Scotland Part 2: A Short Walk on the West Highland Way (Photo Essay)

 NOTE: You can read Part 1 of this post here. Or if you don’t give a chronological damn start here.

DAY 0: UNPREPARED AND READY TO GO

I am intrigued by the unknown, not only what lies ahead on the trail but life beyond.

-David Miller, AWOL on the Appalachian Trail

The West Highland Way is a patchwork of ancient roads that was once traveled by rugged Scottish drovers, gun-toting redcoats, and nervous stagecoach drivers. Now it’s a legendarily scenic long-distance path for travelers of the more recreational variety. The ninety-six mile section of trail begins just north of Glasgow in Milngavie and runs along the east side of Loch Lomond and up through the Scottish Highlands before terminating at the foot of Ben Nevis, in Fort William.

Two days earlier I had never heard of the trail. I had been on my way north to climb Ben Nevis when I stumbled across one of the many youth hostels along the trail at Rowardennan. Now, using a map I found in the dining hall, I was busily planning overnights and resupply points for my impulsive, five-day pilgrimage to Ben Nevis. Having no thru-hiking experience this was little more than an enthusiastic exercise in basic arithmetic.

The plan I settled on would neatly deliver me just in time for my already-booked two night stay up in Fort William and was as follows:

DAY 1: Rowardennan > Inversnaid (7 miles)

DAY 2 : Inversnaid > Tyndrum (19 miles)

DAY 3: Tyndrum > Glencoe (19 miles)

DAY 4: Glencoe > Kinlochleven (9 miles)

DAY 5 Kinlochleven > Fort William (15 miles)

DAY 6 & 7: Summit Ben Nevis

I folded up my map, booked my first two nights at Inversnaid and Tyndrum, ordered a packed lunch for the next morning and began packing up my gear with a giddy anticipation that so often preludes a grand adventure.

In hindsight I now know there were some fairly obvious factors I had completely failed to consider at the time:

1) Getting a real map.

Map I navigated from
The map I relied on for the entirety of my walk. Dumb.

2) Elevation.

The elevation profile of the trail I failed to account for. About 3900 meters up and down.
The total elevation profile of the trail. Not brutal by any means, but an unwelcome surprise when not factored in the plans along with mileage.

3) Weather.

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I had been enjoying sun since I arrived in Scotland four days earlier. I didn’t realize what a rare blessing that was.

4) Gear.

5) My feet.

The last time those the pretty puppies would look like that...
It’s nice to be able to walk. I didn’t realize how much I had taken that for granted.

I chatted excitedly with the other walkers my dorm. On the eve of my trek these concerns were as far away as Ben Nevis. Then the Frenchman turned up.

Tan, unshaven and in his early thirties, he looked like he had just stepped off the set of a Patagonia commercial. He sat down exhaustedly on the bunk across from me and began slowly removing his boots with an agony that was both audible and visible. Deeply unsettled by his pain I tried to help by offering him the only first aid tool I had.

It turned out he didn’t need a pair of tweezers.

I looked over at the small backpack [/note] about half the size of mine [/note] he had been carrying. My eyes then settled on the heavy-duty high-ankle boots now laying on the floor near his bed. The difference (which had seemed trivial to me prior) between my hiking shoes and his hiking boots became instantly clear to me. I noticed a rolled up sleeping mat tied to his backpack. I wondered if I had should have one of those too. 

It had only been twenty-seven miles from the beginning of the trail to here and this man —who seemed to check off all the requirements of the quintessential mountain man— was in a lot pain.

I spent the rest of the night in a contemplative silence, reflecting on the wisdom of my seventy-mile commitment.

DAY 1: THE OLD WOMAN IN INVERSNAID

The lives of all those men that preceded us should be seen as sacred. Their collective existence paved the way for our own time on Earth…because of the efforts of our ancestors we have moved further from darkness to light.

– Seneca, On the Shortness of Life

 

Rowardennan > Inversnaid (7 miles)

I checked the weather report in the morning. It was forecasted to be sunny and (relatively) warm with an ominous comment underneath the long term forecast that just said “colder than normal for April”. I asked about this as I collected my packed lunch at the reception. I was told not to trust the weekly weather forecast as even the two hour forecast was only right about half the time.

And so my first steps on the West Highland Way were accompanied by worried thoughts about the weather.

My concerns quickly melted away under the warm mid morning sun, its rays refracting off the lake as if it were a giant jewel. I walked with fresh legs and soon began passing walkers along the way while yielding to none. I was secretly very proud of this.

Two and a half hours later I was surprised to find myself already at in Inversnaid.

