Away Up North: Like it or Not, Starting All Over Again

Life is all about changes: some we want, others we don’t.

My husband and I are facing one of those unwanted changes. Oh, it’s nothing terrible, really! But we will be moving farther north, hopefully in the not-too-distant future. The 90 mile round trip to Sem’s hemodialysis unit four times a week is unsustainable. Not just financially in terms of diesel and wear and tear on the car, but in time spent on the road and at the hospital. We live too far away for me to go home while Sem is at dialysis; as a result, we both spend about five hours at the hospital for each session, plus the 45 minute drive each way. Our fountain pen business is at a standstill and the cat hardly recognizes us these days. At least she’s got the ever-growing dust bunny population to keep her company!

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The main reason for the move, though, is that the road between our village and the hospital is treacherous, and it’s the only road we can take. Indulge me if you will, and Google “Berriedale Braes” – have a look at some of the YouTube videos, too, and you will see why the thought of driving to and from dialysis throughout the winter months has me losing sleep. I am given to understand that it is one of the most dangerous sections of road in Britain.

Have you had a look? That’s the worst bit but there’s also “The Ord” to contend with, plus 40 further miles of hills, clifftop driving, and twisty bends of all cambers between us and dialysis, not to mention (okay I will) the homeward journey is now done in complete darkness, with the turning of the year.

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So reluctantly and with regret, we have to move. We love our “wee hoose” in our quiet village, with our many rosebushes and the cat’s firmly-established territory, and having a friend or two close by. Sem has lived here for almost 20 years, and never thought he’d leave. But to stay here, so far from dialysis, is neither safe nor practical. Even in good weather, accidents or big freight vehicles getting hung up at the Braes cause road closures. More ominous still, the other day the roadworks guys were repainting the snow gates which get closed when The Ord or the Berriedale Braes become impassable. Seeing a fresh coat of that eye-watering orange paint go on made my stomach clench a bit, let me tell you. To quote a popular series… Winter is coming.

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We don’t know if we’ll be able to move in time before the weather turns – winter can come as early as October here, and as much as I don’t want to leave I am anxious to be safely up north before the snow and ice make an appearance. Getting snowed- or iced-in on either side of the snow gates, of which there are more than just one set, is too real a possibility. Neither side is one we’d want to be stuck on: if stuck at home, Sem wouldn’t be able to have his life-sustaining treatment, and if stranded up north, we’d be away from home, where all of Sem’s medications live (there are many!), and where there’s a cat (who is not always in the house when we leave) needing care, feeding and insulin.

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Neither of us knows anyone up in that part of the north, though Sem will likely find common ground with folks faster than I will. These Highlanders have very few degrees of separation between them, and if they don’t know each other specifically, they will likely know some random family member or other. Even at dialysis, Sem discovered someone he slightly knew a long time ago. There’s a fellow patient on the same “shift” who, it turns out, is the brother of a man who lived in our village, but that’s not the end of the connection. Sem realized that this man used to come out to their farm now and then. “I remember seeing him when I was young,” Sem said to me last week. “He used to come and work on our tractor if my father couldn’t get it to work. Donald could fix anything!” Sem knows one of the dialysis nurses, too, from their grade school days. He is the same age as one of her brothers, and remembers her from “back in the day” too. They recognized each other immediately when Sem started going to dialysis up north. Since she controls the other end of a very pointy needle it’s a good thing he didn’t dip her pigtails into any inkwells, eh?

The hospital cafeteria: my home-away-from-home more about 20 hours a week.

The hospital cafeteria: my home-away-from-home more about 20 hours a week.

So while Sem has no actual friends up north anymore, he knows families from the area where he grew up, not far from where we hope to move. He’s sort of looking forward to starting again, and sees it as an adventure. Strangely, I am more apprehensive about this small 45 mile shift than I was about leaving the US to come to Scotland. That’s partly because when I moved here, Sem was already firmly established in the village and knew just about everyone. I had the benefit of his experience since he knew who was genuine and who was likely to cause trouble. We won’t have that knowledge when we move, and will have to start from scratch.

