Adventure Writing

Death Valley Trip – Big Bell Mine (Part 1)

The Sonoran Pass, just north of Yosemite, is not just the link between the western and eastern Sierra, it is the divide between a California that, while beautiful and glamorous, is also regimented, civilized and predictable.  The eastern side is dramatic and austere; sometimes severe, sometimes tender, but always bubbling with the potential for adventure.

The eastern side is a siren with a wry and mischievous grin, inviting you to explore with her, but only if you’re willing to get dirty and greasy.  The other side is your dolled up wife, who wants to wear her dress at dinner parties and flips you shit for taking your shoes off when you come in the house.

The pass’s geography itself is a Checkpoint Charlie, symbolically reflecting this west versus east divide.  A just a handful of miles from the pass, the granite boulders shoot up through the trees, daring anything living to challenge their perches.  Snow capped peaks surrounding the pass stand over the top of you, demanding not just to see your papers, but to prove you’ve left the ways of the other side behind.  The East Germans who dodged machine gun fire, barbed wire and dogs were committed to their conversion.  Mine was much more mild: I turned on the airplane mode on my phone and turned up Van Halen.

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I was more than willing to leave Western California behind me.  2014 was a dam of expectations that burst all over my hopes and dreams.  It left me broke, exhausted and gripping to my last strand of faith, holding on for dear life.  I’d put all my money into my business and it just wasn’t coming back.  It had gotten so bad, I had to work a late, 3 am shift at a local bar cleaning up piss and puke just to buy a pair of hiking shoes for this trip.  I wore the last ones down to the point where the soles fell off.  I had used up the duct tape on my last houseguest, so it was time to spring for new ones.  The Tuesday before we started our trip, the grizzled manager told me that they wouldn’t need me anymore.  Yes, I had been shitcanned from my piss and puke disposal job.

After driving down 395 for about 20 minutes, I just turned off the cruise control and steadily increased my speed until hitting 90 miles-an-hour.  The mountains above approved, but the California Highway Patrol wouldn’t.  A ticket here would sap my previous month’s paycheck.  I no longer cared.  Death Valley was only a couple hours away and I hoped that Buford T. Justice would be busy chasing a black Trans Am, instead of my suburban blue, Subaru Outback rental.

“Why Death Valley?”

My dates eyes were kind, but her mind partially there and her heart elsewhere.  A question born of small talk and mild curiosity on a first date about a month prior.

For questions like this, I always hoped I could find a response with the brevity and depth of a George Mallory, “Because it’s there.”  So insightful, yet brooding.  It would then dazzle my inquisitor, who would be charmed by more than just the reflection of my bald head.  But the truth is, my real motivations aren’t that interesting.  I just find the place pretty fucking cool.

“Because it is fucking cool.”

“Oh, Romeo.  Thine reputation for pillow talk precedes you.”

On Day 1, I woke Greg up just as the full moon was setting over the Panamint Mountains and the was sun rising over the Funeral Mountains.  He was more interested in Death Valley than my date.  We had a ghost town and abandoned mine to find and explore.  It was a safe bet that we had a much higher enthusiasm for getting there than those that worked up there a hundred years ago.

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Are you interested in reading about the “exquisite cuisine” that I delightfully cooked up that morning “to the delight of our tastebuds?”  Me neither.  People that detail their breakfast on trips sit at Defcon Bore Level 2.  I almost dozed off even trying to remember what we ate that morning.  My fingers fell asleep yptaain….fasj .ljaljdsf…  I mean, “typing that sentence.”

A quick vignette:

Here’s an important equation to learn: Metallica + Few Cops + 20 miles of Perfect Visibility in all directions + Perfectly Paved and Mostly Straight Roads = Driving Speeds Matching the Speed of Sound.  The problem is, when you go in the opposite direction of where you need to be, you’re almost in Canada when you realize it.  For as much research and detail that I put into route planning and finding our remote objectives, I was relying on my memory from 6 years earlier to navigate the roads.  An old fashioned analog map told me, like an idiot, that I turned down the wrong road.  But we got to listen to a couple of extra Metallica songs.

Death Valley has a colorful past of ruffians, hoopleheads and other men of questionable character.  They came looking to these hills for mostly for gold, probably to trick out their Conestoga Wagons or, later, new rims on their Model A’s.  There were a handful of women who ventured out of the brothels and dance halls to join them and promptly reduced their paychecks by 100%.

