My first stop after a quick lunch of vegetarian Cornish pasties was touring the Oban distillery, one of the oldest and smallest in Scotland and renowned for its signature 14-year West Highlands Scotch (highly recommended). After that, as instructed via email by my host-to-be, I asked a cab driver to take me simply to “the lookout.” The driver responded, “Oh, you mean Leo’s place?”
He drove me a mile or two out of town and dropped me at the end of a short gravel road off the highway, pointing out a small white building at the top of the fern-covered hill. Leo had warned me that my staying there would require a short hike. The grass underfoot was cut short to form a trail, and it had the same appearance and feel of a golf green, only a little taller. A large sheep and a small lamb stood in my path halfway up the trail, fearful and offended by my intrusion. At the end of the path was a concrete building surrounded by low wire fencing. This was Leo’s house, a former military lookout from World War II, and from the hill it perched on I could see miles of gracefully molded landscape covered in grass, ferns and trees with distinct hues of green. These smooth hills surrounded Leo’s on all sides except one, which dropped off as a cliff with a view of the rocky coastline, the curving highway my taxi had taken as its route, and a small grassy island I hadn’t noticed on the drive up.
Leo, a middle-aged washing-machine and computer repairman, was born in Oban and has spent most of his life there (though he does travel from time to time, and spent 6 months in his twenties hitch-hiking through Canada). He has hosted hundreds of travelers, and is a member of not only CouchSurfing but also two smaller, similar groups: Global Freeloaders and The Hospitality Club. Two fold-up beds are attached to the walls of his living room, to which he has attached dozens of pictures of smiling guests from the past decade. Including the couches, the room can sleep up to four people comfortably or twice that if necessary, though most of his guests sleep in the attic, where he has installed several windows and a bunk-bed. (Knowing my propensity to sleepwalk, I slept in the living room.)
Waste vegetable oil that he gets free from local restaurants fuels Leo’s van and, more impressively, his living-room furnace/stove. He has a system rigged using a former pesticide container filled with oil which he hangs at varying levels on a nearby shelf: the higher it hangs, the more quickly the oil flows and the hotter the fire burns. A roof-mounted compressor allows him to introduce air to the mix at controlled levels, conserving fuel while increasing the temperature. Leo has a stockpile of over 500 liters of oil (anticipating a time when restaurant owners will begin selling their waste instead of giving it away), which at his current burn rate should last over two years. When zombies take over the world, Leo’s lookout is where humanity will make its stand.
We made vegan haggis that first night, and the next day we hiked through West Highland forests thick with ferns and soft mounds of moss with Leo’s friend Linda and a saluki puppy he was dogsitting. The next day, Linda showed me dozens of pictures of the mountains she’s climbed throughout Scotland, and that afternoon she and Leo took me to Appin and Glencoe for more hiking and some driving exploration. They took me to a castle used in the filming of The Holy Grail, and we stopped halfway through the adventure for beer at a historic mountainside rock-climber’s pub called King’s House.
Leo told me about Oban, his experiences of hosting travelers, and the town thief, Agnes, who has broken in to his house several times, once assaulting Leo and putting him in the hospital. He first met Agnes twenty years ago, when Agnes was just 17 and in need of a place to stay for a few nights. At the end of his stay, Agnes stole something small and has since continued to return every now and then to break in for more.
Agnes was recently arrested for hitting a man with a crowbar after a failed break-in attempt at an Oban hotel, but Leo has no doubt that he will return to his standard target after he is released in four years. Despite all of this, Leo puts immediate trust in the travelers he meets, explaining that to assume the worst of everyone based on one bad seed would be unfair. Even if that one bad seed was the first he harvested.