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It’s also a difficult thing for me from a social outlook because it has taken me all this time – eight years – to become a sort of fixture in our village on my own merit. I don’t have any close friends here but I know a lot of folks now, and there’s always someone to have a chat with when I’m down in the village. They are wary of “incomers,” having seen so many come and go over time but at eight years in, they realized that I was here to stay and thus they had started opening up to me a little bit. I feel like I’ve lost them before I’d hardly even gotten started… and now I’ve got to start again!

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Life takes twists and turns as abruptly as the Berriedale Braes, and we have no choice but to follow the path to where it leads, so I’m trying to be brave about it. I know it will be a challenge but it’s the right thing – really the only thing – to do. I think that once we’ve actually moved, I can look at things as more of an adventure. This time around I’ll still be a stranger, but in a not-so-strange land anymore.

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Another way to look at it is that soon (oh please hopefully soon!) I will have new sights to show you, and a whole fresh “cast of characters” to introduce you to as well, though I’ve still got a few villagers’ stories up my sleeve. There are a lot of things that have to happen first, but – as I keep reminding myself during every dark, windy, rainy, foggy, twisty white-knuckle drive home – we will get there in the end. Life will, with any luck, settle into something less transient and more stable once again, and then new escapades can begin.

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At least, that’s the hope!

The view from the hospital parking lot, up north.

The view from the hospital parking lot, up north.

Deb Segelitz
Deb Segelitz was born and raised in Pennsylvania, and is astounded to find herself living in the Scottish Highlands. Equally surprising to her is that she now has a small business restoring and selling old fountain pens. These two facts have convinced Deb that life is either beautifully random, or filled with destiny created by someone with a sense of humor. She hopes the fine north state residents will accept her as an honorary member, since she has some cousins in California who she visited once, but even more importantly because the north state folks she actually knows are fabulous people, who are also the reason for her presence here on anewscafe.com. An enthusiastic amateur photographer, Deb is grateful that she lives in a place that's about as point-and-shoot as it gets. Her tortoiseshell cat, Smartie, rates her as an average minion, too slow with the door-opening but not too bad on the food-dish-refilling, and her husband hasn't had her deported back to the States yet, so things must be going all right there, as well.
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27 Responses

  1. Janet says:

    So moving and I feel like you have plenty of friends Up North here in Northern California, we aren’t near but thanks to your posts we feel close to you. Wishing you all the best and peaceful travels.

  2. Ginny says:

    Needless to say, I know how sometimes it is hard to move.  We moved twice to WA State from CA.  Then, one morning, at breakfast I said to my husband, “We have to go to CA next week to find a home, as we need to be out of here before the first snow flies.  For us, why I just knew it was time to leave, I would say it had to be God’s whisper telling me.  We did go the next week, found a home, and within a two months we had sold our home in WA, and moved back to CA.

    My husband had two bouts of cancer, the first was within the first three months after moving here, and I knew I would never have been able to drive him to get his treatments in WA for snow causing many, many problems.  But, here I had a easy 15 minute trip.

    So trust in what is sent to you from above.  You will have many more days less tiring for both of you, and when the times comes, you will be better having to travel less in the future.  Will say a prayer for your safety and the new journey in life spread before you and Sem.

    Blessings……..

    • Deb says:

      I am glad you could move before the first snow, Ginny!  That must have been an enormous relief.

      • Ginny says:

        True, Deb.  I didn’t do a good job of saying I’ve been where you are at now, and know that in the end, things will be better for you after you do move.  The “whisper” is what counts to follow.  ;o)

        Blessings……..

        • Deb says:

          I understood, Ginny 🙂  Fortunately I didn’t need a whisper – it is the only logical and safe and practical choice, so it’s what we will have to do.