Prospecting in Death Valley was a mini-rush in the late 1800’s – early 1900’s.  However, very few claims produced much of note.  The universe can be one cruel bastard.  Excuse me, I meant a fucking cruel, heartless asshole.  I don’t care how shady a character you are, if you willingly bought primitive equipment to dig holes into mountains in Death Valley, I’d at least hope that you would get enough ore for a couple gold chains.  You could then head back east and be a hit at the Jersey Shore.  Men actually murdered each other over claims disputes.

I’m no historian, nor a geologist.  I’m not even just a caveman, who’s frightened and confused by your modern ways.  I’m just a guy trying to tell a mildly interesting tale, which 80% of you probably stopped reading after the first paragraph.  But for the rest of you, seeing the ruins of the Big Bell Mine are worth the price of your pain reading to this point.

The site of the Big Bell Mine lies 1,600 ft below the top of the Chloride Cliffs.  We got their by hiking down a trail that used to be a cable road.

During the mine’s last years, they would extract the ore and grind it up in a ball mill.  Then they’d process it in a cyanide tank.  Whatever they processed was put on a motorless mack truck bed.  It was hooked to a cable and then pulled up the mountain 1,600 ft above.  A driver would steer up the truck and her precious cargo up the cable road, which is now the hiking trail.  If I had to dig holes down at the mine below, I would have prayed that the cyanide tanks came with a tap to fill my canteen with.

The trail down wasn’t made for hikers.  It can be a little steep, rocky and have some awkward negotiations at times.  The seasoned hiker won’t have any issues, though.  But it would bum out someone who doesn’t hike much.  Also, there is absolutely no cover, so be prepared for some serious sun exposure, especially on a hot day.  I would advise against retreating to the abandoned mines for shade.  These mines are over a hundred years old and OSHA wasn’t around to make sure everything was kosher.  If you end up at the bottom of a pile of rocks, you’ll be bummed you didn’t bring a better hat, some sunscreen and enough common sense to not go inside of a 100+ year-old dormant mine.

There was something oddly comforting about this place for me.  Besides the dramatic scenery, from the photos, you can see that this place wasn’t just abandoned, it was done so in haste.  I imagine the last prospectors, after yet another day of pulling out nothing but dried mudstone in the furnace-like conditions, sat in a bar sharing a lukewarm beer from the pennies they scrounged up between them and just said, “Fuck this shit.”  Never to return.

The remaining structures weren’t there as a memorial to greatness and success; one of hard work being rightly rewarded.  Not here.  These were relics memorializing failure.   No violins were played for those who lost their hats in the Big Bell Mine.  Few even care to know their names.  As someone who’s world came to a similar conclusion 7 months earlier, I felt a connection to the ghosts here.  I can only hope that some of these individuals picked themselves up, dressed their wounds and moved on to bigger and better things (like the Great Depression).  If I were them, I would be happy to know that someone would respect the effort they put in here over a century later.

Then again, I would find it to be an even greater joy if they were all flipping me the bird for even thinking for one second that I could relate to what they went through.

Don’t Be a Douche – Stories From Lombard Street

Originally, I thought I’d write a post about the proper etiquette of traveling.  However, that term makes me feel like Dean Wormer, throwing on the wet blanket of moralistic preening while furiously finger-wagging at a list of rules that I made up, which I’m going to hashtag and Facebook-share to death until I lose all my friends and my family disowns me.  But, I do think that one needs to check themselves when visiting a new place.  A simple axiom is probably all that is needed. “Don’t be a Douche.”  I’ve been trying to work on a couple of bumper sticker-ready slogans:

  • “When you’re a guest in someone else’s home, scrape the shit off of your shoes — Don’t be a Douche”
  • “Leave no Trace – That Includes Your Segway’s Tracks — Don’t be a Douche”
  • “Wash off the Drakkar, You’re Just Made My Sister Have a Seizure — Don’t be a Douche”
  • “Your Selfie In Front of That Statue Just Stole Our Ancestors’ Souls — Don’t be a Douche”