I can imagine many a happy day spent on this swing

The trail winding up and down along the lake.
The trail along the east bank of Loch Lomond.
A memorial for Bill Lobban who "made the supreme sacrifice in saving the life of a friend". I looked him up after finishing the walk. During a flood in 1975 Bill saved a student from being swept away but in the process was himself swept into the Loch and drowned.
A memorial for Bill Lobban who “made the supreme sacrifice in saving the life of a friend”. According the the West Highland Way Official Guidebook, during a flood in 1975 Bill saved a student from drowning but in the process was himself swept into the Loch and drowned.
Scottish hospitality along the trail.
Scottish hospitality along the trail.

I walked into a B&B in Inversnaid to get directions to my hostel. Inside, there was an old couple in the lobby sitting in two large, cushioned chairs facing a window that looked out towards the lake where a boisterous group of walkers were sitting at picnic tables, talking and laughing about the morning’s walk while they ate lunch.

“Wouldn’t it be nice to be young again and be one of those walkers?” I overheard the old woman say to the old man on my way to the front desk.

It caused me to stop as I realized was one of those walkers she was pining to be.

I feel incredibly fortunate to be on such an extraordinary adventure. Getting here has required precious and limited resources: my energy, money and time. It’s required letting go of things, places, people, expectations and beliefs. It’s asked that I be with discomfort that previously I had tried so hard to distract myself from. It’s demanded I walking into a fog of uncertainty I had up until now fervently attempted to plan around. It’s delivered me at the feet of dragons I had, for a long time, been struggling to outrun. Getting here hadn’t been easy. It had involved me making a lot of hard and uncertain decisions.

However the more I travel the less I see this incredible opportunity as something I’ve earned and the more I see it as something I’ve inherited. The society I live in, the family who’s supported me every step of the way, the education I was given — all generously handed down to me by the effort of others. Underneath this much more visible layer of generosity lies a seemingly infinite chain of generosity I can never fully recognize from strangers I can never fully know.

Travel is a gift I’ve miraculously inherited through a mind-boggling chain of chance and generosity.

The lady had reminded me of yet another aspect of my inheritance: the body I’ve been given to experience these wonderful places with. And like all the others, it’s gift that one day I’ll be asked to give back.

At the front desk I asked again about the weather. The reply?

Don’t trust the weather forecast.

I walked fifteen minutes up the hill and checked into an old church which had been converted into the Inversnaid Bunkhouse and was my bed for the night. I sat at a picnic table outside in the sun and ate my lunch. Shortly after it began to rain, and I finished my lunch under the overhang of the bunkhouse.

After the rain passed and with nothing else to do I wandered into the woods nearby.

My hostel in Inversnaid. It was converted from a cathedral.
The Inversnaid Bunkhouse, previously a church.
In the bar the reinstalled the stained glass windows.
The original stained glass windows were reinstalled in the bar of the hostel.
Never too old...
Never too old!
A house in the countryside outside of Inversnaid.
A house in the countryside.

DAY 2: STRANGE BEASTS, ANCIENT LEGENDS AND A BLISTERING PACE

“It is more important to know where you are going than to get there quickly. Do not mistake activity for achievement.”

-Isocrates

Inversnaid to Tyndrum (19 miles, 21 miles)

I woke up the next morning stiff, sore and anxious about the nineteen miles I needed to cover that day. The heater in my room hadn’t worked and the night had been noticeably colder than the others. I had slept fully clothed along with my fleece sweater.

My feet were mildly sore from the previous day’s walk and I threw on a second pair of socks for extra padding 1. After a large, hot breakfast at the bunkhouse I grabbed a second apple to go and was off.

The trail was shady and cool in the soft, early morning light. It snaked up and down the bank of the lake, every so often vanishing only to reappear expectantly on the other side of a cluster of tree roots or a jagged outcrop of rocks. A fair amount of scrambling was required. I had never hiked nineteen miles in one day before and wasn’t sure how to pace myself.

My shoulders and legs, not as fresh as the day before, felt the full weight of my overloaded pack which was restricting blood flow into my arms. It was only forty degrees out but I quickly stripped down to my t-shirt to dissipate my body heat. When I stopped for water I noticed I couldn’t feel my arms.

After adjusting my pack and another two hours of walking I came across a park ranger who informed me I had arrived at Ardlui. I was surprised because Ardlui was only four miles away from Inversnaid and I had been walking fast. A proper map would have warned me that this four mile stretch was considered one of the most difficult and treacherous on the entire trail. 2 We talked a few minutes longer about California and Donald Trump3 and the ranger casually mentioned that snow was predicted later on in the week.

