I almost didn't get to see this view.
(My window on the ferry crossing the North Sea, August, 2010)
We had driven almost 400 miles that day, from the remote wilds of Yorkshire to the coast of Aberdeen, Scotland in order to catch a 5pm ferry to the Shetland Islands. We arrived at the ferry terminal an hour early and did a collective high-five. And then...
I canna see that ye hae purchased a ticket for your car.
Oh, but we did. Months ago. (handing him a paper) Here's the confirmation.
(Long beat) I'm afraid it didna go through. Ye will hae to wait oot in the office tae see if the're any cancellations. But the ferry is bungful today. It daena look good.
The idea of our dream ending because of a stupid computer error is shattering. We have been dreaming about the Shetland Islands for months.
For half an hour, we slump on stiff plastic chairs in the ferry terminal and watch car after car board the ferry. The ferry clerk, a dead ringer for Susan Boyle, steadfastly avoids eye contact with us.
She disappears down a hallway. Our hopes crumble.
She returns, sits down at her desk, rearranges some papers, and stares at her nails. Minutes pass. Then, she looks at us and imperceptibly nods. In her hand is a little white ticket.
We race to our car and are immediately surrounded by beefy crewmen in yellow rubber raingear. "Hurry! Ye maesn't didder! It's gaena depairt!"
We drive on and within seconds, the hatch rises. We are the last car on.
Goodbye, Aberdeen. I hardly got to know ye.
Our berth is petite Scandinavian perfection. Luca is ecstatic over the little night light by his bed.
We eat an astoundingly large portion of fish and chips in the cafeteria upstairs...
...and then crawl into bed for the 14-hour crossing. I fall asleep instantly.
In the morning, I head up on deck to catch a first glimpse of Mainland, the largest of the Shetland Islands. There are over 100 islands in all, huddled together in the Atlantic Ocean between Orkney, Iceland and Norway.
(View of Mainland, Shetland Islands, August 2010)
It's like a Lego town come to life. The gorgeous weather lends the buildings a supernatural crispness.
( Mainland, Shetland Islands, August 2010)
(Mainland, Shetland Islands, August 2010)
Once out of Lerwick (the main town or "burgh"), we are immediately apprised that this is not your average island.
We stop and let the kids run free. They are off like a shot.
Everywhere we turn, there is something to take your breath away. This tumbledown croft, fetchingly surrounded with flowering bushes, is a charming fusion of old and older.
We drive on. For miles, there's nothing but stark green landscape and the occasional ruined prehistoric Bronze Age settlement. I begin to experience selective geographic amnesia: Los Angeles? Where's that?
Out of nowhere, we are treated to the bizarre sight of a red phone booth in the middle of an abandoned pasture.
We park the car and go for a long hike along the coast and picnic on a peak (visible in the left corner of the photo). I feel as though I've been dropped into an Enid Blyton "Famous Five" book.
Afterwards, we drive to the northernmost point of Mainland and take a 20 minute ferry ride to the Island of Yell. (Yes, I got my yell. It exploded with exhilaration and gratefulness and contained within it a spiritual shout-out to all of you.)
Driving north through Yell, we board another ferry to the isle of Unst where we will be staying the night.
On the way to our hotel, another surprise: a bus shelter/art installation in the middle of absolutely nowhere.
(Unst bus shelter)
It even has its own website.
That night we stay at the Baltasound Hotel, officially "the northernmost hotel in the United Kingdom." A semi-circle of red log cabins perches on the edge of a panoramic inlet. Even at 10pm it was enchantingly light out, a Shetland Islands phenomenon known as "the simmer dim."
(Baltasound Hotel, Unst, August 2010)
The next morning, we head north for a few miles, get delightfully lost and end up parking our car near a remote farmhouse that abuts the North Sea.
We get out of the car and do a doubletake. On a fence in front of us hangs a lone sweatshirt emblazoned with the word, "California."
We climb over a turnstile and head out to sea.
The waves of the Burrafirth lap against the shore, the children clamber over rocks and hunt for exotic treasures and my friends and I try to forever imprint the memory of this scene on our souls. Los Angeles is a lifetime -- and then some -- away.
On the way back, we spot a Viking ship being built by the side of the road, in preparation for next February's Fire Festival called "Up-Helly-Aa." Local men build replicas of ancient vessels, drag them through the towns and burn them as a pagan homage to their Norse heritage. (They're growing their beards now.)
All too soon, it's time to catch the ferry back to Scotland. Goodbye, Shetland ponies.
Your quilted moors, your remote dignity and your enchanted light will remain in my veins.