Here’s a recent example of how if you just followed this simple axiom, a whole neighborhood wouldn’t have to petition their local government to get them to do something about you by law.  This week, the MTA in San Francisco is looking to close down Lombard Street to street traffic in the summer.  In other words, you wouldn’t be able to drive your car down “the Crookedest Street in the World.”  Why is this a problem? Living three blocks away from this iconic street, we get to enjoy the daily barrage of rental cars that line-up blocks away, sitting in line for an hour at a time, pumping exhaust more suited for the freeway than our homes, so that the wary intrepid soul can eventually spend less than 1 min making 4 lefts and 4 rights to go down Lombard Street.  They don’t even need to turn the dial down Kanye’s latest aural abomination on the radio.  “Honey look!  Can you believe how crooked this street is?  OMG!  It is soooo crooked.  SELFIE!” It creates, what the SF Chronicle describes as a “Circus Atmosphere.”

On Friday, the line didn’t extend quite as far, only reaching Larkin Street. But the scene was circus-like. Cars, pickup trucks, bikes, skateboards, Segways and those little yellow GoCars cruising down the brick road through the hairpin turns. Pedestrians crowded the stairways and some wandered onto the curves of the street. Passengers popped their heads out of sunroofs and leaned out side windows to snap photos or hoot and holler. Others blared music.

At the top and bottom of the block, clots of cars, some double-parked, joined with people taking photos to occasionally block the streets. One visitor grabbed a large rock from a nearby planter and tried, mostly unsuccessfully, to ride it down the cable car tracks on Hyde Street.

With the news that the MTA might actually put up the “Road Closed” signs, some travelers aren’t so happy with it:

“I think it would ruin, for some people, visiting San Francisco,” said Ryan Heffner, 22, of Davidson, N.C., who had just taken a ride through the curves. “It’s part of the experience.”

His father, John Heffner, 54, who handled the driving through the tight turns, said it would seem odd for the city to shut down a landmark that attracts tourists.

“It would be like closing down any of the other attractions of the city,” he said.

What the Heffners seem to be missing, is that this road isn’t a tourist attraction.  It is a street that was designed that way, so that the actual people, who actually live in the real homes on the street, could get their actual cars in and out of there without actually dying on the 22-degree slope. The residents here know that people like coming to Lombard Street to walk around and take pictures.  In fact, we think it is cool that people enjoy it.  It does look odd and the views are incredible.  But the issue we have is that people are not following the “Don’t be a Douche” axiom.  Now the city is stepping in and saying, no more. Don’t fret future San Francisco travelers.  You won’t have to apply the white-out on your Lonely Planet book and remove Lombard Street.  It doesn’t need to be driven down to enjoy it.  You can preferably find your way to Lombard Street via public transit, Lyft, Uber or cab.  Or, you can **gasp** walk there.  Here’s a local’s tip: San Francisco is the best seen on foot. You can then walk the streets.  It gives you much more time, so that you can take in and enjoy the views instead of breathing car exhaust and staring at break lights.  Also, you might get an opportunity to chat with some of the people that actually live here, instead of breezing by in your car so you can hurry over to the Rainforest Cafe on Fisherman’s Wharf.  We all gain from that scenario and are glad you came to visit.  We might even invite you to our leather bondage dungeon later that night if you’re lucky. Please, please, with sugar on top, “Don’t be a Douche.”

Traveling to Politically Unstable Areas

You are on your dream trip visiting the pyramids of Giza in Egypt.  After spending the day gazing upon these ancient wonders, you rest your head on your pillow in your hotel in Cairo, tired, but excited from being able to experience something you had only read about in your textbooks in school.  A few hours later, you wake up to a startling rumble outside of your hotel: you peek outside the window and you are witnessing a full riot.  What do you do?

Traveling to politically unstable places could be an unplanned item on the itinerary for those who prefer adventure travel.  With all the instability that is happening in the Middle East in some very popular travel destinations, some travelers who have set aside a big chunk of their time and money, have unfortunately been caught in the middle.  While we urge caution, we actively encourage people to continue traveling to these places.  The experiences these destinations offer can be extremely rewarding, but they do require some thoughtful preparation.  So, here are some things you can do prior to your trip that can ensure your safety in case things go down.

Pre-Trip Planning

Locate your Embassies and Consulates – prior to your trip you should print out maps of locations and contact information of your home country’s embassy and consulates. Technology is great, but if you are relying on internet access, the government often hits the kill switch (Egypt and Tibet). Carrying around a couple of slices of dead trees is certainly worth the price of your safety.  Your smart phone, iPad and Laptop become a brick if you are without power.  Bring the paper.

