Once upon a time, I was having a very bad day. The circumstances don’t really matter, but I was suffering through an extended and involuntary visitation by a guest with a rare talent for inflicting noise upon his surroundings.
On this particular day I had reached my absolute limit. I threw a few clothes into my car and just drove away. No destination in mind, just somewhere as far away from my trespassed home as possible. Habit took me out to Interstate 5, where I headed north.
I hadn’t been on the road long before I realized that traveling a familiar route wasn’t going to scratch my itch. What I needed was to go somewhere I had never been before. Mentally and emotionally, I had an urge to scrape off the familiar and plunge into something new and unknown.
However, by the time I reached that conclusion, I was getting near San Juan Capistrano. Not much new there. And, since I grew up in Orange County, there was going to be nothing new for many, many miles if I kept on going the way I was pointing.
Problem was, I was right in the middle of a corridor that didn’t really offer many chances to change one’s mind. Somehow the notion of driving through hours of familiar Orange County followed by more hours of Los Angeles before I could break free seemed more claustrophobic than I could stand.
Then I saw a sign that said “Ortega Highway.” And I was saved. Somehow, despite all my years wandering around Southern California, I had never taken the Ortega. It was virgin territory for me. More than that, it led enticingly inland, towards…well, who knew? I felt almost giddy at the prospect. Looking at the map, I saw that it not only led inland, it connected there to yet other virgin roads that led even further in.
Why, I told myself, I’ve never been to Death Valley! Maybe this is the time.
As you can imagine, I found myself traveling the Ortega Highway. That turned out to be both good and bad. “Good,” because it soon turned into a nice, sun dappled, twisty highway, the kind I love to drive on. “Bad,” because I soon discovered I was not the only one with the happy idea of a drive on the open road. For someone who is already escaping from a person with social halitosis, being surrounded by his fellow beings in large numbers is not pleasant.
Still and all, if it was not ideal, it was at least better than what I had left and it held the promise of eventually becoming better still. I possessed my soul with patience and tried to enjoy the drive, focusing on the moving shadows and the dusty leaves blowing alongside the road.
This went on for a few miles. Until, in fact, I passed a Scotsman in full kilts standing by the side of the road.
We were moving too fast for me to see him clearly, just a flash of him standing with some other people by the road. In fact, it was gone so quickly that I found myself wondering if I had really seen some guy in full Highland rig, sporran, tam, kilts, and all, just standing beside a back-country highway in California. As I drove on, hemmed in by the formation of other vehicles, I tried to talk myself out of my little vision. Or at least to imagine some modestly rational reason why a Highlander would be standing beside my road.
I probably drove a mile further on before I realized that it just wasn’t going to work. Much as I hate retracing my steps, particularly when I am on an escape run, I just had to go back and try to find out what the heck was going on.
I should explain that I, like many who share in a Scots descent, have a bit of a thing for the place and all its odd customs and accouterments. I have owned a shirt made of Black Watch tartan and worn it to the local Highland Games. I have tried to learn to do the Highland Fling. And, perhaps most tellingly, I find bagpipe music oddly beautiful.
I know, I know. “Would someone please put that poor cat out of his misery” and a hundred other jokes. It doesn’t matter. I decided a long time ago that loving the pipes is both indefensible and needs no defense. It just is.
It’s true that over the years I have heard all the romantic stories about how the pipes used to be used by the clans as battle signalers, each clan having its own set of deeply secret codes. And I’ve heard the bloodcurdling stories of how the rival clans would try and do in each others’ pipers to rob them of their ability to maneuver in the incessant clan vs. clan wars.
I’ve listened to them all and have no idea which, if any, are true. While entertaining, they have nothing to do with the magic of the pipes. All I really know is that if you let yourself open up to it, the keening of the pipes can strike a raw and primitive chord in the psyche. If it happens, it evokes something deep down inside you. If not…
I imagine it’s like being color blind. If you can’t see the colors, no number of words can make you see. If you see them, words are unnecessary.
At any rate, that might be one of the reasons why I found myself driving back down the dusty Ortega Highway. Despite my fears, the Highland gentleman was still there, standing with some friends by the side of the road. They were at the entrance to one of those anonymous dirt roads that leads off into the chaparral. I noticed that some cars were turning off the Ortega towards the road, stopping for a few words and then driving down it and out of sight.
When I could make my turn, I pulled up next to them and asked what they were all doing there and what the occasion was. They told me that it was Gathering of the Clan Fraser. The dirt road led far inland to some property that belonged to one of the clan. They were going to meet there, have some amateur Highland Games of their own, a barbecue, and then some singing around a large fire.
It sounded like terrific fun and my envy must have shown itself on my face. One of them leaned in and informed me that for a few dollars to cover the barbecue, I could be let in as an honorary member of the clan.
Needless to say, in a few seconds I was driving down that road. It turned out to be one heck of an afternoon and evening. I was adopted by a family and shared their day, rooting for their cousins in the games (by the way, lots more fun when it is totally amateur and everybody knows everyone else), and drinking some remarkably strong homemade beer in the evening.
But that’s not what I remember best. What I remember was that drive inland.
It turned out that the Fraser property was miles away, on one of the driest and dustiest roads I have ever been on. The country was typical chaparral, a rolling landscape of scrub oak, punctuated with enormous granite boulders. Because every car raised an enormous cloud of dust, we spaced ourselves far enough apart that each might have been alone were it not for the smell of dust that lingered long after the air cleared. You could almost imagine yourself so alone that a breakdown would leave you stranded, far from water or help. Because let me tell you, that landscape was about as hard and bleak as you can imagine.
Then it happened. Over the sound of my engine I thought I heard the sound of pipes.
At first it was so faint I wasn’t sure I wasn’t imagining it. Next I thought I must be getting close to the Gathering and was hearing someone there.
Instead, I saw a vision.
Maybe a hundred yards off the road, standing all alone in the middle of the scrub oak, on one of the granite boulders, was a lone piper, simply playing. In full kilts, silhouetted against the sky, he wasn’t even looking at the road. He was just there. Playing.
I slowed down, as much I suppose because I seemed to be his lone audient as for any other reason: it seemed only polite. But he ignored me, and just kept on playing to the chaparral.
It was startling and, I suppose, wildly inappropriate to hear the pipes echoing across a barren hunk of California outback, but it didn’t seem that way. In fact, I have never found a place where the pipes seem to fit more naturally.
I drove on, listening to him fade behind me. But the road twisted and turned, and soon I heard the sound of the pipes rising again.
But it wasn’t him. Instead, it was another lone piper, standing all by himself on a boulder far off the road, playing to himself and the emptiness all around him.
And that’s the way it was all the rest of the way. Every once in a while I’d see, far off the road, a lone piper. They taught me something about the pipes I have never forgotten. I had loved them for years, as a ancient instrument, grand and a bit primitive. But I had never really understood the part of it that clashes with our modern, soft world. Let me tell you that if you really want to appreciate the bagpipes, you have to hear them playing defiantly to a world as hard, barren, and barbaric as the one they were born in.