Up until now the trail had hugged the lakeside, squeezing me in between the loch’s eastern shore and the steep forested banks that sloped downward to embrace it. It had me weaving around trees and shrubs, tripping over boulders and plowing through icy creeks. Now as I left Ardlui at the northern end of Loch Lomond the landscape opened wide to reveal rolling grasslands whose golden stalks who shimmered as they flirted with the wind, betraying its invisible intentions. Mountains loomed large on either side like sentinels guarding the entrance to the holy lands giving the land a sense of scale and overwhelming vastness. This sudden transformation gave me the feeling that I had been unknowingly holding my breath all morning and had only now been invited to let it go in one long, satisfying sigh.

It felt impossible to take it all in.

How did I get here?

I began to laugh.

Inverarnan was nestled in between the mountain sentinels three miles up the path. It wasn’t much to look at. There was a campsite and a small shop that doubled as a pub with some picnic tables outside. Two men sat drinking pints of ale. A woman sat at a second table and an older man at a third. They were all talking in thick Scottish accents that I could only partially understand. I sat down at a fourth table to eat my lunch.

After a while the woman disappeared into the shop and reappeared with a guitar in her hand and handed it to the old man, who it turned out, could play rather well. After a few songs he played a request made by the other two men who joined in on the chorus:

“When I die and they lay me to rest…I’m gunna go to the place that’s the best!” 4

After the men had gone back to their pints a cute little girl of about five joined the lady at the picnic table and began coloring. Before long the woman left her there and began packing the car in the parking lot across from the tables. The girl, occupied with her coloring, stayed at the table. After a couple minutes she stopped and looked up suddenly.

“MOM!” she yelled across the tables.

The men paused their conversation.

“I love you!” she exclaimed before going back to her coloring.

Everyone within earshot, including me, let out a collective and involuntary “awww”.

I scooped my heart up off the ground, strapped on my pack and continued walking towards Tyndrum, which was still twelve miles away. Before I got there I’d pass strange beasts, ancient ruins and a landscape shrouded in legend and betrayal.

As I get ready to start my 19 miles the morning ferry arrives at Inversnaid from the south.
The morning ferry arrives in Inversnaid from the south.

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Leaving Loch Lomond
Leaving Ardlui and Loch Lomond as I follow the trail into the grassy moorlands.
I almost walked right past this guy.
A feral goat eyes me from a distance.
Obviously not camera shy. But who would be with that set of horns!
He wasn’t camera shy.
I took a wrong turn on part of the trail and ended up at some ruins.
After a wrong turn and ended up at some ruins.

Cow party. And by the looks I was getting I got the feeling of arriving uninvited. This was confirmed when rather alarmingly, a large cow to the left of this shot got up and started approaching me. I took this as my signal to continue on.
A party of Scottish cows along the trail. By the looks I was getting I had arrived uninvited. This seemed to be confirmed when rather alarmingly, a large cow to the left of this shot got up and started approaching me in what seemed to be a confrontational manner. I took this as my sign to moooove on[note] couldn’t resist [/note], but not before I had met a couple of the more eccentric characters.

I ran into a couple bouncers on my way out.
Two bouncers block my exit as I turn to leave.
Giving me the stink eye as they pass. I sdidn;t want any problems so I stepped off the trail. This was about as close as I wanted to get.
I think they call this the stank eye.
This was my most solitary day on the trail. I ran into hardly anyone for most of the day.
No one in sight. This was my most solitary day on the trail.

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Grazing sheep with Ben More (1174m), Stob Ninnein (1165m) and Cruach Ardrain (1046m) in the back ground.
Sheep pastures with Ben More (1174m), Stob Ninnein (1165m) and Cruach Ardrain (1046m) beyond.
The ruins of St. Fillian's Priory dating back to the 13th century. The graveyard on the otherside of the trail was even older, dating back to the 8th century.
The ruins of St. Fillian’s Priory endowed by Robert the Bruce in 1317. Relics discovered in the graveyard just across the trail date back to the 8th century.

Later on I’d learn more about Robert the Bruce. He was allies with another guy named Clan MacDougall during the wars of Independence in 1296. But then Robert did a jerk thing and murdered MacDougall’s nephew who was also heir to the throne. So MacDougall allied with Edward I of England and when Robert the Bruce was defeated in a battle near Perth in 1306, MacDougall ambushed the retreating Robert at Dalrigh (which is along the West Highland Way). Robert’s party sustained heavy casualties; he lost his remaining horseman and some of his key allies were injured. Robert went into hiding and re-emerged two years later on to defeat the MacDougall’s at the Battle of the Pass of Brander.

