The motivation for my impromptu expedition up to Scotland was fairly straightforward. I found out I was Scottish. A pretty sizable amount Scottish in fact.
For someone who has been psychologically scarred by seemingly benign and meaningless words like “carrot top” and “pumpkin head”, who cannot tan worth a damn 1 and who possesses an awkwardly spelled Scottish name 2 this probably shouldn’t have taken almost 29 years to figure out. I deserve most the blame, but I think it’s fair to say a not so small portion of the blame belongs to my incredibly (and admirably so) proud-to-be-Welsh mother.3 So I was surprised when one night over gin and tonics, my grandmother and I were digging through my family history 4 she informed me my late grandfather was in fact, born in Scotland. 5
A week later, during my walks in cider country, I discovered that Ben Nevis, the UK’s tallest mountain 6 was in Scotland. This seemed a perfect opportunity for my ego to add a feather in its adventure cap and was more than enough fuel to feed the fire. I was going to Scotland.
Edinburgh came highly recommended to me while bartending at the local pub in Blagdon. And from my extremely limited research, I had also found that Loch Lomond might also be worth a visit. This was convenient because it was on the way to Ben Nevis which was to the north in Fort William. When shared with locals in Blagdon these first two destinations were met with unabashed enthusiasm before inevitably sharing my ambition to climb Ben Nevis where the mood would turn sober and serious with concerned comments like “you should be careful”, “make sure you check the weather” and “you’re going to hike it with someone else right?” To which I’d put on my serious face and nod in notes of agreement. Yes. Of course. I’ll get local advice. All the while, already fully envisioning myself at the summit looking out over Fort William with one hand over my eyes and the other at my hip with the American flag boisterously flapping in the background. This was going to make for one epic facebook post.
I had heard that the weather can change quickly and people over the years had be known to get caught or lost in bad conditions and occasionally die on the mountain. I had also read about a more recent and chillingly ridiculous story of a girl attempting the summit with shorts and a selfie stick only to —fortunately— be rescued before she succumbed to hypothermia in a blizzard.
I wasn’t sure what the weather conditions would be but I sure as hell didn’t own a selfie stick.7 I figured this qualified me as being duly cautious and prepared. Besides it was the middle of April and my experience from living in San Diego had taught me that there’s no snow in April. 8
Upon leaving England this about summed up my admittedly lacking knowledge of Scotland. I booked a bus and a couple nights in Edinburgh as well as a bus up to Loch Lomond and a pair of nights at Rowardennan on its east shore and a flight out to Berlin on May 1st. I could fill in the details later.
As a California native and even more obnoxious, a San Diegan, I didn’t appreciate the extreme stroke of luck that were the sunny skies I was received with in Edinburgh. Planning for the weather is not a skill I’ve developed. 9 Sunny skies were…well…how it should be.
So on my first sunny afternoon, I hiked up Arthur’s Seat for a better view of the city from the south. The hike got my blood pumping after a long train ride and the 360 degree views were stunning.
My first night in Edinburgh proved to be much more difficult. After spending 5 weeks in England with various friends and family on my mother’s side, my first night traveling solo in earnest was quite a departure from the heartwarming comfort and connection family had provided. As the sun sunk in the sky, a profound depression replaced it and I spent my first night laying in an empty 20 person dorm wondering what I was doing there. It felt as if I were 18 again and the reality of moving away from home for the foreseeable future had just irrevocably shifted from concept to reality. I felt uncertain, lost and lonely.
Depression is not a stranger to me, more like an old, melancholy friend I don’t really like and who requires way too much effort to be with. Throughout my twenties I’ve struggled to understand my depression and have worked incredibly to not only survive it but accept and appreciate it as a part of who I am. And although in retrospect I can see my relationship with depression as an extraordinary gift —that is never how it feels when despite my herculean efforts, I watch with the same horror I imagine Sisyphus felt, as my mind slides uncontrollably back towards the bottom of the hill. Prolonged bouts of depression have played a defining role for me during my early and mid twenties and although they don’t anymore, it’s continues to be a shadow that waxes and wanes in the sunrises and sunsets of my life. It’s icy darkness always lurking just out of the sun’s grasp, as if waiting for me to turn around. This is a feeling I carry that I’m not sure will ever leave me.
