half hours north to a tiny cottage in the Highlands, just twenty minutes from my beloved Invergarry.
Invergarry is the place where the MacDonald line I am a part of originates (MacDonnell of GlenGarry. Invergarry was their stronghold, their homeland. They even had a castle overlooking one of the many lakes. It's all ruins now, but it's one of my ancestral homelands. In 2013 I was able to spend three days there, much to the surprise of the local hostel proprietors because there isn’t really anything in Invergarry.
There’s a gas station. Two hotels. A river. A lake. And a convenience store. There’s also a creepy monument called the Well of the Seven Heads.
But I didn’t care. This was the land of my lineage. It became my favorite place. A cherished land. Some dreamy idyllic place I could (and would) return to with its greenery and waterways.
I wanted my ashes spread there. I wanted to forever be returned to this place.
Fast forward to 2016. I’m getting my plans together for my European journey. I find a cottage to stay in near Invergarry. I book it. 14 nights this time. It (and the subsequent car rental) become the most expensive part of my trip. But I tell myself it’s worth it. I’m going home.
The first day I spend hiking on my beloved ancestral land is chilly and rainy but my heart swells and my body feels clear.
On the third day, Friday, it is warm, sunny, the smell of summer still lingering in the air, even though we’re in a deep turn toward autumn. I hear a bird and look up through tall and lanky pine trees. Then I see it. A flash of brown. A hawk, gloriously and silently soaring through the tree line.
This is it, I think. This is my heaven on earth.
Lush forest. Green moss, ferns, trees, a river nearby. Wildlife. Beautiful.
And in this beauty, I am not ignorant to the fact that I have chosen to wear yoga pants this day and my sneakers. Not long pants or hiking shoes. I didn’t bring those in my one red backpack.
I am not ignorant to the tall grass or the fact that I felt compelled to cross slippery stones over a stream to get to a part of the trail that’s been effectively closed off by a fallen tree. I love these woods.
But I don’t love the thing that lives in woods like these.
Four letters that instill the same kind of fear in me that I had when I was in the 6th grade and was convinced I was going to get a brain tumor. Or when I was in 10th grade and wanted to somehow turn my insides out and drain any remaining cow meat from those Mickey D’s burgers I ate with relish from childhood until I was 14 (at which point I’m pretty sure seeing the baby cockroach running across the wall as I ate Chicken Nuggets at a McDonald’s in Japan did me in. That or the food poisoning). Fast Food Nation taught me about Mad Cow Disease. And it’s human counterpart: Cruetzfeldt-Jakob Disease.
But in my late twenties, I learned about another disease. Lyme Disease. I learned about it from my friends who have it. Who live with it.
Who knew that one tiny bite from one tiny insect could cause things like paralysis, neurological disorders, food allergies, chemical sensitivities, and so much more. Treatment, if you’re lucky enough to find a doctor who believes you have Lyme (it’s still really hard to diagnose; it’s often confused for other diseases) is very expensive. It can become chronic. My friends can have insurmountable fatigue. A good day can turn into a bad day if there’s even a trace of mold in a house they enter. I could go on.
So. My favorite place in the whole world. It’s sunny. I’m checking my legs every now and then (just in case). I’m extremely happy. I feel like I made the right decision to come here.
But my beloved Scotland can’t seem to let me experience it without some trial and tribulation. Last time, it was my journey to Tiree.
This time it was the tick.
I found it above my left breast Saturday morning while I was taking a shower, well within 24 hours of my hike. I didn’t know it was a tick. I’ve never seen one in the flesh. (Terrible pun, I know.)
It was a small black bug attached to my skin. It didn’t really move when I tried to flick it off. I panicked. I thought it might be a tick. But any thought about the tick head in skin thing went out the window. I easily pulled it off, saw its wriggling legs and let it go. Down the drain.
Then my body started to shake. I scanned the rest of my body as best that I could but found nothing else.
A blurry twenty minute car ride brought me to the local hospital in Fort William where I was told by a kind nurse who didn’t examine the spot (in truth, there was nothing to see but a small red area) that they couldn’t do anything for me unless I showed symptoms like the famed bullseye mark, but there are other symptoms that aren’t visible. I’ll be watching out for those over the next month.
I left the hospital, a Fact Sheet in hand, sans antibiotics. Nothing to do but "wait and see." I closed the car door, sat in the driver's seat, and let some of that initial fear go through heaving tears.
How could this happen? I was careful. No, I was stupid. I shouldn’t have gone off trail. But I checked my legs. I should have showered right away. How did it get on my breast? Did it fall from my hair?
Then I remembered the wood pile in the cottage for the fireplace that I haven't touched because I haven't found it cold enough to need.
I had been doing yoga on the carpet near the wood piles. Saturday morning I had done some stretches laying on my stomach on the ground. Could it have been there, silently waiting for me? Perhaps that’s why it was so easy to get it off mere minutes later. Maybe. This becomes a more pleasing idea, mere minutes, because I've read that the rate of infection becomes much lower if it isn't on/in you for "too long."
Today is Wednesday. I’m no less relieved than I was Saturday, though grateful that it’s no longer on my skin.
I’m trying to accept the fact that I can only wait and see. The good news is that I know where it was (I pulled it off), how long it had potentially been there, and that it’s early to treat it (if I will need treatment).
While I was staying in Invergarry in 2013, I had a nightmare. It was about ticks, all over my legs and a doctor pulling them off (and out) with tweezers. He got them all, except one that got in. It was like the game Operation. But with green, yellow, and red faces. One red face and the buzzer went off.
I woke up on a bottom bunk in a six bed room that night. Terrified.
I’ve never had a tick dream since then. Never had one before. But the whole thing becomes truly eerie when I consider the place I had the dream. Invergarry.
I’m in the Highlands until early Monday morning. In many ways, Monday can’t come fast enough. But from another perspective, I must go through this, as I do life. I have to choose how to handle this. Never hike again? Keep checking my skin? Keep freaking out by that intermittent feeling there? Or: always dress appropriately. Watch out for wood piles. Check all parts of my skin as a precautionary measure after being outside.
I no longer want to have my ashes spread here in Invergarry. And while I'm glad I'm here, it isn't my home. It's familiarity and joy come from honoring my ancestry, because that's important to me, and from the natural beauty that is this place.
I don't want to live in "heaven on earth," either. I'm still human. Heaven is the AfterLife. I'm in this life. I have work to do here. And while maybe the tick is a reminder for me of many things I've yet to unpack, surelyone of those things is that Invergarry isn't devoid of potential trials and tribulations, of complete safety.
No place is wholly safe.
And no place is wholly dangerous either.
I am surprisingly content in knowing that I'll soon be returning to North America and completely by my own choice. Where I go from there and where I land, so to speak, is less concrete. But for now my work isn't "over here." It isn't for the ancestors. It's for the future generations. For these generations. And for me.
My bullseye is the dream. My dream. And I'll try to focus on the goals that keep me going and not the red mark that might develop on my skin in this uncomfortable waiting room.
I'll try. But walking through a great fear isn't easy.
But I'll try.