Legendary lake
Legend has it the defeated Robert the Bruce and his men threw their weapons into this lake near Dalrigh while retreating where Robert’s Claymore still lies to this day. [note] MacDonald Armouries actually searched this loch and others in the area in 2015 but found no weapons.[/note]
The path winds under a bridge shortly after I turn off the main path for a stop in Crianlarich.
On my detour to Crianlarich.

THE BUBBLE BURSTS

We learn a place and how to visualize spacial relationships as children on foot and with imagination. Place and the scale of place must be measured against our bodies and their capabilities.

-Gary Snider, Blue Mountains Constantly Walking

Six miles from Inverarnan the trail split and I went right towards Crianlarich for a much needed break. If I had a map I would have known better.

I arrived in Crianlarich tired, hungry and frustrated. I had realized too late the folly of my decision. It had been a mile long descent into Crianlarich. A mile I would need to climb to get back to the trailhead. I had added two unproductive miles to the day’s walk.5.

I dropped my pack to the ground. My shoulders throbbed and my back ached fiercely. It was odd that I hadn’t noticed that until now. I took off my shoes and found I had developed several blisters on my feet. I discovered I had packed the Ibuprofren at the very bottom of my pack. Dammit.

After a quick snack and a moment to collect myself in town I grudgingly retraced my steps up the hill. When I returned to the trail I noticed for the first time a signpost with a map warning walkers of the two-mile detour into Crianlarich.

The trail continued uphill. My pack felt much heavier now. Each step accentuated new specific and peculiar pains that were now continuously cropping up throughout my body.

One great thing about walking though is the seeming ability to walk away from my thoughts as one might walk away from a place. The same steady and methodical rhythm of my feet that keeps my body in perpetual motion also provides the trance-like drum beat that allows my mind to march on with it. On this occasion my thoughts slowly wandered through all the incredible moments of the day. I was astounded so much had fit into just one day.

I love that about walking. All the steps, encounters, sounds, sights and thoughts that constitute a walk. The way my perspective of a place slowly and continuously changes over the course of hundreds and thousands of individual steps. Each perspective made infinitely interesting by the multitude of subtle and dramatic ways it differs from the one just before it. The paradoxical way a discrete number of steps and moments adds up to one continuous experience. Each walk an embodiment of transformation —having started somewhere, and through the use of one’s own faculties, arrived somewhere entirely different.

A unique relationship arises when we’ve walked through a place. When we’ve witnessed the nature of a place firsthand with all its surprise and nuance, all of which are never to be —or to be seen— in quite the same way again.

A fiery hot pain pierced my thoughts and screamed at me loudly for my attention.

I yelped in shock and surprise as my left knee buckled and a warm gushing sensation enveloped my left foot. It took my full focus to catch myself under the weight of my pack and not hit the ground with force.

My thoughts had traveled far beyond my body. I had forgotten about the blisters on my feet.

Now every step on my left foot was accompanied with a searing, raw pain. I was reduced to small, shuffle steps, forced to immediately transfer my weight onto my right foot. I noticed walkers passing me left and right. I was only a mile away from Tyndrum but it’d take me nearly an hour. The sun was setting when I finally arrived.

“Well it looks like your night’s not over!” exclaimed my new bunkmate, a bit too enthusiastically for my taste. I had just shared my plans of reaching Glencoe tomorrow. In his twenties and fresh off “a day of leisure” in Tyndrum he had planned to head there tomorrow but when he called ahead had found everywhere was completely booked. I didn’t care. I wasn’t making it nineteen miles tomorrow anyway.

I borrowed his phone and reserved a bed with what others had described as “an eccentric owner” at the Bridge of Orchy seven miles further up the trail. It was the next possible stop beyond Tyndrum. I also booked a bed in Glencoe for the following night. I was unsure I’d make it to either.

Knowing I’d be immobilized for the night as soon as my shoe came off, I limped across town and bought a can of chili and veggies for dinner at the gas station. When I returned an hour later, a biker was sitting on the bed across from mine. He had blown out his knee on his second day of his planned seven day trip and was heading home in the morning. I thought it likely I’d be joining him and we commiserated together.

“Wow, you’re brave to be hiking the West Highland Way in those.” he remarked when he saw my shoes.

He offered me some plasters. I told him I’d never used a plaster. He looked at me in disbelief and handed me some bandaids.

Wanting to be alone with my thoughts and my feet, I hobbled off to the bathroom to assess the damage I had done.

I expected to find my socks stained with blood. To my relief they weren’t. I counted seven blisters, with the largest two being the size of a quarter on the pad of each foot. It was this large blister on my left foot that had burst. I sensed it wouldn’t be long before my right foot joined this coup d’etat. There was no way to know if I’d be able to continue until I tried to walk in the morning. It seemed unlikely.