Also, spend some time on Google Maps/Earth getting look of what the buildings and the surrounding area look like. While a piece of paper and a map are helpful, getting a full visual can go a long way in helping you to get to safety faster.

You may be traveling to places far away from your home country’s embassy, or in the case in Middle East right now, your Embassy might not be a safe place.  If so you should have a plan of what to do in case you need to get there.

Plan Alternative Exits – Many uprisings happen in capital cities or centers of political power.  Before you leave, explore if their are alternative cities or borders that you could leave by plane, car, bus or train in case of emergency.  Figure out what your geographical or political challenges would be and give yourself options.  Many people who were in Lhasa in 2008 were able to drive and cross the Nepalese border in Nylam.

Make Sure Your Red-Tape is in Order – This one is uber-important anyway, but you should be very diligent to make sure that all your visas, passports and permits are in proper order.  Sometimes authority figures will look for even the smallest reason to keep you from leaving as everyone is viewed with suspicion in these circumstances.

Buy Good Travel Insurance – Research the best options prior to leaving as travel insurance is often times a scam.  You don’t want to find that out after everything is getting out of control.  Travel Insurance Review is a great independent site to do your research.  This can help you cover the costs of having to get out of Dodge quickly.

Global Rescue – while everyone else is waiting at the embassy for their name to be called in the lottery to get on a plane back home, Global Rescue is there to pick you.  If, god forbid, you get injured, their plans cover a medical professional that will be deployed directly to you as your advocate.  There are a few players in this space, but no one is even close to a more complete solution.

Familiarize Yourself with Local Culture, History and Current Events – Each situation is going to take a life of it’s own.  The riots in Bangkok were much different than the ones in Egypt and Libya in their purpose and how the local government handled the violence.  Knowing ahead of time what the climate is like will give you a better path to navigate if things go badly.

Knowing the local customs is always important, but even more so in a pinch.  Being able to know how to conduct yourself around them will keep you from doing anything stupid unintentionally.

Stash Some Cash – Cash is always king; keep it socked away so it isn’t easy for anyone to get at it.  Bribes can very powerful, however, this needs to done with the above recommendation of knowing the local customs.  If you intend to bribe a local official, in some places it works (and may even be standard operating procedure), but in others it will land you in hot water.  However, in the event that things get hairy, cash might be the only option for getting a car, train, bus or plane ticket.

Now that you’ve prepped yourself, what do you do when the @#$% hits the fan and you have to leave?

Contact the Airline That You Flew in on First – As mentioned above, a Global Rescue purchase would negate having to do this, but in case you don’t have it, here’s what to do: airlines are notoriously bad at helping with changes to itineraries, but in an emergency, they can still be the easiest and safest way of getting home.

In Egypt when the Mubarak Regime was collapsing, the US Embassy chartering flights for 1,200 people a day, but they prioritized for those that had medical conditions first.  If you do get on a charter, you’ll have to reimburse the government the cost of the flight and the government isn’t exactly chartering Southwest at $99 one-way.  However, if your only choice to bug out is a charter, TAKE IT.

Stay Away from the Windows – If you are in a hotel or residence and you have to hunker down for a bit, it might be tempting to take a peek outside to get a live view of what you’d be watching on CNN at home.  Don’t.  Stray bullets, molotov cocktails, rocks, tear gas, etc are not things that discriminate in the middle of fracas.  If you can move to a room that faces an inner part of the hotel, that would be ideal.

Don’t Film or Take Pictures – I know it is tempting to film something to put on YouTube that might make it on every news network, but when people are doing bad things to each other, they don’t shrug off someone they see trying to document what they are doing.  Leave the filming for the journalists and the locals.  In these areas, pictures and videos can be just as potent of a weapon as bullets.  Even unintentionally, you could find yourself on the wrong end of someone trying to protect themselves if they catch you filming them.

Move in Groups of 3 – 5 – If you are traveling alone, find some people to stick with.  You don’t want to organize a 100-man group, but being alone can make you a target.  If you are in a large group, break into “platoons” of 3 – 5 that can all get in one cab or car together.  Communicate rendezvous or rally points.