Depression has been my greatest fear in choosing to embark on this grand adventure of traveling by myself through the world. Leaving my city, my routines, my friends and my family means cutting myself off to a threatening degree from the exact things that I’ve learned to lean on when I an unexpected breeze chills me and causes me to notice the shadows behind me growing longer once again.
I’m scared of being lost at sea without a life boat.
Like everything else, the feeling is temporary and its passing is yet another reminder in my life that change is something to be celebrated and gives me new resolve to continue on in spite of my shadow.
After a couple days in busy Edinburgh I was happy to discover the Royal Botanical Garden Edinburgh (RBGE) a couple miles away from the city center.
I stayed in the botanical gardens until closing time soaking up the rejuvenating feeling of springtime in what seemed to me to be an external reflection of the inner landscape I now found myself in after a trying couple days in colder places. I took an unfamiliar way back towards the city center…getting lost for a couple hours in the scents, sights and sounds of spring.
As the shadows grew longer (this time only on Edinburgh), I found my way back to the castle which had served as a homing beacon for my forays to the outer parts of the city.
Edinburgh is chalk full of stunning skylines.
LOCH LOMOND & BAGGING MY FIRST MUNRO
From Edinburgh I bused west to Glasgow and caught a connection north towards the west shore of Loch Lomond. 10 I got off the bus on a countryside road which I was pretty sure was the stop for the ferry I was hoping to catch later that day to Rowardennan. 11 I have been known to screw these kind of things up however and now experiencing cold feet and a wave of self-doubt over my navigational skills 12 I decided to ask the bus driver. He had no idea and rolled away.
I walked around in a confused circle for a few minutes simultaneously trying to figure out where the hell I was and where the best bush to relieve myself would be. 13 Fifteen minutes after successfully solving the more pressing business I found Luss, described as the “prettiest village in Scotland” 14 and the dock where my ferry would take off later that day.
My yet-to-be-appreciated luck had continued and it was gloriously sunny out. I ducked into the village shop half to talk to a cute clerk behind the desk 15 and half to find out where the post office was and what there was to do for a few hours around town.
“Well you can lie on the beach…this the is the first sunny day we’ve had all year.” she said with a matter of fact tone that seemed to indicate that despite my Scottish name, pale skin and red hair I clearly wasn’t from around here, or for that matter Scotland. I wasn’t sure if she was a joking or not.
After a small walk around the outlying pastures and a visit to the post office in the neighboring town only to find it closed at noon I decided she might not be joking and lay on the beach of the loch waiting for my ferry to arrive and wondering what I would have done if it indeed had been raining.
Rowardennan had been a complete shot in the dark. Having heard of Loch Lomond I looked at a map of places to stay along the lake and in a process similar to what I imagine it would look like if a monkey threw darts at a map until one stuck I booked two nights at the youth hostel in Rowardennan being satisfied that it had passed my rigorous requirements of it indeed being a real place. I had resolved with no particular reasoning that two days would be enough time to figure out the rest of my journey in Scotland to Fort William 16. I had no way of knowing at the time that Rowardennan would become the catalyst for the greatest week-long hiking adventure I’ve had to date. 17 More on that in part 2 of this post.
Of the two days planned in Rowardennan, I spent the first climbing the mountain adjacent: Ben Lomond. Ben Lomond, at 3,200 ft a Monro which is a name the Scottish give to all mountains over 3,000 ft. “Munro-bagging”, or summiting each Munro is a popular practice in Scotland, with over 4,000 laying claim to having bagged all 282 of Scotland’s Monros 18 By the end of my time in Scotland I began to entertain delusional dreams of pursuing this lofty goal myself…who knows maybe I will. Either way, it was a good warm up for my conquering of Ben Nevis, which I considered all but in the bag already.