I followed some first aid instructions I found on Youtube and drained, cleaned and bandaged both feet and limped into the kitchen to heat up dinner.

I was dead-tired but I couldn’t sleep. Discouraged, I tossed and turned as I tried to shake off the devastating realization that my adventure may have already ended.

DAY 3: THE MAN IN THE MIDDLE OF NOWHERE

It’s the unpredictable incidence between official events that add up to a life. The incalculable that gives it value.

-Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust

Tyndrum > Bridge of Orchy (7 miles, 8 miles)

The next morning I sat staring out the window while considering my options. My feet were painful to walk on but I was was optimistic I could make it seven miles to the Bridge of Orchy. The remainder of the walk remained in jeopardy. I’d have to take it day by day from here on out.

I lingered past the check out time until the cleaner arrived. He offered me coffee and we talked about traveling in India while he vacuumed the rooms. I asked about the weather. He told me that this time last year there had been three feet of snow. I looked out the window as I finished my coffee and noticed —as if on cue— that it was beginning to snow outside.

I found a payphone and called ahead to Kinlochleven. It was the last stop before the final fifteen mile stretch to Fort William. I didn’t know if I’d get there but if I did I’d need to stay there before attempting the last section. I called in to reserve a bed three nights from now. The person on the other line took my information and told me it had been the last bed they had available.

I ate a giant gluten-free lentil burger with fries smothered in melted cheese at the local restaurant in town. On my way out I held the door open for a lady on her way in wearing a dress, sun hat, high heels and toting a large wheeled luggage bag behind her.

I restocked on bandaids, nuts and fruit at the local gas station and backtracked across town to where I had left the trail the previous evening. Twenty minutes later I walked past the gas station again. I could have thrown a stone and hit it. I wanted to.

Painkillers and coffee are a potent combination and by the mile two both had kicked in I was able to return to a whopping 60% of my earlier pace. Besides the now occasional walker who’d pass me by I was alone on the trail. The wind had picked up today and occasional flurries of snow came with it. I enjoyed the staggering views and stopped every so often to catch snowflakes on my tongue.

The trail on my way to Bridge of Orchy. High gusts of wind and light snow accompanied me.
High winds and light snow on my way to the Bridge of Orchy.

Bridge of Orchy AKA the middle of nowhere

The still operating rail line at Bridge of Orchy. The rail station has been converted into a bunkhouse for walkers.
The Bridge of Orchy. The rail station on the right has been converted into a bunkhouse for walkers. There is no sign to indicate this however.

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I knocked uncertainly on the door of the rail station at the Bridge of Orchy. A bespectacled man with rosy cheeks and a plump, round frame answered the door.

“I think I have a reservation here tonight?” I said, unsure and anxious to get off my feet.

“You do, do you?” the rosy-cheeked man said in a tone reminiscent of the sheesha-smoking Caterpillar Alice comes across in Wonderland. Seeming to suggest that maybe I did and maybe I didn’t.

“Uhh, yes.” I responded uneasily.

“Well come in and let’s see. What is your name?” he said. The caterpillar-like tone disappeared and he opened the door wide with a gesture for me to come in.

Inside there was a makeshift office and a pair of tables next to a fireplace. Ian and Richard, two older walkers, who I had met briefly over breakfast two days earlier in Inversnaid, sat drinking tea near the fire. The prospect of tea and a fire was an unbelievably pleasant one after a chilly walk through the Scottish Highlands.

Steve, the rosy-cheeked proprietor, confirmed I did have a reservation which was fortunate because they were completely booked for the night. He showed me the sleeping quarters: three towers of bunk beds stacked three high to the ceiling with no railings. I looked at the wooden ladders in terror. Luckily I had arrived early enough to get a bed on the ground floor.

I sat on the bed and began tending to my feet. The entire room thundered and shook as a train rolled by on the tracks just yards away outside.

Ian, Richard and I had all ordered dinner and that evening we gathered near the fire. Steve’s wife Helen was busy cooking in the kitchen which was divided from the main room by a thin wall. The fire crackled and the sun sunk in the sky. We passed the time sharing odd stories from our travels and listening to the odder-still stories that Steve had accumulated from a life hosting travelers.

Earlier that day, two trains had seized independently of each other on the tracks farther down the line from us, both stopped by jammed wheels. The only way to clear the tracks said Steve, who had spent his life working for the rail lines and was now retired on pension, was to jack each train up onto a skid and slowly tow it to the next station. To have it happen to two trains was unprecedented. It’d take the better part of a day to clear the tracks for the growing number of passenger and cargo trains lining up behind them.