Wear Earth Tone Clothes – If you find yourself wearing that neon-green I *Heart Florida t-shirt, switch it off for something that would blend in a little better.  You don’t want to draw unintended attention to yourself and wearing clothing that blends in can help you keep a low profile.

Watch Your Mouth – Once you get home, you can wax political all you want about the injustices and horrors you witnessed, but while you are there, keep it to yourself.  In fact, meddlesome foreigners are particularly held in contempt whether it is right or not.  This isn’t the time to argue, it is the time to get away.

Traveling to politically unstable areas can be incredibly rewarding to adventurous types–most of the time you won’t have any incidents and you will be able to experience the great parts of these cultures beyond the nastiness you see on the news.  However, in case something does happen, with just a little effort, preparation and some common-sense, you will greatly reduce your chances of something going wrong if you get caught in the middle.

Northern California Lighthouse Exploration


Longtime PathWrangler Blogger Angelique Coffee is not just a great writer, but a phenomenal photographer.  She spent the last couple of months tour up and down the Northern California Coastline photographing and documenting some of its iconic lighthouses.  Check out her photos and trip stories here.

Insomnia Inducing Campsites

For 15 years of my life, I had a horrendous case of insomnia. Sleeping in the comforts of my own bed (which was during my high school years was a water bed), a restful night of sleep regularly eluded me. I memorized the Presidents backwards and forwards. Didn’t work. I memorized the Roman Emperors backwards and forwards. Didn’t work. I used to sit up reading Greek Mythology in the hopes that I’d be bored to sleep. Didn’t work. Turns out, I just needed to eat less carbs and start watching Sex in the City with my then girlfriend. I’ve slept like a baby ever since.

So, as I’ve become an adventurer, and especially as a mountain climber, I’ve found that there are places that are you are required to lay your head that are less than ideal for stretching out and getting some quality shut eye. Here are my two favorite insomnia inducing camp sites:

Camp 2 – Ama Dablam (20k ft): the Southwest Ridge on this 22,525ft/6,812m is technical, but the best route to the top.  It is a clean ridge free of avalanche and rock fall danger.  For a mountaineer, this is an epic trip.  However, knife edge ridges often form wonderful pinnacles that are fun to climb, but can be uncooperative when it comes to nice flat, clean places to pitch a tent.  In this case, it is the only place to camp between the relatively benign Camp 1 and the much higher Camp 3 in the snow.  The 45-degree slope with thousands of feet of cliff on all sides requires one to be roped in at night.

Camp 2 Ama Dablam

Camp 2 Ama Dablam

Ledge Camping on El Capitan: not all of us have the skills to be as good as Alex Hanold to bound up El Cap ropeless in 2 1/2 hours.  On the classic Nose Route, the rest of us require around 31 pitches to get to the summit, which can take 2 – 5 days.  That requires hauling up and anchoring a ledge to sleep in.

What are some of your craziest campsite experiences?

Do You Know How to Tell Your Adventure Stories with Your Photos?


Here I’m showing Cold, Fog, Rain, Immensity, Ruggedness, and Struggle. (Photograph by Dan Westergren)

A picture can be worth a thousand words, but only if it needs no explanation to support it.  I personally have a life long passion for photography so I am always on the lookout for tips from the experts.  National Geographic is known for their commitment to visual storytelling and this great advice comes from Dan Westergren, director of photography for National Geographic Traveler magazine.

Do Your Pictures Tell a Story?

A photo editor’s nightmare is when someone shows him a picture and then starts to explain what’s in it. In the worst cases, the photographer starts to talk about important things that aren’t even in the shot.

In the simplest of terms, a storytelling photograph must show what the story is about. As the stories we want to tell with pictures get more complex, it becomes harder to fit all the elements into one frame. However, trying to make that happen is a great exercise.

The first step is to photograph all aspects of the story. Get to know the subject until you can decide what visual elements help tell the tale of that place or person.

Think about it in terms of covering the story from different angles. Photograph your subject from near, far away, back, front.

The key to an interesting photographic coverage is variety. Change up the size of the subject in the photographic frame. Shoot the same thing with different focal length settings. This is the time to really play around.

Photos work best when they have more than one storytelling element. In this case I was pretty bummed that the rain and fog were obscuring the Alaskan mountain range behind the glacier. Then I found out our boat was to be visited by two National Park Service rangers. Their small size emphasized the scale of the landscape.