  3. Beverly Stafford says:

    I’ve never heard anybody say, “I love change.”  We like what we’ve built and come to know as comfortable.  Although our reasons for purchasing a house in Redding – our primary residence is 75 miles east up the mountain – were mostly so that we wouldn’t have to leave the dog at home when we came down here for a performance or shopping or dinner, we felt blessed a couple of times for having it.  My husband was diagnosed with prostate cancer, and like Sem, had treatments five days a week but for “only” six weeks.  Having a landing place for him and the dog while I went home occasionally to get the mail, pay bills, etc. was truly a blessing.

    So dear Deb, once you find a place near Sem’s treatment center, you both – and the kitty – will be so much less stressed which in itself will help with Sem’s well-being.

    Keep your friends in Northern California posted on how you’re doing Up North.  You have many friends here rooting for you both.

    • Deb says:

      I would love it if we could keep our home here and have a place Up North, that would be fantastic. Then again, there’s the cat to consider, and she hates the car so I couldn’t easily take her along to dialysis on a just-in-case basis if the weather looked like it was going to change while we were away, and I suppose it wouldn’t help to have a place Up North if we were down here and it snowed overnight and we then couldn’t get to dialysis at all… but it was a nice momentary fantasy, there! 🙂   The weather is too arbitrary here, so permanently Up North it has to be.

      We’re looking forward to not traveling up and down that road so much, as we have seen so much nonsense on it and have narrowly avoided accidents even in good weather so many times that we’ll be glad to just not have to be on it unless we WANT to be on it.   I don’t know when that will be, but with autumn gales blowing in and temperatures dropping, I really hope it’s soon.

      I am very glad that you and your husband (and the dog!) had a landing place, during his treatments!  It must have been a great relief to you all.

      Will definitely keep all of you posted about the move.  It’s good to have far-away friends rooting for us!

  4. Hal Johnson Hal Johnson says:

    Deb, moving is usually difficult even when by choice. I really feel for you and your hubby, but I hope this move leads to more opportunities and friendships.

    • Deb says:

      Thank you, Hal.  We never saw it coming.  In hindsight, we actually should have known it would happen at some point, but as with so many other things, I think in our hearts we just kept thinking, “Not yet… not just yet…”

  5. Matthew Grigsby says:

    Your photos are magnificent, as always.  Beautiful country, that!

    I have to say, from a strictly selfish perspective, I’m relieved to hear you’ll be on the other side of those snow gates (also…snow gates?) and you can get to and fro as needed.  But I’ll miss your stories and photos of your village too.  Moving always sucks, even when it’s for all the right reasons.

    You’ve got an entire section of our country rooting for you two.  And I have no doubt your street would be filled with cars if we were all able to help with this move!

    • Deb says:

      I love the idea of a whole fleet of ANC friends helping with the move, Matt!  And thank you – I’m glad you enjoyed the photos.

      It will be such a relief to be on the north side of the snow gates, and not to face what seems like an impossible (in ice/snow) commute.  But in better weather we will come back, since our friend Al lives here and we won’t lose touch with him.  There are still some stories to tell, still more photos to share, never fear!  Then there will be new stories of new places 🙂

  6. Oh, Deb, I know I speak for so many of your loyal readers and fans of your column when I say my heart aches for you and your Sem, and what you’re going through. From our California north state to your Scottish Up North, I send you the best possible thoughts, prayers and wishes that you two and your cat just get a break, and that you will find the perfect place, and meet fast friends who adore you as much as we do.

    Thank you for sharing, both your words, life and beautiful photography. Sending you hugs and love, Doni

  7. Anne Gibbons, a Glesca Lass says:

    The weather is so challenging at this time of the year in your part of the world and you described a typical day so graphically I shuddered with a chill when I read it. Then add to that the so very few hours of “daylight” to make not only such journeys, but such decisions! (I feel it’s easier to make tough decisions and their accompanying plans in the daylight, for some reason.) I’m encouraged to read that you may have your eye on a place already. And it looks like you’re moving to a more “urban” (?) area which seems to be equipped with what Sem needs to make both of your lives together more about you two and less about survival. Thank you for sharing your experiences with us and, of course, you will have my most optimistic thoughts travelling your way.