Steve had a peculiarly enchanting charisma to him and I was happy to spend my time listening to his rants and raves about the dismal state of disrepair the railways had fallen into and the unfortunate fact that no company would deliver to the rail station.6

Later I found myself recalling the unlikely series of events that had led me to this strange night on a rail station in the middle of nowhere.

I shared how freaky it felt to have no idea where I’d be or what I’d be doing in the future…to be staring at a tabula rasa. After eighteen years of education and six years in the business world I had seemingly derailed myself from the conventional tracks that society had laid for me. I was now faced with the hard and unclear work of laying my own tracks. I wondered if I wasn’t instead jammed up like those other two trains on the track.

Where was I going? Was I going anywhere?

“I think it’d be more freaky to know exactly what you would be doing in the future.” Steve chimed in. I had forgotten he was there. He shared how early on in his career with the railway he had been a signaler. Advances in technology had threatened to make his job obsolete. It was a hard time for him. Had that not happened though he would never have considered applying for the management position that had led to a long, rewarding career and the pension he was now living off of.

“It gave me an opportunity to ask…OK now what?” he reflected.

The conversation moved on and we watched the weather deteriorate outside. Someone made the obligatory comment of how the weather in Scotland could not be trusted.

I mentioned my feet. I was encouraged that I made it here today and was beginning to feel more confident that I’d be able to complete the remainder of my planned trek.

Ian gave me a worried look and recounted a time when his feet had forced him off the trail early. The story included the words “infection” and “hospital” and made me feel sick to my stomach. I changed the subject hastily.

Helen emerged from the kitchen with steaming bowls of soup. Next was a hearty goulash, followed by a delicious chocolate pudding. It was comfort food at its finest. Heavy, rich and nourishing. We gave our compliments after each dish, which Steve would relay into the kitchen:

“HELLEN! …they said they hate it!”

By the third round of this it seemed the joke may have reached it’s limits. There was no response in the kitchen followed by a loud crash. Steve carried on unconcerned and the three of us renewed our attention to the chocolate pudding in front of us.

DAY 4: TRAIL MAGIC

What do I do when my love is away
(Does it worry you to be alone?)
How do I feel by the end of the day
(Are you sad because you’re on your own?)
No, I get by with a little help from my friends
Mm, I get high with a little help from my friends
Mm, gonna try with a little help from my friends

-The Beatles, With A Little Help From My Friends

Bridge of Orchy to Glencoe (12 miles)

Each day now began and ended with the forty-minute routine of treating my feet. I knew that as long as I could stand the pain and there were no signs of infection I could carry on without doing permanent damage to my feet. So far there had been no signs of infection. The number of blisters had continued to grow and now totaled over ten. Some of the original ones were now seriously inflamed. As I had predicted, the epicenter of my pain had shifted from my left to my right foot with a blister in between my big toe and my second toe taking painful precedence.

I had twelve miles to walk today before I’d arrive in Kingshouse. From there I’d catch the afternoon bus ten miles off the trail to the neighboring town of Glencoe. The bus ran infrequently and if I missed it there was only one more later that night. Not wanting to risk missing the afternoon bus I skipped a hot breakfast, opting for energy bars and fruit as I walked instead.

The morning was crisp, clear and cold. The trail was fairly flat but even so the first few miles were unforgiving and harsh on my feet. Even with a heavy cocktail of painkillers and coffee it was becoming harder to walk off the pain and I walked slowly. If it weren’t for having been recently emboldened by a read of Eric Newby’s A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush days prior to my walk I might haven given up.

In his book, Newby shares his account of leaving the London fashion industry and impulsively traveling to a remote corner of Afghanistan where no Englishmen had ventured for over sixty years to attempt a climb of the never-before-climbed summit of Mir Samir, a 20,000 foot glacial peak in the the Hindu Kush. Ill-equipped and with almost no experience to speak of, Newby hilariously recounts his ill-fated attempt and the numerous struggles and challenges faced along the way.7Knowing that the condition of my feet wouldn’t have amounted to much more than a footnote in his comically tragic expedition oddly gave me the resolve to carry on.

I spent the first couple hours listening to Robert Reich’s distressing book Saving Capitalism, hoping to divert my attention from the acute pain in my feet to the larger, general pain of America’s current economic circumstances.

Farry, Ali, and Amir, a group of Iranians that had also stayed last night at the Bridge of Orchy and had stayed for breakfast that morning caught up with me on the trail. Ali and I struck up a conversation and I found myself keeping his pace to continue the conversation. It was a welcome diversion. We talked about a wide range of topics that included the phases of maturity, genealogy, and what it had been like to grow up in Iran as a child and emigrate to London as an adolescent.