One of my tricks is to think of adjectives that can describe a place and then see how many of them I can get into a photograph. Here I’m showing Cold, Fog, Rain, Immensity, Ruggedness, and Struggle.

And, last but not least, don’t fall into the trap of including the main subject of your story in every picture. After a few photos the viewers will get the idea.

Be sure to mix things up, take a lot of pictures, and review your shots while you’re still in the field because that’s when ideas for what will become the best photos — the keepers — will start bubbling to the surface.

Most photographers don’t just stand around waiting for the best scenes to appear in front of them. They work to draw their mind into the scene, hoping to capture the telling details that would have gone unnoticed without careful observation.

Jump4Heroes: Extreme Wingsuit BASE Jump: Flying The Eiger

Here’s a great way to get your morning off to a flying start!

With the picturesque Swiss Alps as a backdrop, the Royal British Legion Extreme Human Flight Team, the Jump4Heroes, celebrated the British Armed Forces by jumping off an edge of The Eiger’s north face, otherwise known as the Mordwand or “murderous wall”.  And they do it to support charities! Check out the cool video below.

Yellowstone Summer: An Insider’s Journey Webinar

Absolutely unique in the world. ~ Theodore Roosevelt

Yellowstone, America’s first national park, is thriving as a natural beauty as much today as it was back in 1903 when President Theodore Roosevelt made a significant visit to this Wyoming treasure.  Along with the Grand Tetons, Yellowstone offers both a plethora of wildlife and stunning scenery.


Natural Habitat is offering a free webinar tomorrow, Tuesday, May 7, 12:00 pm PST.  Veteran Expedition Leader, Jared Baecker, will lead you virtually away from Yellowstone’s summer crowds and into less populated areas of the park where the wildlife, such as bears, wolves, moose and buffalo herds, roam within the plains and peaks of Yellowstone. Register here.

The Reverse Travel Bucket List- Toot Your Own Horn. You’re An Amazing Traveler!


I think it’s safe to say that all of us seem to have a travel bucket list for the future filled with things we want to do and places we want to visit. As the years tick by we wonder if we will have the time, money and desire to check all these off the ever-growing list.

But what about what you’ve already accomplished?  That’s got to be a pretty impressive list as well.  In my mind I’m always in the future, rarely dwelling in the past.  But, sometimes it’s good to reflect on the past and where I’ve been.

Through Trek Tech I learned about Rebecca Tracey’s Reverse Bucket List, the concept of remembering past achievements to remind yourself how amazing you are.  I would hope that’s a pretty long list for most of us.  I found the idea intriguing.

But what about a Reverse Bucket List specifically for travel, a topic near and dear to us all?  I set out to make my own Reverse Travel Bucket List of things I’ve done in some places I’m glad I’ve seen as a traveler and came up with just a few of the more adventurous accomplishments…

  1. Trekked to Mt. Everest
  2. Watched a Nepalese funeral cremation
  3. Experienced the warm people, proud culture and smell of yak butter in Tibet
  4. Swam and played with wild dolphins in Kaikoura
  5. Spent an entire day underground exploring caves in Waitomo
  6. Seen emus and kangaroos out in the wild of Australia’s Coral Coast
  7. Showered in a make-shift open air Botswana safari stall in the presence of a heard of zebras
  8. Hiked the Franz Josef Glacier
  9. Rafted the mighty Zambezi River
  10. Seen the brilliance of the Milky Way in the dark Caribbean sky

You’re adventurous travelers!  If you weren’t, you wouldn’t be reading this blog.  What amazing things have you done or seen in your travels that would remind you of your amazing travel achievements?

Scotland’s Highlands and Islands Webinar

The past is present in the Highlands of Scotland with ancient remnants from the Viking warriors, the mysterious Picts and the Gaelic speaking clansmen who once flourished here.  With an abundance of wildlife on both land and sea this landscape is truly something to behold.


Natural Habitat is offering a free webinar tomorrow, Tuesday, March 19, 12:00 pm PST.  One of their knowledgeable Scotland guides will lead you virtually not only through this magical rocky mountain region that is steeped in history and cultural sites, but will also take you to the rugged shorelines of Scotland’s islands.  Register here.