    Your photos continue to show the beauty of your environment, and, if I might say, the hopefulness you feel inside?

    • Deb says:

      Thanks, Anne.  The weather is so quickly changeable up here, it’s a big concern.  What might start out as a great day can, in the 5-6 hours we’re up north, disintegrate into a right mess!  We are unfortunately still no closer to moving, but will be chasing up a few things today in the hopes of moving it all along.

      There are some surrounding villages we’re looking at as well as where the hospital is, but Sem has said, “I’m sort of looking forward to living in the toon – I’ve only ever lived in the country, in villages, or in cities!”  The toon is Wick, but we’d be happy anywhere within 5-10 miles of it, so we’ll see.   A definite plus will be living close enough to dialysis so that it doesn’t loom quite so large in our lives.  Right now everything is about treatment, getting to treatment, moving for the sake of treatment… once that’s all settled I am hopeful that we can have an actual life at least on the three non-dialysis days a week!

  8. Joanne Lobeski-Snyder says:

    Deb, moving can be an unsettling experience.  I looked at videos of that road you’ve been travelling every week and I KNOW you’re making the right decision.  I’ve been on sparsely used mountain roads that are as twisty as this road…..but there was never as much traffic or trucks sharing the road!   There are two critical aspects of this move.  You’ll be less stressed because of this drive and have more quality time in your life.  You wouldn’t be living with the very real threat that Sem can’t make it in for treatment.

    I love the photograph you took of the town from the hospital.  Please, I want to hear all about this place once you get settled.   There might even be a writer’s group in town.

    I wish you all the best Deb and Sem.

    • Deb says:

      Thank you, Joanne!  We know we’re making the right decision, too, albeit reluctantly and with sadness.  But living there will make daily life much better in terms of dialysis, less stressful in terms of getting there, and, as you mentioned, we’re hoping for a better quality of life especially on the non-dialysis days.

      The move will add 90 miles in total to our already-140-mile-round-trip to the main hospital in Inverness, but hopefully we won’t need to go there very often, and being closer to the local hospital where Sem does dialysis is much more important.  I’m glad you had a look at some videos – they don’t do it justice but they do give a good idea of part of the challenges we face.  I’ll be glad not to have to drive up and down that road 4x a week!

      I’ll definitely be writing about the new place and the new people, once we get there, though we still don’t know when that will be.  Hopefully before snow and ice…  There are a few hospital workers who have asked me how the search is going, adding, “It was very frosty this morning, I thought of you when I left for work…”  Ack!

  9. Ace Lightning says:

    I’ll be very happy to hear that you’ve found someplace closer to Wick, so you don’t have to drive that giant slalom in the ice and snow every other day! Although you’ve seen some less-than-optimal neighborhoods, it looks like a nice enough town in its own way. As you explore, you’ll find new shops and things, and new stuff to photograph, and you’ll just sort of naturally make friends with a few people in the process. May the move be soon, and as smooth and uncomplicated as a move can be!

    • Deb says:

      I’m not very optimistic about the idea that I’ll “just sort of naturally make friends with a few people…” seeing as how it took 8 years here to even come close to having slightly-more-than-acquaintances…  But for starters I’ll be happy with a decent house in a decent part of town with nice neighbors (or at least not troublesome ones).   I have learned to keep my expectations in check, based on the last few years, really.  But hopefully it will be soon, and not too stressful 🙂  Then again, this limbo that we are in is plenty stressful, so I’d take the stress of a move over the anxiety of the delay for sure!

  10. Steven Towers Steven Towers says:

    Deb, your photos and stories never fail to get me itching for a couple of weeks in Scotland…in the summer. If I could just get my wife interested in golf, single malts, and Gaelic history, it’d make for a heck of a road trip.