Ali also shared his first long distance walk many years ago when he was still a novice walker. Overexcited, he had failed to pace himself and ended up overdoing it badly early on. We both laughed about it.

Dark storm clouds had appeared in the mountains on both sides of us and occasional claps of thunder in the distance punctuated our conversations. It stayed sunny and dry along the trail along the moor.

I ascended the final hill of the day alone. I had encouraged the Iranians to go on without me when I could no longer keep up. Snow began to fall, sticking to the hillside in the higher elevation. The temporary change in the weather added an enjoyably adventurous element to the end of the day’s walk.8 I could see the freeway on the horizon which disappeared in between two monstrous mounds of earth that left a dramatic mark on the landscape.

Not wanting to wait for my bus I plugged into the Black Keys’ album Brother and stuck out my thumb next to the road. Halfway through Ten Cent Pistol a blue Ford pulled up on the shoulder and I hopped in.

“I was surprised to see anyone hitchhiking out here.” Said Steven, my driver. It was windy and had been snowing intermittently.

Steven was from Australia. He had run a hostel there for 25 years. We discussed Berlin (where I’d be heading next) and how it felt to have a heart attack (he had had one) before arriving at my hostel.

The young walker who had been enjoying a day of leisure back in Tyndrum was also at my hostel in Glencoe. I forced myself to walk the mile into town to procure dinner and snacks for the following day before tending to my feet. The elevation was lower in Glencoe and it rained the rest of the day.

The day’s mileage had taken its toll. With their self-sacrifice no longer vital to my survival my feet began their protests anew. I had drawn the top bunk at the hostel tonight. Climbing the ladder up and down was torturous. That night I slept in fits and bursts, continuously roused by a throbbing ache in my swollen feet.

A morning view back towards Bridge of Orchy.
Morning views on the trail were still and stunning. This one was looking back towards the Bridge of Orchy.
After a short ascent I descend into a valley.
Descending into a valley on the way to Kinlochleven.
I stop two Swiss girls for a picture.
Happy to be alive and walking. Favoring my left foot now.

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My Iranian troup.
Farry, Amir and I.

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The trail meets up with the highway here, which is where I stuck out my thumb.
Two monsters of earth. The trail met the road here and I hitched a ride into Glencoe.
Steven, my hero and ride into Glencoe which was still 10 miles away.
Steven, my driver snapping pictures of the scenery.
Glencoe
Rainy Glencoe.
My morning and night time ritual.
My twice daily routine.

DAY 5: SNOW ON THE DEVIL’S STAIRCASE

“If you don’t get to know know the nature of fear then you will never know fearlessness.” – Pema Chodron

Glencoe to Kinlochleven (9 miles, 8 miles + 3 hellish miles)

In the morning I checked the note I had left on the fridge the night before asking for a ride back to the trail. No such luck. I attempted to hitch a ride along the mile-long backroad that lead to the main highway. Only two cars passed and neither stopped.

The Black Keys didn’t produce the same magic for me today and after coming to the end of their album I abandoned my pull out next to the highway and began walking away from the trail towards the visitor center in town. A bus would be stopping there later on that morning.

Halfway there, an SUV pulled over haphazardly fifty yards beyond me. By it’s precarious position on a almost nonexistent shoulder I knew I didn’t have long. Large lane-hogging semis steamed down the two-lane highway frequently. I sprinted for the SUV. I was within 20 yards when the driver, reconsidered and hastily pulled back onto the road and drove off. I came to a stop and watched the car disappear down the road. If I had stuck to my pullout a half mile back I’d have likely been in that car right now. My feet freshly ripped up from my short dash, I turned back towards the visitor center and kept walking.

I arrived at the visitor center to find that the bus picked up directly from the highway which I had left a hundred yards back. The bus was due in three minutes. I sprinted back to the highway to catch the bus.9.

I missed the bus.

I tried to hitch by the highway for another half hour. A parade of 12 brightly colored Ferraris drove by. After receiving a honk but no ride I decided to switch strategies and headed back to the visitor center.

I met two Germans leaving the center on a day hike outside of town. They could take me half the way there. However the girls got lost and overshot their exit. The next place they could turn around left me within yards of the trailhead. My luck seemed to have finally turned.

I popped another ibuprofen and began my ascent up the most vertical section of the West Highland Way: the Devil’s Staircase. The name was fitting. The views along the way were mesmerizing.