THE WEST HIGHLAND WAY
What would happen next occurred more or less by accident. During my stay at Rowardennan I noticed a lot of thru hikers 19 and discovered that I was actually at the 27 mile mark of a 96 mile stretch of path called the West Highland Way. And…drum roll please…Ben Nevis lay at the end of it! Fresh off the high of having summited Ben Lomond and with an answer for how to get to Ben Nevis so effortlessly falling at my feet I took my good fortune as an agreeable sign from the mountain gods 20.
I was going to walk there.
Check back in later for the follow up in part 2 of this photo essay where I’ll share my experience walking the West Highland Way on my journey towards the summit of Ben Nevis and learn in a very real way that unlike San Diego, snow in April is an actual thing in Scotland. Or sign up for at the top or bottom of this page and I’ll let you know when I post it 🙂
Curious what this trip cost? I published my expenses while traveling in Scotland down to the penny here.
Want to know where I’m at now? Check out my travel log for my most recent updates.
Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh – Compliment your newfound knowledge of Scotland with a fictional story that drags the reader down into the seedy and dark inner and outer world of a heroine junkie in the UK with parts of the story taking place in, you guessed it, Edinburgh, Scotland. It will also introduce you to the very real frustration of speaking the same language but not really that sums up my experience of Scotland. WARNING: This book is graphic and disturbing. Once I picked it up I could not put it down. I don’t know what that says about me but I promise I won’t judge you if it ends up happening to you too.
A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush by Eric Newby – Embolden your climbing and trekking endeavors with Eric Newby’s hilariously death-defying attempt 21 to be the first to summit Mir Samir in the Nuristan mountains in Afghanistan after leaving the British fashion industry with next to zero mountaineering experience. WARNING: Filled to the gills with British humor, which is something I happen to thoroughly enjoy.
AWOL on the Appalachian Trail by David Miller – Feed your adventurous side and take a walk alongside author David Miller who quit his job as a programmer to pursue his only recently discovered dream to thru hike the Appalachian Trail. His detailed account of what it took to accomplish this feat is both inspiring and impressive but maybe most impressive of all was that his wife and children didn’t leave him while doing it. WARNING: If you choose to follow in David’s footsteps there is NO guarantee your wife and children won’t leave you.
- But burns like nobody’s business…as a child I once came home from a friend’s birthday pool party with second degree burns
- Which my parents told me I would appreciate when I got to college and damnit they were right although I don’t appreciate the staggering number of hours I’ve lost in my life from having to spell my name. Also funny enough, since this footnote is already unacceptably long, a Scot on my journey remarked my name was spelled in the “true way” no less so props, I guess, Mom and Dad
- I have forgiven her for this.
- My grandfather’s side of the family had done extensive and impressive research that dates back to the 18th century
- This was a silly amount of footnotes to have in the second paragraph. Things will only improve slightly from here.
- Not actually that impressive by world standards at a mere 4,413 ft but a true giant by British standards. PS I told you.
- A selfie stick seems a plausible reason she was subjected to the full wrath of the mountain.
- Californian optimism.
- And until recently it didn’t even register to me as a skill.
- Loch is the Scottish term for lake…it gives it a charmingly mystical feel.
- My back up option was an undesirable 27 mile walk on the motorway
- What’s that you say? This doesn’t bode well for Ben Nevis you say?
- Those who know me intimately can attest to the alarming and inexplicably dire situations that the combination of my small bladder and excessive water and caffeine drinking habits often puts me in.
- Yet another example of British optimism?
- I was riding high off my now reassured navigational prowess
- My second bout of Californian optimism for sure
- This was not a particularly hard accomplishment as it it was also my first week-long hiking experience
- The fastest continuous effort was accomplished in just 40 days.
- Most of whom, I’d find out later, had done considerable planning and preparation for their trip
- In retrospect this could be debated.
- In the most true sense of the word…this guy should have died ten times over.