    I’m curious about far-away places, I’ve obsessed over maps since I was a kid, and I do a lot of remote sensing on Google Earth professionally, so it didn’t take me much time to find the “up north” town where Sem’s hospital is located. With far less confidence, I place your village on the coast with a links course at the north end of town. I’m not naming either because it seems you never do—I assume that’s a concession to the sense of privacy of your Highlander neighbors (or maybe just yours and Sem’s).

    At any rate, your comment about lengthening the trip to the main hospital to the south of your village made me consider why you’re not moving south. I wonder if it’s because the northern city is Sem’s childhood home, or if  the Highlands resemble California in that the coastal cities down south are prohibitively expensive. Most of us here in Redding, if we want to relocate to the Pacific coast in retirement, are  thinking north, all the way into Oregon. That’s the reality of the real estate differential.

    I think you’ll do better finding friends and acquaintances in a slightly larger town. It’s almost a rule of thumb: The smaller the village, the more insular the folk.

    Best of luck to you and Sem. My wife and I are moving this month, a mere 15 miles, and even that’s a trial.

    • Deb says:

      Steven, thanks for your comment!  If your wife likes nature, great scenery, beautiful walks and castles maybe you could reach a Scottish-road-trip compromise 🙂

      You’re close, in terms of my village, but not quite 😀  We have a tiny golf course but the bigger ones (that people come to from far and wide because they are professional-standard) are a little south of us.  You’re right, I don’t “name names” here (place names or people-names), mainly because I do want to preserve the privacy of those in the village as well as ourselves.  But if you ever do convince your wife to visit Scotland, I will be happy to tell you about the hidden gems as well as the tourist attractions!

      We don’t want to move south because while living up north is a bit more challenging in terms of convenience, my husband loves it up here, and all the years he lived “away south” he always longed to come back.  So even if we have the occasional hospital appointments at the main hospital, it’s still preferable to live here where the pace is a little slower and there’s more room to breathe.  Where we will move to isn’t quite Sem’s childhood home (he actually very specifically does NOT want to live there), but the north in general is where he has always wanted to stay.   The hospital up north has what he needs in terms of dialysis and it’s a decent wee hospital, so there’s no medical reason to live closer to the main hospital down south.  If he needed an extended stay in the main hospital it would make life difficult for sure, but hopefully that won’t happen… so if 99% of our hospital needs are met up north, and it’s a nicer area to live in, it is the logical choice (and the emotional choice as well).

      Surprisingly, things up here are more expensive (starting with gas/diesel) than they are down south!  So it sounds like it’s the opposite of California in that regard.  We pay extra because of the cost of transporting goods and fuel here, and some places online will even charge more for postage regardless of the fact that Royal Mail charges the same no matter where something is being delivered, on mainland UK or the islands.  Though it’s possible that rents/house prices are higher in the south – that seems likely.  It sounds like the difference between where you are and the coastal cities is quite substantial!

      I wish you and your wife a trouble-free, smooth-as-glass move!  We live in hope, eh?

  11. Pam S says:

    Deb thank you so much for your wonderful photos and stories. I so appreciate you sharing your heart with us. You have quite a Northern California family here and you have heard that we are all rooting for you. ANC  has created not only local community but a global family! I feel like I know you and I certainly will keep you in my prayers and surround your situation with love as you make these changes. It is my experience that, in hindsight, when we look at what feels like adversity there are blessings and some of them pretty fantastic.  I look forward to tales and photos from your new home. All blessings to you and your family.

  12. vix says:

    I caught up with a bunch of articles I’d missed and was so glad I did.  Love the way you write, always have.  And loved the different viewpoint into some of the ‘characters’ that I know from elsewhere.

    I keep checking in to see if there is news about the move but I know you are eager for it as much as anyone.  Keeping my fingers crossed for you both, and looking forward to the next article. 🙂

    • Deb says:

      Thanks, Vix – glad you enjoyed the articles 🙂  No word on a move yet.  We’re getting snow tires put on this week just to be as prepared as we can for the commute if the weather turns. x