When I reached the top it began snowing and my visibility was reduced to about thirty feet. When the weather passed I found myself alone in a snow-covered wonderland. I was surrounded by fierce, jagged peaks of snow, rock and ice and walked through serene mountain meadows that looked as if they had been dusted in a powdery layer of confectioner’s sugar. The only sounds were the crunch of my shoes and the occasional songbird hidden from sight. They were some of the most magical moments I spent on the trail.

After a few miles I began to descend and I came out of the heavens unaware of the hell that awaited me. I could see Kinlochleven tucked away between the mountains in the distance. I thought I was almost there.

Robert Reich’s economic analysis was no longer a match for the now all-consuming pain in my feet. Unlike the previous two days, the pain had not subsided. I switched over to the buddhist teachings of Pema Chodron, hoping to find some relief through her insights on the impermanence of things.

The path went left, wrapping around the mountainside and Kinlochleven disappeared beneath the trees. The decline got steeper and steeper. Going downhill proved to be much more demanding on my poor feet than going up had been. The pain struck a high pitch I hadn’t yet experienced on the trail. I was sweating now from the pain and was taking tiny side steps down the mountain. The path had deteriorated into loose gravel and rock, imbuing each step with the terrifying possibility that the earth might slide from beneath me. The pain was even worse whenever I stopped.

The descent was only a few miles at most but it took me hours. I had reached my mental and physical limits.

When I got to town I ran into Ian again. I noticed him take a deeply concerned glance at my feet as we spoke.

Where I had no luck hitching a ride in the morning.
No luck hitching a ride back to the trail.
On the way up Devil's stairase
Looking back towards the highway as I climb up Devil’s staircase
Farther up
Farther up Devil’s staircase. A lone walker on the trail in the bottom left corner.
The aftermath.
Snow-covered mountain meadows. Some of the most magical moments on the trail.
So close yet so far.
Kinglochleven in the distance. Farther away than it looks. The trail turns left along the mountainside.

DAY 6: BEN NEVIS

It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.

-Ernest Hemingway

Kinlochleven > Fort William (15 miles, 0 miles)

Upon arriving to Kinlochleven I knew I was done. My body was wrecked and finding food and making it to my cabin for the night 10 took everything I had left. The outdoor bathroom fifty yards from my cabin felt miles away.

In the morning I noticed my feet were now producing a yellowish puss and I feared the worst. I joined another injured walker at the bus station. On the trail I had often imagined the soaring sense of accomplishment and satisfaction I’d feel upon walking into Fort William. This was not the climatic entrance to the city I had anticipated. I struggled off the bus into Fort William feeling crestfallen.

The frenchman from my first day in Rowardennan had also made it to Fort William, albeit in better condition and spirits. The following day I left for the urgent care wing of the Fort William hospital and he left for the summit of Ben Nevis.

To my relief I learned I that despite my best efforts I hadn’t contracted an infection. My treatment along the trail had been textbook. I was sent off with a handful of plasters and a prescription for rest and to dunk my feet in the icy, salt water of Loch Linnhe.

I’d finally see Ben Nevis two days later on my train ride back to Glasgow. An overweight tourist sat in the booth next me munching on a chocolate bar and a bag of chips. Moments earlier he had spilled his coffee all over his lap. He pulled out his phone to take pictures and I watched him watch a digital version of Ben Nevis pass by the train window outside.

I spent two days confined to this view from my hostel window in Fort William
My view for two days in Fort William. Things could be worse.

 

Woa. You made it to the end. Know someone else who might also make it to the end?

Use the bar on the left to share it with them 🙂 

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Once a month I share a peek into my travels and a short list of thought-provoking links all exploring the question: 
How are we to live our lives?
I spend hours putting it together and it only takes minutes to read.
  1. A somewhat controversial hiker’s trick
  2. I’d learn this later at the Bridge of Orchy where I was told many hikers were forced to end their trek due to injuries sustained here.
  3. It’s an unfortunate fact that currently an American cannot travel very far without having this conversation repeatedly
  4. This appears to be Norman Greenbaum’s song Spirit in the Sky
  5. The observant reader may point out here that all miles on a voluntary walk are unproductive miles…and if they had done so at the time would find another use for their observational skills in avoiding my would-be attempt to slap them on the spot
  6. He described it as “post code purgatory”.
  7. His British humor underplays the fact that he probably should have died.
  8. By now I had realized snow was not the enemy…rain was.
  9. Now more of a pathetic half jog
  10. Always on the other side of town!

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Hello. I’m Alasdair.

Hello. I’m Alasdair.

I believe that being aware of who I am and mindful of who I am becoming is the best investment I can make in my life —and that when we focus our efforts within, the rewards naturally flow outward to those we love and through the communities we belong to.